It’s time for big box gyms to rethink their Personal Training model

by Ryan Wagner

Yesterday, while at a gym that I frequent, I witnessed a rare, but not all unfamiliar scene: A new-hire personal trainer was just starting out and with no clients scheduled for the evening, she was lingering around the training desk and understandably looking a little bored. It hit a little close to home because it reminded me of my early days in the business. But more importantly, it reminded me of why I chose not to work as a trainer in a big box gym: the lack of a sales personal trainer.

You see, in order to attract more clients, close more deals, and make more money, many of us fitness professionals have been taught to “work the room” and mingle with members. To always wear a smile and ever be on the lookout for organic opportunities to make conversation, answer questions, be valuable, etc. This is all well and good and it’s certainly key to being good at sales and making new connections with potential clients. The problem that I don’t feel is adequately acknowledged is that most of us in the personal training world are actually somewhat introverted people.

Over the past several years, let’s call it six, I’ve been a member at four big box gyms. Where ever I end up I tend to befriend a good portion of the trainers, at least half of them. More often than not, it was me initiating the conversations. Only at three of these gyms was I ever approached by a trainer, cold. That is, when a trainer would walk up to me and start a conversation all on their own. Interestingly, it was only one person at each of these gyms.

Think about that for a moment.

Over an average of eighteen months at each gym, only one personal trainer ever spoke to me on their own accord in the gym. And I’m a regular member! I like to think that I’m a very approachable guy. I’m never too serious looking and I’m usually making eye contact with folks in a friendly manner. So what gives?

Is this a small data pool that I’m pulling from? Sure it is. But think about your own experience. How many times has a trainer initiated a conversation with you?

Even more interestingly, over my tenure at each of these gyms, it became clear that this particular trainer, the one who had introduced himself/herself, was the highest earner in the gym. They had the most clients, worked year round, and were clearly the most engaged with their work, and yes, made the most money.

I’m certainly not saying that the best trainers are extroverted, and that if you’re a relatively quiet trainer then you’re doomed; not at all. But what I do advocate for is a restructuring of the typical “free for all” model of big box personal training, where each trainer is more or less a free agent in charge of marketing, business development, and sales. I think there can be a better system. One that helps each individual fitness professional highlight their unique strengths.

The concept of having a “Sales Personal Trainer” is something that fitness industry consultant Thomas Plummer voiced on his blog years back (I was unable to locate the exact blog post, maybe he called the position Sales Manager, I don’t recall the specifics). Since then, this idea has always been something that really resonated with me. Unfortunately, this box on the org chart of most big gyms is largely missing.

The conventional thinking is that merely by displaying simple flyers for a myriad of workout programs, members will sign up and purchase packages. As a result of these passive sales techniques, and the near complete absence of any long term retention strategy, most trainers aren’t left with any encouraging paths for growth in their current careers.

A Sales Personal Trainer (Sales PT) can be a valuable onboarding asset. Basically, this person is a business development expert, but one who is a certified and experienced personal trainer as well as a proven sales generator. He will work closely with the membership team to introduce new members to the equipment, learn about their wellness goals, and help them to find the right personal trainer, should they choose to work with one.

The purpose of the Sales PT is to find the right personal trainer for the right member and help to implement the appropriate short and long term personal training program. Their time will be relatively front-loaded with a new member or prospect and then they will step back into more of a guiding and supervisory role once the client is working regularly with their trainer.

While many gyms have a “lead trainer” or “master trainer”, these folks aren’t necessarily tasked with allocating new business to their team members. And if they are, I have yet to meet one who has an incentive from the gym to do so. Instead, the Sales PT works to keep her team busy and happy and the clients well serviced.

I see this model being employed to great effect in other industries. Here are two examples:

Firstly, the real estate market. Look around for a realtor in your city and you’ll probably find one with a small team, most likely in the luxury market. What happened is that this realtor was very successful on account of their own skills and in an effort to augment their business they built a small team to (1) scale themselves and (2) to offload some of the more tedious and mundane paperwork responsibilities, thereby freeing them up for more business development work (i.e. bringing in more clients). The former translates best to the training world.

Secondly, there’s the financial adviser world. Again, some of the most successful people go on to build out small teams to grow their business. They spend much of their time on business development and allocate new clients to their team members. You may be wondering, “but doesn’t the client feel sidelined if they thought that they were going to work with the team lead, but ending up having a meeting with a direct report?” Well, it all depends. If it’s a well run team, then the lead is still running the show and making the big decisions, such that client is still getting the benefit of this particular person’s guidance and expertise. They are still buying into that particular financial advising brand, so to speak. And if it’s poorly run, then the whole system will eventually come apart anyway.

Why isn’t this happening in the fitness world?

I think that this structure is a great way to motivate a team, highlight the strengths of individual trainers, and help everyone find more success, whether that’s measured by dollars or something else.

Here’s what I recommend to make it all happen. After all, this can be a tremendous change in the day to day operations of a big box gym so it shouldn’t be taken lightly.

#1: Find the right person

You’re looking for a business development person. He or she may look like your typical Type A personality or they may not. Regardless, they will have a proven track record of bringing in new clients. If they are already on your staff, they are probably the busiest and the one that you can see starting their own gym one day.

#2: Give them the right incentives

Almost everyone wants to make more money and be more successful, so give your Sales PT the incentive she needs to crush it. This may mean a big salary, some sort of appropriate profit sharing system, maybe a commission structure, etc. Whatever it is, it needs to be exciting. Don’t pinch pennies here.

#3 Get everyone on board

And be sure to get everyone else on the team set up with the right incentives too. It’s incredibly important on any team, personal training or otherwise, that everyone feels valued and important to the team’s success. The best group is one that is comprised of team members that both understand and respect each other’s roles.

Wrap up

What do you think? How do you feel about this concept of having a Sales Personal Trainer? I’d love to hear your thoughts, especially if you run a gym! After all, I don’t have a gym of my own (yet), but I will.

Please post a comment and tell me your thoughts, or just say hello 🙂

It's time for big box gyms to rethink their Personal Training model by