The Contract Story: How I Helped Bally Total Fitness Go Out of Business

In Blog, People Skills, Sales, Stories
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I worked at Bally Total Fitness as a salesperson before I got on playing pro basketball. Back then, Bally had a tried-and-true process for selling memberships.

When a prospective member came in, a salesperson would take the guest on a “tour” of the facility, showing all the rooms and equipment. On my tours, I’d have people actually use pieces of equipment that targeted their stated areas of need (butt, arms, and stomach most of the time). I’d make sure they used stuff in a way that showed how fat and out of shape they were. I wanted people sweating and asking for water.

Then we’d sit in a room and close the deal by getting them to sign up for memberships.

Everything I’ve told you is common gym sales practice that is completely legal. But that’s not all.

Back then, Bally would lock members into 3-year contracts. I learned to conveniently omit that point while watching new members sign membership papers. While writing this, I read this on Wikipedia:
Bally Total Fitness has been the subject of controversy over its sales and membership cancellation practices, with some customers claiming they were misled into signing loans with terms up to three years using documents containing uncommonly-used language such as “Retail Installment Contract”. Customers alleged that they subsequently found themselves dealing with collection agencies.
Ideally, all the sales staff — there were about 10 of us — would go outside and prospect random strangers who would schedule a visit to the gym and then we’d sell them. That rarely happened. What we’d do is get on the computers and call past visitors who had not yet joined the gym, trying our best to drum up appointments from those calls. Any appointments we had would be written in a huge calendar that stayed in the main phone room.
Our manager Steve would look at that calendar several times per day to get a read on how we were doing. Steve’s job status was tied to sales performance. Bally would promote and demote managers on a month-by-month basis. It was cutthroat and, seemingly to me, an unhealthy way to drive performance.
Despite this constant push for appointments, sometimes people would just walk in the gym unsolicited. These people were, theoretically, more likely to buy memberships, as they had chosen to come to the gym on their own volition. There was an “Ups” system for which of the salespeople got the reward of doing these ”walk-in tours.”

The only criteria: You had set an appointment this day (or your previous work day), your appointment had shown up, and you closed the sale. Anyone who’d done that — or anyone who’d made a sale on the weekend, when business was famously slow — would be first on the Ups system.

Early on at Bally, I gamed the system by selling two walk-in memberships on a Sunday, then writing those people’s names in the appointment book as if I had generated that business all on my own. This made me look like a superstar in Steve’s eyes. Which is why it was easy to talk Steve into giving me a weekend off when I wanted to go to Orlando for some pro basketball exposure camp that summer.

I did really well selling at Bally for three reasons.

  1. I’m a quick learner. I figured out how to talk the language of my buyers. Which includes what I said — I made the signing-up process more of a conversation than a sale — and what I didn’t say (cough, 3-year contract, cough).
  2. The clientele was in my wheelhouse. Most of the people coming to see that Bally location were young, Black and female.
  3. I knew I would be moving on from Bally soon. I had a basketball career in mind. Thus I wasn’t a tired old beat-up salesperson just going through the motions. Some of my coworkers didn’t see any light at the end of their tunnels. My energy attracted sales success.
I got transferred/promoted twice in summer 2005. I wasn’t technically a manager, but each move placed me higher on the food chain of the sales staff. One Saturday at the Willow Grove location, I had just happened to be at the front desk with two other employees, tending to member needs, when a middle aged Black guy walked in.

Despite the two people in line ahead of this guy, he began loudly voicing his needs to us.

Apparently he had joined as a member maybe a year prior, and cancelled his membership — but he was still being charged every month, and he was not happy about it. The guy was yelling and cussing. It was actually kind of funny. I wasn’t laughing when it happened.

The personal training manager happened to be there too, and he walked Angry Black Man to his office to settle the issue.

This kind of thing happened ALL THE TIME at Bally, usually on the phone. You can’t “cancel” a 3-year contract. But most people didn’t know they were in 3-year contracts. Dammit.

The compensation plan at Bally was ridiculously complicated. When I later worked at Philadelphia Sports Clubs, commission was simple: $60/sale. At Bally, your commission on a sale was based on the member’s credit score, the gym you worked for, your job position, how much of a down payment had been made… there was this booklet for calculating your commission that we never looked at.

Long story short, I never knew what my check would be until I got it. And we could never question our checks — we didn’t know how to calculate our earnings!

More from Wikipedia:

In April 1994, Bally paid $120,000 to settle Federal Trade Commission charges of illegal billing, cancellation, refund, and debt-collection practices. Consumers have complained, however, that little has changed over the years. From 1999 to 2004, over six hundred customers complained to the New York Attorney General’s office, leading to an investigation and subsequent agreement by Bally Total Fitness to reform their sales tactics in February 2004.

I worked there in 2005. The sales tactics had not been reformed.

Bally went out of business a few years ago. Sorry, Bally.

Anyhow, I quit Bally after five months — I had a better job offer in Eastern Europe. When I came back home less than three months later, Bally had moved on and wouldn’t rehire me. I got an overnight shift job at a supermarket instead that lasted a week before I was back on in basketball.

A couple months later, I posted my first video on a new site called YouTube.

It’s funny, I started writing this email to tell a completely different Bally story. I’ll get to it in a future post.