Escape The Billing Mire

webWhen billing issues arise, don’t give your members the runaround.

When you take into account two factors — the handling of money and human error — it’s inevitable that billing mistakes will occur and your members will be upset as a result.

Although billing mistakes are never 100 percent preventable, they can be minimized. Clubs that handle mistakes not only gracefully, but also efficiently, can come out on top in light of a less-than-ideal situation.

In July 2013, Fitness Connection experienced its own billing nightmare when a handful of members were wrongfully charged holds of close to $3,000. Instead of passing the buck and playing the blame game, the company took fast action and responsibility, and worked quickly to rectify the situation.

“We found out within hours of the incident, as members provided feedback that caused us to research the issue,” recalled Josh Harwood, the senior vice president of operations for Fitness Connection. “We started investigating the processes in our control closest to the problem and in this case, because a vendor relationship was involved, alerted the vendor to what we were dealing with to provide feedback, and begin their investigation. In our situation, both Jonas [Fitness] and Vantiv played key roles in identifying the issue, helping us rectify it and in assisting us in working with our members to fix it for them.”

For Harwood, being transparent with both the media and members was key to limiting frustration. “We knew we were going to have to fight to regain [members’] trust, and felt the way to do that was to take this seriously, openly communicate frequently with them and make amends where possible.”

As a result, Fitness Connection walked away from the situation with a barely-scratched reputation. “Ultimately, we provided contact information for a team of customer service agents to the members for addressing any lingering issues, and we gave all affected members a free month to show our sincere regret for any troubles caused.”

Clubs don’t always walk away from billing issues with unscathed reputations. Although Fitness Connection’s situation isn’t exactly common, billing members after they’ve canceled is one area in which clubs often get flack from media outlets. According to Jeff Herndon, the corporate director of AussieFIT in Columbus, Ohio, this is often a result of members not recalling the terms of their membership contract.

“In our process, when a member cancels, they have one more billing after cancelation,” said Herndon. “They also have access to the club during this cycle. We try our best to educate each member on this process when they are signed up to the membership. Invariably, there are members who do not remember that they get one more billing. Any issue gets resolved when the member calls the office to inquire about the last billing.”

For Planet Fitness, making the billing process as simple as possible, and being upfront with members at the very beginning, has been key to limiting issues like this from occurring. “We are up front, before they even join any one of our locations,” said Chris Holmes, a regional operations manager for Planet Fitness. This means being clear on what date members’ accounts will be billed (Planet Fitness bills members on the 17th of each month nationwide), what fees members can expect, and what the cancelation process will look like. “We try to make the process as simple as possible.”

However, no matter how much you simplify the process, mistakes are almost impossible to completely avoid.

“We stay on top of our billing process to avoid mistakes as much as possible,” said Herndon. “However, from time to time, mistakes do occur. When we recognize a double billing has occurred, whether it was brought to our attention by members or discovered in house, we issue a credit for each affected account immediately. If a double billing occurred, it was because something went wrong. We don’t play games with billing. That’s the best way to lose members very quickly.”

Not all billing issues are a result of a club’s error. In fact, it’s common for members to forget to update their billing information, resulting in a past-due account. To limit these occurrences, Holmes has found that collecting members’ checking account information, versus a debit or credit card, is more effective. That is because debit and credit card numbers change much more frequently than checking accounts. “In my opinion, checking accounts are better, simply for the convenience of our members,” explained Holmes. “With checking accounts, they don’t have to update billing information.”

Ultimately, limiting billing issues of any kind requires diligence on the health club’s end. And a trusting relationship with your members doesn’t hurt. “We have a relationship with our members and as with any relationship, it starts and ends with trust,” said Harwood.

However, establishing trust requires the ownership of mistakes when a billing issue is a result of club error. Remember that when an issue does occur, if you act quickly, rectify the situation and take ownership — your members’ trust will remain intact.

If a billing issue occurs, here are Tips from Josh Harwood, the senior vice president of Operations for Fitness Connection:

  • Be sensitive: keep open lines of communication with your customers and a humble frame of mind, realizing you could have an issue in any process.
  • React quickly.
  • Investigate to solve problems, not to place blame. Start with the most likely break points, but do not exclude any possibilities, no matter how unlikely it is thought to contribute to the issue.
  • Over communicate: both internally and externally. Use phones, texting, social media, mobile pushes, etc., wherever you have permission to do so.
  • Follow up.
  • Involve whatever vendor or partners may touch the issue, be open with them and work together to address the issue.

By Rachel Zabonick

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