Every independent personal trainer comes to the realization that he or she can only book so many one-on-one sessions per day before risking overload and burnout. In fact, a busy trainer’s ability to increase revenue and grow his or her business hinges heavily on identifying alternatives to the traditional one-client-per-hour billing cycle.
Subcontracting “overflow” clients to other trainers is one solution for personal trainers who attract more clients and prospects than they can reasonably manage. But this process requires planning and perseverance—and, of course, it’s not always seamless, especially when clients don’t want another trainer. Here’s how to get started.
Does Subcontracting Make Sense For You?
Before you get to the point of recruiting subcontractors, you must first seriously contemplate if this path is the best course of action for your business—and if it’s even necessary. To make subcontracting viable, it’s a good idea to have more clients or prospects than time available to train them all (this might include multiple clients all vying for the same timeslot).
“I basically knew it was the right time to start looking for a subcontracted trainer when I had no primetime training slots available,” says personal trainer Garfield Wilson, owner of Forward Fitness Inc., and president of Better Bodies Club in Vancouver, B.C. Before he started subcontracting, Wilson found himself referring clients to colleagues due to lack of time or when he needed someone to cover for him. “Essentially,” he says, “I was losing money on two fronts.”
Casually referring the occasional client elsewhere is a nice gesture and no big deal. But if you’re doing it often enough, you’ll want to explore a more advantageous business strategy. This is what inspired Montana-based fitness educator and trainer Beverly Hosford, author of Fitness Career Freedom.
“My overflow clients were mostly current clients that I was looking to shift off my schedule due to wanting to change my hours,” Hosford explains. A few others were no longer a good fit for her training focus. Hosford’s strategy was to funnel these clients to eager but less-experienced trainers—under her supervision. Clients paid the studio owner for the sessions and, as the supervising trainer, Hosford received a portion of that payment.
“It was a unique win-win situation for everybody,” she says. “I got paid to mentor new trainers and the trainers got clients that they may not have otherwise been able to attract or work with. Most of the clients enjoyed the team approach and the variety.”
Because a client’s workouts might suffer if his or her trainer becomes unavailable due to illness or vacation, subs also provide a good safety net. “When I went out of town I always subbed my other clients to these trainers and got paid that same per session amount for leaving plans with the sub trainer while I was away,” says Hosford.
Like many trainers, Justin Seedman started working with subcontractors because his schedule was totally booked, but he was still receiving regular business inquiries. “I didn’t like turning away prospective clients, especially my clients’ referrals,” he explains.
No one wants to inadvertently alienate existing prospects and clients because they’re overextended professionally or forced to ignore great referrals. Fortunately—as a personal trainer, behavior change specialist and owner of JustinFit In-Home Personal Training in Pembroke Pines, Florida—Seedman has successfully subcontracted about a dozen trainers in the past decade, allowing him to help more clients than he could have otherwise.
When Clients Only Want to Work With You
Even if you decide it’s the perfect time to work with one or more subcontractors, your clients might not be sold on the idea quite as readily. It’s possible that some (or all!) will resist training with what they perceive to be a “backup” trainer. In fairness, many people would rather train with the “boss” versus the “assistant to the boss.” This is true even if they can save money.
“It can be quite challenging getting clients to buy into training with a subcontracted trainer/employee,” says Wilson. His approach has been to maintain ongoing relationships with subbed-out clients. This way, the client doesn’t feel dismissed or cut off from the primary trainer. “My approach has been to not completely separate from a client who is in need of session times I can’t provide,” he says. “I usually share those clients with the subcontractor and check in with both the client and trainer periodically to ensure training sessions are meeting the client’s expectations.”
Likewise, Hosford has found that sharing responsibilities with a subcontractor makes the transition easier. “I began by having some of my clients see the other trainer once a week and me once a week to get them used to that person,” she says. “With time, they became more comfortable with the new person.”
Sometimes convincing a client to go with a sub trainer depends on what the client ultimately wants from the experience. Dig deeper with each reluctant client to arrive at a solution.
“Some people value their schedule over anything else—they want the day and time that works with their routine,” says Hosford. “Others find training style and personality to be most important, while some will do anything to get a good price.” Unpack what matters most to clients so you can “sell” them on the best benefits.
Finally, position the arrangement as a team effort. When clients view sub trainers as trusted team members versus assistants, they might be more inclined to go with the flow. “It comes down to marketing,” says Seedman. For example, he features sub trainers on his website and on social media, highlighting their specialties and unique talents. Do what you can to publically support them.
