Personal training is a tough business.

Our periods of bounty and drought seem to come and go with the seasons. In January, our days are packed full of clients, all eager and excited to start training. How lucky we are, we think!

Come March though, and things look very different, bleak even.

There’s no beating around the bush here: Convincing clients to continue personal training is hard. Seriously hard. When expenses become an issue, we’re the first to go. That’s just the nature of the industry in which we work. Even in-house gym trainers experience difficulties with client retention, so is it a lost cause for us online personal trainers?

The Trouble With Going Digital

Thanks to technology, online personal training--be it one-on-one or groups--is more popular than ever for coaches. The appeal is clear: you get to work completely on your own schedule, coach clients from anywhere in the world; and if you have a day where all you want to do is sit on the couch in your underwear, watch TV, and do the occasional email check-in, you can do that (in theory).

That’s only the fantasy version. The reality of the online business world is that success relies on two things:

  1. A very high number of clients
  2. Excellent client retention

With in-person training, it isn’t too difficult to make a good income from a relatively small number of clients, provided you deliver an amazing service. In the online world, each client typically would be paying much less for online services, so you have to make up the price in volume. Sure, there’s the argument that you’re not necessarily trading time for money when you move online, but those bills still have to be paid.

Of course, getting to the point where people want to work with you online without ever having seen your face takes work and the right strategies. Here’s how you can retain online clients just as well as, if not better than, you can in offline clients.

1. Have Skype Calls

If you don’t know Skype, it’s the 21st century method of having voice or video calls with people from all over the world. The best part is that the calls don’t cost you a dime (for the most part). Skype calls do, however, take time and have to be scheduled, tying you down to set days and times, but they’re well worth it.

After all, it’s the closest thing to that “face time” than written email. You can make sure a client understands you, ask how they’re feeling, and answer their questions with much more detail and clarity. Many clients won’t feel the need for Skype calls, but it’s a good idea to build them into your packages, or offer them on a case-by-case basis if you feel like you’re losing touch with someone.

2. Record Videos

If you’ve been working with clients long enough, you start to see patterns in the problems that clients tend to have. So, I like to record videos as my response for clients who may be struggling with one of these common problems. In most cases, this can apply to more than one person, and so doing this actually can save a lot of time as well.

I recently had an online client who was concerned that her diet wasn’t working because she hadn’t lost weight, but she admitted to having had “some treats and a couple of drinks” on the weekends. Now most of us know this easily means those “treats” may actually be a full-on diet blowout or binges, and a few drinks might actually be more in the vicinity of “a lot.”

Of course, I didn’t want to come off as accusatory, so I instead recorded a video, explaining how just one day of massively overeating could lead to a calorie surplus and lack of weight loss; how treats were fine, but should be factored in; and the importance of monitoring everything and prioritizing goals.

She got back to me feeling perfectly happy about everything, and actually thanked me for doing the video, as it helped clear up a few things in her head.

3. Create an Online Community

Facebook groups can be a double-edged sword, but the point is to create a friendly, helpful online community by fostering good behavior and discouraging people from shaming others. Once you have that, you’re a winner.

These groups can be free (or you can make an exclusive client-only group). In either case, you have to provide value and content to the group, as you would on your blog. It’s also the perfect forum to regularly interact with your customers and community. In the beginning, you probably have to be very active in the group, answering questions, being helpful, and banning people who are inappropriate. I encourage you to write regular posts, make videos, do Q&A-style posts, and have current clients to call out to you on your Facebook page whenever they’re happy with something you’ve done.

People like to feel included, so the social connection can be like a glue and form of accountability that helps keep clients on track.

4. Send Gifts

I like to send out one of my branded t-shirts when a client hits a certain milestone or even as part of a higher-priced package when they start off.

It’s a great way to say “thanks” and help a client feel like part of the tribe.

5. Retain In-Person Clients

At one point, I almost gave up one-to-one training completely. Instead I kept ten to twelve sessions per week, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.

