Better results in less time! Sounds like a cheesy sales pitch, but that’s what all of our clients come to us for, and as professionals we want the same thing. We want this private training practice handled! – bringing in high quality clients, giving them tremendous value, and achieving all of our immediate financial and professional goals
The best way to get this info is to crawl into the head of someone that’s got it mastered; for that, I called up Doug Murphy. He’s built new, thriving training practices from scratch multiple times in different cities, and attracted major media coverage in the process. He’s got this thing down to a science, so if you want to get your practice established, he’s the man to ask. That’s what I did, and in response Doug came with some serious, real-world knowledge. You hardly ever get a top trainer opening up and sharing the mind-set behind how he does it – make sure you pay attention to this one!!!
My personal training career started from a job posting at my college for a “fitness instructor” at a local health club (this was the Stone Age of the early-mid 80’s, and the term “personal trainer” wasn’t in common usage yet-and certifications? Huh?) I was into bodybuilding and working out at the time, rabidly reading everything I could get my hands on about exercise, physiology, diet, and nutrition, and this seemed like a perfect fit. I went on to work in several different health clubs throughout college.
When I graduated with a business degree, personal training wasn’t a viable career option in the Midwest to make a living. I went into finance, and hated it. Know that sub-prime mortgage mess that started the chain reaction that trashed our economy? That’s the business I was in. Although I worked my way up into management, I hated every minute of it, feeling like I was screwing people rather than helping them. I also had a very bad habit – whenever I felt like upper management was full of shit, I felt the need to inform them of it. Not good for career longevity! To this day, whenever I bump into a former high school classmate and they find out I’m self-employed, I get a standard response: “Makes sense-you never did have much respect for authority!”
So I went back to what I had a real passion for – fitness and personal training! I got certified, and started training part-time with a personal training company while selling commercial fitness equipment with Life Fitness in Chicago. I finally dropped the full-time day job and became self-employed. It was a challenge at first, and I had to learn a lot through trial and error, but I have no regrets and have loved every minute of it! I have a total of 17 years experience, with the last ten being self-employed.
My training practice today bears little resemblance to what it was in the beginning. It’s like any business – to stay competitive, you have to constantly learn, change and evolve. But there are some things that are key as you go along :
Building professional relationships. Nobody ever became successful without the help of others along the way. Many opportunities that came my way over the years were due to a close relationship I had built with club, gym, and studio owners. Whenever I started training at a new facility, I would present a professional packet with my business card, brochure, printouts of my website, etc. During this initial meeting, I would tell the owner/manager/whoever was in charge that I would like to take them through a workout or workout together. This allowed them to see what I was all about-my training style, knowledge, etc. This is something that nobody ever does, but it produces great results! Later, this person would approach me with client referrals that they thought I would be a good match for – can you beat that? And I wasn’t even one of their employees or in-house trainers. (keep in mind these were small independent gyms, not major chains). Want media exposure? Guess who they thought of when they needed a trainer for a TV appearance, newspaper articles, training a local celebrity. Since I’ve had 3 business in 3 different cities, when I moved, they even wrote me testimonials I could present at the next places I trained in the new city. All I had to do was ask-and it gave me a leg up when getting started in my next location. I looked at these individuals as mentors-I would ask them about everything, and I learned a lot about how to market myself, run a successful business, and retain clients. This also served me well when I decided to take the plunge and become self-employed. The owner of the personal training company I worked for in Chicago wanted me to go full-time and quit my job at Life Fitness. We sat down to discuss it, and I explained to him that I was game but that he couldn’t give me enough clients for me to make a living. I made a deal – if he would allow me to have my own business independent of his, I would do it (I had a non-compete clause at the time). I would have my own business, working out of clubs he was not in, and I would not pilfer clients from his company. Although highly unusual, he knew I was honest, ethical, and would keep my word. So as I initially started my own business, I had the security of the steady clients I was training for him. This arrangement would not have been possible if I hadn’t taken the time to build this relationship. Building relationships with other trainers is a plus too. There may be times one of you has a full load and can’t take on more clients, so you refer to another trainer that you respect and know will take good care of them. This only works if it’s a 2 way street, though!
