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July 1, 2011, 04:53PM PT in Fitnovatives Blog  |  0 Comments

A Valuable Lesson to Learn from Clients: Walking into Unfamiliar Territory

Pete McCall, Circa 2004Have you ever walked in to a retail environment and felt completely out of place?  For example, have you been in one of the home repair superstores the size of three football fields and felt lost amongst all of the tools and hardware supplies?  How about walking into a computer or electronics store and feeling like you were on another planet inhabited by creatures speaking a completely different language?  Keep in mind that while we, as personal trainers or group fitness instructors, are used to (and love) the gym or health club environment, many people out there in the general public feel completely out place when they go into an exercise facility. 

When I was training and teaching group fitness fulltime I was a big education junkie and would always be reading the latest industry literature to learn strategies and techniques for helping clients to achieve goals or design fun and challenging classes. Rather than spending down time in the gym where it might be perceived that I was slacking off during work (even though I was only paid while training clients) it made more sense to me to use a local Starbucks as my office to catch up on whatever I happened to be studying. 

One day while reading and enjoying my cup of coffee one of the members from the club, I’ll call him Bob, approached me and asked if he could join me for a few minutes.  As Bob sat down he mentioned that he had wanted to ask me a couple of questions about training but it looked like I was always busy so he never had a chance to talk while we were in the gym.  Bob mentioned that he had been working out for a while but wasn’t sure he was using his time that effectively and he was interested in doing some training to learn a routine that would help him lose a few pounds and reduce the soreness in his low back.  We chatted for a bit where I was mainly asking questions about his exercise history and how I could help him, then we agreed on a day and time to meet so that we could start on a series of sessions to help him towards his goal.

As Bob left to go back to his office it occurred to me that it was probably easier for him to approach and talk to me in a coffee shop because he was in his normal business attire, and we were on neutral territory which made him feel more confident and self-assured compared to being in a gym.  This was driven home by the fact that as we were talking Bob described himself as “non-athletic, slightly overweight, early middle-aged guy” (his words) making me realize that maybe he felt a little uncomfortable in his workout clothes and was intimidated in the gym environment. 

Pay attention to how you feel the next time you walk into unfamiliar territory like a home repair or computer store.  How do you feel?  Do you intuitively know what you want or do you have to look for someone to ask to help find an answer.  As fitness professionals we have to keep in mind that while we are completely comfortable in an exercise environment that many of the health club members, our potential clients, might not feel the same way.  For us, fitness and exercise is a way of life, for many it could bring back unpleasant memories of being the last picked in gym or made fun of for being an awkward or un-athletic. 

  • What can you do to make the new exerciser feel comfortable in your environment?
  • How can you display some empathy to show that you understand that it was difficult for them to walk in the door or to stop and ask a question?
  • Take the time to listen to their needs and to help them find the answer to what they might be asking. 

If you have the ability to do what my friend Chris McGrath suggests and get out of your world and get into theirs, then you can be in a position to understand what they need from a fitness professional and how you can help them.  When you do that, then you have probably just made a new friend, and, quite possibly, a long-term training client. 

By Pete McCall, MS

McCall has an MS in Exercise Science and Health Promotion. In addition, he is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer (ACE-CPT) and holds additional certifications and advanced specializations through NSCA and NASM. McCall has been featured in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Runner’s World and Self.

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