| Talk about the American dream; the Internet began as an obscure government research project in the late '60s and has become a worldwide juggernaut that grows by 7 million pages each day, according to Internet research firm Cyveillance. Thanks to extensive marketing in television, radio, and magazines, even people that have never used the Internet know about it.
And most of these people know somebody who uses it regularly. Having so much information about every conceivable topic available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year combined with almost limitless possibilities for commerce and communication is literally changing the world. The Internet is growing and evolving so fast that some experts say in another generation or so people will be using the Internet as commonly as they watch television or use the telephone today.
Power To The People
One of the most compelling things about the Internet is how quickly people all over the world are becoming involved. In the late '80s and early '90s, most people hadn't heard about the Internet. Even if they had, it wouldn't have mattered because there was virtually no content targeted at the general public. Just as importantly, tools such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer and Netscape's Navigator weren't around to make navigating the Web easy. The Internet was far from the slick, point-and-click operation it is today. In fact, it wasn't until 1990 that the first commercial provider of dial-up Internet access went into business.
In the span of just a few years, however, early adopters and technophiles embraced this new global network, and the more people that became involved the faster it grew. According to Nua Internet Surveys, just 26 million people were online by the end of 1995, which is less than 1% of today's world population. Market research firm IDC indicates that number had risen to 36 million users by December 1996 and then to 70 million in December 1997, when the number of Internet users reached nearly 1.71% of Earth's population at that time.
Internet users more than doubled during the next year to 160 million by December 1998. By September 1999, Nua says Internet users worldwide totaled 201.05 million and 4.78% of the population, and, as of July 2000, there were 359.8 million people online. Nua Internet Surveys estimates that nearly 6% of everyone on earth is online today, and analysts expect this explosive growth to continue.
The Internet Olympics
North America presently leads the world in Internet penetration according to most estimates. In July 2000, Nua Internet Surveys reported the United States and Canada had 157.24 million Internet users, which is 63.02 million more than in all of Europe. The Strategis Group, a telecommunications consulting company, released a report in February 2000 indicating 14.9 million U.S. households had Internet access in 1995 and 46.5 million had it in February 2000. The report also predicted 90 million U.S. households will be online by 2004.
Right now you may be poised on the threshold of using technology to add teeth to your marketing or to save valuable time for yourself. Perhaps you have some other ideas in mind for how high tech can translate into high profits. But before you dive into the pool, you want to make sure it's filled with water. So where do you dip your toes? Do you look first to your needs? To the capabilities of technology? To your budget? Right, right, and right. You're asking the right questions, thinking the right thoughts. I know that high tech means high anxiety to many people, but I also know that their stress is based upon complicated older technology and not upon the simple technology of today. It's this high anxiety that keeps many club owners away from just what they need most.
A survey of small business owners in 1997 revealed that nearly 20 percent of them feel that lack of knowledge kept them from buying more technology, yet 40 percent said that technology is critical to their business success. If you're planning to use technology to send your profits soaring, there's a ten-step plan to follow. Before you even begin to institute this plan, recognize that you will succeed with technology, as with marketing. If you decide up front that you're going to commit to it, stick with it, and make it work for you no matter what. Then it's time to activate the plan. Once you do, you will wonder why you waited. It's not a good idea to use technology just because you think you should. Instead, use it to accomplish specific goals.
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The Cost of Technology
When you purchase a car or a new piece of furniture, it's an expense, and it's probably going to be worth your money. When you purchase technology for your business, it is an expense also. But it's even more of an investment, because it will be able to contribute mightily to your profitability. Unlike Wall Street investments, your technology investment poses little risk if you operate according to the ten-step plan I'm going to outline.
You're in control of this investment. You have the opportunity to maximize the return it can deliver by your wise use of its capabilities. By availing yourself of the extraordinary new phenomenon of the Internet, you can establish strategic alliances and engage in E-commerce while marketing inexpensively and powerfully, not to mention interactively. The mind-boggling capacity to do this is brought within reach by today's simple technology, which I will help you to unleash.
It is very important that you become involved not with the technology itself, which can be ultra-fascinating, but with what the technology can do for you. All the bells and whistles in the world won't increase profitability if it can't delight your members and satisfy their specific needs. Never forget that your members should be the beneficiaries of your leap into the techno-world, and that advanced technology is all about them, not about you. If you keep that fact at the forefront of your mind, you'll stay on the right track.
Find out what others in your industry are using for marketing, merchandising, and production. Find out what's available, what you can afford, and what's coming up next. The idea is to begin operating from a standpoint of knowledge instead of ignorance. Keep your radar attuned to which technology will improve your effectiveness and your efficiency, which can light a fire under your marketing, which can save you time and money, and which can add luster to your member services. Some of my research turned up four ways that technology could provide competitive strengths and advantages.
