It’s been roughly three months since I’ve had consistently hot showers in the morning at the gym.  When the hot water first started acting up, I complained and complained – every day I’d say something to the manager of the gym, I even threatened to leave.  Three months later, it’s still not fixed.  Surprisingly, I think they actually made the right decision not to fix it.

Let me explain.

When the weather started to get cold in November, the hot water heater at my gym (Crunch on 38th street), started to have trouble keeping up.  One week, when we had particularly cold weather, the showers became noticeably colder.  Everyone at the gym was talking about it in the locker room.  It sort of became our running joke: each morning we’d ask each other, “Do you think we’ll have hot water today?”

Everyone complained.  One of the guys even got the phone number of a regional manager and told everyone to call it and threaten to leave.  We did everything short of signing a petition to let the gym know how dissatisfied we were with the hot water situation.

In response to our complaints, the gym put up signs recognizing the problems with the hot water and saying we could use any of the other Crunch gyms in Manhattan for no additional charge while the problem persisted.

Three months, and countless complaints later, there is still no hot water and everyone who complained is still at the gym.  Although I’m still dissatisfied with the situation, the product manager in me actually thinks they made the right decision in not fixing it.

Let’s break down the problem a little bit.

The feature of the gym that people were complaining about was hot water.  So, why were we complaining? The showers are cold.  However, this wasn’t exactly true.  The showers certainly were colder than they were during the fall, but (except for one day), they weren’t actually ice cold.  In actuality they were just about room temperature.  Not hot, not cold.

So why did we complain so much?  The reason we complained is because everyone was afraid that the hot water heater was eventually going to stop working altogether and then we’d have ice cold showers.  We complained that the showers were cold because we wanted them to fix the hot water now, before it actually became a real problem.  We threatened to leave the gym, but really we were hedging our bets against equipment that we believed to be degrading.

Also, notice how no one actually quit the gym because of the problem.  And further, no one even went to a different location!  Everyone kept coming to the same gym and taking the same room temperature showers.  We were complaining about hot water like it was a “need,” but as it turns out, hot water was just a “want.”  When it really came down to it, hot water wasn’t even worth traveling two extra subway stops to the Crunch locations on either W 19th street or on W 54th street.

Product Managers also sometimes talk having product parity (a product as good as other available options).  There is a New York Sports Club less than 100 yards away that people could have easily switched to.  One of my friends from the gym actually went to visit the New York Sports Club to consider switching, and discovered that not only did they not have hot water either – but they also didn’t even have towels!  As a customer, I was complaining about a feature, but I hadn’t even done any research about competitive offerings.  As it turns out, I was being a squeaky wheel, but the product I was getting was already ahead of market parity.

Running a gym is a very difficult business.  Cash is tight and the entire business pretty much relies on people not coming on a regular basis (I’ve thought about this a little bit in the past).  The decision not to fix the hot water was actually a very savvy move that allowed my gym to conserve their cash flow for other business critical activities (like marketing to new members).  If they had just listened to what their customers were saying, they may have fixed the hot water instead of fixing something else that was truly a “need” (like maintaining the gym equipment).

Even though all of their customers complained, from a product management perspective my gym did the right thing by not listening to us.  They also had the rare opportunity to legitimately tell their most emotional and upset customers to go take a cold shower.

Product Management and Needs vs. Wants
  • Well, at the same time you might want to think about time lag. A series of small problems may not induce people to leave en mass, but can lead to higher churn over time.

    Also –

    > As it turns out, I was being a squeaky wheel, but the product I was getting was already ahead of market parity.

    Well, maybe. I just took a look at Crunch, and the dues are ~$100/month. I suppose that’s similar to NYSC (which, according to their website, offers towel service at their 23rd & Park location), but still sounds rather steep to not have hot water.

    And given that –

    > One of my friends from the gym actually went to visit the New York Sports Club to consider switching, and discovered that not only did they not have hot water either

    It might be there’s a problem with supplying hot water in that area, due to water main issues / repair work / etc. Since you describe the problem as intermittent, and hot water is obviously available to people in the area, it suggests there’s a capacity problem. That is, it can supply part of the hot water demand, but not all of it, leading to unreliability. I doubt each gym has a collection of huge water heaters – they probably get it from ConEd.

    If so, the problem simply wouldn’t be fixable even if the gym wasn’t cash-constrained. The problem is with ConEd, which – in theory – would affect all businesses in the area with similar usage patterns.

    Unless they wanted to get rid of the vendor and roll their own – e.g. dedicate space to a collection of water heaters – fixing it is outside of their control.

    And, since the issue sounds like it’s affecting businesses nearby, it’s more like a matter of business climate than a product manager’s judgement about product parity. It’s silly, for instance, to complain to an advertising agency about the cost of running TV ads during the Superbowl. The agency can’t do anything about that, even if they wanted to, and the client is going to get the same experience anywhere else.

  • Hmm – good points. I hadn’t thought much about the actual steps to fixing the problem. Interesting point about a possible local utility issue. You’re right that it might have been more complicated than I explained.