Experiencing Your Best: An interview with Beth Carotenuto, Managing Director, acac

Founded in 1984 as the Atlantic Coast Athletic Club, acac (lowercase intentional) has grown from a single 5,000 square-foot facility into a network of 13 clubs in the Mid-Atlantic region. Its West Chester location, opened in 2001, has grown to a 140,000 square-foot complex that includes cardio and weight-training areas, indoor and outdoor pools and waterparks, a spa, physical therapy services, a full-service café, yoga and fitness studios, basketball courts, and more. During the summer it runs an extensive day camp program. All told, the facility claims roughly 10,000 people as members.

The acac fitness and wellness center in West Chester, Pennsylvania

We had the opportunity to talk to Beth Carotenuto, General Manager of their West Chester facility, about how customer experience has grown and evolved during her tenure.

Beth joined the acac team in 2003 as a part-time dance instructor. “The position was fun and afforded me flexibility with my family responsibilities. Over the years, I grew into new areas including youth programming management, marketing, and club operations.”

Beth Carotenuto, General Manager of the acac in West Chester, Pennsylvania

Beth Carotenuto, General Manager of the acac in West Chester, Pennsylvania

The acac promise

As Beth moved up in the organization and spent time in marketing, she gained a strong appreciation of the acac brand promise. “It’s not just a place for people to come and work out. The difference between acac and other facilities is this: our promise to our members is to help keep them healthy and active. We’ll change and provide a wide range of options for people with all different needs. We really want to partner with them and find their success, help them develop healthy habits, and see them be successful in their fitness journey.”

Looking for happy team members

acac faces some specific hiring challenges. Many positions at the club tend to attract people who are in the early or transitional stages of their careers, so those positions experience significant turnover. Despite that, the team wants to hire people who would be great long-term additions to the staff.

Beth clearly knows what she’s looking for. “We look for happy team members; those who can engage and have manners. We interview groups of candidates at the same time; the concept is that we interview many candidates for several positions and determine who will fit into our culture before we evaluate skill.”

“We want to hire those who treat our front desk staff with kindness, those who remember the names of those next to them in the interview, and those who are actively engaged in our tour.”

The objective is to see people in their more natural state, rather than in the somewhat artificial world of a traditional interview. “It’s certainly a unique process that I had to adapt to over time. Ultimately we found that our process was very helpful in seeing natural behaviors. These behaviors are nearly impossible to determine during a one-on-one interview.”

They start the process with a pre-interview questionnaire that enables the candidates to describe themselves before interacting with the team. While the organization brings in many candidates at a time, they try to ensure that they don’t stack the deck with too many acac staff.

Beth describes the interview and selection process. We typically have 2-3 team members and about 12 candidates. We’ll mark the room where everybody is sitting, they will wear nametags; if they can’t wear a nametag in the interview process, they are not going to want a nametag when they are employees. Then we try to rank each candidate on a scale of one to five based on a standard set of attributes. Based on these criteria, some will be hired right away; they fit our culture. Others will go onto a second interview and others will be rejected. It’s not too difficult to get past through the first round. You don’t always have to be outgoing, you don’t have to be an extrovert, we just want you to be happy and care about people and we can teach you the rest.”

Training and teaching the culture

Once they’ve identified new team members, acac leadership still needs to train them and integrate them into the culture. “When I started with ACAC there wasn’t much formal development training.”

Over time, acac built up a more consistent approach to training, culture, and delivering exceptional customer experience. Disney’s approach to customer service influenced their approach. “One of our senior leadership paid attention to that and said, ‘We want to be different with customer service, so we are going to adapt some of the Disney methods and their philosophies.’ We use the words ‘offstage.’ We don’t call our team ‘staff’, we call them ‘team.’ There is a lot that purposefully goes into that.”

When Beth first joined acac, their training approach was typical of most small but growing organizations. “There wasn’t a lot of training up front, it was kind of like, ‘Oh yeah, attend a meeting when you first start. There you go. Now retain it all.’ As we grew as an organization, and competition entered our markets, we said, ‘We’ve got to up our game.’”

