Seven “New-School” Business Strategies All Fitness Pros Should Follow
By Megan Senger
It’s easy to fall into a business rut. And it’s common to do things a certain way because, well, that’s how they’ve “always been done.” But many top trainers argue that, if you haven’t refreshed your “old-school” business approach for years, a new-school overhaul could be the key to boosting your bottom line.
If you still sell 10-session packages, hit clients up for checks every few weeks, and book appointments in your day planner, your personal-training business systems are probably stuck in a bygone (and less lucrative!) era.
Here are six new-school secrets to boosting business efficiency, automating operations and streamlining systems…and to leaving inefficient, old-school ideas behind.
1. Sell Memberships, Not Packages
Old School: Selling “packages” of sessions. Typically, a new customer was handed a price sheet with fees for a single one-on-one training session, a five-session package, 10-session options and other variations on this theme. The trainer needed to ask for another commitment and payment every time the package was used up.
New School: Sell your services based on becoming a member of your personal-training program. For example, you could charge a client a monthly fee in exchange for a certain number of sessions, of a certain type, per unit of time—say, two one-on-one training sessions per week, with a three-month commitment.
This approach creates consistent cash flow for your business and encourages customers to think of fitness as a long-term lifestyle, notes Steve Long, the owner of Complete Fitness Results, a training studio in St Louis, Mo., and the co-creator of branded exercise program Smart Group Training.
The membership model also dramatically boosts client retention and allows trainers to focus on program design instead of chasing checks all the time, Long adds.
2. Offer Mixed Levels of Training
Old School: Allowing clients to choose only one type or “level” of training. Typically, trainees chose between expensive one-on-one workouts or cheap-but-impersonal boot-camp classes.
How Do Different Service Layers Work?
What should you charge for different packages of training service levels? Here’s Jason Linse’s take.
Consider a gym where simple access to the equipment costs $39 per month. Linse says such a business could offer both this simple access and team training in groups of 10 to 15 people for $99 per month.
Then, “for $139 per month, the customer gets simple access, unlimited team training and unlimited small-group training,” he explains. “For $249 per month, a member gets all previously mentioned benefits, plus five one-on-one sessions per month.”
All memberships should ideally be 12-month agreements, but a month-to-month option should be available for a 20 percent higher fee, Linse adds. He recommends not allowing monthly rollovers (i.e., if a client misses one of the five one-on-one sessions in the latter package, they can’t “make it up” the next month.)
For more on the layered business strategy, read Thomas Plummer’s detailed take here
New School: Create several training price “levels” or “layers” based on training group size.
With this method, your business might offer three training levels: one-on-one training, small-group workouts, (three to six participants sharing a session with one trainer) and large boot-camp classes (with unlimited class participation). Variations on this “layered” approach are strongly championed by 35-year industry veteran and business consultant Thomas Plummer, the Cape Cod, Mass.-based author of How to Make More Money in the Fitness Industry (Healthy Learning, 2014).
Instead of forcing customers to select only one layer, allow them to purchase the right to a set number of sessions each week in more than one category. For example, one membership option might include four small-group sessions per month plus unlimited boot-camp classes. (For more on small-group training, check out this great continuing education opportunity.)
Why different layers? Not everyone needs one-on-one training, and many people can’t afford an exclusive $75?$100 workout, says Long. “Plus the camaraderie of [both small and large] group training is something a lot of people thrive on.”
3. Use an Online Client Management System
Old School: Managing your bookings and payments through a collection of unrelated systems such as excel spreadsheets, appointment books or non-internet-based software systems.
New School: A good computerized client-management system can help organize and automate customer information, schedules, monthly payments, sales reports and more. Fitness-specific options include amSTATZ, MindBodyOnline, ShapeNet, VOLO, ClubReady, Appointment-plus and EZ facility.
With an online system, “my clients book their own sessions online and I barely spend any time on scheduling,” reports Long. “They can cancel and change classes to whenever they want to online. This also allows me to keep track of their attendance, do monthly billing and keep all of my business information in one place.”
The bottom line: If it feels like you spend more time staring at your calendar and answering calls and texts about your schedule than actually training clients, it’s probably time to automate your session bookings, says Long. This will free up time to actually train clients and dream up new ways to grow your business.
4. Automate Customer Payments
Old School: Asking trainees to hand over cash, a check or credit card every time their training package ends.
New School: Automate it. You don’t want to chase payments all day. And your customers don’t want to constantly be asked to pony up more money. Electronic funds transfers (EFT) are the answer.