“My team of trainers is an extension of my beliefs and training philosophies,” says Daniel Yakupka, a personal trainer, TRX Coach, Precision Nutrition Coach and owner of Fit for Life Fitness In-Home Personal Training Specialists in Alexandria, Va. Each of his sub trainers provides unique elements, including expertise in areas that Yakupka might not possess himself. “They differ from me because they specialize in prenatal/postpartum, prehab/rehab injuries, strength and conditioning or seniors fitness,” he says. “I am able to match a potential client with the trainer who specializes in what the client needs.”
Ensuring Quality Control with Subs
Assembling the right team starts with a calculated onboarding process. Subcontracted trainers represent your brand as well as theirs, so it’s a good idea to establish quality control early. If a subbed-out trainer doesn’t meet your standards, you won’t be able to recommend him or her in good conscience, which defeats the purpose of subcontracting.
This article addresses sub contracting versus hiring employees. Be sure to investigate the distinction as it applies to your local state or provincial law. While you have less control over the comings and goings of subcontractors compared to employees, there are still plenty of options for attracting people who reflect positively on your brand.
“You can’t control subcontractors,” says Hosford, “but setting up expectations before handing them clients gives you the best chance of succeeding with this arrangement.”
In addition to conducting interviews with potential subs, Wilson takes a three-step approach to confirming that subcontractors meet his expectations: 1) subcontractors shadow him as he trains clients, 2) the sub trains him at least twice, and 3) he trains the sub at least twice.
“Shadowing sessions can lead to constructive conversations regarding clients and their varied training programs,” says Wilson. The more you learn about how a subcontractor views and handles various client/workout scenarios, the better you can determine if his or her training philosophy aligns with yours.
Shadowing is also an obvious opportunity to observe how subs gel with certain clients. Afterwards, you could privately seek clients’ opinions; after all, they are the customers you hope to please. “By including my clients in the process, they feel more comfortable and more familiar,” says Seedman.
Once you’ve successfully contracted a trainer, continue to monitor the new arrangement. Seedman follows a structured reporting process. “The contractor submits a form to me at the end of the week. The form includes: small wins, challenges, injuries, upcoming events in the client’s life, out of town dates, a copy of the exercises, etc.” The idea is to keep tabs on what’s been happening with clients. “Basically, I don’t want to be surprised,” Seedman says. “When I call the client to follow up I want to already know all the details.”
Perhaps the best way to ensure quality control is to seek subs before you desperately need them and feel rushed. “Take the time to get to know them,” says Seedman. Don’t forget to carefully review resumes, background checks, references, interviews and more. Yakupka—who works with five sub trainers as part of his growing business—conducts a short phone meeting to pre-select candidates before inviting them in for an in-depth interview.
“If you wouldn’t train with a [sub trainer,] or have your mother, son, grandmother, etc., train with them, don’t hire them,” says Seedman. “You have to like them and trust them.” ?
Making It Worthwhile for Subcontractors
Once you and your clients are happy with the subcontractors, you’ll want to ensure subs remain happy as well. Remember, they’re self-employed in their own right and could seek opportunities elsewhere if they deem the arrangement to be too one-sided in your favor. They might even take some of your clients with them. Make it so sub trainers want to stay.
Earning money is obviously one benefit for subcontractors. But trainers can pick up paychecks at any number of gyms, so be sure to cut a deal that feels fair to both of you. “Don’t be cheap,” says Seedman. “I pay above market value for talented professionals.”
“Make sure subcontractors are set up to receive what they feel they are worth or what they are already earning,” says Hosford. “If they’re receiving less because you’re keeping some of the earnings, make it worth their while by mentoring them. Or set a time period of transition where you still earn money from the client and then pass the client off completely.”
If mentoring is part of the package, you might find that it works best to recruit less-experienced trainers who could use the extra hours and education as they build up their client base. “Getting clients handed to you is a pretty worthwhile deal!” says Hosford. So is the chance to receive words of wisdom and business advice from someone more advanced.
“There is an opportunity for mentorship, guidance and a bird’s-eye view of how to manage and grow in the personal-training industry,” says Wilson. “I’ve been in the industry for almost 14 years, so the trainers I bring on never have more than two to four years under their belt. I get excited by their youth and passion for the industry, and I like to think that I’m ‘paying it forward’ by giving them solid life skills to navigate our industry.”
Working with subcontractors can certainly help you pay it forward—in a variety of ways—allowing you to ultimately bolster successes for your clients, colleagues and business.