This post is in many ways off topic for this blog. Still, I have decided to write about this subject partly out of personal passion and partly because it represents one interpretation of being a marketer from the inside that I don’t dwell on much in this little digital journey. Plus, this topic has just plain come up in my travels of late.personal training

Previously, I have discussed the importance of being a likable, social animal in order to be successful in not only marketing but also business in general.  My site focuses more on the soft skills that a marketer needs versus all the other technical stuff you get in school in the domains of strategy and analysis.  Somewhere in between the hard and the soft is the necessity to have passion for and understanding of the consumer, the people that live beyond your four walls and make our businesses sing.

The consumer is a wonderfully complex being that requires both science and intuition to understand.  Only so much can be taught, while the true expertise is derived from insight that is quite nuanced and very personal.  You either have it or you don’t.  To understand consumers fully, you need to be part psychologist while also being able to adeptly read all the forms of personal communication including word choice, tone, facial expression, body language and the like.  In the less personal world of mass consumer marketing, you also need strong skills or partners in market research so that you are not misled by what you are told or by faulty research design, common issues when studying people en masse. Some of this I will discuss below.

To make a consumer discussion less theoretical, I will pull in an example based on my own experience supplemented by much observation.  Personal training.  Quite the ‘people’ job that involves both sourcing and retaining clients. The industry suffers from high drop out rates, so we’ll look at the problem of retention.

In this post, I want to illuminate some crucial considerations about the consumer that are necessary to create engagement.  For trainers – especially those that want to retain more of their client base – I will propose several consumer-related questions to ask yourself so that you can ensure you’re doing and thinking about the right things to create a sustainable business from a steady pool of clients. For repeat and loyalty the marketing instrument is largely you – who you are and how you connect with and adapt to your clients.

Against this backdrop, and assuming you have generated even a small number of trial visits, here are the essential questions worth asking yourself to unlock the power of retention:

Can you accept everything your client tells you at face value?

That’s pretty much a rhetorical question, but the answer if you haven’t figured it out is ‘no’.  All that information you gather in the initial consult: be careful what you do with it.  It may take awhile to get the the true story.  One of the bigger challenges with consumers/clients is that there is noise in the communication channels.  Sometimes they can’t articulate their thoughts perfectly.  Sometimes they are just not clear on their answers and motivations. And sometimes, they just don’t trust you enough to tell you what they think and feel.  Your job is to get to the essential truths as they relate to the training relationship.  So don’t go by exactly what you are told…in all cases.

A great example is the feedback that the workout ‘wasn’t fun’. I wouldn’t take that literally and therefore address it with a lot of ‘woo-hoos’ and high-fives after a set (please…don’t ever high-five anyone. Seriously, ever.)  What your client is sharing is the blanket, non-offensive excuse that acts like a throwaway for a much bigger problem that lies in the answers to the questions below. Much like how telling a dating prospect that “I’m just really busy right now” is French for saying “you just haven’t interested me enough to be one of the top 400 ways I’d choose to spend my evening”. You likely don’t get the real story when it’s difficult news.

Why is your client seeking personal training?

See above. The reason may be perfectly clear, such as doctor’s orders or a female client needs to fit into her wedding dress in six weeks.  But what if this person feels crappy about themself and wants to address that so they can get dates?  Think you’ll know that on day one?  Knowing why they are truly there will guide not only how you build their plan but how you communicate with and motivate them.

What is the real goal?

As a trainer, you are typically all about metrics.  A client may already have a metric in mind such as “I want to lose 15 lbs.”. You can work with that, so you design a program to bulldoze your way to that goal, often times with this passionate vision about you can create this success story in 3 weeks to put up on your web site.  Don’t fall into that appealing trap.  So, what if they only lost 12?  Or 7?  Or 18?  Will it matter?  Metrics are often arbitrary, and most importantly they are a means to an end. Once you know ‘the end’, you will understand the true importance (or irrelevance) of the metric.  The end point may be the wedding dress or for a hard core athlete, the end may be to improve results in a competitive event.  Those are clear cut examples that validate the need to drive to a specific number.  But for many, the end point is a bit foggier; it could be to simply to feel better…or look a little better.  Takes time and rapport to figure that out…and will require you to be less pushy and more empathetic.  Focus on finding alternate ways than via measurement tape to build confidence and a sense of progress that keeps them coming back.  A whole new world may open up that provides for more flexibility and personalization the fitness routine.

How passionate are they to reach the goal?

I used to work in the Caribbean.  West Indians have the most delicious little sayings that get to the heart of the matter.  My favorite has always been Everybody wants to go to heaven…but nobody wants to die.  So true.  We’d all like to get a promotion and make more money.  But then we realize we have to manage six more people and inherit all their objectives and performance issues.   Clients would love to lose 10 lbs. in a month but when they realize after the first two sessions that they have to do plyometric exercises for 30 minutes until their head pounds and they want to vomit, they may not come back.  For me, I wanted to lose a few points of body fat.  Now, I’m already pretty lean and have a super healthy diet.  But on Day 1 my trainer literally wanted to cut out all added sugar from my diet.  Let me tell you I hardly have any as it is, but that meant no dairy and no ¼ tsp of sugar in my coffee in the morning…and actually I could only drink green tea and water.  There was a lot more.  It was dietary bootcamp.  Right off the bat.  He lost me at ‘hello’.  I wasn’t ready to sacrifice this much this quickly for my objectives for which I was only half-heartedly committed.  I would have stayed, though, if we took a longer term approach.

