The 24 Hour Fitness Personal Greeting Is Creepy

Some of the worst ideas start when someone means well, but doesn’t think clearly. Or. maybe, just thinks clearly badly. Either way, 24 Hour Fitness’s newly impersonal “personal” greeting just doesn’t work for me.

The Facts. I joined back up with 24 Hour Fitness just over a year ago. It’s a beautiful facility with gorgeous big windows overlooking the Willamette River and Portland’s West Hills. And, I have a great personal trainer, the equipment’s solid, the facility good, etc…

Except, somewhere in the past few months, the front desk team received orders from above to “greet members by name”. To some executive it probably sounded like a warm, personal way to build connections with members. Perhaps it came under the category of “engagement”. Regardless it’s one outstanding example of how “personalized” can mean “creepy”.

How it Works. 24 Hour has a nice system at the front desk. I put in my phone number then it scans my fingerprint. Smooth. Secure. Effortless. And it works.

Except here’s how checking in works now…

I put in my phone number & scan my fingerprint.
Now, while I wait briefly for it to confirm my fingerprint, the person behind the counter stops whatever they’re doing (like folding towels) and turns to watch their computer screen…
So we wait together…Until it flashes “welcome” (on my side) and something like “Member Name: Doug” on their screen.
At which point the latest in a long stream of anonymous front desk help says “Good Morning, Doug”.
And I shiver at the impersonal (big brother like) creepiness of it all.

Why creepy? It’s clear the desk attendant doesn’t know who I am. And it’s clear that the only reason they’re using my name is they were told to. I could have joined under the false name of “Bubble Head” and they’d just say “Good Morning, Bubble Head”.

Given this highly impersonal personalization what they’re doing comes across to me at a minimum as an invasion of my private space. But there’s a dark undertone of “We’re watching you… We know who you are… We know where you live…”. It would be different if their knowing my name was somehow helpful to me – but it’s not.

Consider My Starbucks by Contrast. When I walk into my local Starbucks or the local coffee shop by my office I’m often greeted by name (same words – “Good Morning, Doug”). Except, they really do know my name in both places. I’ve gone to that Starbucks for nearly 20 years and ordered the same morning drink for over 10 years. Same at my local coffee shop.

In both these cases, I don’t care whether they know my name or not. What makes those coffee shops more personal is that I know the people behind the counter and they know me. If they use my name I’m okay with it – half the time they’ve made my drink the minute they see me. But what’s funny is that when some of the guys use that friendly “hey, man”, it’s just as personal as “Good Morning, Doug” (probably more).

Impersonal Personalization is Creepy. Maybe I’m more sensitive than others (certainly I make my living being aware of how communication subtleties make people feel). But the extraordinarily impersonal reality of “whoever is behind the counter” at 24 Hour greeting me by name is stupid.

This greeting won’t drive me away from the facility (it’s not THAT bad). But every time the help looks at their computer screen to find my name I want to scream “just say ‘Hi’ and don’t effin’ use my name!!!!!!!”. But, of course, I don’t do that. I just grump to my trainer about how stupid the new process is.

Still, I doubt that their brand guidelines include “get the customer so pissed they want to chew out the front desk help”.

And, by the way, 24 Hour Fitness is only my example here. This error is multiplied across the vast corporate landscape. Here’s a very recent story about Walgreens

So the next time your team decides to personalize something, ask yourself some critical questions: Does this matter? Does it help? Is it really important? And where is the hidden risk of offending big bunches of my consumers?

The 24 Hour process probably started as a naive, but well meaning, attempt to be personal. I’m even guessing it’s 50/50 that it’s the result of some “experience consultant” who visited facilities then sold them on a “big idea” of increasing consumer “engagement” with a personal greeting.

But no matter how it started, the end result is clear: It just makes me mad.

UPDATE: Soon after I published this post, the front desk help at my 24 Hour Fitness stopped attempting to use first names and returned to a friendly and genuine “hi”. It feels so much more personal.

