Nothing teaches like the voice of experience. So we asked owners of established personal training operations to tell us what has contributed to their success. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Know what your clients know
Beyond keeping up with your own professional education, pay attention to what your clients are learning. Reading professional journals is important but not enough. You need to also be reading popular magazines, newspapers and the internet. These are the primary sources of information for most of your clients. They’re constantly reporting on new trends in fitness, exercise and nutrition, and it’s not uncommon for their credibility to be questionable. When your clients are exposed to misinformation, they’ll likely look to you to confirm or refute what they’ve learned.
2. Stay flexible
We don’t mean physically flexible — although, certainly that’s important, too — but flexible in terms of how you operate and relate to your clients. “This is such a personal business and you’re dealing with people one-on-one,” says Jennifer Brilliant. “Things come up and you need to remain flexible.”
Lynne Wells, a personal trainer in New York City, advises that if you’re bending a policy, make sure your client knows it and appreciates it. For example, if someone cancels with less than a 24-hour notice because they’re sick and you decide not to charge them, make it clear by saying something like, “You know I have a 24-hour cancellation policy, and technically you should have paid for this session. But I understand that you’re sick, so I’m not going to charge you this time.”
3. Assign homework
Make your sessions last longer than the actual time you’re together by giving your clients things to do between sessions. “I always give them homework,” says Wells. “Usually it’s just a little exercise or two to do on their own. It might even be simpler than that, like … some basic breathing exercises. I’ve had [clients] do food diaries or workout journals, and then we talk through what they wrote down in a future session or by email.”
4. Invest in education
Knowledge builds confidence, so invest in education — even after you’ve obtained your initial certifications. What the professional associations offer and require varies depending on the particular certification you have. The organization that issues your certification will let you know what you need to do to keep it current. Beyond that, you need to be reading and studying to stay up-to-date on fitness trends and news. Studying current literature, attending classes and going to conventions and conferences are all investments in your business, not expenses.
5. You are not your client
A very minuscule percentage of your clients will think and act like you do. Don’t develop exercise programs that would be effective for you; put together programs that will work for your clients. “The majority of trainers train their clients like they train themselves, and they don’t really listen to the client,” says one trainer we consulted. “They don’t pay attention to the client’s body, and quite possibly aren’t doing the best for that particular client.”
6. Maintain a client base
One of the most common reasons personal training businesses fail is simply the inability to establish and maintain a steady client base. High client turnover and low client retention rates make it hard to run a profitable business. But be aware that trying to have clients become dependent on you so they’ll stick around actually can produce the opposite result.
Here are some reasons you’ll lose clients:
- Lack of results. When clients don’t see the results they want, or that they believed they were going to get, they lose interest and drop out. If this develops into a pattern, your business won’t build the clientele necessary to sustain itself.
- Failing to establish goals. Along with not getting results, it’s a huge mistake when a trainer doesn’t find out what a client’s goals are and confirm whether they’re indeed realistic and achievable. Clients with unrealistic goals are likely to drop out when they realize they aren’t going to accomplish what they want.
- Failing to maintain a sense of commitment. Certainly clients have more in their lives than their personal fitness goals, but when the trainer is too lax and allows clients to miss sessions regularly, those clients will not make any progress and will eventually drop out.
7. Don’t throw it away
Make sure to maintain a database of contact information on former clients and prospects who went through an initial consultation and didn’t sign up. In the future, you very well may want to send them a direct-mail piece and let them know about new services or special packages you’re offering, as well as the addition to your staff of new trainers they may be interested in working with.
8. Decide how much you’re willing to work
When you own the company, you can’t bill every hour you work because you need to spend time running the operation, as well as training. To ward off burnout, decide in advance how many hours per week you want to work, then create a schedule and stick to it. You may work 12- to 14-hour days, plus weekends in the beginning, but that will get old fast, so don’t try to do that for an extended period of time.
9. Be your own advertisement
Advertise yourself as a personal trainer whenever you are in public by wearing clothing with your company name or logo, or some other indication of what you do. Turning yourself into a walking billboard is an easy, inexpensive way to identify yourself as a personal trainer to everyone you come in contact with.
10. Give gifts that come back to you
Most personal trainers use gift-giving occasions to strengthen their relationships with clients, but birthdays, Christmas and other holidays can also strengthen your business. Jennifer Brilliant, a personal trainer in Brooklyn, gives her clients a holiday gift each year — perhaps lotions, herbal products or something else related to fitness — and includes a certificate for a free session that her client can then give as a gift to someone else. “I get to meet one of their friends who they think can benefit from training,” she says. “And even if that friend doesn’t become a client, they’ve learned something about themselves, and I’ve had the opportunity to share my knowledge and information.”