Dinesh Rajagopalan bought the New Milford Tennis & Swim Club, established in 1965, from Suzy and George Kilberg in 1997. Rajagopalan was inspired to own a club when, as a professional tennis player, he traveled across Europe for tournaments in the 1980s. He liked the tennis and soccer clubs in Europe, with their restaurant and bar attached, and he liked that it was a gathering place for members to get together over a beer or two. When Rajagopalan immigrated to the U.S. in 1989, he first worked for six years as a head professional at a tennis academy in Banksville, New York. “I had a wonderful experience there working with top ranked junior players and celebrities in the entertainment industry,” Rajagopalan said. “But I had carried with me this dream of owning a club and began pursuing that more seriously.” That vision materialized in beautiful New Milford, where the club is located at the foothills of the Berkshires, surrounded by spectacular views.
Looking back, I’d say that in the initial years, I gave a lot away. Anytime anyone told me there was a hardship, I always gave them a break in fees. Now, that attitude won me many friends and I’ve earned a great amount of goodwill in the community. But on the flip side, it upset other club members when they found out what their friend was paying.
When you end up doing something for one person, everybody wants that. If you’re a small business in a small town, some people may take advantage of you. Some of those whom I helped out continued to want the same kind of fee arrangement although we had clearly told them that it was a one-time concession.
The customer has to be heard. But it doesn’t mean that they are always going to be right.
I’ve since hired a manager who deals with such requests. Consequently, we became more consistent with what we were doing and most of our members appreciated that. The overall response was positive and it made it easier for me to run the club from that point onward. It also brought a level of professionalism to an otherwise mom-and-pop type of business.
We certainly still make exceptions on a case-by-case basis as I consider my club members as family, and when there is a genuine hardship, I do want to help out. But I feel we have achieved a good balance of running a business and still maintaining the feel one gets when you walk into a place where everyone knows your name and is there to help you.
My whole lesson was that the customer has to be heard. But it doesn’t mean that they are always going to be right. Sometimes you can go overboard with the customer service, and it’s OK to say no.
Photo courtesy of Dinesh Rajagopalan