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Identifying and Managing Risk Among Trainers

Assess your trainers’ areas of need and follow a detailed system for success.

By nature, personal trainers are passionate, driven, organized and excellent at communicating, or so we would like to believe. In reality, within any team there are radical differences in terms of trainer competencies. We need to accommodate these vast differences in the way we manage, train, motivate and drive the personal training model in our businesses. While this may sound like a simple process, balancing all these dynamics can be a fine art.

Whether trainers are working from a franchise, license, employee or contractor model, they need to present a professional, ethical and competent persona to clients and the member base. In the majority of cases, trainers wear company logo apparel and are perceived to be club employees, regardless of the actual relationship. Because of this, we need to manage the personal training process closely. One of the main methods of effectively dealing with personal trainers is identifying risk (see the sidebar “Risk Summaries”).

In this context, risk can be anything that casts the personal training model, facility and staff (including individual trainers) in a bad light. For example:

  • unprofessional conduct
  • late payment of fees (either client revenue or franchise/tenant rental fees)
  • unstable/insufficient client base
  • failure to follow company protocol with regard to receipting and signing sessions (e.g., a trainer failing to sign off on client sessions or submitting hours for payment with receipts that are incorrect, unsigned by clients or forged)
  • unethical behavior
  • personal issues that interfere with work
  • health concerns (I have worked with trainers suffering with cancer, HIV and other health issues; all of these must be considered when identifying risk, so that managers can offer assistance and support)
  • team dynamics (the ability of trainers to work together ethically, cooperatively and respectfully)
  • disregard for management

Being a successful manager includes handling risk factors that arise within the training setting. This process can be difficult, as trainers may not volunteer information to team leaders and management regarding difficulties (either manifested or potential). For you as a manager, the best way to anticipate and manage risk is to have a strong relationship and open communication with each trainer you supervise. Work hard to forge good relations, stay close to your trainers, earn respect and authority and keep the communication channels open (see “Common Pitfalls for Program Directors and Managers,” IDEA Fitness Manager, March 2008).

Through my experience with teams of trainers, I have identified three broad types of trainers with regard to risk—high risk (they are a detriment to the facility), moderate risk (mainstream) and low risk (independent). A common assumption, particularly with low-risk trainers, is that they don’t need much of your time. But if your goal is to run a strong, stable and risk-free facility, you need to meet with each of your trainers one-on-one at least once a month. These meetings create a time and setting for trainers to raise any concerns and to clarify policies and procedures. They also give you time to clarify where there is space for flexibility and where there is a “company line” to which trainers must adhere. In addition, these meetings help keep you, as manager, in the loop and aware of day-to-day processes.

I recommend you hold your one-on-one meetings monthly, and have clear guidelines, focus points and expected outcomes. This strategy serves two purposes: maintaining a solid link and relationship with your trainers, and ensuring clear and consistent communication. It also affords you an opportunity to display your knowledge and skill, either in technical training or in business management. Never let a chance to add value slip by, as this assures good buy-in from your trainers.

One-on-One Meeting

At your meeting with a trainer, first give a brief introduction to the session and state the expected outcomes. Emphasize that the session has two purposes—to offer assistance with business issues (if required) and to effectively communicate facility expectations. This will help you assess any risk associated with how the trainer is doing business and let you provide action steps to help the trainer move forward. Be sure that the session length is determined prior to the meeting, as time is money for trainers. I recommend 45 minutes to an hour.

Spend about 5–10 minutes discussing the trainer’s general concerns, progress and level of comfort with your training model. Try to keep this discussion as an overview—the specific questions will follow. Your emphasis should be on listening in order to increase your trainer’s level of comfort. Attentive listening will also give you insight into his focus, motivation, direction and level of frustration.

If you are running a franchise or license model, have a discussion with the trainer about the monthly/weekly fee or rental charge. Answer questions or concerns, and ensure that things are on track. If you are running an employee model, focus on the previous month’s key performance indicators, such as budget versus revenue, an increase in the client base or sessions completed as an indicator of goal achievement.

Have an open discussion about the trainer’s client base, the number of new clients she has, and her availability during the week in case you are in a position to assist through referrals (if wanted). This is critical and should be documented carefully. Trainers employed by the facility will volunteer this information comfortably; for those running a franchise or license, you will need
to explain the purpose of this information as an indicator of risk and also to shed light on the role of the personal training manager/team leader as you move forward.

Trainer motivation is key to a positive training experience for clients. Motivation can easily be affected by a number of factors, ranging from financial pressures, inability to keep clients, fatigue and personal issues. While the trainer may not volunteer personal, non-work-related information, you can raise concerns identified on the floor during the past month and suggest action steps.

Team dynamics can be an area of risk if you have trainers with similar visions, goals and markets who are therefore in direct competition. Discuss team dynamics at this point to assess where the trainer may feel intimidated, suppressed or under pressure. Make a note of the concerns raised, and monitor those concerns on a monthly basis. It is in the best interests of the trainer, management and club to quickly address these issues with the parties involved so as to eradicate any trouble. “Success breeds success,” so when you get all trainers focused and moving in the same direction, your model will be successful.

