How important are referrals to your success as a personal trainer?

People referred to you by a current or former client are more likely to become clients, to stay with you longer, and to have a higher lifetime value. They’re less likely to shop around than someone who came to you as a cold lead. And they’re also more likely to refer others, since that’s how they found you.

So you’d think trainers would make a priority of asking for referrals, with a routine or system that works for them and they use consistently. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Too many only ask for referrals when they’re feeling brave (i.e., never). Others have a system but a bad one: vague, hard to follow, or poorly incentivized.

Systematic referral generation is a hallmark of highly wealthy fit pros. But it’s rare. To boost your business, you need both a referral program and a marketing strategy to promote it. It should be easy to understand and easy to follow, and include an incentive that makes sense for your brand and motivates your clients.

What’s a personal training referral program?

A referral program is a deliberate, organized way to get clients to make referrals. There are many kinds, and you’ll want to find the one that works for you.

Key feature: A referral program should benefit all parties—the business owner (you), the current client, and the prospect the client has referred to you. That means rewarding clients for recommending you, and incentivizing new prospects to try out your service.

During my years as a personal trainer, I had a lot of success with the approach I’m about to describe. I call it the token system for an obvious reason: By issuing tokens, you systematically reinforce the behavior you want (making referrals) with the promise of a larger reward.

The system has applications beyond referrals. Because it’s based on behavior modification (a useful tool for fitness pros in general), you can also use it to improve client results.

Will it work for your clients? I don’t know. It’s fun and different, and it worked because it motivated my clients to help me. Maybe something else will work better for your customer base.

Whatever it is, you owe it to yourself to find it, and to use it consistently to boost your personal training business.

READ ALSO: How to Get More Personal Training Clients

How to set up your own personal training referral program

The token system has two parts: the token and the reward. The token has no inherent worth, but it can be exchanged for a more valuable reward. (For B.F. Skinner fans, this should sound familiar.)

It came to me after two clients used Weight Watchers to lose stubborn weight. At first I was jealous. I mean, when-Betty-sees-Veronica-with-Archie jealous. Then I decided to dig deeper.

I noticed that WW rewarded customers for hitting milestones—a ribbon for losing 10 pounds, for example. The company has since doubled down on this approach, launching WellnessWins in 2018, in which members accumulate “wins” and then exchange them for tiered rewards.

This is nothing new, of course. We’ve known for a long time that celebrating small achievements helps people reach long-term goals. Fitness professionals use this approach all the time to encourage healthier habits.

Here’s how you can use it to encourage referrals:

Create a certificate and customize it for each client

Give your certificate an epic title (“The Road to Total Consciousness” may be too epic, unless you’re sure your clients will get the joke), and include your name and contact info in small type at the bottom. That’s your basic template.

Now fill the certificate with a list of clear, explicit tasks that are both specific and meaningful to the individual. Include a few that are simple and easy along with some the client will regard as genuine accomplishments.

A few examples:

  • A new PR or max lift
  • Five consecutive days of home-cooked meals
  • Tagging you in a Facebook post about a workout
  • A direct referral for personal training, or sharing a coupon or credit for your services

Leave plenty of room for stickers.

Ask your client to display the certificate in a visible spot in her home, like the fridge. (Pro tip: Go the extra mile and stick a magnet on the back.) You want visitors to see and ask about it.

Stock up on stickers

I like dinosaur stickers, but you might prefer Marvel superheroes, or your company logo, or local sports teams, or puppies and kittens. What matters is the perceived value you give the stickers.

Pass out stickers whenever the client earns them.

Not into stickers? Consider points, badges, even Monopoly money. Or if you and your clients prefer an online system, try a shared Google calendar with different tasks for each week or day.

Make the rewards meaningful to your clients

Clients can exchange a completed certificate for a prize as soon as they complete it. But to encourage them to delay gratification, you want to offer more valuable prizes for multiple certificates.

Maybe one completed certificate earns a prize worth $20, two gets the client a $50 prize, and with three the prize is worth $100.

Some ideas: fitness gear, tickets to see a local sports team (if the client is a fan), or gift cards for a local restaurant or spa. To defray your costs, you can barter with local businesses—an hour of training for a $100 gift certificate, for example—or simply ask if they’ll donate some gifts in exchange for you promoting their business.

Have fun with it. Get creative. The more you personalize both the challenges and rewards to each client, the more enthusiastic and compliant they’ll be.

Why you shouldn’t just ask directly for referrals

There’s nothing wrong with directly asking for referrals, and I’ve given plenty of advice on the right way to do it.

But for maximum effectiveness, it should be about your client’s success as much as it is about yours. The best referral programs are mutually beneficial: They help you (obviously), they help the client (more on that in a moment), and they also help the person being referred to you, who’s usually a friend, colleague, or family member.

That said, your clients aren’t stupid. They know you have a lot more to gain from a new client than they do from a gift certificate for something they could easily afford. There’s no need to pretend otherwise.

How the token system improves results

Here’s the best part: The same positive reinforcement that gets clients to make referrals can also improve adherence, yielding better results. Better results mean an even happier client. And a happy client is more likely to refer.

Which brings me to one last critical point about referrals. Providing exceptional training is a must. No customer is going to recommend you for rewards alone. You need to make every client feel important, and make the referral process easy and natural.

If the token system helps you do that, great. If not, find something that does.