Case Study: Bally Total Fitness Health Club

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¶ … Bally Total Fitness is a high-visibility and respected fitness business but when a researcher digs into the company there is no service promise of substance and the narrative Bally uses to lure potential franchise owners is more hype than reality.

Presently has about 400 health clubs in the U.S. In Mexico, the Caribbean, South Korea and China, according to information provided on its Web site (www.ballyfitness.com). The company states that it is the largest "and only nationwide commercial operator of fitness centers" and moreover Bally claims it has 3.5 members and "over 40 years of successful operating experience."

Bally offers a Mission Statement (http://www.ballyfitness.com/company.aspx) that is not presented as a "guarantee"; but rather Bally says it is "…committed to providing great service and facilities that give everyone an affordable and fun opportunity to improve the quality of their lives through fitness" (www.ballyfitness.com). "Committed to…" is not a guarantee albeit it can certainly be construed as a pledge, even a promise if one wishes to split hairs. Bally says it is "…the best value you'll find" and that it will bring the customer "unmatched value -- that's our mission." Still, that is not a guarantee of anything. In fact on their page, "Our Fitness Approach," Bally appears to be throwing the ball back into the court of the consumer. "Ultimately, it's the activities you embrace every day that make the real difference in your health and fitness," the company explains on their "Our Fitness Approach" page.

Moreover, their "end goal" is to "help you help yourself with the knowledge, energy and motivation you need to lead a healthy and active lifestyle" (Bally "Our Fitness Approach"). Looking at the realistic aspects of a health club where people work out to lose weight, get fit, tone muscles -- and in some cases just to socialize and meet potential romantic partners -- how could a company like Bally guarantee anything?

Meanwhile Christopher Hart's article in the Harvard Business Review covers the bases as to what a company's guarantee should offer; it should: a) be "unconditional"; b) be easy to understand and "communicate"; c) be "meaningful"; d) "easy (and painless) to invoke"; and e) easy and quick to collect on" (Hart, 1998, p. 55). The Bally Mission Statement and the other Bally narrative that explains the company policies is not "unconditional" albeit the statements regarding their services ("b") are easy to understand and depending on the customer's approach to his or her membership the Mission Statement is potentially ("c") meaningful.

Is the Mission Statement easy ("d") to invoke? Once a member has visited a Bally venue a few times he or she will certainly believe or not believe the Bally assurance that a "balanced approach" to fitness is truly available. That balanced approach includes resistance training, flexibility, cardio, and "mind/body" along with "other challenging activities to give you total body conditioning" (www.ballyfitness.com "Our Fitness Approach").

"Bringing you unmatched value is our mission," Bally asserts on the "Our Fitness Approach" page. Once again, no guarantee, but rather a marketing pitch is what is offered. Hart writes (p. 56) that customers "shouldn't need a lawyer to explain the 'if's, ands, and buts' of a guarantee -- because ideally there shouldn't be any conditions; a customer is either satisfied or not." Certainly in the case of Bally no lawyer will be needed because there is not guarantee and hence no fine print to require a magnifying glass.

One wonders, what could a company like Bally guarantee? Hart (p. 59) states that a guarantee "builds marketing muscle"; a guarantee encourages consumers to buy a service by "reducing the risk of the purchase decision" and a guarantee brings in more sales "by enhancing loyalty," he adds. But with Bally the company apparently believes its millions in annual advertising will bring customers -- notwithstanding the dramatic downturn in the economy, the millions of Americans out of work and out of their homes due to foreclosure.

Bally's promotional narrative comes across to the researcher as more hype than promise. For example, in the section "Bally Franchising…" the company states, "Baby Boomers total 78 million and represent the largest and most health-conscious generation in U.S. history" (www.ballyfitness.com "Franchising"). That passage is correct on the estimated number of baby boomers; but it flies in the face of reality in America today in its assertion about boomers being "…the…most health-conscious generation in U.S. history." According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) (www.cdc.gov) 67% of Americans over the age of 20 are either overweight or obese.

In the U.S., the CDC explains obesity prevalence "doubled among adults between 1980 and 2004," and moreover more than one third of adults in America -- "…over 72 million people" -- were obese in the years 2005-2006 (CDC). The CDC article claims that adults 40 -- 59 years of age "were more likely to be obese compared with younger and older individuals." There are many in that age spread that qualify as baby boomers, and again, Bally's assertions about the "most health-conscious generation" in American history bleeds badly against the math.

Obesity brings with it heart disease, diabetes, "hypertension and certain cancers," the CDC points out on its Web page. Among the reasons people are overweight in America, the CDC continues, is that food is cheap and "widely available" (unlike developing nations in Africa, and elsewhere). The CDC also says, "…opportunities for physical activity may have decreased" (CDC).

Does Bally know that the Centers for Disease Control is putting out the word that opportunities for physical activity have decreased? Bally could certainly use that idea in their marketing and offer easy membership to fun workouts. In fairness Bally currently offers a free 7-day trial (as many other gyms will do) but the monthly membership cost varies from state to state. When a researcher runs a Google check on Bally, the "sponsored" Bally page that pops up offers this: "They say it takes six weeks to change your body, but it only takes seven days to fall in love with all that Bally Total Fitness has to offer" (www.bally.com). Bally is not guaranteeing that in six weeks one's body can be changed, but Bally does offer nutrition advice and provides links to better health in and out of the gym.

Hart's article in the Harvard Business Review (p. 60) alludes to ways to maximize marketing impact. Among those passages is "The negative consequences of service failure are high." The Web site www.consumeraffairs.com has a number of apparent examples of Bally service failure. Christella of Haskell, OK complained that she has had trouble canceling her contract with Bally. She states that she is in the military and was sent to a new station, in Europe. "I sent them a copy of my orders and a cancellation notice," Christella explains, and yet they "are still harassing me about this contract." They in fact filed a negative credit report and as a result Christella says she cannot close on a house because of the damage to her credit report. She asked ConsumerAffairs.com lawyers if she can sue.

Reading through the list of grievances from former Bally members there seems to be a pattern; again and again members complain that they have had trouble canceling their contracts. Also, numerous Bally members (or former members) who had to transfer because of military obligations complain that Bally caused them grief and didn't meet their obligations. In about 90% of the customer complaints, it seems Bally continued to hit credit cards after the customer thought he or she had clearly shown the documents necessary to be let out of the contract. Again, this is not uncommon for many businesses in the U.S. To somehow fail to stop tapping into a person's credit card; but for a nationally based, high-visibility company like Bally they should certainly try to tighten up their systems in this regard. "I feel I have been cheated," writes Joseph of Glendale, AZ. "The company never attempted to make good on their customer service promise" (www.ConsumerAffairs.com).

As to the question, "How difficult is it for the customer to collect on the guarantee?" The pertinent question vis-a-vis Bally would more appropriately be, "How difficult is it to get out of a contract when the military requires a person to move out of state or out of country?"

Competitors: 24-Hour Fitness is very much like Bally and offers many of the same membership benefits but does not offer a guarantee. Bally has 400 clubs and 24-Hour Fitness has 425; both offer a free 7-day trial period. "We've held fast to our mission of helping people change their lives," the "About Us" portion of their Web site asserts. Unlike Bally, 24-Hour Fitness uses celebrity endorsements (Derek Jeter, Lance Armstrong and Shaquille O'Neal, among others). National Fitness Center (NFC) offers a 3-day free trial period and a "guarantee" but it's a vague guarantee. If a potential customer doesn't like the center after the three days, "simply cancel your trial membership…it's that simple," the NFC Web site explains.… [END OF PREVIEW]

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