By Cathleen Kronemer, NSCA-CPT, Certified Health Coach

To quote those dynamic, quirky, yet somehow unforgettable Spice Girls, “Oh, tell me what you want, what you really, really want…” We have all been in the position where we feel that a client is perhaps not being honest about what he or she is seeking in a gym membership, or even in personal training.

As you begin to interact more closely with this client, you may be hit by the notion that, first and foremost, this person has not been honest with himself/herself. When potential new members come to a gym or health club, one of the first questions they may be asked is, “What brought you here today?” This seemingly innocuous inquiry tends to put many individuals on the defensive, as they ponder what the Fitness staff really wants to hear, instead of what they know to be true yet may be too embarrassed to share. Thus, when the desired results they cited at the onset of training have not been fully visualized, clients often drop their membership, choosing to blame the staff for incompetence rather than themselves for not having been honest at the start.

Clearly, what people say and what they truly want out of an exercise experience may not always be the same. One research study identified four distinct types of motivation which a majority of gym-goers seem to share; individuals may either be motivated by fitness, by appearance, by enjoyment or by social factors (friendship). Upon reviewing statistics on membership cancellations and following up with these former members, a new picture began to emerge. Clients want to see progress, and they want their workout environment to enable them to have social interactions. Surprisingly, these two aspects serve to motivate more powerfully than weight loss! Data reflects the fact that very often members who originally reported being highly motivated by appearance, and who admit to having improved their appearance, have a higher rate of cancellation than those who weren’t motivated by appearance. These clients didn’t intrinsically believe that they had improved their appearance – almost as if the motivated group remained dissatisfied even though they felt they had made some strides. It’s imperative for members to perceive that they are making good progress at all times – if not, the risk of cancelling will escalate dramatically, especially in the absence of their ability to create social bonds at the new gym.

To further illustrate this point, consider another group of members who can be termed “the surprised pessimists”, those individuals who claimed at the start that they were not necessarily motivated by appearance, but who nevertheless felt they improved the way they looked over a training period of three months, surprising themselves with their own abilities to progress. In fact, clients stating low levels of motivation in any particular area, but who then reported progress in that aspect, demonstrated low rates of cancellation.

One demographic which drew particular attention is what might be referred to as “the disappointed optimists”. These are the fairly new clients who might have had overly optimistic expectations about how much progress they would observe in themselves with a new workout program, and are then disappointed when they fail to achieve these anticipated changes. While such members may have stated that “change in appearance” was their top priority, as it turns out, they are more strongly driven by enjoyment of their exercise routines, a fact that they either hadn’t previously realized about themselves, or had denied as having any credence. Such clients are more than twice as likely to cancel their membership as those individuals who report having fun during their workouts.

Another poll attempted to gather data on why individuals choose one fitness facility over another, or for that matter, one trainer over his/her co-workers. Five interesting aspects topped the list: a sense of belonging, wealth of knowledge and expertise, knowing what members need, technology/research, and rewards.

When a member enters a fitness center or health club, he or she wants to feel connected to the exercise community. This can be easily achieved if the staff makes an effort to pay attention, asking and remembering first names, and perhaps even getting to know something about their personal lives, such as a daughter’s upcoming wedding or a grandson’s college graduation. When members feel a sense of belonging within their exercise culture, they are much more likely to remain dedicated to the facility.

While most of the fitness professionals at gyms nationwide possess a wealth of knowledge about body mechanics, the truly successful trainers are those who have the ability to transfer that knowledge to clients in a useful manner. By providing members with relevant articles on topics of interest, or particular health issues they may be experiencing that hamper workouts, a bond of trust and respect will be forged, essential aspects of strong client retention.

Many facilities love to boast about their “state-of-the-art” equipment. However, without proper instruction, these machines will never be used, and clients will lose interest. Being able to not only demonstrate proper use to clients, but also offering research as to why and how a particular exercise can prove beneficial to a client’s goals, goes a long way towards solidifying a working and lasting relationship.

Everybody likes to be a winner; and it is so easy to create fun and creative rewards for those members who actively participate in training, group exercise classes or referrals. Incentive prizes such as gift cards to local vendors in exchange for new member referrals are a great way to enhance and maintain membership retention. Some trainers offer a free session to the client who refers the most new members to the facility.

These days, members and clients require more than measurable physical improvement to remain loyal to a fitness center or a personal trainer. Customer service has become a critical piece of the retention puzzle, in some cases even becoming a deal-breaker. With the abundance of competition in the world of exercise facilities, individuals expect more and more from their health clubs. They crave someone who is not only professional and knowledgeable but who will also listen to their problems or concerns, making every effort to do whatever they can to help. As trainers, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are perceived as both approachable and reliable. Quality professionals will in turn attract quality, loyal clients.

If we consistently strive to prioritize fun, friendliness and positive social dynamics for each and every member, we will be rewarded with loyal and successful clients. It is incumbent upon us to set realistic plans for meeting clients’ needs, reviewing and revising periodically to assure continued progress is perceivable, and to provide a welcoming and personal-touch environment.

In the words of Paul Steinbach, Senior Editor of Athletic Business magazine, “…an individual’s decision to remain a member or quit can hinge as much on the building of interpersonal relationships as on the building of strength & endurance.”

If we build it, they will come!


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NFPT Staff Writer

NFPT Staff Writers contribute in various ways to the NFPT blog