This simple praise, spoken to me by a district manager, runs through my head whenever I think about sales. It also exemplifies why I became disillusioned with the fitness industry.
I started my career like most fitness professionals—as a young kid with some experience throwing weights around and a dream about helping others. I soon realized, though, that personal training was about more than program design. It was also about sales. Sales didn’t come naturally to me, and for a while I bounced around from one gym or studio to the next, never building up a loyal client base. It wasn’t until I paid close attention to the practices of successful trainers that I learned the ins and outs of selling personal training.
What I learned was as despicable as it was effective at the time. The top dogs of personal training whom I worked with used a peculiar sort of “hard sell” that bombarded potential clients with threats of possible illness and even death—thus managing to scare clientele into spending thousands of dollars annually. In the few months when I used this tactic, I tripled my sales. My employer even congratulated me on my success. Life was good. However, the hard-sell method had its repercussions. I soon realized that selling with such force and dishonesty makes one very unpopular with clients. It got to the point that I received death threats. It also slowly wore away any sense of compassion I had. How did personal training come to be about blackmailing people emotionally for the sake of a few dollars?
Human Beings, Not Moneybags
The truth is that the people who walk into a gym do not have bags of money. They have a background they want to reveal, stories they want to tell, and hopes they want to share. For them, it is about wellness, self-esteem, issues that border on a happy lifestyle or depression and, sometimes, death. Personal trainers have a duty to help clients attain wellness; they also have a responsibility to listen with care and to empathize with their clients.
Supply and Demand
According to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (2014), the fitness industry has developed into a $24.2 billion industry. Health club or gym memberships increased from 41.3 million in 2005 to 54.1 million in 2014 (IHRSA 2014), and the number continues to grow. What was once a niche operation has become a behemoth, and we no longer need to employ cutthroat sales tactics. While some personal trainers and fitness facility owners have remained stagnant in this regard, other industries are evolving. The South Korean car company Hyundai® drastically increased its sales in 2009 by listening to and empathizing with its market through the introduction of the Hyundai Assurance program. If you could no longer afford the payments, you could drop the car off and walk away.
Empathy: The New Way to Sell
Neuroscientific studies show that humans are hardwired to want empathy. A smile, a wink and a 100% guarantee won’t lure people anymore. When you’re offering a yearlong gym membership or a personal training package, treating customers with honesty and compassion is what sells your product.
Selling with empathy can go a long way toward establishing quality relationships with members and clients. It all stems from genuinely caring about your customers. Using guilt or fear-based tactics is ultimately counterproductive, and it damages your reputation and your company’s reputation.
Four Ways to Sell With Empathy
Be an Active Listener
To develop effective relations between customer and seller, you must be willing to listen to, understand, and respect your clients, even when their views conflict with yours. Active listeners notice verbal and nonverbal cues, such as body language and the tone beneath the words being spoken. Avoid the urge to explain away the myriad benefits that potential customers can expect to receive if they purchase a training package. Instead, spend the majority of your sales consultation listening, absorbing and understanding customer needs, so that you can offer services that fit people’s specific goals.
Become a Partner
Remember the excerpt from the “Sales Manual” above? Consider this more empathetic approach: Instead of saying, “You have a 50% chance of dying,” try saying, “I understand that you have health concerns x, y and z. By establishing a routine and diet based on your goals, we can work on your challenges together. We would be honored to be a part of your journey.” This alternative scenario shows customers that you understand their concerns and have constructive ideas to help them address their fitness problems. The collaborative effort that it establishes makes members feel empowered and motivated. Customers are more likely to purchase services from someone who seems genuinely interested in helping them reach their goals.
Trust is the basis of any long-term relationship. The moment someone detects insincerity in a salesperson, trust flies out of the window and the sale is lost. Most customers are wary of salespeople from the get-go, and they’ll search for reasons not to give you their money. They’re waiting for you to show signs that they represent nothing more than dollar signs. Being sincere means offering a service that offers clients a solution—and then ensuring that as time passes they continue to be satisfied with that service. One way to show sincerity is to show that you genuinely care for your clients. Ask them why reaching their goals is so important to them. Listen to the struggles they’ve faced in the past. People trust those who they feel are genuinely interested in what they have to say.
Keep Your Promises
Once a sale is made, follow up with your clients to make sure they feel that their needs are being met. Continuing to promise satisfaction until the needs are met is a surefire way to keep people coming back for more. Good salespeople should be mindful of the promises they make, and they should work diligently to see that those promises are kept. It’s also important to be realistic about what is being promised. Simply telling customers what they want to hear and then failing to deliver because you overpromised will quickly tarnish your client relationships and your company’s reputation.
Empathy = Credibility
By empathizing with your customers and treating them with the respect they deserve, you can easily stand out from trainers and businesses that are more concerned with the bottom line and sales goals than with client welfare and good opinion. Showing kindness takes no extra effort, and it makes a huge difference. This is what builds credibility, and what brings customers to you.
IHRSA (International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association). 2015. Health club industry overview. Accessed Sept. 17, 2015. www.ihrsa.org/about-the-industry/.