Welcome back to the third installation of our Feefo Spotlight series!
This week we spoke to Luke Newton, Co-Founder of SWEAT Southsea, a unique fitness studio that specialises in tailored personal training. Luke told us about some of the challenges of growing a business, and the importance of customer loyalty when it comes to achieving success. You can listen to the podcast here or keep reading to find out how SWEAT achieved their incredible 100% retention rate.
Hi Luke, and welcome to the series! Can you start by telling us what SWEAT Southsea is all about?
Sure! SWEAT Southsea is a fitness studio, essentially. We specialise in one-to-one and small group fitness training – so classes, personal training, strength and conditioning, pilates and sports injury rehabilitation.
When people think about reaching out to customers for feedback, it’s been very much the stomping ground of retailers and travel businesses, and over the last few years the value of starting those conversations has made itself apparent to a lot more industries. In terms of fitness, what made you want to collect customer feedback?
We always had a really strong desire to stand out and be different. My wife and Co-Founder really hates gyms, and when I became a Personal Trainer, I didn’t really want to work from a commercial gym. In our industry, we all know that typically, reviews and testimonials are dominated by before and after photos. If you look at some social media platforms, reviews will say ‘so and so is an excellent trainer’, and it’s obvious it’s just their friends! We wanted to show people that there’s more than just the physical change. What else is going on with our customers? What about their own personal journeys? When the opportunity came to sign up with Feefo, we realised that we can really tell the stories in a truthful way by giving our customers the platform to really have their say – it’s not just ‘here’s a before and after’ (which, honestly, is really easy to do!) How do you know that that’s a sustainable change? How do you know that you’ve actually helped that client? Not with just the physical, but with the mental side of fitness as well.
"We wanted to show people that there’s more than just the physical change. What else is going on with our customers? What about their own personal journeys? When the opportunity came to sign up with Feefo, we realised that we can really tell the stories in a truthful way by giving our customers the platform to really have their say."
It sounds like there’s quite an emotional element to it in a way. It’s not just about the proof of what you can deliver but the emotional drivers behind that...
Absolutely. I think that if we’re showcasing what we do, who’s better to tell that story than our clients? Other people who are interested in our services are going to relate more to our existing clients than they would us.
Obviously, you’re a smaller business, but you have a really unique approach to what you to. Why do you think feedback is so important in terms of what you do?
Because we’re a boutique fitness business, we’re never going to have ten thousand members with fifty per cent of them never coming. It’s more realistic for us to have between one hundred and two hundred customers that really love us. Of course, that also means that we’re not going to have thousands of reviews, so we wanted to make sure that the reviews that we do get count. It’s really important for us to build trust, and I think that having Feefo makes us accountable and it helps us build that trust. We were very conscious when we first started that we’re competing against household names – and there’s SWEAT Southsea in the corner, just going by word of mouth and reputation. Having a review platform is really important to us to demonstrate what we’re doing, and it’s verified and truthful – not just our mate saying how good we are!
"We wanted to make sure that the reviews that we do get count. It’s really important for us to build trust, and I think that having Feefo makes us accountable and it helps us build that trust."
It sounds like you wouldn’t ever want to be one of those gyms with ten thousand members!
We pride ourselves on knowing people’s names, so it’s probably best to keep it small! As we grow and get bigger, I’m having to come to terms with the fact I might not know every single member’s name, but as long as our trainers do…!
A lot of smaller brands build themselves on that connection and relationship with their customers – knowing people’s names, being able to chat, find out what they like and what they don’t like. They shape a business around that learning experience. As you start to grow, there is that potential to start losing that connection…
The challenge is, how do you stay connected with your customers and keep fostering those relationships? For us, there are a few ways. Having a Facebook community group, and not just a page, where you can go live and just have a conversation and tell people what you’re doing, for example. You need to know what your business stands for and work out to how to make sure your customers are on board with your vision and what you’re doing. For example, we’ve just been collecting products to send to a refugee camp in Greece as part of a partnership with a local group, and our community are really buying into that. I just need to make sure I have the right platform to get people on board with what we’re doing.
"You need to know what your business stands for and work out to how to make sure your customers are on board with your vision and what you’re doing."
You find that smaller businesses have a really strong brand ethos, and as you start to grow you run the risk of having less control of that, and that’s where your brand can start to get watered down. Do you fear getting bigger?
I did used to worry about growing and getting further away from our clients, but our recruitment changed and by having a team that really buy into what we’re trying to do, they’ve become the people that are delivering the brand messages. Everybody’s got the same outlook and the same ethos. It no longer always has to come from me, it can come from our team as well.
That must be where it can be helpful to be able to dip back into feedback every now and then. It gives you that window into whether that’s still the case and if it’s still consistent – is everyone getting the SWEAT experience?
Absolutely. Are people saying the same thing they were a year ago? If they’re not, you need to pick up on that. A lot of our reviews will say, ‘SWEAT isn’t like a typical gym’, and if we stop seeing that or people are drawing parallels and comparing us to their old gym, I would pick up on that and start to worry!
How much do you rely on reoccurring customers and how important is retention in terms of your business model?
It’s really, really important! Typically, we had a ninety per cent retention rate, and we’d measure that on clients rebooking. Over the lockdown period we remodelled how clients start with us, so everybody now starts with the same package. The result has been a one hundred per cent retention with our last fifteen new starters.
Wow. I bet there are a lot of people that would love to be able to say that!
