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The Power of Influence: Strategies for Attracting New Clients, Better Retention & More Referrals

Okay, you’re a great trainer.

You’ve got an exercise science degree and more training certifications than you can fit on the office wall. And you’ve spent a small fortune on continuing education with the top professionals in the field.

So why aren’t new clients blowing up your phone? Why aren’t current clients filling every appointment slot? And why aren’t long-time clients singing your praises to everyone they meet?

Why, with all your expertise, can’t clients tell the difference between you and everyone else in your market?

And why do some trainers – who are nowhere close to you in terms of education and experience – attract more new clients? Have a bigger/more loyal client base? And get lots of referral business?

According to Robert Cialdini, author of the groundbreaking bestseller Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, you may be too one-dimensional. Your focus on exercise science may be leading you to ignore psychological science. And that’s where your competitors are gaining an edge.

The Power of Influence

A lifelong “sucker” for salespeople, Cialdini became fascinated by how skilled “influencers” use their techniques of persuasion to get him to do things he might not have otherwise done.

To understand their methods, he spent three years undercover. He went for sales training (working in used car dealerships, no less). He worked with fund-raising organizations. He even paid his dues at telemarketing firms.

With a PhD in psychology, he also dug into the psychological literature. And, with a combination of scientific research and real-world experience, he derived six fundamental principles of influence...principles that lead to near-automatic compliance.

You see, as humans, when someone makes us an offer, we’re hard-wired to look for certain things. In fact, before even considering the offer, we run a host of subconscious programs to decide whether we should even consider it in the first place. And the busier and more frenetic we are, the more subconscious this process becomes.

According to best-selling author and marketing expert, Seth Godin, there’s a short list of questions we ask ourselves when considering any offer  – whether it’s a gym membership, personal training package, or nutrition coaching program:

Some of these questions may be relevant to your business, others not. However, the point is the same. If your competitors understand the way clients think – and you don’t – they’ll enjoy a substantial professional advantage. They’ll do a better job of attracting new clients, retaining current ones, and getting more referral business.

The Six Principles of Influence

So, how do you compete? Let’s begin by spending some time better understanding Cialdini’s six key principles of influence.

Principle #1: Reciprocation

As you probably know, when someone gives us a gift or does us a favor, we try to repay him or her. In other words, we reciprocate.

Of course, this “web of gratitude” is common, and found across cultures. It’s valuable social currency. It allows us to share resources and, generally, get along. Those who don’t reciprocate? They’re usually seen as uncooperative and ungrateful.

In Influence, Cialdini uses an interesting example from world affairs. Despite suffering from a crippling famine in the 1980s, Ethiopia sent $5,000 in humanitarian aid to Mexico just after an earthquake in 1985. This was in reciprocation for the support Mexico provided Ethiopia during the 1935 Italian invasion.

Even though they couldn’t afford the aid, Ethiopia sent it anyway to repay Mexico’s previous kindness. This is the principle of reciprocity in action.

So how does this relate to your business? Well, if you’d like to enjoy the benefits of reciprocity, consider doing what Mexico did in 1935. No, you don’t have to send aid to Ethiopia. However, you should consider offering something really cool to prospective clients.

For example: offer free (or very low cost) community educational seminars, grocery store tours, group workout sessions, etc. Now, this isn’t just about getting your name out there. Offer this high quality education to people at no cost and they’re more likely to sign up to train with you or to refer their friends.

But this isn’t just for prospective clients. Why not offer cool stuff to current clients too? Throw parties, give gift certificates, hand out team t-shirts, spotlight them within your community. These are excellent rewards to pass out when they reach their goals, when they’ve stuck with you over time, or when they’ve referred other clients.

In the end, this principle is simple: do awesome stuff, for both current and prospective clients. By doing this, clients will be more likely to do awesome stuff for you.

Principle #2: Commitment and Consistency

It’s human nature to want to be as consistent as possible. When we say we’ll do something, we don’t want to look like we didn’t follow through. And when we actually do something, we want to take consistent action in the future so it doesn’t look like we made a mistake. This all comes from a desire to be congruent with our own self-image.

People more often follow through with publicly announced goals vs. private ones. Why? Consistency and commitment. They feel compelled to do what they said they would.

Here’s an underhanded way this principle is exploited in car sales: once the salesperson and customer agree on a price, the salesperson usually disappears to “check with their manager.” What’s up with that? Well, once we’ve already agreed to buy, the salesperson knows that we’ll be more likely to buy even if they come back with a last-minute counteroffer that’s $500 higher.

This principle is also used in membership sales. Instead of asking, “Do you want to sign up?” a salesperson will ask, “Between the annual option and the monthly option, which is best for you?” Of course, either response gets a potential member to decide on an option. And when it’s time to ask for the sale, the salesperson will expect consistency.

How’s this relevant to your business? You can benefit from asking prospective or current clients to make early commitments. For everything from showing up for an information session, to following through with appointments, to complying with nutrition and exercise habits, early commitments make a big difference.

One great strategy here is the pre-sale, pre-registration, or VIP waiting list. By asking potential clients to put their name on a free waiting list – for a product, service, or even a free class – they’re making a small early commitment. And when it’s time to show up (or sign up), they’ll be more likely to follow through.

Here’s another strategy: do you want clients to say good things about you in the community? If so, start collecting written or recorded (video) testimonials. Of course, you can use these to help sell your services to prospective clients. However, this serves another goal. In an effort to be consistent, your clients are now primed to go out and talk about you to their friends and family. And that means more referral business.

