In 18 months as a personal trainer, Angela has built her business up to eight one-on-one training sessions per week.
Although she’s happy her business is growing, she can’t help but feel she’s doing something wrong.
Over those 18 months, she’s had 15 different clients. Out of those 15, only five have stuck around longer than three months.
Turns out the clients who left just didn’t like her sessions. Too regimented, they said. The relationship felt transactional.
And they didn’t know how to tell her. So they just bailed.
Think back on clients of yours who’ve left. Do you know why?
Because if you don’t, and you probably don’t, then history will surely repeat itself.
A couple of years ago we asked personal trainers at Lift The Bar to send their clients a survey. It asked whether they’d worked with a trainer before their current one. If yes, why’d they leave?
Here’s what they told us:
Top 6 reasons clients leave personal trainers (and how to keep them)
Not with you (let’s hope), but with your workouts.
In our poll, this specifically means an “insufficient variety” of workouts.
It’s tricky, of course, coming up with the right mix of what clients want and what they need. You have to include enough repetition to progress and enough randomness to stay interested.
Examples: Powerlifting is intense repetition—repeated squats, bench presses, and deadlifts. High-intensity circuits exemplify randomness, with different sets of exercises every session.
So where on this spectrum do you put a client? It’s different for everyone.
If a client has a performance-based goal (“I want to do more pullups every month”) they may require more repetition. But if she’s training for general health (“I just want to feel better”) they’ll probably respond better to randomness. Variety increases their enjoyment.
Your boredom solution: Every client is different. So treat them that way. Communication is key: Check in with clients early and often. Are they excited? Challenged? Confused? What are their likes and dislikes? Adjust the program accordingly.
If a client wants more variety, these tweaks can mix things up while still keeping them on track:
- Use different equipment. For rows, as an example, use a resistance band instead of a dumbbell, or kettlebells instead of a barbell for squats.
- Change the warmup or finisher every session. Try a variety pack: One lower-body, like squats; one upper-body, like pushups; one core, like a hollow body hold; and one cardio, like a modified burpee or running in place.
- Mix up the order of exercises, or the sets and reps. If you usually do a core circuit to finish, try doing it first. Or if you always do sets of 3 and reps of 8 to 12, try doing 2 sets of 20 to 30 or 4 sets of 5 to 8.
- Slow the tempo of each exercise. For example, 4 seconds eccentric, 1 second pause, 2 seconds concentric. So a pushup might be 4 seconds down, pause at the bottom, 2 seconds up.
- Add some “filler exercises”—active rest—between main sets. For instance, in between sets of barbell squats, give them an upper-body mobility exercise.
Don’t use these changeups all at once. Keep the options in your quiver and pull them out occasionally. Bonus: This shows individual attention, something a client will appreciate (spoiler alert for No. 4).
(For more ideas, check out these 13 ways to vary any exercise.)
“Too much going on.”
This is a catch-all category. We’ve heard them all: New job, new schedule, new duties, new baby, new house, or even a new city.
None of these are your fault, of course. (Unless it’s a made-up excuse to avoid telling you the truth.)
But they don’t have to torpedo your business.
Your obvious solution: Start an online training business.
These days it’s more important than ever to have online training in your menu of services. You can train anyone, anywhere. But here are some warnings:
- Don’t think it’s just a normal in-person session via Zoom or FaceTime. It’s a whole new ballgame—and you can learn all about it right here at the PTDC. (Check out: “How to Get Started as an Online Personal Trainer.”)
- Don’t give up easily. Get creative and work out a customized plan. Maybe it has fewer sessions or includes an at-home workout on their own. The key is to show your flexibility and attention to their needs.
- Don’t wait until it’s too late. A client who is moving may ghost you (it’s a friendly ghost) because they’ve got a hundred things on their mind, and you might be the 101st. So tell all your clients when you sign them that you offer the online option—just in case they have “too much going on” down the road.
