Friday, 21 November 2008

Virgin Active - but only at CEO level

Inside every Virgin Active Membership pack is a Service Promise
Is it worth the card its printed on?

Gyms famously make most of their profit from members who don't use the club, not those who do. Members who sign up, but visit rarely, get caught in a 'guilt inertia'. If they cancel they'll never fulfill their desired level of fitness, so they keep paying their monthly fees for a service they don't use.

Virgin Active is unusual for a health club - its still growing and profit is increasing. Impressively, unlike many others, it allows members to cancel at a month's notice - no annual contracts. For a modest fee members can also 'freeze' their membership when they go on holiday. These are attractive benefits. Virgin Active is very customer focused. Members know this because inside every Membership Pack is a Service Promise. The Service Promise is very important to the owners and senior management, but it appears to be treated with contempt at Club level.

My partner joined Virgin Active in June. In August she emailed and telephoned her VA club (Glasgow) to 'freeze' her membership during her holiday. They didn't do this, they didn't reply either, but they did debit her bank account the monthly fee of £44. When her bank statement arrived she followed this up with the club by email. Their reply, left on her voicemail was that the member of staff responsible for membership services had left the company and they had failed to check her email or voicemail, but they would now refund the money, albeit 2 months after she'd contacted them.

Which should be the end of the story. Except then I started reading the membership pack. The boastful Service Promise makes two claims which caught my eye. Firstly 'We will promise a response to your questions, suggestions or complaints within 24 hours', and secondly 'We promise that we will call you within 30 days of joining to ensure our Service Promise is being delivered'. Virgin Active had failed to fulfill both these promises, but the failure to ensure delivery of the promise invokes the final promise; 'If we do not deliver on our Promise in the first 30 days we will refund your joining fee.'

So I drafted my partner an email requesting the refund of her £10 joining fee. This request was declined - because apparently the Club had tried to telephone her mobile in June to ensure their Service Promise was being delivered, but there was no answer. So come on be reasonable I hear you say, they left her a message didn't they? Er... no actually. But because this is such an important Service Promise they must have called again? No, that was it, one quick phone call, no reply. Tick, member 'ensured' satisfied. Anyway, their reply continued, they couldn't refund the joining fee because she had used the club. If she didn't like this response she could email via the website.

I looked at Virgin Active's press release for last year's Annual Report. It boasts of their 'relentless focus on Customer Service'. So I waited until Saturday, when I guessed VA's Chief Executive would be looking after his own email via his Blackberry and emailed him. Did Chief Executive Matthew Bucknall wait 24 hours before replying? No he was back within an hour, promising to investigate. Impressive.

On Tuesday Virgin refunded the £10 Joining Fee. However they were a bit weaselly about the detail. So I dispatched a further email suggesting that as their service had fallen so far short of their Service Promise and that we had provided invaluable feedback about the way the Promise is implemented at club level that VA now refund all the monthly fees. I didn't expect them to, nor did they, but another month was refunded as good will. So £54 in return for emailing the Chief Executive.

It's a shame members have to email the CEO to get such paltry sums refunded. Proper training at Club level would free up valuable time at senior level to grow the business. My partner won't be going back to Virgin Active. Not because it isn't a nice facility, it is. But because they made her a Promise and didn't really care whether they kept it. Like many members who deliver monthly payments she didn't use the Club as much as she hoped, but when they abused her loyalty she withdrew hers - permanently.

Update 3rd December: My partner received an email from a colleague asking if she had benefitted from Virgin Active's £9 cut in monthly subscriptions available to employees of the company. Needless to say Virgin Active hadn't notified her. After a further exchange of emails with the UK MD and CEO she is £18 better off. Ironically if the Glasgow branch had simply refunded the £10 service promise VA would be £62 better off. Since raising the matter directly with CEO Matthew Bucknall refunds to date are: £10 Service Promise refund, £44 monthly subscription good will refund, £18 for 2 months of over-charging. Total refunds = £72. Not bad for a few emails...


Anonymous said...

Any chance of getting Matthew Bucknall email address... had no luck on a issue with SA executives.

Paul S said...

Just discovered your blog and love it - exactly what I tend to do - when you don't get anywhere with the minions, go to the top and you always get a response!

