The Secret Ingredient for Superior Client Retention

It should go without saying, but client retention for personal trainers is one of the most important aspects of running a successful personal training business.

But how can you interact with your clients in such a way that they will always be happy to return?

Client Retention

Experienced trainers stated that applying empathetic understanding strategies into training sessions changed their approach entirely.

Empathetic understanding, also known as "perspective taking," helps people put their best efforts forward, according to the findings in a Birmingham study on empathy and leadership. This is exactly what trainers aim to accomplish.

Even large corporations and companies use empathy for marketing purposes.

Take the dieting industry for example, and the advantages of the Military Diet. This popular diet includes ice cream, which addresses a common feeling dieters experience -- the denial of "forbidden foods." By adding ice cream to the menu, this reveals the company's understanding of these feelings that come with a diet commitment.

Applying Empathetic Approaches

When applying strategies for increasing empathy, the ability to understand another's feelings, trainers need to be willing to question, listen, observe, validate, and adjust throughout sessions.

With this in mind, applying these strategies will result in an immediate increase in client satisfaction leading to retention.

You can use the following strategies before a workout session with a client to tailor the day toward their needs, or after a workout to plan for future sessions. Maintaining these tips with your clients will not only help them feel comfortable with you but also improve their results, leading to increasing client retention.

Reflection Strategy: A Quick Win

If you do nothing else, consider adding a reflection to each of your training sessions. Reflection questions assess clients' thoughts and feelings in order to adjust the follow-up session to address them.

To use reflections at the close of a session, ask the client one of the following questions (or design another for assessing client's reactions to the session):

  1. Where do you feel you're still struggling regarding ...?
  2. How would you evaluate your performance with ...?
  3. Are there concerns you have with your progress today?

The response to a reflection question provides you with the information needed to tailor the next session based on the client's response. By designing sessions using client's feedback, a willingness to exert more effort will become observable in the client's words and behaviors.

Three Types of Empathy and How to Use Them

Strategies for the three types of empathy -- cognitive, emotional, and compassionate -- are listed here. Follow the steps for each strategy and maintain a flexible attitude when moving through to the final action step for each.

1. Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy refers to knowing what another person is thinking or feeling. This type of empathy allows individuals to express understanding then take effective action.

Cognitive Empathy Approach

  1. Listen to the client's comments.
  2. Observe the client's physical and verbal cues.
  3. Validate the client’s feelings (I understand why you feel...).
  4. Be flexible and prepared to change plans (key to using empathy for better results).

Action steps 3 and 4 will enhance the clients' experience during the session. Thus, they'll feel understood while gaining a better sense of your intentions to meet their specific needs.

2. Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy refers to feeling the emotions of another. This is referred to by psychologist Daniel Goleman on Empathy 101 as becoming "attuned with another's inner emotional world."

Emotional Empathy Approach

  1. Ask "how" and "why" questions regarding the client's physical and emotional state.
  2. Validate responses (I understand why ...).
  3. Expand on what the client says with elaboration.

By asking and encouraging clients to express their feelings, listening, and validating with elaboration, you'll open new avenues for communication. The additional information you add will confirm to clients that your understanding is authentic as opposed to a simple, "I understand."

Also, your client becomes more receptive to your suggestions since you've attained a higher level of comfort and trust by affirming their responses. This is directly related to the dialogue exchanged.

3. Compassionate Empathy

The third type of empathy is compassionate empathy. Goleman refers to the phrase "empathetic concern" and defines it as the ability not only to understand how another person feels but also have the desire to help them.

It ensures that whatever next steps are designed, they will assist the client in relieving any distress and continue moving forward.

Compassionate Empathy Approach

  1. Listen.
  2. Share a personal story to show understanding of what the client shares.
  3. Adjust plans to meet the needs of the client, if needed.
  4. Share "why" and "what" will be changed during the process.

By using a compassionate empathetic approach during a session, a trainer "thinks out loud" as they describe the changes taking place at the moment (step 4).

This strategy moves beyond a standard training session, as clients are given a glimpse of your thought process and how you'll tailor sessions specifically for the client's current state of mind. It will build your client's confidence in the suggested course of action.

Final Thoughts

By using these strategies to increase empathy during training sessions, you can increase client satisfaction, leading to extended partnerships. 

As studies show, an empathetic approach "moves people to their best efforts." It is this empathetic understanding that will increase client satisfaction as they meet goals successfully, leading to retention.

How will you show empathy to improve your client retention? Sound off in the comments and don't forget to share!


About the author

Mike Jones

Mike Jones became a fitness addict after realizing he was overweight. On his weight-loss journey, he met personal trainers with different approaches. Most of them didn't understand the value of connecting with their clients on a more personal level. Mike hopes all fitness professionals will make time for psychology courses or, at least, learn how to relate better with another person.