“So then we established acac team member training, and we called it acac University. There was fun, there was food, there were prizes. It made it exciting for a team member to attend and not say, ‘This is just another thing I have to do.’

We taught everything from customer service to Myers–Briggs, how do we understand each other, how do you even start to understand that everybody is not like you, and how to deal with difficult customers. Just recently we re-introduced the Pickle Video.”

The Pickle Video?

Beth becomes animated. “The Pickle Video is from Bob Farrell, who created the Farrell’s ice cream shop and chain of restaurants. He created this training session where he describes receiving a letter one day from a client that said, ‘I’ve been coming to your restaurant every week for the last 10 years and every time I go, I ask for extra pickles with my hamburger and they always give it to me. Well today I went into your store and asked for extra pickles and I was told that you were going to charge me 75 cents for additional pickles. And I’ve been coming to your restaurant for that long and I’m no longer coming because you are fighting me over a pickle. So his whole mantra became ‘Give ‘em the pickle!’”

It seems odd to pattern the culture of an upscale health club after a restaurant’s approach to condiments, but it makes sense. “It sets the stage for how we do things at acac. If it’s something that we can deliver to a customer and it doesn’t cost us a fortune or change a whole process or policy, give him the pickle. How can we do that? We would give tangible examples like have an umbrella handy and if you see somebody in the rain and they need help, go out and get them, perhaps bring them in. Simple things that people can do to give them the pickle.”

As the organization grew and the training become more purposeful and robust, acac put an intense focus on new employees. “New team members have to attend launch training within their first 60 days. That’s where they learn all about acac, our Customer Commandments, and all the things that we want them to do when they are working on the floor. Then we ask new team members to walk around the club with a check-off sheet. They meet different people, experience different jobs in various departments, and then we reward them at the end.”

In addition, the team continuously trains to stay at the top of their game. “We have customer service training throughout the year. They just stay fresh and on top of it.”

Continuous training isn’t just for the rank and file. “Key leaders and our corporate trainer work together to focus on our rising stars and offer monthly leadership training. Right now we’re working on a club case study: we are discussing the process and decision making when opening a new fitness facility. ‘What would you do if you went into a club and you had to take it over?’ It challenges the team to think about business beyond their scope of responsibilities.”

A powerful guest feedback system

Any successful customer-driven organization must work to understand the needs and wants of its audience. This is another area where acac has grown over the years.

“We are an organization that welcomes and encourages feedback. I frequent so many organizations that are not interested in feedback and I believe they are missing a great opportunity. Most of the time, the feedback is positive. It’s great to hear constructive feedback as well. I often hear. ‘I love the club, but…’ ‘I like this, but…’ ‘You did this really well, but…’ Those are all opportunities to listen and understand what our members want and don’t want. Collectively we put them together over time and make change. So I think the first thing is you have do is establish a culture that is open to and accepting of feedback.”

Even with an organization that is open to feedback, the organization must then deal with the challenging mechanics of collecting, processing, and acting upon that information.

“As good as [customer feedback] can be, it can also be very hard. We used to do an annual paper survey; we would send the survey out once a year and believed that it was an amazing tool. And it was, but it was one time a year and it was based on whatever that person was feeling at that particular moment. We were missing so many opportunities.”

The acac team looked for a better solution, and implemented quarterly, e-mail based surveys using Medallia.

“[The new system] has provided us with real-time, effective feedback that allows us not only to find out what our customers experience in the club, but more importantly, it opens the dialog to future communication. When I first started responding to surveys, I’ll be honest, I thought, ‘Oh great, a member is complaining about the hot water again in the shower. Of course the hot water isn’t going to be super-hot when thirteen people are taking a shower at 9 am.’ Then I started thinking like a member. If I visited the club and I wanted a hot shower and didn’t experience that I would be annoyed as well. I would want someone to know!”