Copyright 2015 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved

About Doug Garnett
Doug Garnett is an expert introducing innovative consumer products and services to market while driving higher return on innovation investment. His career has been spent in innovation and he is the president of Protonik, LLC - an innovation consultancy focused on marketing and innovation. Prior to founding Protonik, he was founder and CEO of ad agency Atomic Direct.

10 Responses to The 24 Hour Fitness Personal Greeting Is Creepy

  1. Oh, this is so funny, Doug. I used to work as a teller (long ago) at Norwest Bank, where we had to go through the same rigamarole for a 5-point checklist. We were “shopped” by random strangers so you couldn’t skip anyone. One very memorable customer was so vocal about her dislike of the greeting, that she actually did become one of our better known customers. We all knew her name on sight, but still she couldn’t stand when we spoke it. One day she let us have it. You should have seen her expression when one of the tellers said, “Thanks for the feedback, Carol.” I really don’t care about the forced familiarity, especially from people at the gym who see me at my “best” every day, but I just had to share. Still makes me laugh, that memory. (I hope I didn’t offend you!)

    • Doug Garnett says:

      That’s a great story. Suppose my own response is because I’ve reached a point in life where I’m just not very patient with the trickle down of unfortunate corporate policies. 🙂

      However, I primarily use WordPress to vent my frustrations and try to never take it out on the help at the desk – they’re just trying to follow orders. It’s the people issuing the orders who cause these problems.

  2. Robert says:

    Here is my problem with the article, the content is great, but six paragraphs about the problem with no suggestion of a solution, Really why do you call yourself a leader or expert? What is the solution? How could you take this experience and make it better. Just 2 cents but to be frank there is no problem without a solution.

    • Doug Garnett says:

      You’ve taken an unusual approach to responding to a blog post. But let me take it at face value.

      Chesterton reportedly observed that “It isn’t that they can’t see the solution, it’s that they can’t see the problem.” In my work with major corporations I’ve found that while business schools often preach the idea of dashing to solutions, the truly profitable answers come from getting a thorough understanding of the problem.

      Hence, my post focuses on understanding the problem. This is further a result of my work as a communication expert. Because understanding this problem requires searching for emotional depth – searching few corporations or marketing executives do well. And, emotional depth isn’t quickly summarized and nearly a linear process. Hence, I chose to tell the story in this post (which is obviously not your preference).

      The answer? Every situation demands a different answer which is why it’s far more profitable to understand the problem because only then can you craft the right answer.

      In this case it’s not clear that 24 Hour Fitness has a problem – just a botched process. So there really is nothing to suggest except: STOP IT!!!

      And I think my concluding remarks are clear: Don’t even attempt to personalize through bureaucracy unless it’s very clear that you get great benefit from doing so AND that you can do it without offending the consumer. It’s a rare bureaucracy that can officially appear to be casually personal.


  3. Don Gross says:

    Some of the grocery stores I frequent thank me by name at the conclusion of my purchase, utilizing my credit card information. In this case, it is usually the more formal “Thank you, Mr. .” Since they have their first name on their ID badge, I have to option of responding with their name, if I have been paying attention. I tend to look at this action as more positive than negative. I’m not certain if I would have attached the same negativity to their response that you have, but I do see your point.

    I wonder about the use of thumb print for identification. Now, in addition to all the other personal information becoming available on the internet, we are adding biometrics. How soon before our finger prints, retinal scans, voice recognition parametrics, and who knows what else will be available to the nefarious?

    • Doug Garnett says:

      Some of it’s context. The “Mr.” sign of respect seems to reflect an honesty in the relationship. And a checker is supposed to be looking at your card. In my experience it really depends on how a checker delivers the personalization.

      Perhaps the serious issue is when brands confuse the idea of “personalization” with “cozy familiarity”… because that ain’t happening with a brand. (Byron Sharp just suggested that the only brand most consumers want to be engaged personally with is the brand that pays their salary. There’s a lot of truth to that.)

      And thumb print safety… Good point there. Hmmm…

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