Having similar probs with Virgin at the moment and trying to work out Bucknall's email address - could you possibly send if you still have -

Many thanks

The Chief Executive said...

I always use company websites to track down email addresses, and then use some educated guess work. A visit to the Virgin Active website reveals that VA likes to control feedback from members using an online feedback form. They don't readily seem to publish any email addresses.

However take a closer look at the bottom of the page

then click:
'email our development office'

this reveals an email address. Like most companies VA uses the firstname.secondname format for all its employees' email addresses.

Paul S said...

Thanks, came to same conclusion and emailed him - no response yet, let's see what happens


Gal said...

this is the best response you will get
and i guarantee NO OTHER GYM will give this back to you
they ARE customer focused - its in their core values,
sadly there are always some stupid members of staff who dont pass messages - but hey - at least they're not working there anymore.
im really impressed with them after reading this blog - and i'll probably join now.

Anonymous said...

Matthew Bucknall is the best cheif executive there is around.

Anonymous said...

E-mailed Matthew Bucknall yesterday and he immediately responded to my membership cancellation query by passing it onto his MD. MD, Virgin Active, was excellent and refunded me my money and sent a really nice e-mail. Can't speak highly enough of the CEO and his team. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

I am just about to email Mr Bucknall about their service - let's hope I get a response.

slugmandrew said...

I have just posted my story of my membership with Virgin Active here:

I hope they get back to me to resolve these issues quickly.

Anonymous said...

The virgin active page you suggested for getting in touch with the CEO, 'email our development office' seems to have expired. Is there a new page to find out the Matthew Bucknall email address?

Anonymous said...

I have been a member of the Weston Super Mare Gym for a number of years prior to the take over of Esporta by Virgin Active. Why is it the new company are very reluctant to make repairs to equipment. For several months now, if not longer, I and other members have complained about defective items to the management but our complaints have not received attention. Can Matthew Bucknall assist I wonder.

Anonymous said...

I am also trying to complain re Virgin Active's so-called Customer Service/Promise. They seem to employ the rudest receptionists they can find. I am having no luck so far finding Mathew Bucknall's email. Has anyone had any luck?


Anonymous said...

I am having some difficulties with the Hedge End club and I would like to complain to Matthew Bucknall.

Does anyone have his email address?

TheRightMen said...

The email address:

Anonymous said...

I emailed a complaint to Matthew Bucknall on 24th July but have not had any response at all. This is completely unacceptable but not suprising knowing the way Virgin operate. I will be taking it further.

Karen Barnard said...

I too have been trying to find the address for Matthew Bucknall, thanks for that, Collingtree Park a so called 'elite' club has the lousiest showers ever. Staff all marvellous but they need to upgrade equipment not bodge repairs.

Amanda Lees said...

Don't bother complaining to Matthew Bucknall - he'll fob you off if he ever replies at all.

My then 10 year old daughter broke her arm in one of their supposedly supervised creches. Not only were they not supervising her, the 'first aid' worker then took her arm and bent it backwards to prove to her it wasn't broken.

When I arrived from the cafe area where I was working 3 minutes away, summoned by one of her friends rather than staff, I found my daughter in indescribable pain. Virgin didn't call an ambulance for us and as I didn't have my car with me I had to take her to our doctor on the bus with tears pouring down her face.

At the hospital they confirmed the break had been displaced and we spent the next 6 weeks attending weekly as it was such a severe fracture. Three years on, it still gives her trouble. Virgin's response to all of this was to lie, evade the issue and offer 4 months' free membership in compensation.

I told them where they could stick it - and their membership. I would never enter a Virgin Active club again - they are dangerous, poorly staffed and the management is appalling. But that's Virgin for you.

Rifaqat Shah said...

I too am having a problem with Virgin Active(VA). The picture of the promises do not show VA written anywhere. In thier current welcome pack 6 years hence there are no such promises. You wouldn't happen to have a scanned copy those promises with VA written across its face somewhere?

Anonymous said...

Interesting - I've had so many issues with Virgin Active recently where their customer services team don't answer emails sent to them, ignore messages left on the clubs' iPads, the staff at certain clubs (particularly Mayfair) is useless and don't action members' complaints... and when you see the staff cleaning the showers at the Kensington club with their trainers on, urrrh!