Ethics. Major pet peeve of mine. I realize competition is a fact of life, but I believe there’s a right and wrong way to run a business. In every health club or gym I ever trained in, there were trainers who would prey on other trainer’s clients. I’ve always felt that if you’re not a good enough trainer to get your own clients , you should get out of the business. I think this is the most despicable practice, and I’ve never seen any of these people become successful. They never took the time to effectively market themselves and build professional relationships, and pissed off many trainers like myself. For years, I’ve had a client overflow, but you can bet I wasn’t referring any of my extras to these trainers!
Give 110% always to your clients. And they’ll gladly do anything to help you. Referrals, testimonials, pictures for your website, etc. Do you charge your clients if they don’t give 24 hours notice for cancellation? I hold myself to the same standard I hold clients. If I have to cancel at the last minute, they get a free session. My motto: Treat people right, and they’ll treat you right. When I had a health insurance company trying to screw me, a client who worked for the Dept of Labor put me in touch with the exact person in her division who could help me. Attorneys I have trained have filled me in on a lot of legal procedures and how to go about getting certain things done. Talk about job benefits!
Initial meeting with client. This is where you can forge a long-time relationship or totally blow it. The most important thing you can do in that initial meeting is to make the client comfortable and at ease. They don’t know you, your training style, knowledge, ability, etc. For many people, it can be a scary experience, especially if they’re obese or have never exercised regularly before. It’s necessary to build rapport right away. I start with a little friendly conversational small talk, and immediately start asking them questions to get them talking. The most important thing I’ve learned-everyone has something in common. Ask about their work, explaining it’s helpful to know about their stress level, schedule, etc. Make a reference to a local sports team, news event, or something you know will probably be on their radar. See what makes their eyes light up or what they’re passionate about. I do all this while they are filling out a health history. You start developing a rapport, and by the end of their first session they’re totally at ease. I never bring up payment till the end of the first session. After going through a full hour of fitness testing, I show them their payment options. At that point, they’re impressed with what I have to offer, and usually buy a large training package. Now if I had asked for payment at the beginning, before they really had a feel for me and what I was all about, I probably wouldn’t get the same result (and income!)
Communication and trust. One more thing about comfort level – it’s absolutely essential. It’s necessary for a client to have absolute trust in you, as they will be sharing a lot of personal information about medical history, medications, etc. My female clients have fully informed me about what it’s like to be female! Since I’m male and have never experienced a period, water retention, or child birth, they have been all too happy to educate me. This is information that is useful to know. If a female client with a weight loss goal is weighing in, and she’s having water retention, it’s not going to be an accurate measurement. And who knew menstrual symptoms and effects could be so varied? One client of mine claims she loses all depth perception during that time each month, and can’t parallel park! Hormones are very powerful, and cravings are very real. It’s helpful for me to be able to discuss with clients what they crave, and what options they have to minimize the calories. Chocolate manufacturers are making a killing, though, I can tell you that! It’s also important to have a good rapport so you can spot when clients are BS-ing you, and call them on it. One time I was reviewing a meal diary with a client, a 20 year old kid trying to lose weight who was a bit of a slacker. Every night around 1 or 2 am he was consuming huge quantities of food. A whole jar of peanut butter! An extra large bag of potato chips. A whole package of cookies. I turned to him, and said: “Dude, you’ve got to quit getting high late at night.” His face turned red. “What? What are you talking about? I’m not getting high!” I advised him that one time in high school, I ate a pound bag of jelly beans-and there’s only one thing that will make you do that! When he finished laughing, he admitted what I knew all along, and agreed to cut down on his late night activities so he could reach his weight loss goal.
Sooner or later you will face some tough times. The week before I moved to Miami, I was training at a gym in Chicago when I noticed people gathered around a TV set at the front counter. It was Tuesday, September 11th, 2001… I moved to Miami at the worst possible time. The tourism industry took a nosedive, and that was Miami’s #1 industry. Most of my clients were business professionals, but if they lost their job, their was no job to replace it. There were very few businesses that weren’t tourism related, and I lost several clients who had to move out of state to find another job. What to do? Again , building professional relationships helped, but it was slow going. While I was slowed down, I took all the continuing education I could, started writing fitness articles, and did everything I could to make myself as marketable as possible and aggressively pursue business. It was a tough time, and people’s finances were impacted, so I did a lot of barter-at one point I had a barter relationship with a gourmet caterer and a wine importer. A trainer at the gym joked that I needed a sign: “will work for food and alcohol!” Eventually, things returned to normal, and I had a thriving practice when I left Miami.