Discuss trainer systems and structures as they relate to receiving fees, signing off on completed sessions, trainer-
client agreements, waivers, and enforcement of cancellation policies (including no-shows). This is critical for managing an efficient, effective business. For licensees and franchisees, there is no harm in requesting to see trainer-client materials—if you detail this in your original contract, it shouldn’t be an issue. For employees it makes sense to actively audit this process on a monthly basis and require a trainer to receive “performance counseling” if procedures are not being followed. All trainers must adhere to basic systems, as this will assist in building a professional and ethical personal training model. A trainer who does not follow your company systems and guidelines is potentially casting your model in a negative light.

In many employee environments there are specific, detailed training requirements. In a franchise/license arrangement you may have contractual requirements that need to be met. Make time during the session to revisit these expectations. If you find any gaps between expectations and performance, this is an opportunity to set new training and development goals for the month ahead. Come to the session with information about continuing education options and workshops, and any articles and information that you feel would benefit the trainer. If you have specific outcome or assessment guides that the trainer needs to complete, this is the place to go over them.

This part of your conversation regards registering the business and paying tax (depending on the model). It is also the time for you to offer guidance to the trainer in terms of business management and accounting systems. Verify that all tax, insurance, accounting, liability and other similar matters are covered at this juncture. You can go into as much or as little depth as required here, including monthly budgets, identification of variable and fixed costs, business plans and profit margins.


It is a good idea to find out which methods of in-house communication are working to best advantage. Find out if the trainer is reading company e-mails, notice boards, Web links and other business information-sharing systems. You can also discuss the tools the trainer is using to promote and solidify his training services (i.e., personal training websites, networking resources, etc.).

As you come toward the close of your meeting, discuss marketing and promotional activities and strategize together (if requested) for the coming month. Assess the results from the previous month’s activities to determine the level of success and the returns generated.

Finish up by delineating the trainer’s goals for the coming month and setting medium-term goals for the next 3–6 months. While doing this, you can review previous goals from earlier one-on-one meetings.

When the meeting concludes, you will have a good idea of the risk level presented by the trainer. From there it is up to you to become either a catalyst for change or an intervention specialist, depending on whether you just need to move the trainer in the right direction or it’s time to minimize an identified risk.

Helpful Templates to Develop

The most successful trainers I have worked with, whether as employees, tenants or franchisees, are those who understand that they are the business, the brand and the product and who actively live these three aspects as a recipe for their business. No matter the model, all trainers are educators and business people.

Through my experience working with teams of trainers and managers, I have seen two areas where trainers and managers tend to struggle: business templates and marketing tools. The education process for trainers does a good job of teaching the theoretical aspects of fitness and exercise, yet it lacks a strong component on the business management aspects. There are a number of business systems that are critical for running an efficient and professional business model. These templates can be found in various shapes and forms in numerous textbooks and websites. The following is a list of suggested systems/structures templates that can assist trainers and managers in identifying gaps and potential areas of risk:

Welcome Letter. I strongly recommend using a welcome letter, as it creates such a positive and powerful impression, if used correctly. It is your chance to show that you run a solid, focused and professional business that has the client’s interests at its core. I would suggest that you spend part of the letter thanking the client for investing in her health and well-being by contracting your services and specify that you look forward to helping her achieve her goals.

Trainer-Client Agreement. This is a critical, nonnegotiable document that outlines the terms and conditions of the client-trainer relationship. This must detail aspects such as no-shows, payment policy, refunds, tardiness and so on.

Breach-of-Contract Letter. This will highlight where a client has breached one of your trainer-client policies. Many trainers will shy away from confrontation or will opt to verbally inform the member of any breach, but having a written template on hand is smart business. Remember, you are running a business, and it is fair to your clients to have these policies in writing so there are no surprises.

Waiver of Liability. All professional trainers must have some form of indemnity/liability insurance. This document is an extension of that and should detail the situations and scenarios where liability would not fall to the trainer. Examples would be theft or damage to property while working with the trainer, injury, illness and death. Consult a lawyer or reputable textbook to assist with the wording.

Screening Questionnaire. This is a vital component, as it can help determine the level of risk with which your client may present. Should the client’s risk factors be identified as moderate or high, and beyond the competencies of a personal trainer (e.g., cardiac issues, uncontrolled high blood pressure, musculoskeletal injuries), the trainer has a professional obligation to refer the client to a specialist for clearance. Once clearance is obtained, along with recommendations from the specialist, training can commence (as long as the recommendations fall within the scope and skill of the personal trainer).

Medical Referral. When the screening questionnaire reveals the need for medical clearance, this is the form that highlights the reasons for the clearance requirement. The client should take this form to the medical specialist. This document should indicate the client’s contraindications and detail the protocols that must be considered during training.

Letter of Consent for Minors. This straightforward form asks the parent or legal guardian to give permission for a minor to partake in the one-on-one service. This document is legally nonnegotiable.

