By the Numbers: Breaking the 150-Client Barrier

A wrecking ball busting through blocks - breaking the 150 client barrier

Most gyms bump up against a ceiling of 150 members—and sometimes that number is far less than 150.

There’s a simple reason you reach a maximum member limit and can’t break through: It’s not them. It’s you.

You’ve created a problem if:

  • You’re the only person who talks to your clients between classes.
  • You’re the one who explains every rate change or starts every conversation in your Facebook group.
  • 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 … .

Don’t worry: You can fix the problem and finally smash through that “class ceiling effect.”

The “Icon Problem”

Each of us can maintain around 150 interpersonal relationships. After 150, we start forgetting our clients’ Fran times and kids’ names. 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 represents a relationship that must be managed. If the relationship is personal with you, then you’ll never get above 150. This is the “icon problem.”

But if every client has a relationship with your brand—independent of the client’s relationship with you—then you can grow to well more 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. And they don’t measure the value of your gym by how much time they get to spend with the owner.

Solution: 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 yourself and then teach those systems to other people. Every coach should deliver to the same level of excellence. Every coach should be replaceable with another coach. And you should have a relationship “safety net”: a client success manager (CSM) who maintains every client’s relationship with your brand.

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

When you have over 150 clients, one of the best retention strategies involves the concept of “triads.” Dave Logan introduced this phrase in his book “Tribal Leadership,” and it’s been documented in the work of Jim Collins and other thought leaders. When doing research for our Tinker program, we found triads every time we interviewed the owners of successful gyms with more than 150 members.

Simply put, a two-way relationship is not as strong as a three-way relationship. In the gym business, a “triad” can involve a client and two of the following: another client, a coach, a CSM or even an owner in the early stages of a business. The exact makeup of the triad doesn’t matter. What matters is that a relationship isn’t as strong when it’s just the owner and a client or a coach and a client. It’s the third element that provides the real strength.

Redundancy means 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?

Solution: Shift Coaches on Purpose

If a client can’t work out with another coach, how can the primary 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 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’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.”

Similarly, groups should be exposed to other coaches at least every few weeks, and even nutrition clients should be exposed to other nutrition coaches.

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”—that doesn’t tell the client anything.

“Here’s a free special bonus just for you!”—that says a lot.

Solution: Push the Spotlight Away

After a full week away talking to other gym owners, I once returned to the beloved noon group at my gym 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.

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!”

I was struck dumb—but 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. But 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 the other coaches, 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.

Pull Your Business Behind You

A business will only grow to the level of its leadership. If you’re not capable of leading a large group, you won’t have a large group of followers. Leading is not an innate ability: It takes practice, and that requirement stops most people from becoming leaders.

Great leaders pull their audiences behind them. Great leaders motivate and inspire with their words and actions instead of their constant presence. And great leaders know that to level up their businesses, they must improve themselves first.

The key to developing your leadership is growth: making mistakes and then learning from them. Sometimes, you can learn from the mistakes of others (which is far less painful).

Our Tinker program is built to create leaders and help those leaders pull their gym communities up to the next level. Click here to book a free call to see if you’re ready for Tinker.

Other Media in This Series

“By the Numbers: Many Members, Great Retention”
“By the Numbers: What Gyms With More Than 150 Clients Have in Common”


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.