What habits do you need to create or break?   

I sometimes ask trainers to identify the business they are in. Naturally, I get answers that are all about getting people healthy and fit. However, as with those of us in marketing, we tend to characterize our business somewhat imprecisely. For most clients, you are actually in the business of creating healthy habits. For if you don’t create the habit, they won’t be coming back to see you…and you won’t be making any money. If you learn to insightfully identify the business you’re in, you are likely to approach it the right way. More specifically, you might redefine your goal more in terms of getting them to come back versus being preoccupied with a metric.

The majority of new clients are not fitness freaks.  They have difficulty staying active or on a diet.  Do you honestly think that handing them a diet plan or workout regimen is enough to make it stick?  I could dedicate multiple pages to the process to create new behaviors but this post is long enough already.  Research this area.  You will need to be patient, flexible and encouraging to change consumer behavior.  To me, it’s one of the greatest challenges of your job.

What motivates your client? 

You might get lucky and land one of the few clients who comes pre-packaged with all the necessary motivation to do whatever they are told.  If not, you have to dig a little to figure it out.

A good place to start is to exude the right kind of energy that works for your client.  One of my trainers in my past was outstanding in this area.  I’d be squatting and grunting and cursing him and he’d stand over me and say quietly and evenly, “you know, you can do one more.  Let’s see it”.  He was so cool.  Firm, but super chill.  Not the growling, panting meathead types that attract attention to my relatively discreet self.  Perfect.

I have sadly seen a number of trainers who are just the opposite, giving off a disengaged vibe. Checking their email on their phone while a client was doing a set.  Leaning against a wall while they count reps and lazily chew their gum. Scoping out the talent at the gym.  Don’t think your client can’t tell how into this you are ( or are not).  For that hour, they need to feel you’re all about them. Think about how you’re conveying that message.

I had one other trainer who put me on a plan every week that could only make me fail.  I told him flat out I wasn’t being set up for success and he didn’t seem to internalize that that meant.  While he is very much the motivated, crazy-energetic type that is bound to ultimately succeed, I just wasn’t…at least in this area.  He gave me a week to week plan that I could only screw up.  I would have to move mountains (at least in my mind) to meet the weekly objectives.  I was de-motivated after week one.  Rule of thumb: set your clients up for success. Forget about the 20-lb. target. Make them feel that they can do the job today; confidence is a momentum builder.

What are your clients’ deal breakers?

Here’s a good one few people talk about but I have heard a lot.  Many people don’t like the feeling of gasping for breath.  It’s a very ‘negative’ feeling to them, much like how they feel if they are stressed or anxious.  While you, the trainer, may savor the endorphin rush of pushing your body past its limit, your client may have horrible associations with this process and therefore become turned off.  This is a lot like forming habits as discussed above.  Many people hate the feeling of being drained from a work out. Hate it.  Really hate it.  You may need to ease them into it and teach them to like it.

In my last job the CEO did a very cool thing by offering up his personal trainer for once a week bootcamp classes in a neighboring park.  Friday over lunch.  He’d pay for more if there was interest.  What happened? Yup, 20 people in the first class, 12 in the second and dwindled to 4 or 5 until it ended a few months later.  Why?  Too hard.  Rather than motivating and energizing, it taught the team that they were really out of shape because they couldn’t do all the exercises.  Plus it made them feel wiped for the afternoon.  Ties back to everything else I said above. The team just wanted to be inspired. Taking inactive bodies and dialing them up to 11 isn’t the way to get there.

Does your client ‘like’ you and relate to you?

Aside from doing all the things right, your client has to like you.  This is the catch all.  Goes for any empathetic-related job including massage therapist or psychologist.  The client needs you feel you ‘get’ them and that’s one of the reasons why they return.  You have to be a chameleon and establish rapport with your customer by convincing them you could live in their shoes.  I asked one of my trainers what he would do differently when training a young gay male versus a middle aged married female.  He looked at me like that was the silliest question he had ever heard and didn’t answer.  I just left it.  I’m sure he’ll figure it out….or…ultimately find another career.

Add it all up….

Although the context of this article is personal training, the more generalized insights into the complex mind of the consumer can be applied to almost any marketing arena.  Specifically, the necessity to not take consumers literally is one of the greater challenges of the practice of market research, a fascinating part of the marketing discipline.

Back to training, I have observed that many courses and articles on the service take a technical approach to client retention: email follow-ups, weekly newsletters, progress reports, motivational texts or phone calls and the like.  Not a bad idea.  But, that’s only a start.

I’m not the first to say that personal training is more ‘personal’ than ‘training’.  Being ‘personal’ is all about the crazy degree of customization that’s required and not just in exercise plan but in the more delicate aspects.  It’s how you re-envision goals to set the right ones, and then balance your client’s ingoing level of motivation with just the right amount of push.  All packaged up and delivered by someone with an uncanny level of insight that creates a meaningful connection.  It all starts….from the inside.

That’ll keep ‘em coming back.