by Lauren Brousell

Bally’s CIO Pumps Up Customer Experience With iPads, QR Codes and Video

Mar 19, 20133 mins
CRM SystemsMarkets

The health club chain deploys customer-friendly technologies to change an intimidating culture and save a failing business model.

After two bankruptcies, multiple lawsuits from customers and the sale of 225 gyms over the last decade, Bally Total Fitness was in trouble.

The gym chain had become known mostly for its binding contracts and unwelcoming atmosphere, says CIO Guy Thier, who launched several IT initiatives in 2011 to transform the way Bally’s dealt with customers.

When he joined Bally’s in 2003, Thier says the atmosphere at one of the company’s gyms was like that of a used-car dealership. “When [customers] walked in, they would end up right in a salesperson’s office. Once you bought the membership, you never heard from us again.” That intimidating culture and process had to change, Thier says, starting with the front desk.

Now, instead of a trip straight to the sales office, Bally’s staff gives potential customers a tour of the gym and is starting to use iPads for sign-up and payment. Front-desk workers will use the iPads to recognize and greet customers based on member profiles on a Facebook-like app, which Thier says will help build relationships with customers beyond the contract. “We started shifting our culture from a hard sell to more of a member-service culture,” Thier says.

Outside the gym, the Bally’s call center was the main channel for contract questions, renewals or cancellations, but the call center’s applications didn’t communicate with each other to show a complete member history, resulting in long calls with no resolution or ill-timed efforts at cross-selling. So Thier replaced Bally’s disparate systems with a call-center application from Kana Software that shows an overview of the customer’s whole account on a single screen.

And now that customers increasingly use social media to communicate with the company, Bally’s has begun participating on Twitter, Facebook and Yelp–and tries to respond to customer comments within 24 hours.

Thier noticed that members relied heavily on their smartphones at the gym, but he says “we didn’t want to create yet another calorie counter or workout tracker.” Instead, Bally’s is placing QR codes on gym equipment that lead to demonstrations of how to use the machines.

“Bally’s has been a saga for a long time and the only thing that can pull them out of this is customer service,” says John Atwood, managing partner of Atwood Consulting Group, a health-club-management consultancy. Atwood says Bally’s must demonstrate the ability to listen to customers via focus groups and suggestion boxes. “They need to rebrand as a kinder and gentler club,” he says. “It’s going to be a challenge.”

Bally’s does regular member surveys and is planning focus groups to figure out how to enhance existing customers’ experiences, Thier says. To differentiate Bally’s from other low-cost gym chains, Bally’s is installing Microsoft Kinect video walls so members can view their exercise movements and watch videos about how to perform different exercises. Members will be able to see a life-size image of themselves and manipulate the image to show a trimmer profile, he says. “[We] can tell prospective customers what they could look like in three months.”

Lauren Brousell is a staff writer for CIO magazine. Follow her on Twitter @@LBrousell. Follow everything from on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.