One was a computer and software that would enable the club to create its own marketing materials, especially monthly flyers touting your web page. Another was a program that has been used for years, but not to it's full potential, the box program. What other industry in the country is able to place 100 mini billboards in their community, displaying the name of their business, telephone number, and most recent and important, their web-site address? Your web address should not only be on every piece of stationary but every header of every box in a five mile radius. The third was keeping track of those leads thru software and telemarketing, and last, the creation of a Cyber or Internet café right in your lobby or next to the juice bar.
2. Check out your competitors
The last thing you want is for them to offer more convenience and better service than you, so see what they're up to. Learn how technology is helping them. The idea isn't to catch them but to surpass them.
3. Check Your Own Members
What technologies do your members use? If they're still using fax machines and aren't yet online, perhaps you don't have to be online either. But if they're using the web and know how to look for things there, you'd better get yourself a web site pronto. (Surveys taken have shown that club members and Internet users have almost identical statistics) Again, your job is not just to keep up with your members but also to stay ahead of them, offering the ultimate in convenience to both members and prospects.
4. LimitYour Purchases To Your Real Needs
Once you have determined those needs, you'll know which technology to purchase and which you can do without for the time being. There's no need to arm yourself to fight a tiger when all you'll be facing is a pussycat. On the other hand, you don't want to be prepared only for pussycats when tigers are charging you. The key is to fortify yourself with the appropriate technology to serve your needs. A consultant might just be the ticket to help you in this area.
5. Examine Your Alternatives
Here I am praising computers and technology to the skies when I well know that computers aren't the solution to every problem and that advanced voice mail systems can lose customers for you as easily as they can gain them. Picasso once said that the problem with computers is that all they can do is come up with the right answers, but not the right questions.
It's up to you to ask those right questions. How can you improve your member service with technology? How can you add more effectiveness to your marketing with technology? How can you streamline your way of doing business with technology? If you ask those kinds of questions you'll be able to use technology to provide the answers. Where computers used to be a luxury to small business, each day they're becoming more of a necessity. Operating a business without them today is like operating a business 50 years ago without a telephone.
6. Talk to Your Staff
Don't keep it a secret. Your task is to get them to want technology as much as you do, to embrace it with the same enthusiasm as you. Many of today's computer whizzes were scared to death to touch a keyboard or click a mouse just a few years ago. So take the time to get feedback from your people, to enlist their aid, to make them feel part of the move to technology rather than like they are being brushed aside by it. Their comfort level with technology is every bit as important as yours. The last thing you want is the right technology being ignored by a staff that's terrified of it. If they're involved up front, they'll stay involved.
7. Develop A Plan And Put It In Writing
Just as you should have a written marketing plan, you need to have a written technology plan which lays out which technologies you'll need and when you'll need them. After you've completed the preceding steps, write your plan. You probably won't want to purchase all your equipment at the same time, but which will you need first? Second? Third? Get those priorities straight, then live up to your plan. You'll find that the plan simplifies both the purchasing and the mastery of your equipment.
8. Train Your Staff
If you can't do it yourself, or if an articulate employee can't do it, bring in a trainer or a consultant who can show your staff the ropes and the simplicity of your technology. You want your people to look forward to using it, to use it with confidence, and never to resent it. If they feel they are in control of the technology instead of the reverse, you're off to a splendid start.
9. Purchase Equipment You Can Grow Into, Not Out Of
The first thing you want is a computer with enough power to run all the software you'll be using. The last thing you want is to need even more power later because you've grown so successful. Don't sacrifice quality in this area. Be willing to fork out enough to a top-quality vendor for top-quality technology. Maybe it's more power and technology than you need right now, but you'll be much happier growing into it than realizing you'll soon outgrow it.
Whatever you purchase will be improved, and the price will drop, within a few months. That's the nature of the technology beast. But never forget that you can upgrade if you have to. Software keeps getting better and better and easier to use, and it's very simple to merely upgrade your software without having to purchase a new or more powerful computer. A health club business is like a new family; it doesn't make sense to purchase a one-bedroom house with a baby on the way and a few more planned for later. A three-bedroom house may be a bit to large at first, but you can grow into it and won't have to start looking for a new house when you should be settling into one.
10. Evaluate Your Progress
At the end of each month, check to see if you're following your plan, if your technology is serving all your needs, if your staff is comfortable with the technology, if your members are happy, and to give me a call if you need direction. Settle for nothing less than complete satisfaction. Is the technology doing exactly what you want it to do? If not, make changes so that it does.
About Jimmy Mack
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