Chris Clawson uncovers new ways to exceed the expectations of his customers at Life Fitness

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Interviewed by Dustin S. Klein

If you take a tour of Life Fitness with Chris Clawson, you may find yourself answering questions that you wouldn’t expect to be asked on a tour of a company that makes exercise equipment.

For instance, he’ll probably want to know if you have a favorite wine or if you’ve ever visited a winery.

“I say, ‘How many of you think the wine tasted the same after you visited the winery?’” says Clawson, president at Life Fitness. “And they all shake their heads no because it tastes different. You get to meet the vintner, go out in the field, pull grapes off the vine and talk about the blend and all the things that go into making it. So you have this greater appreciation for what it is that was your favorite.”

So what does wine making have to do with a company that generated $693.5 million in net sales for 2013 making fitness products for commercial, professional and home users? Clawson sees it as a great analogy for the powerful relationship that can be formed between a business and its customers.

“You think you’re here to see product and you will see product,” Clawson says of people who take his company’s experience tours. “You think you’re here to have the story told about how we design products and what we do in manufacturing and that’s also true to an extent. But you’re really here to meet the people who make the wine.

“I say we have the greatest people in the world and if I’m overselling, you can tell me. I’ve yet to have someone tell me that I was overselling.”

Clawson loves the experience tour and conducted a lot of them during his first tour of duty at Life Fitness from 1994 to 2004. But now he’s president of the business, which is a division of Brunswick Corp., and he’s had to delegate most of that responsibility.

That hasn’t necessarily been a bad thing for the overall goal of building stronger bonds between his company and its customers.

“I will tell you I did a pretty good job, but the problem was I went to places where I wasn’t an expert,” Clawson says. “So when we recast this tour, the people you speak with now are experts. We spent $5 million building out our engineering lab space so that we had better places for our people to work. It also gave them a better opportunity to show people what it is that they do.”

 

Start conversations

Giving people a more active part in selling the overall brand and image of your business can take time. At Life Fitness, Clawson says it was a matter of convincing people to step outside of their comfort zones and see the bigger picture.

“At most companies, I believe people want to be part of a team,” Clawson says. “Where you start to see the breakdown is where one functional area is feeling neglected, feeling they are not being listened to or having their needs met. They start to retract that behavior they had put out there for fear that it’s going to create situations where they are going to be unsuccessful.

“When people recognize that everyone is pulling in the same direction and they want everyone to be successful and then you have those successes; that behavior changes pretty quickly.”

The tours provide a venue for people to feel closer to what is happening at Life Fitness. You need to find opportunities to engage employees in your business beyond the work that they do each day.

“I love product first and foremost,” Clawson says. “I love to talk about it and think about it and interact with customers. I encourage people who are involved in product development to do the same. If you stay inside our building and think all the ideas are going to magically come to you in the middle of the day, you’re mistaken.”

Dialogue with customers has to be about more than just projecting a friendly image for your business. It should be a tool you use to continuously improve performance.

“If you’re constantly thinking about them and talking with that customer group, you’d be amazed at how many ideas come out of a casual conversation or as you’re watching somebody as they use the product,” Clawson says.

“We recognize that if you ask somebody what they want, they can only tell you what they know. You can’t innovate giving somebody what they know. You have to innovate giving them things that they need and things that they don’t know that they need. That takes a lot of time and effort.”

Clawson encourages his employees to talk to customers about the products they buy from Life Fitness, as well as the products they wish they could buy. But he also wants them to ask questions.

“Talk to people about what they do and why they do it and how they do it and how they’d like to do it,” Clawson says. “They want to tell you and you get a chance to listen.”

 

Take a different view

Getting your employees more involved in customer interaction can be a big change and big changes can be stressful. One solution is to not present it as a big change.

“I just said, ‘Let’s look at it differently,’ as opposed to let’s change everything,” Clawson says of his approach to getting employees more engaged with customers at Life Fitness. “If you’re willing and able, you can do so many things. You fear the future less than you fear it if you’re not willing and able.”

That’s often easier said than done, of course. But Clawson firmly believes that many companies have a faulty view of taking risks.

“Whenever people talk about risk, they typically are talking about things they are going to do that they are not doing today,” Clawson says. “One of the things I like to talk about is there is just as much risk, and sometimes more risk, in continuing to do what you’ve been doing. One of the things you have to do is ask the people who are experts to identify the risks they have in their job.”

In other words, you can’t just think of risk in terms of the new plan or program you want to implement. You need to think about how what you’re doing now might be keeping you from maximizing your potential.

“One of the big moves we made in the last few years is we moved away from a Microsoft platform for developing our console technologies to a Google platform,” Clawson says. “We had no Google experience or Google hardware or software experts.

“All of that was new. But we knew if we stayed with the platform we were on, we were going to continue getting the same things we had been getting for two decades, and it was going to give us many challenges relative to flexibility and modularity.”

You can’t be an expert in everything, even if you’re talking about everything in your industry. Sometimes, you’ll need to reach out and get help. The leaders willing to do that are the ones who will keep moving forward.

“There are a lot of companies that are able and not willing or willing and not able,” Clawson says. “One of the things we’ve done a good job with is recognizing when we’re not able and finding people to help us become able. That doesn’t mean we go out and hire everybody. Sometimes it just means we have to partner with people.

“Some of the people, you just have to interview them almost as if you were interviewing them for a job. You have to get a feel for if they can handle it. You have to manage the process and if the process isn’t going where you want it to, you have to push the process where you want it. If it’s because they are not able, you have to go out and find somebody else.”

 

Be confident

Perhaps Clawson developed his affinity for meeting challenges and taking the path less traveled when he was a child and told whoever wanted to know that he wanted to be a baseball player when he grew up.

“People would say, ‘That’s fine, but what do you really want to be?’” Clawson says. “My parents always instilled in me that you can do whatever you want, so I had that latent confidence.”

Clawson proved the cynics wrong when he was drafted by the Atlanta Braves in 1984 and played three seasons in the minors before injuries forced him to choose a different career. The baseball career was over, but his passion for winning was stronger than ever.

“Winning begets an attitude and that attitude creates a culture and that culture creates a history and that history is what we have as a company in our industry, we are the most profitable and have been for the longest period of time,” Clawson says. “We create value for our customers and our customers recognize that.”

 

Takeaways:

  • Share your love for the business.
  • Talk about how you can do it better.
  • Don’t be afraid of risk.

 

The Clawson File:

Name: Chris Clawson

Title: President

Company: Life Fitness

Education: Attended Newman University in Wichita, Kan., where he was an Academic All-American in baseball and is a member of its athletic Hall of Fame. Earned baccalaureate degree from San Diego State University and master’s of business administration from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.

Clawson on Life Fitness co-founder Augie Nieto: The guy whose spirit I carry forward. Augie was an EY Entrepreneur Of The Year™ and a spectacular human being. There is the Augie who was a great businessperson and there’s the guy who has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis who raised $39 million since he was diagnosed. That’s more spectacular. He’s an amazing person and an amazing story.

Clawson on dealing with life’s ups and downs: Things don’t happen exactly as planned and you have to be able to rebound and recover. You have to put it behind you and focus. You have to instill that you’re not going to be so upset because something didn’t go exactly as it was supposed to. If you do, people are going to be unwilling to take risks. You can’t get so high when something goes well because people lose focus, and there is still lots of work to do. When a product first comes out, there’s a lot to do to continue the momentum.