Receiving rapid feedback enables the team to immediately address an issue. Each member feels heard and satisfied that the issue is being addressed; it also eliminates the same potentially negative experience for other members.

Not all feedback is negative. “The communication isn’t always critical. Many of our member’s responses include suggestions on classes they want, programs they are seeking, and compliments to our team. It helps us identify our strengths and areas for improvement. We can also congratulate team members who make a difference.”

The electronic feedback system has also improved relationships between members and the team. “Now, members that I have conversed with via e-mail feel more comfortable stopping by my office or chatting with me in the club. We can truly understand their needs, likes, and wants and stay ahead of them rather than playing catch up.”

Empowering responses to guest feedback

Beth’s team doesn’t just respond to guest feedback in an ad hoc manner; they designed a formal system to address issues. “My key leadership group is made up of four people plus myself: the Assistant General Manager, Jill Zagora; our Facilities Director, Greg Patton; our Membership Director, Mike LaRose; and our Personal Training Director, Mike Wharton. We meet weekly and discuss club strategy, operations, member concerns and team concerns. Together we share our successes and areas for improvement. Then we collectively develop strategies to accomplish the goals. There are times when we need a broader group as well. We often include our department leaders and complete a brainstorming session. I am very much a collaborative leader.”

With the increased volume of feedback, Beth started to see that she had some work to do to get everyone on the same page. “After being the main point of contact for the surveys for a period of time, it became clear that the leadership’s level of understanding and commitment to resolve issues from the survey was not as strong as my own. Not because they didn’t want to help, but they were not personally involved in it. After discussing it with the group, it was clear that having them answer surveys and engage in the process would be a wonderful learning opportunity and increase the engagement with members.”

While the system makes it easy to delegate responsibility, Beth still ensures that the whole team remains involved. “So, yes it is a purposeful system that we have. All have ownership. We’re all required to read every survey. We also share with the individual departments any specific concerns or questions.”

Besides addressing member concerns, the process helps the team grow together. Beth enjoys the challenge: I’m a very structured person, so I like to have a plan, but that’s not to say that there aren’t times when a leadership team member needs help.  We discuss and work together. I really enjoy that.”

Empowering resolution

Receiving honest member feedback is only half of the battle. Once the team receives that feedback, they need to ensure they resolve each issue.

The first step is sorting the feedback. “In the survey, we can tag the comments. So we can tag if it’s a facility issue, or a group exercise concern, etc. We also track the positive, and hand out awards to our team based on their total number of positive comments each month.

The team doesn’t just rely on members to bring attention to problems; the club’s staff also tracks issues. “Beyond the surveys we have a facilities log. Any team member has access to it and can report issues in the club. The facilities team checks regularly and addresses items quickly. If something requires a longer period of time to resolve, the facilities team will mark that as well. So it closes the loop for everyone. Any team member knows at any time what the status is of a repair in the club.”

Beth will fast-track important issues by sending them directly to her immediate team members. “If there is an issue with a shower, I’ll send it right to my facilities director right away. We resolve the issue and close that loop with the members. They are generally appreciative and understanding. Sometimes we cannot fix the issue right away, but we communicate and we continue to do that until it’s fixed.”

With thousands of members, the team may receive vague or even contradictory feedback. “We look for trends. We don’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction, unless it’s a safety concern or facility hazard. Members appreciate that as well.”

Lastly, the management team closes the communication loop on issues. “Our managers send opening and closing reports. This keeps our management team informed of any outstanding issues, compliments, concerns or needs so the team is not caught off guard and can prepare appropriately.”

Continuous improvement through communication

The acac is not a static facility; since its opening it has undergone several major changes, including a 40,000 square foot addition focused on kids. Members tend to be passionate and vocal about what they do and don’t like, so Beth’s team engages the members.

Beth talks about a recent change that directly impacted all of the members for several months. One example of this process is when we were about to renovate our locker rooms. They had to be closed for a significant period and we knew that was going to be very disruptive to our members. I collected my list of members that I had communicated with who had asked for the new locker rooms. I used them as my focus group. I shared the plans with them and we discussed the pros and cons. We completed this process about three weeks before the renovation. Some conversations were in groups and some were one-on-ones. They offered suggestions, improvements, and feedback. I could candidly share our challenges and they appreciated it.

