Breaking the 150-Client Barrier

A silver ladder leads out of the dark to a hole in the ceiling and a bright blue sky with a few clouds above.

The Class Ceiling Effect

“Every time our membership reaches 150 people, we drop back to 130!”
“We hover between 110 and 125 members. We never drop lower, but we never seem to reach higher, either.”
“We’ve been at the same membership for 2.5 years even though we get new people almost every month!”
There’s a simple reason you reach a maximum member limit and can’t break through.
It’s not them: It’s you.
Here’s the real problem, how you’ve created it and how to finally smash through that Class Ceiling Effect.

The “Icon” Problem

Each of us can maintain around 150 interpersonal relationships. After 150, we start forgetting their kids’ names and their Fran scores. We simply can’t spread our personal care any further. This is called Dunbar’s number. Into that 150 people, we have to cram our families, friends, staff and clients.
Every client is a relationship that must be managed. If that relationship is a personal one with you, then you’ll never get above 150.
But if every client has a relationship with your brand—independent of the client’s relationship with you—then you can grow to far larger than 150 clients.
A relationship with your brand means your clients don’t care who owns your gym. They don’t get upset if one of your coaches leaves because they know they can depend on the same excellent service from any coach at your gym. And they don’t measure the value of your gym by how much time they get to spend with the owner.

You’ve Made This Bed

If you’re the only person who talks to your clients between classes …
If you’re the one who explains every rate change or starts every conversation in your Facebook group …
If your name is on every greeting card and your face is on every video and your caption is on every social post and your byline is on every blog post …
… you’ve gotten yourself into this.
Here’s how to get yourself out:

Create Redundancy

Your clients should receive the same excellent care even when you’re not there, right? If they don’t, you simply don’t have a business.
That means you have to create systems to replace you and then teach those systems to other people.
For example, every coach should deliver to the same level of excellence. Every coach should be replaceable with another of your coaches. And you should have a relationship “safety net”: a CSM who maintains every client’s relationship with your brand.

(Need a full job description for the Client Success Manager role? Click here.)

Many military leaders say, “Two is one and one is none.” They’re talking about redundancy: always having a backup for the stuff that really matters. Your clients’ relationship with your brand matters more than anything else. Are you really going to put that fragile little bird into the hands of your least-likable coach?

Shift Coaches on Purpose

If a client can’t work out with another coach, then how can that coach ever take a vacation?
If you make the largest mistake of all—referring to a client’s personal trainer as his or her “coach for life”)—how will you ever keep that client when the coach leaves or retires?
It’s in everyone’s best interests to occasionally have clients work with other coaches. I don’t mean a full schedule shuffle every six months. I mean this:
Personal-training clients should do at least two sessions with a different coach each quarter.
“Hey, Maria, I’m out of town next week! But I have a treat for you: I’ve asked Paul to meet with you at your regular time and coach you through your workouts. I’ve shared your future programming with him, and I know you’re going to love hearing someone else’s voice in your ear for a change! But I’ll be back the following week and I’ll stay in close contact with Paul while I’m away.”
Groups should be exposed to other coaches at least every few weeks.
“Class, I am super excited for this: Coach Paul will be here tomorrow! Paul is an expert in weightlifting, so I’ve asked him to spend some extra time working through your second pulls and finishing positions. You’re going to love him, and I’m going to be jealous that I’m not here! Have fun!”
And even nutrition clients should be exposed to other nutrition coaches.
“Aarav, I have something special for you. I’ve asked Coach Jennifer to meet with you during our scheduled appointment time next week. Jennifer is a real specialist in nutritional diversity; I’ve asked her to help you expand your diet while sticking to your goals. I want to make sure this plan is something you can stick to for life, and that means never getting bored with your food—or with me! Haha. I’ll meet you again in the following session!”
The key in shifting coaches is to tell the client how it will benefit him or her.
“I’m going to be away on vacation, here’s a replacement” doesn’t tell the client anything.
“Here’s a free special bonus just for you!” does.

Push the Spotlight Away

This is one of my wife’s favorite stories about our gym.
After a full week away talking to other gym owners, I returned to my beloved Noon Group on a Monday. I burst in at the last minute to find the group already in a big circle doing some calisthenics. I hopped into the closest spot and got warm. Robin was across the circle from me.
When the coach said, “Everyone come over here and get a stretching band,” the woman on my left turned to me and said, “Hi, you must be new here. I’m Sarah. Welcome!”
Robin laughed. I was struck dumb—but then I was thrilled because Sarah was having a great time at my box even though she had no idea who I was.
If Sarah had joined my box between 2008 and 2013, she would have seen me every single day, probably teaching her class or leading her 1:1 sessions. I’d made myself redundant. The great clients were finding my box, fitting into my box and loving my box without me.
And that’s when we broke through the barrier.
When the spotlight was no longer on “Chris Cooper, fitness coach,” people started to love the other coaches at Catalyst. People started to brag about Catalyst the gym, not Chris the trainer. They started to bring their friends to CrossFit Catalyst instead of 1:1 sessions with Chris or Mike.
The more I bragged about Coach Mel or Coach Charity, the more clients came to train with them. We all benefitted: the gym, the coaches and the clients. Because let’s face it: I’m not the best coach for everyone, and I never will be.
There are around 150 people who want to train with ONLY me. There are around 1,500 people who like me but just want to see me around. And there are over 15,000 people in my little city who want to get fit, have never heard of me and don’t give a damn about me personally.
But they can still come to my gym.
There’s room because I’ve removed the ceiling.

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One more thing!

Did you know gym owners can earn $100,000 a year with no more than 150 clients? We wrote a guide showing you exactly how.