EFTs are automatic, pre-authorized withdrawals against a client’s bank account or credit card. And they are becoming more popular. “Any decently structured business has been doing this for years,” agrees industry consultant Jonathan Goodman, the creator of thePTDC, a collaborative blog for trainers, and the "1K Extra" course on creating an online training business.
EFT services are offered by traditional banks and through many online client-management systems, such as those already noted in this article.
5. Systematize Client Contacts
Old School: Having a haphazard system for following up with client leads and concerns. For example, if a potential new member called or emailed for more information about a training service, his or her details might be recorded in a computer file, or (worse) a three-ring binder, or (much worse) on a random post-it note. The would-be customer is rarely contacted again.
New School: Use email-marketing systems to directly promote your services, track your communication history with customers and develop better relationships with potential and current patrons. You’ll never lose or underutilize client contact information again!
A good system also allows you to create an email campaign, view analytics on that campaign (e.g., you’ll know if your emails are actually opened or not), effectively coordinate different social media streams, conveniently auto-respond to new client leads and preprogram emails to be automatically sent to contacts for regular and informative updates.
“Many gyms don’t need more clients, they just need systems for reconnecting and converting lost leads,” says Goodman. Email marketing systems (such as Constant Contact, iContact, Mailchimp, AWeber or Pinpointe) resolve this concern.
6. Rethink Your Fitness Assessments
Old School: Performing a fitness assessment on a brand new trainee that involves a body composition analysis, often via skinfold measurements, which required deconditioned customers to expose some or all of their torsos
New School: Use a specific functional workout or assessment to observe clients for dysfunctional movement patterns and imbalances.
“The old school approach involves poking, prodding, pinching and testing, thus making the new member realize something that they already knew: They are fat and out of shape. Why make them feel worse than they already do?” asks Jason Linse, a former gym owner and founder of consulting company “The Business of Fitness,” who is based in Minneapolis, Minn.
Many trainers prefer a formal Functional Movement Screen (FMS), a series of seven exercises designed to evaluate basic movement abilities, as popularized by Gray Cook and Lee Burton.
“The FMS provides information that you can't get with old-school testing,” says Long. For your trainees, “A lot of time it’s poor movement quality that is holding clients back [from their weight-loss goals] for a myriad of reasons. Body composition and performance tests are great information, but before we worry about performance, shouldn't we focus on baseline movement first?”
Linse’s observations about the initial assessments with a new client are in line with guidelines presented in the ACE Integrated Fitness Training® (ACE IFT®) Model, which states that a complete battery of initial assessments can be detrimental to early program success by reinforcing a client’s negative self-image. Remember, the most important initial adaptations come from helping a client modify behavior to establish a habit of regular exercise. A fitness professional can have an immediate impact on a client’s health by first creating a positive exercise experience that can lead to exercise adherence, and then gradually progressing the training plan by apply program-design strategies that produce results. This process can be quickly undermined if a new client is intimidated by a series of unnecessary exercise tests.
7. Create Consistent Exercise Designs
Old School Approach: Growing your business by inviting a few trainer friends to work at your facility, allowing them to each train “in their own style.” The result would often be client confusion: One trainer says Smith machine squats are knee-destroying, whereas another one swears Smith squats are the greatest exercise around.
New School Method: It’s your business; your exercise philosophy should rule. Create a centralized, standard fitness blueprint and have your entire team stick to it.
“This is perhaps the single biggest mistake a young owner makes: He or she fails to control the product that is created in his or her own fitness business,” says Plummer. The result is often client confusion and an unprofessional image.
Instead, “in the more efficient training-centric business model, one person (perhaps the head trainer) controls the total training product,” Plummer continues. All other trainers act as floor coaches, implementing and instructing the head trainer’s programs.
Today’s Training Business
“Back in 1999, competition in most markets was, at best, moderate, meaning that most gyms could safely operate with little or no competition,” says Plummer.
But few business concepts in the fitness industry are sustainable for more than 10 years, he adds. “This is why you constantly need to look at what you’re doing and reinvent.”
In other words, the idea that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” could make you broke. If your personal training sales systems are the business equivalent of legwarmers and leotards, it’s time to step into the future and start training new-school.
Megan Senger is a writer, speaker and fitness sales consultant based in North Carolina. Active in the exercise industry since 1995, she holds a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and English. When not writing on health and lifestyle trends, techniques, and business opportunities for leading trade magazines, she can be found in ardha uttanasana becoming reacquainted with her toes. She can be reached at www.megansenger.com.