While giving the members a voice can be tremendously helpful, it doesn’t always produce the perfect outcome. “[For the locker room renovation], the process was great… in this particular example it worked. I felt like I now had 10 “soldiers” helping spreading the plan and a positive attitude. They would tell me they helped clear up rumors and calmed members’ frustrations.”

People are complex, however, and not every feedback session is successful. Beth recalls one frustrating example. “One focus group that didn’t go well is when we brought in a panel of members to discuss family time hours in our warm water pool. We had equal number of members who wanted more time and those who wanted less time. It didn’t go very well. We presented the issues and reasoning, offered up solutions and challenges, and hoped they could understand each other and help us develop a compromise. Unfortunately our goals were not reached and to this day, it’s the one part of the club that continues to be a struggle. Everyone walked away a bit frustrated. Despite that, we always keep trying and are constantly looking for new ways to improve things.”

While Beth regrets that the team wasn’t able to craft a better solution, customers like to be heard and feel like an organization cares about their needs. While they weren’t able to come to a resolution, members know that the organization is constantly trying.

acac today

The acac continues to thrive today. Following the locker room renovation, the club rebuilt and expanded its mind-body suite, a space that includes a 1,400 square foot, state-of-the-art yoga studio with a heated yoga option, an additional 1,100 square foot studio for mind body classes, and a Pilates Reformer studio.

Beth describes the challenges that are more difficult now than a few years ago. “Externally, I think our greatest challenge is telling our story. We have the stigma of a gym. One that is expensive, snobby or requires a special dress code. What is frustrating is that I know what’s happening in this club and I see the great things that people are accomplishing daily. What’s challenging is how to get that message across to our community and do so without being arrogant.”

“For example, we donate about $30,000 a year during our short term membership campaigns. These are local organizations in our neighborhood receiving funding. But we don’t’ have the opportunity to shout about the great donations we provide. Our goal is not to boast, but to break some of those stigmas and say ‘We are an inviting, welcoming, friendly place and we’d love for you to try us.’

Beth is most proud of how far her team has come. “I would love to say that we’re the employer of choice in our industry and area. We were named the Top Workplace [in Philadelphia Magazine] this year.”

The future

When asked to describe the perfect acac of in three years, Beth is very clear. “We want to be the one-stop-shop for everyone, for their fitness and wellness needs. We are really diving into our mind-body experiences, so people won’t have to spend tremendous amounts of money at a boutique shop – $25 for a class every time they go.

“The medical programming side of what we do is really taking off, and we’re working with corporations now, and helping them bring their health insurance cost down. We want to be a program of choice for certain corporations to keep their employees active and healthy and bring down absenteeism. That’s really big for us, and I think that that will continue to grow us as an organization. Not only in terms of membership, but also in terms of space and amenities we can make available.”

“I’d love to see our aquatics program be a little bit more involved. There’s a large aging population of people with arthritis, and obesity, and different joint needs. Water can be such an amazing start for them, and I don’t think that we’ve used that to our ability.”

Beyond the facility itself, Beth has some ideas about her personal growth. “My personal growth involves the acquiring of additional acac clubs. I would really like to manage additional clubs and help the northern region of acac grow.

“I really enjoy coaching, I love teaching customer service. I have experienced many situations over the years that challenged me personally and professionally. I believe I have a lot to share with other GMs and managers. What really motivates me is when I can see one of my team members having an ‘Ah ha!’ moment or a revelation, or grow in their personal career. I want to continue to grow and achieve that beyond my scope in West Chester. acac has provided me with many opportunities over the years, and I would love to give back to others.“

Clearly Beth and the acac have both come a long way over the years. Beth, are you ever going to stop?

Laughing, she replied, “I can’t stop. It’s not in my nature. I don’t know how!”

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