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

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
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

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

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

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

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.