Building a Business With Customer Care at The Forefront Carmen Sturniolo, owner of Ambitious Athletics, started his journey in the fitness industry after a family tragedy made him realize he wanted to channel his energy into creating a business that focused on improving people's health.

By Emily Washcovick

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Ambitious Athletics

Sometimes the most difficult experiences can push you in the right direction. For Carmen Sturniolo, owner of Ambitious Athletics, that moment came after his father passed away from a medical condition. He realized a desk job wouldn't satisfy him and began thinking about how he could live his life to the fullest.

"There's gotta be something more I could be doing for the world, kind of like my dad did," Carmen said. "He was a carpenter, also cut hair. He had a small business in his day, and he never had to hand out a business card. Everybody came to him."

Inspired by his dad, Carmen quit his job and started working at a gym as a personal trainer, gaining skills and learning more about the industry. Feeling like he could offer more, he pursued his own fitness business, training clients at his house or the park and fostering an unofficial gym community. When it was time to open his first brick-and-mortar business in 2015, he made sure the space was encouraging and inspiring for his clients.

"With every decision as an entrepreneur, you're looking to maximize your time and perfect everything right up front. So it was many hours of standing in this shelled out space," he said. "When you walk in, there's a big mural with our chevrons up there that says, 'Strong, fit, athletic.' And that's what I always want to bring to our clients, and hopefully our clients want to embody."

Yelp reviewer Steven C. said he found Ambitious Athletics on Yelp while reading reviews to find a gym he could feel comfortable going to. Prior bad experiences at other gyms had made him nervous about entering the fitness scene without a lot of experience.

"What I was really nervous about was, I've been to gyms before, and most of the time it's just like open equipment. So you go and you feel bad about yourself because everyone else is very in shape," Steven said.

In order to address common concerns and fears similar to Steven's, Carmen has a personal conversation with each potential client that comes in and offers a $20 one-week trial period so potential clients have a low risk option to try out the gym.

"Honestly, it's so we can just have a conversation with you and be ourselves and demonstrate our quality of training here, our community, and how we carry ourselves and want to actually make a difference in health and fitness," Carmen said.

Because he understands how important it is for each client to be cared for, Carmen asks questions during the trial period—ranging from what their fitness goals are to where they are in their life. This creates a safe environment where clients feel understood and less intimidated with a professional to guide them and help them achieve their goals.

"So you come in for that starter session, and that gives us the opportunity to meet you, understand where you are, who you are as a person, what you've done in the past, what you're currently doing, what you're currently looking for. What's your injury history like? Why are you doing this?" he said. "That would be important to me if I walked into any gym, any business where I was investing in myself, to be known as somebody, not just a number, and be a part of the volume of clientele."

Backing up that sentiment, Carmen said he and his staff look at a report every Friday to see which clients have been able to come in and which ones haven't. If clients haven't shown up, they check in to make sure they're doing okay.

"We know that showing up three to four times a week is most beneficial for your goals. And we like to see people. It's always more fun when there's more people in here and everyone is in here and laughing and having a great time, 'cause fitness should be fun," he said.

When it comes to feedback about the experience his business provides, Carmen takes reviews very seriously and has a process for reading and responding to them.

"If it's a one star or a five star, I wanna be able to read it, absorb it, and react logically if there needs to be a reaction, or let it hit me emotionally. So I take the time to carve out like 30 minutes and just absorb it," Carmen said. "If it's a current member, I'll email them and say 'Thank you so much for taking the time to write this review that you feel is helpful to us, and also helpful to the next person."

Other businesses can learn from Ambitious Athletics's journey, including the following tips:

  • Don't be afraid to pivot. Carmen wasn't satisfied with his career and was able to start a business he was passionate about. Oftentimes, your passion can become your competitive advantage.
  • Form relationships with your customers, and let them know you care. Getting to know your clients as people can help them build loyalty toward your business while helping them achieve their personal goals.
  • Make the customer's comfort and satisfaction a priority. Take the time to understand your target audience to create a personalized experience customers will come back for.
  • Read and respond to reviews. Carmen carves out 30 minutes to read and process his reviews and thanks customers for writing them. Investing in customer engagement can help improve your business's reputation.
Listen to the episode below to hear directly from Carmen and Steven, and subscribe to Behind the Review for more from new business owners and reviewers every Thursday.

Available on: Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and Soundcloud.

Emily Washcovick

Small Business Expert at Yelp

As Yelp’s Small Business Expert, Emily is meticulously focused on helping local business owners succeed and grow. Her expertise lies in customer engagement, reputation management, and all things digital marketing. Through speaking engagements and thought leadership, Emily shares industry insights that entrepreneurs in any business category can leverage for the growth and well-being of their businesses. She is also the host of Behind the Review, a podcast from Yelp and Entrepreneur Media, where each episode features conversations with a business owner and a reviewer about the story and lessons behind their interactions.

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