Thursday, March 15, 2012

How the Big-Box Gyms Tried to Make Me Not Care About My Clients

After I graduated college in 2000, I landed my first full-time job as a personal trainer for a big-box gym. I was excited because it was a full-time job--complete with paid vacation, medical insurance and something called 401k--that I had no idea what it was at the time. I felt like I had found my career. When I heard the word "career", I pictured walking into work everyday with a suitcase and coffee; while smiling at everyone and sitting in an office. But I was a full-time personal trainer! I was walking into a gym with my back pack, sneakers on, and workout gear. It was totally cool!

I remember my first boss who held the coveted title of "fitness director". He was a pure jerk. He wore his hair military style--flat top--and stood a little over six feet. He played alot of basketball and always told me how great he was at basketball. I'm not sure, but I suspect when you are playing with a bunch of husbands in a pick-up night league, I'm sure the skill level is a pretty even. I remember that he was much taller than me and always stood over me to tell me something--as if he tried to intimidate me. I wasn't affected. After all, I had been around bodybuilders, football players and athletes for a few years prior to meeting him, so his height did nothing to stiffen a hair on my neck. I found him to be cocky--but he was my boss and I was ready to listen and gain some insight. 

I had met many gym members over the course of my first year. I had developed professional relationships with many clients and was hitting monthly goals. Every staff meeting, my boss touched upon the numbers. He wanted every trainer to be responsible for their monthly goals. We talked about selling tactics, overcoming barriers to closing a sale, and approaching new prospects. After a while, I understood the game, but I was getting sick of the talks always centered around selling. Each weekly meeting placed a great amount of stress and pressure on the trainers--including me.

One of my newer clients, Doug was a middle-aged man that I met with two afternoons a week. Doug was a local postmaster and would meet with me around 3pm. One day, I remember Doug telling me that I "reminded him of his son". We had just got done laughing about a story and he threw this comment out at me. Without much thought, I asked "how old is your son?"

Doug responded, "he would have been 23".

Again, not thinking, I asked "what do you mean, would have been?"

For a split second, Doug's eyes gazed down towards the floor and I knew I asked something that I shouldn't have asked. He looked at me and with a strong smile said, "my son died 3 years ago".

I apologized for being stupid and sounding calloused. He replied, "No its okay, you didn't know".

I remember feeling bad for bringing up a bad time in his life. I didn't know Doug's background, but he  was a good guy that worked a stressful job (post office) and came into the gym to relieve his stress. He did this with a smile on his face everyday. I liked him and he was an easy-going guy. In retrospect, he was the ideal client. At this awkward moment of our conversation, my boss walked up behind me and tapped me on the shoulder. He whispered that he needed to speak with me when I was finished.  I finished up with Doug and approached my boss in his office. My boss looked at me and asked: "Doug is up for renewal, did you ask him to renew?"

My response, "No--we were just talking about something."

My boss followed with, "well, its the end of  the month and this sale will help us hit our goal."

At this point, I felt the urge to contain myself. Here is where I had to carefully think about what I was going to say and how I was going to say it.

I replied, "Doug just told me that his son died a few years ago and I don't want to ask him to renew just this minute. I will ask him next session."

Unfortunately,  the next session fell into the next month. And the answer I gave was not enough for my boss.

My boss answered, "well that sounds horrible. Bu we really need his renewal. He's over on the treadmill. Can you walk up to him and ask him?"

This was a tough position to be in because I didn't want to sound like an uncaring individual to my client, but I didn't want my boss to feel that he couldn't count on me. But in my gut, I did care about making Doug reveal something painful and I didn't want him to think I took it lightly. Not only was I providing him with a great exercise program twice a week; but he was feeling a connection with a young man (me) that made him feel better about the loss of his son. I did care. And I felt that the renewal sale could wait another measly 5 days. I told my boss that I was not willing to ask him for the sale because I was uncomfortable. So without further-ado, my boss walked up to Doug while he was on the treadmill and proceeded to ask him for a renewal himself. 

Doug allowed permission to charge his credit card on file and my boss was happier than a pig in shit.

That day was the beginning of a strained relationship with my boss. It wasn't long after that I moved on from that gym. Looking back, he was no more knowledgeable than me...he had less "under the bar" experience than me; and his clients always asked me questions when he wasn't around. I like the business aspect of the fitness field. I just feel that many managers nowadays lack the ability to make a connection to their customers. Not many managers know how to connect with their trainers, let alone a potential revenue source like a client. 

Years later, I became the "fitness director" for a YMCA. I had been hired by a YMCA to oversee the development of a new fitness facility. I was directed to hire a entire new staff and order new equipment. It was fun to see an empty concrete slab transformed into a gym. I had fun being in charge of the numerous aspects of putting this gym into operation. All the decisions including TV placement; choosing a disinfectant spray, towel vendor, machine placement, scheduling, budget, classes,,  the list goes on!

But my favorite aspect of the position? Meeting so many new trainers during the interview process was a great eye-opening experience to me. I had hired every trainer that impressed me with a genuine, caring personality. I didn't care for trainers that tried to "Wow" me with research and big words. I had been there and done that. I was looking to put a team together that would care about their clients and care about getting them results. And I did that.

I remembered my old boss and how he handled himself in trainer meetings. He felt like he was in control by applying pressure on us. I remember he would make the female trainer on staff cry after every meeting. She would be in tears simply because of the stress he was putting on her to reach her goals. As a manager myself, my staff had goals too; but I wanted to conduct my meetings in a different fashion.

Every staff meeting consisted of a discussion about each trainer's clients. I required each trainer to place one of their clients in a "spotlight" and talk openly about that client. We openly discussed clients' goals and their experience with personal training. Other trainers would chime in with their opinions on certain client issues. For instance, if one of my trainers wasn't sure why a particular client was not hitting a goal, we would openly discuss or troubleshoot the program. It was a great way to build camaraderie and help each other out with programming.

I stressed to my staff that their professional relationship with each client was more important than any advanced training program that they can design. The relationships they build will help them down the road. Each client had a smile on their face when coming in for a session. And you know what? Renewals were flowing each month. There was no need to put pressure on my staff. I stressed the importance of building and maintaining a respectful relationship with each client and the renewals would become automatic. 

Caring about a client is the grain of a good exercise program. Its not about the best assessment. Its about providing the best service and I truly believe you can only do that if you truly care about each and every client that walks into your establishment. If you care about their needs, you will take the responsibility to see it that they abide, adhere, and provide you with their best at each session. 


  1. 100% Solid, Im in this spot now, all about the numbers game with the fit. manager,It gets frustrating when all she cares about is revenue and neglects her other responsibilities....moving on this is not gona discourage me helping people better themselves YESSSSSSSSSSSS

  2. Sounds like a place where I used to be. My parting shot when I left to open my own facility, "I see my clients as people, not checkbooks."


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