PT on the Net Research

Overcoming Obstacles to Client Retention

Our lives as personal trainers can be very stressful. First we have to get new clients, and then we have to keep them! It is the ultimate challenge of job security, as we constantly have to wonder if the people we work with will continue to purchase more personal training sessions.

Or do we?

If you listen to the stories of people who are successful in selling their services – whether they’re traditional salespeople, effective teachers, high-end hair stylists, or selling whatever – one theme is constant: success comes from building relationships. I cannot think of another profession where this is more pronounced than in personal training, where we’re close – physically, mentally and emotionally – with another person for one or more hours each week. The challenge is to keep that going forever!

When I think about retaining clients, I go back to my days as a full-time trainer in a traditional health club and think about the mistakes I made, and what I eventually learned from them. These days, I work to help newer trainers get better at keeping clients without making the same mistakes I did.

There are three major missteps I see trainers commonly make when trying to renew clients. These include:

  1. Viewing training programs as a series of short-term packages that must constantly be renewed.
  2. Not speaking in long-term language.
  3. Not recognizing potential dropout/relapse in the behavior change continuum.

Viewing Training Programs as a Series of Packages Up for Constant Renewal

Trainers always tell me they are stressed at the thought of asking a new client to buy another package or series of sessions when the current one is coming to an end. When I ask them to explain in more detail, they talk about the relationship as having a start and an end, and as something that needs to be renewed all the time. This goes back to the counterproductive traditional “sales” mentality. We as trainers need to think of the relationship as a permanent entity, not something that ends each time a package of sessions is done.

It might help to think about what we ourselves buy on an ongoing basis, something that needs to be paid for each month, like health insurance, a club membership, or a magazine subscription. If we feel we are getting more than our money’s worth, or that we absolutely need the product we are paying for, there is no question about whether we are going to renew it or not – we just do it.

Trainers should think about their client relationships this way as well. When starting with a new client, we need to approach it with an attitude that this will be ongoing, forever! Not feeling this way can project a lack of confidence that is palpable by others, and if you don’t feel this way, you really need to re-evaluate your mindset about the personal training profession.

Think of how your communication changed after you realized that someone whom you recently met had now become a friend. Instead of casually meeting them in a coffee shop in the morning or in a bar after work, you or they suggested you exchange phone numbers to “get together” sometime. As soon as that first deliberate meeting happened, the relationship changed. If the experience was positive for both of you, the level of friendship changed. At that point, you felt more comfortable contacting that person to get together more often. It's likely that some of these people have become close friends.

The same principle applies to the trainer/client relationship. You start with the formalities and then, as you gain their confidence and they see how valuable the service is, it becomes an ongoing relationship to where you don’t have to worry whether it is real or not. Your focus now is on being the best trainer that you can be for this person.

Not Speaking in Long-Term Language

How we communicate with someone shows how we feel about any situation. If we are constantly stressed by the thought that a client needs to renew their training sessions next week, or the next day, we can fall into a bad habit of portraying that through our words and actions. Trainers tell me that they are nervous when a training package is coming to an end, and are afraid to ask the client to renew. They then become more timid and anxious, which does not bode well for a successful training session.

To enhance our success with retention, we can choose to use language and terminology that gives the client the sense that we are in the relationship for the long run. This completely reframes the relationship.

Using friends as an example, think of how you choose words differently when speaking with someone who you believe will be in your life for a long time versus someone who you think of more as a passing acquaintance. Instead of saying something like, “Do you think you might want to get together in 3 months to celebrate my birthday?” you say “Oh, its so great to know you! Now you can be part of my birthday party in 3 months!” This is a very simple difference, but has a profoundly different impact!

This idea applies in the personal training setting as well. For example, after you do the initial health history and assessments for a new client, you have a better idea of what they need and what they want out of a program. When explaining the exercise choices and program to them, use words that show you are thinking about their sessions as an ongoing continuum. Tell them how you decided on the path you have designed, and how that will change as they succeed with their goals moving forward.

One tool is to remind them of the long-term goals they previously mentioned.

For example, let’s say your client does 13 push-ups for the first time. Instead of saying “How great that you got 13 push ups today!” add “I know you said this is important to you, and in the next few months, I am going to change some variables in your workout to get you stronger and able to reach that goal of 20!” This will reinforce to them that they are making a long-term commitment to the program and to you. When a client mentions how they feel better or stronger, say “Wow, that’s terrific. I can’t wait to hear more about how this is working for you as we continue to train together!”

Another habit to get into is to ask questions that encourage a subconscious reinforcement to the commitment they initially said they wanted to do. Ask, “Where do you see yourself next year at this time? Because I want to think ahead to plan next steps for your program.”

Not Recognizing Potential Dropout in the Behavior Change Continuum

In the classic Transtheoretical Stages of Behavior Change Model (Prochaska & Velicer, 1997), the Action stage comes after the Pre-Contemplation, Contemplation, and Preparation stages. A new client is in the Action stage, having made a commitment to the new behavior of personal training. Our goal now is to help this person move into the Maintenance stage, and not relapse back into previous stages. This is the crucial part in the process of adopting any new behavior. It requires us as trainers to be very good in observing actions and language that could indicate a new client’s vulnerability. If we hear a new client start saying things like they haven’t kept up with the activities they said they would do on their own, or you sense that they don’t seem to care as much about the goals they previously told you were critical, it could be a sign they are on the verge of dropping out.

We need to gently point out to them what we are hearing, and ask them what they think about that, as opposed to telling them what we think about it. It might just be a matter of re-prioritizing goals. By letting them know that we sense this in them is a huge motivator for them. Re-evaluating goals might be all they need to re-motivate themselves!

Improving our retention success with personal training clients requires an integrated approach. We have to maintain a good attitude about the impact our services have on the lives of our clients, improve our ability to communicate our ongoing value to them, and make sure they consider their long-term relationship with us as a critical element of staying on track towards their health and fitness goals.


  1. Prochaska, J.O., & Velicer, W.F. (1997, Sept/Oct) The Transtheoretical Model of Health Behavior Change. American Journal of Health Promotion, 12(1), pp. 38-48.

Additional Resources

  1. The Program in Narrative Medicine
  2. Pro-Change Behavior Systems