The Secret to Client Retention

by Mary Bratcher, MA on Apr 01, 2008

Career Path

Use a facilitator approach to empower clients and keep them coming back to you.

Client retention is one of the greatest obstacles fitness professionals can face. However, since it is far more difficult to attract a new client than to keep a current one, it’s crucial to strengthen your retention know-how. Discover how to boost client adherence levels by incorporating fundamental coaching elements into your sessions and classes.

Be a Facilitator, Not an Expert

The most common mistake that fitness professionals make when it comes to client retention is taking on the role of “the expert” with a client, especially during an initial consultation or session. Now you may be asking, “Isn’t that what I am?” The answer is yes—and no. Yes, your credentials say you’re an expert in the area of health and fitness. And yes, you do have the knowledge to help your clients reach their goals. However, if you promote yourself as the expert or authority when working with clients, you unintentionally create an imbalance in your relationships that may cost you in the long run.

Any time one party (in this case, the client) views another party (the fitness pro) as an authority figure, interesting dynamics develop. If your clients think you have the authority in the relationship, then they become the subordinate parties by default. As such, they rely on you to supply them with all the necessary information regarding their health and fitness. More important, because you provide all the information, clients also believe that you are responsible for the final outcome.

In a fitness setting, client adherence (and success) relies on clients taking responsibility for their programs. However, if you promote your role as the authority in the relationship, you unwittingly support your clients’ impression that the success of their fitness program is ultimately your responsibility, not theirs. Consequently, when they don’t meet their goals and expectations, they blame you and walk out the door.

The best way to ensure clients stay with you long term is to view yourself as a facilitator rather than an expert. As a facilitator, you use your skills and knowledge to help clients clarify their fitness objectives and develop plans to reach their goals. For example, if your client Barbara tells you that her goal is to lose 25 pounds, as an “expert trainer” you would usually respond by mapping out a diet and exercise plan that (if followed diligently) would successfully bring about the desired outcome. However, as a “facilitator trainer” you will ask your client for assistance and input in creating a program (e.g., types of foods she likes/dislikes, how much time she has to exercise per day/week, types of exercise or activities she likes, etc.). Based on the information Barbara provides, you will ask her to outline a fitness program that she can commit to comfortably. Then, using your knowledge of health and fitness, you can help her create her own realistic and achievable goals based on what she is currently prepared to do.

A facilitator-type approach to your relationships with clients fosters an atmosphere of “we’re in this together”; moreover, clients feel a greater sense of accomplishment and control because they achieve meaningful goals they helped create for themselves rather than objectives set out by someone else (i.e., the trainer).

Develop Appropriate Relationships

While it’s essential to develop a teamwork attitude to fitness with your clients, be careful about the way you approach the personal aspect of the relationships. Remember that you are a professional resource for your clients, not their friend. While you can certainly be friendly in your interactions, never give the impression that you are anything beyond their trainer or instructor.

By keeping the relationship professional at all times, you avoid another common reason why clients discontinue working with a trainer: personal conflict. The facilitator-client dynamic is irreversibly altered when an emotional level is introduced into the relationship. Successful facilitation of client goals requires the absence of personal investment or opinion on your part. Friendships require substantial personal investment, and hence, there is enormous potential for the client’s professional needs to be adversely affected.

Yet, you still want to have good client relationships. The best way to achieve this is to earn client respect and loyalty by being good at what you do. Avoid the temptation to hurry relationship building along by going out socially with your clients, letting them get away with substandard behavior (e.g., extending their session if they are late) or saving them a spot at the front of a class.

You can build solid, long-term client relationships in many ways. Start at the beginning of your partnership by clearly informing clients of your payment, cancellation and other business policies and require your clients to adhere to them. While it’s good to show some policy flexibility in emergency or unusual circumstances, you should otherwise stick consistently to your word. Being consistent will go far toward developing healthy, professional client relationships.

You can also foster long-term relationships by encouraging clients to invite family members or friends to attend sessions or classes as observers. Often, observing helps nonclients better understand what your clients are trying to accomplish (and where all the money is going!). This can generate additional support for the clients outside the workout environment. While nonclients are with you, they will usually have a question concerning their own situations, so allowing observers can also be a great opportunity for you to get new clients. Providing guests with some information or sample exercises to take home will increase their faith in your abilities and boost your clients’ respect for you as well.

Refer to Qualified Pros

Another great way to ensure that clients stay with you is to have a comprehensive network of quality professionals that you can refer out to when necessary. Many fitness pros are reluctant to approach an allied health professional about a client’s needs, for fear of losing the client to that business. However, the reality is that clients like to know you have “connections” and are willing to share your valuable resources with them.

The key to successful client relationship building through referrals is to be involved in the referral process. Prior to making a referral, always contact the allied health professional to apprise him or her of the client’s situation, and then follow up while the professional is seeing your client or soon after.

Maintaining an interest in your clients’ progress will help you better assist them when they resume your services (and will help you build solid relationships with other professionals). Referring out to qualified professionals can also give your clients more confidence in their abilities as their health and fitness improve. This will lead them back to you!

Retention in a Nutshell

The secret to keeping clients coming back is to know what they want and how to deliver it successfully. All clients want to feel valuable and important, and they want to see results. The best way to make that happen is not to dazzle them with your knowledge or do everything for them. It’s to help them discover and use their own talents and skills to the best of their abilities. People who recognize their own value and importance feel empowered to generate the health, fitness and lifestyle changes they want—and they always remember who helped them get started.

SIDEBAR: Retention Boosts the Bottom Line

There are a host of reasons why it’s better to maintain client relationships rather than have to keep starting from scratch. Repeat clients reduce your marketing costs, improve your business reputation and increase your level of career satisfaction. They also directly affect your bottom line. To stress the importance of incorporating business strategies that will keep your clients coming back, take a look at how one single client can affect your income over time:

If a personal trainer charges $50 per session and sees a particular client 2 times per week, the trainer can earn up to $5,200 from that client over the course of a year. If the average time a client stays with that instructor is 5 years, then the lifetime value of that client is approximately $26,000. However, if the client decides to leave the trainer after only 1 year, then 4 years of future income ($20,800) is lost and the trainer must also bear the cost of attracting a new client.

Mary Bratcher, MA, DipLC, is a wellness coach and co-owner of The BioMechanics in San Diego, California. For over a decade, she has used principles from psychology and life coaching to help people develop better strategies for dealing with life’s demands. She is also an ACE presenter, author and continuing education specialist.

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About the Author

Mary Bratcher, MA

Mary Bratcher, MA IDEA Author/Presenter

Mary Bratcher (MA, DipLC) is a Wellness Coach with nearly 20 years of counseling experience. She incorporates concepts from psychology and life coaching to help people develop better strategies for dealing with life's demands. She uses a practical, solution-based approach to life that helps people identify, approach, and resolve problematic issues. Mary has worked as a life coach in many countries including North America, England, and New Zealand. She specializes in small business development and resolution of psychological factors that contribute to musculoskeletal pain. Mary is a published author, professional speaker, media consultant, and faculty member for the American Council on Exercise. She is also an Associate Director of Content for PTontheNET and a member of the PTA Global Board of Directors. Mary has developed numerous continuing education courses for fitness professionals and is the co-creator of The BioMechanics Method™ educational program which provides exercise solutions for chronic pain ( She is also the co-owner of The BioMechanics, a San Diego-based facility that specializes in helping people alleviate muscle and joint pain. CEC provider for: ACE