It’s amazing! But we’re never going to be that company with a membership base of thousands of clients, and we don’t have the marketing budgets to do TV ads and radio, so keeping the clients that we have is really important. Part of that is also our flexibility. Essentially, there are fourteen different ways people can be a member with us. What we used to do, is meet the client and present them with these fourteen options, and it was all a bit overwhelming. Now they all go through the same programme initially, and then they can make the decision on whether they want to do one-to-one training, do they want small groups, or do they want a combination of both. We’re only really able to measure how that’s working by talking to our customers.
With Feefo, there are loads of tools to help with that, too. You can set up campaigns mid-way through someone’s experience to find out if it’s still working for them, or you can ask them how they found their initial consultation, for example. In terms of what SWEAT is doing, that kind of flexibility will be really useful, especially as you get bigger.
Definitely. What parts of your process can you refine and improve? You’re not going to necessarily know that unless you ask the question. I also think that people are really polite. If you ask someone face-to-face how they found their consultation, they’re probably going to tell you it was great, it was the best experience ever! If they’re getting an invitation to leave a review, it’s a little bit more removed and they’re going to be more honest.
"If you ask someone face-to-face how they found their consultation, they’re probably going to tell you it was great, it was the best experience ever! If they’re getting an invitation to leave a review, it’s a little bit more removed and they’re going to be more honest."
So, it sounds as though your business revolves around a pretty tight-knit community. How do you maintain those relationships?
Every time we get a new review, we put it on our Instagram, our Facebook, we post it on our website, we’ll talk about it on our community page, and we tell our team. I feel like our members see these reviews and it makes them proud to be a part of it all.
I think when people do feedback on something like fitness, there’s an emotional investment in it. You see someone express an opinion, and you relate to that. It definitely does help with buy in.
Have you used any of the feedback you’ve gathered so far to make any changes to the business?
The insights and the information that you can get from these reviews is way more interesting than the 4.9 or the 5 that you end up with. We’ve been really fortunate in that the reviews that we’ve got have been overwhelmingly positive. I think that one thing we have learned to do is to celebrate our successes. Getting a five-star review is definitely a reason to celebrate, so we share it with the team straight away. We took on a trainer just before lockdown, and when we were allowed to start doing outdoor training, him and another new recruit were delivering all the sessions. He ended up receiving one of the best reviews that we’ve ever had! It was really important that we celebrated that. Using feedback internally can definitely help boost morale.
It’s always lovely to hear that you’re doing well! To hear it from a customer, and then to reinforce it as a business, you’re getting two levels of praise. It’s great to give that motivation – especially at the moment when there’s such a sense of uncertainty.
Because retention’s so important to our business, and our trainers know that, they work towards keeping hold of their clients. When it’s time for clients to rebook, they’ll get that boost. By getting that feedback that’s out there in the world, they know that they’ve changed this person’s life for the better in a time of stress and uncertainty. That’s massive.
It’s so nice to hear that you’re using feedback internally, because I think that’s a trick that a lot of people miss.
So, in terms of getting new members through the door, how do you use your current customers as advocates?
When people go to our website and hit the signup button, they’ll see the member reviews straight away, right at the top of the page. It’s central to our business. It’s what people are saying about us – not just what we are saying. We’ll tell them once they sign up, that after four weeks they’ll get their opportunity to leave a review. Once they’ve left that review, we ask customers if they can tag us in social media and if we can use snippets of what they’ve said to put on social channels and in our newsletter. How can we repurpose that content so that it’s not just a review that’s on our Feefo page?
"When people go to our website and hit the signup button, they’ll see the member reviews straight away, right at the top of the page. It’s central to our business. It’s what people are saying about us – not just what we are saying."
That’s important, because self-promotion starts from the search results, before anyone’s even got to your website. They can check you out on social, and you have those advocates speaking for you anywhere they can! Again, it’s a trick that lots of people miss. They get their reviews and put them on their website, and they forget that there are so many places that they can use that advocacy to really give them a boost.
Essentially, it all comes down to trust. To attract a client that’s going to be spending a considerable amount of money with you, you need to build trust. You need to spend time with that client before you’ve even met them – on your website, on your social channels. The more places you can reinforce what people are saying about you, the better. It’s really easy to say that we’re the best gym in the world, but it doesn’t mean anything. When clients are talking about the real-world impact it’s had on their overall wellness, that’s what people are going to buy into. It’s really important to make sure you’re seen across lots of different channels and in the right way.
"To attract a client that’s going to be spending a considerable amount of money with you, you need to build trust. You need to spend time with that client before you’ve even met them – on your website, on your social channels. The more places you can reinforce what people are saying about you, the better."
So, how were you affected by Covid?
We did online classes for free. We knew it was time to keep people moving rather than make money, and our clients appreciated that. We took the opportunity to really assess where we were going, and we’re now in a position where we’ve increased our retention, we’ve taken on a load of new clients and our bounce-back is complete. Last week we actually had a record footfall for classes! We always try and see the opportunity in a setback. You have to work out where your opportunity is, and how you can come out of a situation stronger.
It just goes to show the power of that online community. Whilst you didn’t do things that financially benefitted you during that period, it made a lot more people aware of you and hopefully that will pay off in the future. It’s amazing how powerful those channels can be.
You can say that you have certain values, but when push comes to shove, you need to prove it. We were lucky that we had the strength and the team to stand by what was true to us, and our customers have respected and appreciated that. It’s another reason for people to come through the door – and they believe the reviews even more now.
What’s next on the roadmap for SWEAT?
I think the 2020s is going to see massive disruption in so many industries, and I think that fitness is definitely one of them. For us personally, I think that the traditional leaders and household names don’t have the same strengths of a business our size has in terms of community. We plan on becoming a hybrid of a studio and an online service, and the challenge for us is understanding how we can keep on offering more value to our existing members coming into the new year.
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