Principle #3: Social Proof

In my opinion, this is one of the most powerful principles of persuasion – social proof. Nowadays, we’re surrounded by choice. The sheer number of options is staggering, paralyzing. So, how do we decide things? We look around to see what other people are doing.

If something seems popular or well-liked – as judged by the number of 5/5 ratings on Amazon, the number of likes of Facebook, or the number of positive reviews by critics – we assume it’s good. The opposite? Well, we assume it’s crap.

You can even see this principle in small daily activities. Change lanes on the highway, and drivers behind you will do the same. See someone in church slip $5 into the collection plate, and others start reaching for their wallet too.

Whether we like it or not, our own choices are powerfully impacted by the choices of our peers. And, in the fitness world, the power of social proof is tremendous.

To demonstrate social proof, I always recommend fitness pros create “success books.” Using an online custom book publishing service (like, you can print beautiful, professional (inexpensive) books. Books that show off the types of results your clients have achieved.

Fill these books with before/after photos, client stories, case studies, measurement data, and more. Make sure to group the photos by gender and age. There’s nothing more powerful than sitting in front of a potential client and showing them the amazing results you’re able to achieve with people just like them.

Here’s another idea: offer group training sessions where current clients are invited to bring a friend or family member. When prospective clients see people they know having fun and getting results, the social proof will be strong.

Of course, if you do online coaching, you can also use Facebook, Twitter, and enable comments on your blog/articles. However, if you use these tools, be sure to ask for likes and comments. This demonstrates social proof. It means your information is popular, high quality, and worth listening to. On the other hand, if your pages look barren and unliked, these strategies can backfire.

Principle #4: Authority

This one’s pretty straightforward. Subconsciously, we all want to obey authority figures. We’re taught from an early age to listen to our parents, to respect our elders, to obey the law, and to take our doctor’s advice.

Of course, advertisers use this principle when they make claims like: “4 out of 5 dentists approve” and “Doctor’s #1 choice.” They also use it when gathering testimonials or featuring respected celebrities or experts in their advertisements.

To appeal to authority in your own business, think about which of your clients are respected professionals or members of the community. Then ask to feature their testimonials (video or written) prominently at your facility or on your website.

Also, when it comes to giving advice, appealing to authority can come in handy. Instead of saying “You should eat more protein,” you might try saying “Dr. X, in a recent study, recommended eating more protein. Is that something you feel confident you can do?

Principle #5: Friendship, Affiliation, and Liking

According to Cialdini, we tend to say yes to people we like. Whether it’s their personality, whether it’s the way they look, or whether it’s the group they’re affiliated with. If we like someone, or something about him or her, we’re more likely to say yes to their offer.

In Influence, Cialdini uses the example of the Tupperware party. With the Tupperware system, the sales agent is a friend. And because the agent is a friend, sales are way better.

Social media – like Facebook – works similarly. People hear about new Facebook pages from their friends. And the closer someone is to a friend of yours, the more likely you are to “friend” them too.

As discussed earlier, a great strategy is to offer free workout nights, parties, or grocery tours where your clients invite a family member or friend. By getting to know you in this way, you become the “friend of a friend” to prospective clients.

In addition, the more active you are in the community, the more people you get to know, and the more well-liked you can become, the more you’ll benefit from this principle. Who would you rather work with: someone you know and like, or a complete stranger?

According to Cialdini, the liking principle also suggests that we tend to gravitate toward physically attractive people, powerful people, or celebrities. We see this everywhere from ads to movies.

Of course, as a fitness professional, you should do your best to look the part. But that’s not the point. Rather, as discussed earlier, be sure to feature the testimonials and stories of clients who are most likely to attract attention to your business.

Principle #6: Scarcity

Scarcity – or the idea that your programs only have limited spots available and that the demand for these spots is high – can impact your perceived value and a prospective client’s desire to work with you.

Examples of scarcity are everywhere: a long line outside the velvet rope in front of a popular club, a waiting list to sign up for an in-demand school, a radio ad for “only 10 left” of whatever’s being sold at the local home improvement store.

Funnily enough, we even react to this principle every day when we interrupt face-to-face conversations to answer our cell phones. Why do we do this? Because the phone call is scarce (now is the only time to answer!)

So, how can you use this principle in your business? Why not create seasonal group programs that have limited availability? Only accept the first 25 registrants and if someone doesn’t sign up in time, they have to wait till next time.

Why not create applications and waiting lists for your products and services? Instead of accepting all new clients, ask them to fill out an application for approval. Let them know that if they’re approved they’ll go on a waiting list and when the next available spot will come up.

Why not have limited enrollment/discount periods of a few days only, after which time people miss out on the deal (or the spot in your program)?

In the end, your time is limited. So why not structure your offers so that clients understand that? By making this clear, they’ll also understand that, while it’s your privilege and honor to work with them, it’s their privilege and honor to work with you.


  1. None of you will be surprised to know that being a good trainer requires in-depth knowledge of the human body, exercise physiology, and nutritional science.
  2. However, none of these will guarantee success in this field. In addition to understanding the body, you also need to understand people. How they make decisions, how they make changes, and what attracts them to certain things over others.
  3. Ultimately, your business relies on your ability to attract clients, and your ability to help them. The principles outlined here will help you improve at doing both.


  1. Cialdini, R.B. (2007). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. New York, NY: HarperCollins.
  2. Godin, S. (2012, Feb 8). How Do They Know You’re Not a Flake. Retrieved from