Most important characteristics for a personal trainer? Drive, determination, personality, inquisitiveness (there’s always more to learn!), and #1? A sense of humor! This is a requirement for trainers and clients (I won’t train someone who doesn’t have a sense of humor). Many of my clients absolutely detest exercise, but if you can keep the mood light and make them laugh, they’ll get through the toughest workout you can give them! My career has survived disk surgery, a twisted ankle, multiple moves, tough economic conditions, and all kinds of obstacles. Nothing can stop you if you’re really determined. I twisted an ankle last winter due to a combination of snow and ice, a missing curb, and DC’s notorious street repair. I was on crutches, then had to keep weight off the ankle for 2 weeks. Did that stop me? Hell no! I explained to my clients that I would be training from my director chair. I was able to tell them what to do and give a great workout, even yelling “cut!” if their form went off course. My clients got a kick out of it, with the smartasses in the crowd asking “What’s my motivation? I’m not feeling my character!”
Personality – I’ve seen some trainers that had a lot of knowledge but no rapport with clients-guess how successful they were? Not very. The worst thing I’ve seen? Talking to clients in jargon rather than layman’s terms – make things simple, easy to understand, and something they can relate to.
Client retention. I’ve been in DC for 5 years now, and I have some clients coming up on 3, 4, and 5 years anniversaries. Retaining a client is so much easier and cheaper than trying to get a new one! How do I know I’ve really done a good job? When a client I was training for a limited number of sessions (due to schedule, finances, etc.) comes back 6 months or a year or two later to do another package with me. Long-time clients are some of the best referal sources. My favorite phenomenon is what I call a chain of referrals. For example, I had a client who ran a dance studio in Chicago. She referred her mother to me, who then referred her priest, who then referred another priest. 4 clients, all connected to the one client who liked my training style, and knew I had the knowledge to train older adults. How do I retain clients? I’m a bit unconventional, and I do things other trainers don’t. My philosophy is that I train my clients to train themselves. Many of my clients barely have the time to see me once or twice a week, and I set them up on a complete program that will get them results. Some of my best testimonials have come from clients I only see once a week. Each client gets a complete program, based on their goals, which includes strength training, cardio, and diet. I believe it’s a crime if a personal has been seeing a trainer for two years, and doesn’t know what to do when on their own in the gym, or have a clue how to eat. This has pissed off many other trainers over the years: “you’re killing our business and your own!” Not true. I’ve never lacked for business, and many stay with me because they like the variety and intensity they get with my workouts. There’s another thing that’s unique to my business that you don’t find with a lot of trainers – my clients never do the exact same workout twice. Different exercises, combinations, angles, equipment, intensities, techniques, etc. Although it’s a little more work for me, the client never gets bored, and the constant change in workouts ensures continual progress. No plateaus! I would also go crazy if I felt like I was doing the same routines with clients over and over. I like the variety! I focus right from the beginning on fixing anything that may be holding someone back or prevent them from progressing. Back pain, tennis and golf elbow, knee pain caused by IT band tightness, pain or injury resulting from a muscle imbalance. If someone comes to you with some type of pain, and you eliminate it through core training, strengthening the muscles that support a joint, or restoring flexibility and mobility, the payoff is immeasurable. You’ve got a solid testimonial, referral source, and grateful client. Most importantly – listen! Clients will tell you what they want, need, what they’re struggling with. Many things I do with clients today have come about because I was hearing they needed more help in a particular area. I’ve had a lot of clients who left other trainers because they felt their needs weren’t being addressed properly, or they were receiving improper training that was aggravating an existing condition. If only that trainer had listened, I wouldn’t be training his former client! And finally, let them know they are making progress! I love fitness testing, because many times a client may not realize how much progress they have made. I retest them every 6-8 weeks or so, and it’s so motivating for a client to find out that he/she has lost weight and body fat, gained muscle and strength, flexibility, etc.I can’t tell you the number of times a friend in another city tells me he dropped his trainer because he wasn’t making any progress. When I ask if they did any fitness testing or measuring, the answer is always no. How will a client know if you don’t have a way to show it to them? Granted, they may notice some changes and clothes fitting better, but showing them all the ways in which they have progressed is essential. It’s very possible my friends had made progress, but the trainer lost a client because they were unaware of it.
