This column provides trainers with practical ways to approach common business obstacles using a coaching strategy called “gap analysis.” A gap analysis helps people identify where they currently are in a situation, where they ultimately would like to be and the steps they must take in order to bridge the gap. Here’s how a gap analysis can help you earn more money while working less by becoming a specialist in a specific area of health and fitness.

Starting Point: Just Another Personal Trainer

Most trainers enter the health and fitness industry with great aspirations for distinction and success, yet with little strategic planning to accomplish their dream. They obtain a general certification in personal training and then take a shotgun approach to obtaining continuing education and attracting clients. Anyone who walks in the door is considered a potential client, no matter what that person’s unique needs might be. This type of nonspecialized service sets the trainer up as a general-knowledge jack-of-all-trades who could be forever limited to working long days and charging low to mid-range personal training fees.

Destination: Sought-After Industry Expert

When it comes to being able to charge what they want and setting their own work schedule, industry specialists have a number of traits in common. They know their particular client niche, and they are well versed in the exact needs and wants of their target client market. They also take a calculated approach to their career by honing their knowledge and skills in a distinct area of health and fitness. Most importantly, they attract a specific clientele with specific needs—clients who will pay higher fees because they know they will receive the help they need to achieve their goals.

Bridging the Gap

Transforming yourself from a run-of-the-mill personal trainer who is virtually indistinguishable from other trainers to a sought-after industry specialist is a two-step process. First, you must identify the specific methods that successful trainers use to develop their industry specialty. And second, once you have identified those methods, you must formulate a strategy for developing your own skills.

Below are three areas in which successful trainers excel with regard to obtaining the education and skills required to distinguish themselves as industry experts. For each area, strategies are suggested to help you improve your skills so you can bridge the gap between a conventional personal trainer and a specialist trainer who earns more while working less.

Area #1: Finding Your Niche

Trainers who are able to set themselves apart as capable and in-demand fitness professionals understand the importance of providing services that meet the specific needs and/or wants of potential clients. This targeted approach to business is commonly referred to as “finding your niche.”

To improve your skills at finding your niche, try to figure out what particular market need(s) you currently fill. If most of your clients come to you for help with triathlon goals, then your market need, and therefore your niche, is easy to define. However, if your client base seems ambiguous, do some investigating to determine what market need(s) you serve. To pinpoint common characteristics, identify client demographics such as gender, occupation, age, income level, fitness goals, ability levels, personality types, child/marital status and personal preferences. If you cannot uncover a shared need or want, ask your clients why they train with you. Give them a questionnaire to identify their wants and needs, and use their answers to bring their commonalities and your niche to light.

Area #2: Choosing a Specialty

One of the biggest obstacles trainers face when it comes to specialization is determining a specific area on which to focus their education and work efforts. While you may have identified your client niche, you still need to decide which area to specialize in within that market segment. For example, say you have established that your niche market is corporate executives with limited time to exercise and above-average disposable income. You must now determine exactly which aspect of these clients’ needs you want to target: work environment, time constraints or a combination of these.

People who work in a corporate environment may have chronic pain issues as a result of a sedentary and stressful occupation. Therefore, specializing in corrective exercise to address the musculoskeletal pain and injuries that corporate executives experience might be a good idea. (It is also very likely that your corporate clients will have many needy colleagues to refer to you.) On the other hand, you could distinguish yourself as a trainer who specializes in customized, express group workouts in corporate fitness centers. Either path would ensure that the needs of a certain group are met, but the fact that you specialize in one area or the other will help those potential clients find you and directly benefit from your expertise in that area.

The diversity of the fitness industry enables trainers to specialize in practically any area. Examples of notable specialty areas in today’s fitness climate are child obesity and/or inactivity, body weight–focused programs (e.g., suspension training), functional training with an emphasis on biomechanics and the interests and concerns of Baby Boomer sports enthusiasts. The possibilities are endless!

To help you determine what to specialize in, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I feel passionate about the subject matter? This will ensure that you have the drive and determination to plan your educational strategy and work opportunities.
  2. Is the topic I want to specialize in a stable or growing area of the fitness industry? More popular topics will have a greater number and variety of educational opportunities (both continuing education credit and noncredit) available for you.
  3. Will I have access to potential clients in my area of specialization? Your target market (i.e., client needs) must be a large enough population to permit you to do business. For example, people in rural Kansas may not see the benefit of hiring a trainer who specializes in high-altitude sports performance.
Area #3: Capitalizing on Your Specialty Status

Once you have found your niche and chosen a specialty area, expand your educational background on the subject. Read books and articles, attend seminars and conferences and connect with individuals or organizations that can provide you with opportunities to learn all you can about the topic. The more you learn about and practice your specialty area with your clients, the more confident you will become in applying your skills. You can then begin to shape your business identity around your particular area of expertise and become more particular about the types of clients you work with or the programs you choose to offer.

The following suggestions may also help bolster your reputation as an industry specialist:

  • Make sure your business image and rates are reflective of your specialist status. If you plan to charge a lot of money for your services, invest in quality business cards, materials and equipment.
  • Submit article ideas to industry publications to gain credibility as a reputable trainer in your specialty area.
  • Apply to present at seminars, health fairs, conferences and industry-related shows on topics in your specialty area to help build and strengthen your industry presence.
  • Keep yourself educated about the latest developments and trends in your specialty area.
  • Create client and professional referral systems that reinforce your specialist reputation.

Developing an industry specialty takes time, an awareness of your particular skills, conscious decision-making and dedication. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the effort you put into becoming a specialist will pay off in the long run—financially and otherwise. When you commit to becoming an extraordinary fitness professional, there is no limit to the success you can achieve.