Pete McCall by Pete McCall

overweight youth

Let’s face it – if you’re a personal trainer or group fitness instructor doing a personal workout at the gym, you always simultaneously pay attention to how other trainers are working with their clients.

Have you ever noticed the trainer-client interaction and the type of customer service the fitness professional is providing?

I recently was working out in a health club when I noticed a personal trainer working with her client. During the 30 minutes or so that I was in the same area, the client only did about 10 minutes of exercise while the other 20 were spent talking. The client would do an exercise and then spend the next five or six minutes chatting with the trainer before performing the next exercise. 

Even though I was focused on my own workout, it was hard not to notice this interaction, and it got me thinking about customer service. As personal trainers and group exercise instructors, we are not selling a tangible item that can be replaced if something goes wrong. Instead, we are marketing and selling a service, which author Harry Beckwith defines as, “the delivery of a promise.”

But in the over 12 years I have been in this field, I have found that people who have not worked with a personal trainer have two primary stereotypes of the type of service personal trainers (and instructors) provide:

  • Personal trainers and group instructors are misplaced drill sergeants who bully clients into exercise.
  • Personal trainers are “rent-a-friends” who simply move pins on weight stacks while talking with their clients. 

These stereotypes exist for a reason — what I witnessed the other week certainly supports the latter stereotype and I have seen plenty of examples of trainers and instructors who strive to be drill instructors.

Are living up to these misperceptions the best type of service we can provide to our clients and customers? More importantly, are they what our clients expect?

Managing Customers’ Expectations:

Research shows that customers get upset when their expectations are not met because they feel the service provider did not care about their satisfaction. In the example I provided earlier, the trainer might not have been delivering the same kind of service that I look to deliver when training a client, but if that is the service that particular client expected, then that  trainer was indeed meeting the client’s expectations. 

As fitness professionals, we should always be looking to provide a high level of service while being mindful of our clients’ expectations — does the client want a drill-sergeant, coach, or friend to lead them on their fitness journey?

According to Beckwith, author of the best-selling book “Selling the Invisible,” selling a service is based on first selling a relationship. In order to do this, we first need to identify what the client or class participant expects from the trainer-client (participant-instructor) relationship. But keep in mind that even though a particular client might expect a friend and enjoy spending a majority of the session talking as opposed to exercising, other people in the gym (possibly new clientele) will be watching, so it is important that you stay engaged and keep the client moving.

We should also always be looking for ways to improve our customer service because our clients and class participants are the lifeblood of what we do; if we fail to deliver excellent service, then attracting and retaining clients becomes very challenging.

Customer Service and Client Retention:

In other words, customer service and client retention should be synonymous and research proves this:

The American Society for Quality and the Quality and Productivity Center identified the following reasons for why companies lose customers:

Reason for Leaving

% of Customers

Customer dies


Customer moves away


Customer influenced by friends


Customer lured away by competition


Customer dissatisfied with product/service


Customer turned away by attitude of indifference by service provider



Separate research from the International Health and Racquet Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) found that the same percentage of clients (68%) leave a personal trainer due to negative experience.

Here are some other important facts to consider about the importance of focusing on customer service:

  • It costs 5 to 6 times more to attract a new customer than to keep an existing one.
  • Happy customers tell 4 to 5 others of a positive experience while dissatisfied customers tell 9 to 12 about a bad service experience.
  • A study by researcher Daniel Yankolovich revealed that two-thirds of customers do not feel valued by those serving them.

While most of these numbers are not specific to our industry, they still demonstrate the importance of the delivery of a service. 

Our client’s time is extremely valuable, so we need to create a positive experience for them by keeping them happy and delivering what they want or expect during the training session. We have to keep in mind that we are not only competing against other fitness providers for clients, but also against other demands such as families, work obligations and entertainment activities. 

Zig Ziglar states, “you can have everything you want by helping others get what they want.”  If we take the time to establish a professional relationship with a client, understand his or her needs, establish the expectations of a successful client-trainer relationship and then deliver those expectations, then we will be providing a high level of service to ensure that we retain the client and earn their referrals. 

Looking for idea on how to provide outstanding service? I highly recommend Beckwith’s book, Selling the Invisible and Exceptional Customer Service by Ford, McNair and Perry.