- Don’t cling. Sometimes you have to accept it and move on. But stay in touch. Email them periodically, see how they’re doing. Don’t sell anything. Just let them know you’re still here, in case things calm down and they’re ready to return. And review these 5 ways to bring an old client back.
“I’m not getting results”
This might’ve started with you, frankly. A complaint about lack of results can often be traced back to unreasonable expectations set by you, the trainer, or an inability to track and share progress.
Your frustration solution: This requires some extra attention both at the start and during a program. When you begin designing a program, get a clear understanding of your client’s goals, and give a general outline of what they can expect. Don’t get too specific early on!
Once you both know what’s realistic, you can communicate a personalized range of expectations.
Then do client reviews every month or two. Talk with them about their progress and—most important—how they are feeling. You might be impressed with their progress, but they might have expected more.
Take 15 minutes to ask questions like:
- How are you feeling about your progress?
- How else could I better support you?
- Is there anything I could add or remove to make it more enjoyable?
- Is there anything I’m missing that will help you get the results you’re hoping for?
This brings up another big element that straddles many of these categories of disappearing clients: trust.
If a client doesn’t fully trust you, they may not be honest about their adherence to the program. Less adherence, poorer results, more dissatisfaction—a snowball of negativity.
Doing a review will help build trust with your personal training clients. Just make sure you implement some of what the client tells you.
“I feel judged”
I can hear you: I don’t judge clients! And I would never shame one!
Of course you don’t. But try to see things from the clients’ point of view (that’s why I did the survey, remember?).
You probably do some quiet, valuable judging when you first meet and work out with a client. You can tell if they’re insecure about their weight, or fitness level, or abilities.
Just don’t talk about it. Realize that when they’re around someone superfit like you, it’s very easy to feel judged.
Your shame solution: “unconditional-positive regard.” Don’t remember that from psychology class?
All it means is creating a nonjudgmental environment. Show support and acceptance no matter what your client says or does. You want them to know you’re there to lift them up, not tear them down.
Example: A client says they’ll keep a food diary but you know they’re not. It’d be easy to get frustrated and express disappointment. But this will only make them trust you less.
Instead, show empathy and ask thoughtful questions. The lesson will sink in.
It’s trust again—the more trust you build, the less likely they’ll quit on you.
This is a long list with a short solution. Our survey found that many clients tossed a combo platter of complaints in our collective faces. Namely:
- Being late for sessions
- Not following through on promises
- Not responding to emails or texts
- Being on your phone during sessions
- Sloppy appearance and poor personal hygiene
- Talking about other clients behind their backs
Your professional solution: Treat personal training like a real business. That’s what it is. Think about businesses you love, those that demonstrate high standards, and imitate them.
“You just don’t connect”
I saved the biggest for last. This was the most common answer on our survey. (I didn’t put it first because I wanted to make sure you read all the others.)
In a nutshell: The client felt like they didn’t have a relationship with their trainer.
With all the clients you have and programs to design and sessions to run, the idea of building a relationship may seem a low priority. Big mistake.
It is always worth the time. A better relationship will make your job more enjoyable, more effective for the client, and it’ll help retention.
Your relationship solution: Take an interest in their lives. It’s that simple. I mentioned psychology earlier but you don’t have to go deep here.
What’s their job? How big is their family? What do they do in their spare time?
Pro tip: Listen to their answers. You can’t fake this.
Heck, if it helps, jot down some notes on their lives so you can refer back later. Original hometown, spouse’s name, whatever. This article on tracking personal training clients shows how valuable it can be.
The more you do this, the more likely you’ll find some common ground with a client. That will cement the connection.
You and Bob both love watching Top Gear? You’ll always have that.
If You’re an Online Trainer, or Want to Be …
You can’t move forward in your career until you learn how to coach fitness and nutrition online responsibly, effectively, efficiently, and confidently.
If you’d like to get ahead, and stay ahead, consider enrolling in the Online Trainer Academy Level 1.
(Or if you’re already training clients online, making more than $1,000 a month, and looking for a more scalable business model, you may be a better fit for the Online Trainer Academy Level 2.)