Should you give free consultations and discounted packages to clients?
January is a time when most personal trainers gear up for an influx of new clients and a welcome increase in business. But if you’re busy scheduling lots of free consultations and enticing new clients with discounted training packages, you might be setting yourself up to lose profits in 2006—at least according to Phil Kaplan, Palm Beach, Florida–based owner of Phil Kaplan’s Fitness and Fitness 21, a chain of health clubs and personal training studios.
Kaplan says many personal trainers literally sell themselves short by following conventional business strategies and pricing structures. The solution? Kaplan calls for a paradigm shift that allows personal trainers to raise revenue by altering their approach to commonly accepted pricing practices. But not all trainers see it that way. This article explores how three successful personal trainers and business owners approach initial consultations and price breaks on training packages.
Many personal trainers offer prospects a free consultation as the first step toward turning those prospects into loyal and long-term clients. “I have always offered free consultations,” says Nicki Anderson, president of Reality Fitness Inc. in Naperville, Illinois, and author of Reality Fitness: Inspiration for Your Health and Well-Being (New World Library 2000). “If you believe in your service and what you offer, there should be no question that every consultation will turn into a sale.”
Gregory Florez is the founder and chief executive officer of FitAdvisor Health Coaching Services and First Fitness Inc. in Salt Lake City. “In the beginning, my company offered an initial complimentary training session, but we found that this devalued the ongoing sessions. An initial session also does not allow a trainer to fully help a client see the big picture of a long-term relationship.”
Now he and his staff offer free presession consultations to explore how prospects’ needs and goals correspond to available training packages. For clients who then buy a program, the consultation is a value-added service, says Florez. However, he adds, not all prospects who take advantage of the free consultation turn into paying customers.
That’s one reason why Kaplan takes a different approach. Although he offered free consultations for years, he now veers away from this practice. “I looked at the income I gave up by working a significant number of hours for free. It was shocking. I recognized that I’d have to start being compensated for my time to build a really lucrative career as a trainer. That might have been the most radically positive mindset shift I made in my entire career,” he says.
Still, some trainers assert that the complimentary initial meeting is an effective way to turn a lead into a sale, partly because the session is risk free for the client. Says Anderson, “Charging for a consultation says to me, ‘Well, if they don’t choose my facility, at least I’ve made a buck.’”
But, for Kaplan, eliminating the free consultation increased his sales success. “When I began charging for first meetings, I started turning almost 100 percent of my consultations into clients. By trading freebies for paid sessions—where I committed to delivering more value than people expected—I was qualifying my audience. In other words, if someone wasn’t willing to invest in improving their body and life at the onset, they were far less likely to see the value in a future investment,” he says.
Getting prospects in the door is tricky enough without asking them to pay for their first meeting with you. So how do you charge for your valuable time without scaring off potential clients? You continue to make that session entirely risk free for the prospect, advises Kaplan. “I asked for my regular per-hour fee,” he says, “but every consultation came with an unconditional money-back guarantee. That assured the client I wasn’t going to be paid if I failed to deliver.”
Once a prospect has turned into a client, you want to create a lasting relationship. A common business practice in the fitness industry is to offer clients price breaks, or discounts, when they purchase long-term training packages.
With this pricing structure, the longer the client commits to, the less money the trainer receives per session, even though the overall package price may appear quite impressive. For example, a trainer who makes $75 per hour might receive $65 per hour when the client buys a 25-session package, and $55 when the client buys a 50-session package. With 50 sessions at $55 per hour, the trainer ultimately loses $1,000 of potential income based on the original fee of $75.
Kaplan points to two main reasons why he thinks price breaks evolved into an industry standard. “First, trainers weren’t responsible for setting the paradigm. The health club industry—a large part of which viewed fitness employees as ‘costs’—began finding new revenue streams, and the collect-more-dollars-upfront mentality became the norm. Second, training sessions were viewed as a commodity,” he says.
However, price-break packages can benefit clients and trainers. “This system allows for a trainer-client relationship to develop, which gives the client enough time to get comfortable with the trainer and also benefit from seeing initial results,” says Florez. Selling training packages, even if it means accepting a lower per-hour fee, also helps trainers project long-term income, generate cash flow and build a consistent client base. “If you know you’ve got somebody locked in for 48 sessions, that makes budgeting much easier,” says Anderson.
Considering these advantages, do the experts interviewed offer price breaks on long-term packages? No. “I realized that if I offer breaks for packages, I immediately devalue my time and that of my staff,” says Anderson. “Other service-industry professionals, such as psychologists, doctors or hairdressers, don’t provide ‘group’ discounts; therefore, in my opinion, trainers shouldn’t either. The bottom line is quality of service, pure and simple. My staff and I provide the same value, whether we train one or 50 sessions.”
Florez adopts a similar approach. “We feel that if we’ve done our job of creating a vision for success and provided a very thorough consultation with a prospective client, we’ve earned the credibility to provide a full-price service,” he says.
Consider the value of your time as a professional fitness trainer when exploring whether price breaks are truly appropriate, stresses Kaplan. “Are we worth less per session simply because a client makes a longer-term commitment? We don’t have to reward clients at our own expense,” he says.
Even so, providing packages at an attractive, discounted rate motivates clients to commit to long-term fitness and return for your services week after week—a plus for clients and trainers. So what’s an alternative? “I ask my clients to provide one session’s fee in advance,” Kaplan explains. “We call that a retainer. I’m always paid one session ahead. Clients show up because they have money on the line, and the recurring session arrangement means the trainer must motivate each client to show up just one more time.”
The best business practices for one personal trainer might not be the most appropriate for another. As you begin a new year of personal training, determine what business and pricing strategies will promote fitness success for your clients and a profitable career for you. Consider your ultimate value as a personal trainer. “We can only be viewed as professionals by demanding professional respect,” Kaplan says. “As long as we deliver, we leave a trail of evidence that our fees are well justified.”
When personal trainers first set their hourly fee, they often consider just that: the 1 hour they train face-to-face with a client. But it usually takes additional time to prepare for 1 hour of instruction. Set your hourly fee based on value to the client:
- “If we’re expected to design programs for clients who travel, create specialty programs for a unique population or invest significant time meeting with or speaking to professionals in other fields on behalf of a single client, I strongly believe we should incorporate the time cost into our fees.” —Phil Kaplan
- “As a trainer, you should sell programs, results and solutions, not hourly sessions. Determine preparation costs and program development time upfront, then provide set fees that include these costs. [They] should be factored into the hourly or monthly rates and be transparent to the client.” —Gregory Florez
- “Always keep your eyes and ears open when it comes to what other trainers charge. Dictate your price based on your reputation, the area you live in and the services you provide.” —Nicki Anderson
The following resources provide additional information about developing profitable business strategies and pricing practices.
Cantwell, Susan. 1997. Policies That Work for Personal Trainers: How to Structure Your Pricing, Payment and Customer Service Policies; available through www.ideafit.com.
IDEA. 2002. The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Personal Training. IDEA Resource Series book; available through www.ideafit.com.
Kaplan, P. 2000. Personal Training Profits and a Secure Fitness Future; available through www.philkaplan.com.
Kaplan, P. 2005. “New Paradigm for 21st Century Profits.” Workshop handout (session 274); available on 2005 IDEA World Fitness Convention® CD-ROM.