When you can see what your in-person clients are struggling with and how they react to your advice and guidance, you can apply this knowledge and experience to your online clients as well. Oftentimes, the people you see face-to-face will be much more open and honest with you and tell you what they like or don’t like about your training or nutrition plans.

This feedback is invaluable to furthering your services--both online and offline.

ALSO READ --> Selling Personal Training in 5 Steps

6. Be Prompt

Even though you’re not seeing people face-to-face, it’s crucial to have them feel that you are prompt and accessible. The last thing they want is to have a sort of “emergency”, only to find out you don’t reply with guidance until a couple of days later. I’ve heard plenty of people complain about having a coach who replies instantly one week and then waiting three to four days before getting another response.

That’s why it’s crucial to have an email schedule. It would help you manage your time and workload, but it’s also a way for you to be professional with online clients. I’ve found one of the best ways is to check email twice a day (perhaps once in the morning and once in the evening) and make clients aware of your email schedule when they sign up, as well as cement a policy around your response time.

When clients know what to expect, it helps them feel more at ease, even if they have to wait 12, 24, or 48 hours. Have an email schedule, be prompt, let people know, and stick to it.

7. Host Events

If you’ve got enough online clients all in one area, then hosting the occasional “meet and greets”, or team training sessions, are awesome for building that sense of community and togetherness. Whether you want to do this as a purely social affair, or get people together for a big workout, a seminar, or a technique assessment, it’s a chance for everyone to bond. (Just make sure it’s followed up by a meal out and some huge steaks!)

8. Send Out Client-Only Newsletters

It’s smart to have a regular email schedule. It’s one of the most effective ways to get interaction and interest from potential clients. Like the closed groups we talked about before, client-only emails are well worth the small amount of time and effort they take. It helps them feel part of an “exclusive” club, which only helps nurture their loyalty to you. It doesn’t have to be a weekly dissertation piece. You could perhaps do a “Client of the Month” feature to reward your clients, exclusive recipes, videos, or training tips. All of these suggestions are just another way to add value, even if you just send one or two per week.

9. Implement a Referral Program

Referrals are a great way to get new online clients. It also helps retention, but to get referrals that means you need to have a good referral program (and also being a rock star with your current clients doesn’t hurt either). Offer incentives like t-shirts, extra Skype session, a leaderboard, or whatever you think your clients will like. (It might even be worth doing a brief survey to test the waters.)

Bottom-line: If your clients talk to one another, they’re more likely to stay motivated and perhaps create some healthy competition amongst themselves, pushing them to strive harder.

10. Run Contests

Contests are nothing groundbreaking, but they can be tricky to get right. There are online tools and apps like Shortstack and Woobox that you can use to help you set up social contests.

Here’s an idea: If you’d like to get your clients to track their macros, you could run a competition to see who’s logged into the food-tracking app MyFitnessPal the most days in a row. Or you might try a recipe contest where you challenge clients to come up with the tastiest recipe but only using certain ingredients. Or better yet, set up exercise-related challenges, like maybe who can do the most bodyweight squats in a minute or who can do the most reps with a certain exercise at a certain percentage of their body weight.

You get the idea. Just remember to make it fun!

Reality Check: You Won’t Hit 100%

Look, as much as we’d all like to get a perfect 100%, it’s unlikely you’ll attain that elusive 100% retention rate month-over-month, year after year. It’s unrealistic even for the best coaches. The ebb and flow of clients are just part of the job, and it’s not (always) a knock on your abilities.

However, that doesn’t mean you just watch your clients step out the door. Whenever a client leaves, ask yourself why.

Better yet, ask your client why.

Is there something you could have done better? What could you have changed to convince the client to stay with you?

And don’t be afraid to ask current clients why they stick with you. By learning what you do well and what you can improve on, you become a better coach, boost your business, and help more people get results.


Photo credit: Gregor, Kate Ter Haar, Richard Lewis, asenat29, zakki-style, and zack Mccarthy via Flickr.