Studio ownership has always been an option, but again, I’m a bit unconventional. I’ve been the most successful when training clients totally one-on-one, with no distractions. I like the freedom of being able to take off and travel whenever I want, and not having to worry about who’s minding the store. I don’t have any of the overhead associated with a studio, and the only roster I have to fill is my own. Now, the downside is, there’s no income coming in if I’m not training. But I think with proper timing and scheduling, the loss is minimal. I take off the last two weeks of every year for a cruise with friends. Most of my clients are gone for the holidays, so there’s no complaints. I also time my weeklong vacations to coincide with a holiday where my clients would be out of town (Fourth of July, Labor Day, Memorial Day, etc), as well as anytime in August, when DC residents leave town to escape the unbearable humidity. Just don’t make the mistake I did of going to Vegas in August – 115 degreees is fucking hot, I don’t care if it’s a dry heat!
Clients find me primarily through Google searches for a DC Personal Trainer and referrals from clients. Google is both a blessing and a royal pain in the ass. It’s necessary to have a high ranking for people to find your website, and if you’re not on the first page, forget it – rarely do people go any further! It’s a major battle to stay at the top, and Google is constantly changing their criteria. Bastards! I’m usually in the top five, but it’s necessary to learn everything you can about search engine ranking and how to get and maintain it – links, keywords, etc.- even if you have a great website designer who can do it for you! I don’t do any advertising, other than the exposure I get from donating a small package of training sessions to silent auctions at fundraisers several times a year. This is so great for PR – you’re giving back to the community and supporting a worthwhile cause, and usually gaining a new long-term client in the process! Misconceptions? I don’t know how many times another trainer has told me that I’ve just been lucky, to have a thriving business. Luck had nothing to do with it! It takes a lot of hard work and perseverance to be successful. I’ve been able to take every negative situation that was thrown my way and turn it into a major opportunity. I never rest on my laurels, or think, now I’m where I want to be so I can kick back and take it easy. (I did that once early in my career and had my ass handed to me – never again!) I’m constantly trying to push myself forward, taking on new challenges, and adding more value to what I offer my clients. This field is highly competitive, and just because I’m doing well, I never take it for granted. I still have a long way to go to be where I want to be, and I get inspired by others who are doing things I haven’t done or attempted yet. The number one thing I’ve learned? Believe in yourself, your abilities, and what you’re worth. I’ve been thrown into a lot of situations I didn’t think I was ready for, but someone else saw the ability and got me do it. I got a call once from a boss at a personal training company I worked for. One of his group fitness instructors had quit, he had no one to replace her, and I was informed I was going to teach the class that night. Well, you can imagine my reaction (WTF?!?). I was a personal trainer, not a group fitness instructor. What did I know about teaching a class? I had taken some Body Pump and similar classes, but never taught one. I’m sure that first class was very comical, but I ended up teaching a group strength class for the next 2 years!
Did you catch that all of that?!?! This was an absolute schooling from Doug Murphy on how to be a Personal Trainer.
What you’ll notice is a lot of what Doug was talking about was about being a good person – a value oriented person, bringing value to other people, forming positive relationships, doing things the right way – a lot of just the golden rule. Funny how that’s what it takes to be a top trainer – from what I hear it’s the same in every other field too.
I talk about this a lot – how Personal Training will make you a better person. I also say it a lot, that Personal Training “saved my soul” – that’s what I mean by it, that Personal Training makes you a better person. And you’ll be associating with other positive people along the way in your career that’ll influence you too.
If right now things aren’t the way you want in your life, you’re not happy, and things aren’t getting better, I’ve got some hard news for you – you might be a toxic person. Personal Trainnig will help you fix that. I wrote an entire post on this called TRANSFORMATION, so I won’t get into that again here; just want to tell you that Personal Training is that vehicle for change. That’s one of the points Doug reaffirmed for me through his personal story.
I know that doesn’t sound too sexy. If I want more readers I should tell more stories about booze or bikes – but that’s just reality. You’re not going to like yourself as a person and no one’s going to want to associate with you if you’re out sharking or scamming people, or out there trying to get something for nothing. But this business is unique because it is easy to create value and to stand out – its easy to do things the right way, so keep that in mind.
Make sure you don’t overlook any of these elements as being common sense – they’re essential to being a top trainer, and overlooking them is the reason why so many independent trainers end-up with bad results and totally frustrated. That’s the purpose of Super-Trainer – to get through all the trial and error, and right to the straight goods that’ll get you the results you want for you business and your life. I want to thank Doug for coming through on that. This thing isn’t rocket science – get Doug’s mindset down and you’ll have it made.