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3 Retention Secrets for Personal Trainers

Keep your clients with you for the long term.

Three of my clients have been with me for over 20 years, and most of the others for over 10. I attribute this longevity to specific practices that I call the “three Ps” of personal training: personalization, professionalism and proficiency.

Here are some of the items I include in each practice. Consider whether any of these ideas can be adapted for your work, and think about what specific practices you employ that keep your clients coming back for more.

Practice #1: Personalization

Personalization starts before you even meet your clients. Find out what clients want to be called; first names or nicknames may not be appreciated. A quick screening can determine whether you and the potential client are a good match, which is essential to a relationship’s longevity. In your preliminary contact by phone or email, you should also determine if the client needs medical screening.

Customizing your first session. Not all clients will need or appreciate your conducting fitness tests, determining body fat percentage and getting their measurements. People who are obese or out of shape may not want to be measured or tested. On the other hand, numbers may motivate athletes or individuals who are focused more on fitness than on health. Before you do any type of assessment, talk with your clients and gauge their comfort levels. I have found that with more reluctant clients, a very minimal movement screening is an effective way to estimate where to start.

After the first session, be sure to thank new clients for their business. A thank you is a wonderful way to connect and to check on how the first session went from the client’s perspective. You can thank a client through a phone call, a text or an email, depending on what you think the client will respond to most positively.

Programming for the person. Programming is the heart of personalization.
Each client should have a different program, and it must be adapted for each session depending on the client’s mood. For example, recently I arrived at the home of one of my clients, a committed runner, to find her despondent at miss- ing her runs because of family illness. I changed her usual weight training-only session to incorporate aerobic intervals on her mostly unused elliptical machine. By the end of the session, her mood had noticeably changed.

Karin Singleton, CES, a M.E.L.T. Method® instructor in Raleigh, North Carolina, has a lot of equipment in her studio. Having options helps her adapt easily when her clients’ needs change. Brett Klika, 2013 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year, CEO and cofounder of SPIDERfit, advises that trainers need to adapt as their clients’ lives change. For example, people who start training while single will have different needs if they get married and have children.

Staying connected. Staying in contact with clients in between sessions is easy. To motivate some of my clients, I send them daily “textspirations.” Others are not interested in these messages, so I make sure not to use their time this way. Each text I send is specific to the client; one loves science fiction, so I use references to Yoda or Doctor Who to motivate him. I often email clients an article that I think may interest them, and I usually send birthday cards. (Be aware that certain religions do not celebrate birthdays.)

I also encourage my clients to join www.myfitnesspal.com and chart their workouts and eating. If they network with me, I can see what they are doing on their own and can offer support through the app. Of course, you can use other options to stay connected on the Internet. For example, the IDEA FitnessConnect Client Newsletter makes it easy to send clients a newsletter customized with your own branding.

Surprising clients. I like to delight my clients from time to time. Here are some examples:

  • I have brought them reusable water
    bottles and T-shirts from fitness conferences.
  • I have baked and delivered healthy muffins and fruit salads during a family crisis.
  • On training anniversaries (i.e., of years with me), I refuse payment to thank clients for their patronage.
  • I have purchased sessions from a local massage therapist and gifted them to my longtime clients to thank them for staying with me through the years.
  • On a beautiful day, I have called my clients who like outdoor training and arranged for us to meet at a local park.

I have never given holiday gifts, but for the last 2 years I have followed Singleton’s lead and donated to charities that my clients support. This gift has been greatly appreciated.

Special tips for studio and facility trainers: Make sure that front-desk staff, fellow training staff and administrators are as responsible about creating a welcoming, long-term environment as you are. Klika notes, “Everyone in a facility should strive to learn all the clients’ names, greet clients when they walk in and create an environment of intense positivity.”

Both Klika and Singleton emphasize that clients want to feel they are part of something in a facility. Introducing clients to each other can lead to friendships that help adherence. Local charity events allow for many levels of engagement, and they foster a feeling of “client family.” Client parties and dinner outings are other ways to help clients feel part of the facility culture.

Practice #2: Professionalism

Failing to present themselves as professionals is the biggest error I see trainers make. Issues with revealing clothes, gum chewing, cellphone use and lack of punctuality (including being too early, as clients don’t want to be caught in their pajamas!) can turn clients off. During inclement weather, I make sure I put on dry shoes before entering a client’s home. Here are some other ways I maintain professionalism:

Asking for feedback. Every few years, I send my clients a questionnaire to ask how I am doing. While it is obvious that they are happy training with me, I have had to toughen up when reading the results. For example, one client complained that I changed the workouts too often, and
another wanted more hands-on correction. I learn and become a better trainer each time I send this questionnaire. I believe it also sends my clients the message that their feedback is important.

Contacting clients’ health professionals. Connecting with other professionals can raise your value to a client. I have spoken to physicians (with a client’s consent) about pregnancy concerns, and I have asked about adding high-intensity intervals. I have also made it a practice to attend a physical therapy session when clients are in rehab.

Selling services. Part of being professional is figuring out the best way to sell and bill your services. Klika learned early on not to sell his training as “packages.” Instead, he speaks to each client on a “long-term” basis. He assesses lifestyle and physical attributes, and he tells clients, “Based on your goals, I recommend that this year we . . . .” This way, he avoids false promises of short-term glory that do not meet anyone’s needs.

Special tips for studio and facility trainers: In addition to his other suggestions, Klika urges studios to have “bullet- proof” administrative systems (money, collection, billing and other paperwork). “A long-term relationship is built on trust,” he advises. “If clients have doubts as to how their money or information is being handled, these doubts will affect their level of trust.”

Singleton does not believe in creating competitions or challenges in her facility. She advises, “For one person to be a winner, all the others have to be losers, and I want all of my clients to think of themselves as winners against their own personal challenges.”

Practice #3: Proficiency

Trainers need to be proficient in their field, but they should also work to ensure proficiency within their clients’ goals. I write programs for my clients that they can follow on their own. Some trainers seem to fear that this will reduce the number of sessions a client purchases, but I have found that educating and empowering clients allows them to see my value even more.

Also, my clients love it when I attend fitness workshops and conventions. They can feel the energy I get from new ideas, and they know their training will be as safe and up to date as possible.

Long-Term Clients

If your clients feel cared for, they will continue training with you. When they are with you, make sure they have your full attention. Keep them safe and engaged, and they will never want to train with anyone else.


Be aware of these key issues that can impact your relationships with your clientele: how to communicate a fee increase, and how friendly to be with clients outside of sessions.

Raising fees. When it comes to talking to clients about fees, a matter-of-fact approach is best. I do not increase fees on a regular basis, and I try to remain sensitive to my clients’ financial situations. I tell clients a month in advance that I will be raising fees, and I have never had a client object. I do raise the price for new clients, and clients who have been with me longer appreci- ate that they pay significantly less than my newer ones do. Some trainers send a letter detailing the price increase. However you choose to do it, present the change in a professional manner, and you will get few arguments from clients who value you.

Becoming too friendly. How do you avoid becoming too friendly with your long-term clients? You are a major part of their life, and they likely will invite you to their parties and life events. Obviously, a romantic relationship with a client is out of the question, but it is up to every trainer to decide how best to maintain a professional relationship with someone who considers you a friend as well as a trainer. I have attended major events such as a client’s wedding, but I usually decline invitations for events involving family members, such as a bat mitzvah. You must find the line for yourself, and it may differ from client to client.

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November-December 2020 IDEA Fitness Journal

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