Receipting Process. This “must-have” document forms the business base for any professional trainer. By exchanging a receipt for money 100% of the time, you ensure that the business is run in a professional, efficient, tax-compliant manner. Having a consistent process in place also gives the client a way to track the number of sessions he has purchased and completed.

Goal-Setting and Lifestyle Questionnaires. This form is for the client and helps to identify daily lifestyle stresses, issues and concerns, as well as short-, medium- and long-term goals. From this, the trainer can gain insight into the client’s needs and perspectives, which can then be used to guide program design.

Program Card. The program card details the client’s workout routine. The form should be simple, easy to follow and user-friendly, so that the client can train alone. Many inexperienced trainers worry that giving a client her program card will eliminate the client’s desire for a trainer, but in my experience clients will leave a trainer who won’t share the card, as they feel they haven’t received the service and product they paid for!

Payment Reminder. Many trainers struggle to ask for payment, so a structured payment reminder can be sent out to the client, either as sessions come to an end or in advance. It is also a handy way to remind the client to sign on for more sessions. I strongly advocate obtaining payment in advance; this can minimize bad debt.

Price Increase Letter. When you
increase personal training rates (I recommend you do so annually), the notification letter should be professional, detail the increase percentage and show the upcoming rates.


Using the three phases of risk listed below, the goal is to move trainers from high to moderate, and from moderate to low risk. Depending on the risk profile, the structure of your one-on-one meetings will differ. Clearly you will need to ask more questions of your moderate- and high-risk trainers, and the eight action steps—listed on page 4—are set up in a sequence that offers a guideline for assigning those steps based on risk level. Within any team you should have trainers moving along one, some or all of the eight action steps.

Assessing Risk within your personal training model and action steps to minimize that risk

Assess risk levels of trainers utilizing tools available.
Risk factors can vary from financial to emotional and more.


Trainer is identified
as low risk.


Level #
step only.
Goal: to maintain performance.

Trainer is identified
as moderate risk.


Levels ###
and #
intervention steps.
Goal: to improve performance
and create a
sustainable base.

Trainer is identified
as high risk.


All #
intervention steps.
Goal: to recover
trainer and to
create base from
which to build.

Eight Action Steps to Assess and Minimize Risk

Step # Have a standard form that analyzes areas of importance to the facility (e.g., motivation level, client base, appearance) and have the trainer rank himself in each category. Use this self-assessment in conjunction with your determination of the trainer’s risk level as low, moderate or high to decide whether to maintain or intervene.

Step # Discuss ways the trainer can market herself, such as offering educational workshops, getting referrals from clients, writing articles, etc., and select three to implement. Monitor the progress and success of the three selected marketing tools over a 1-month period and provide feedback.

Step # Assess the trainer’s current client base and detail the number of sessions scheduled daily, weekly and monthly. Identify and discuss any gaps (such as required month-end revenue compared with current activity) or trends in client base (such as a decrease in clients), then brainstorm ideas to correct those.
Include other departments, such as sales and group fitness, in your brainstorming.

Step # Implement quick and effective “hits” that make a good impression and cast as wide a net as possible. The goal is to be visible, memorable and exaggerated—in other words, to be seen. Some ideas are to have the trainer do business card drops, give brief guidance to members about an exercise, offer words of encouragement and motivation to people working out on their own, and smile! Basically, anything positive that lasts around 20 seconds. It can be as simple as making eye contact, standing up straight, introducing oneself with confidence and using people’s names.

Step # Schedule daily, focused 10-minute meetings. When you meet, look at the trainer’s most important goals for the day (e.g., recruitment, motivation or giving clients good value and excellent focus throughout the day). If you are unable to meet in person, a phone meeting will suffice.

Step # During each daily 10-minute meeting, set process goals for the day ahead. For example: the trainer must sell six sessions by lunch and six by dinner and give an end-of-day report to you or another manager. Having these daily goals and meetings is a critical step in driving performance and keeps the focus on what is right here, right now. This helps the trainer see the urgency of making consistent progress.

Step # Walk the floor with the trainer, pushing her to target and interact with a variety of members. The focus should be on making new connections by learning members’ names, getting contact information, obtaining referrals, selling training sessions or packages, etc. You should have concrete action plans with numbers, such as “Get two referrals and meet five new members.”

Step # Complete a full business plan, which has
a twofold purpose. One is to focus the trainer’s attention on the business’s key success
factors (see page 6). The other is to give the trainer a focused template
from which to work.

Key success factors

Following are the success factors we identify within the franchise personal training model. Trainers expand on each area within the plan.

# meetings

# recruitment

# marketing

# SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) Analysis

# workshops and assignments

# understanding the competition

# revenue and budgeting

Add additional keys as necessary and appropriate for your training model.

Darren Jacobson

Darren Jacobson is the innovator of the franchise personal training concept for Virgin Active South Africa, where he manages over 750 personal trainers in 88 health clubs. He holds a bachelorÔÇÖs degree in human movement science and is a featured writer for numerous industry publications. In addition, Darren sits on the IDEA Personal Training Committee and has presented at fitness conventions across South Africa, Canada and the United States.

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