How to Build a Referral Network for Your Gym

How to Build a Referral Network for Your Gym

Chris Cooper: (00:01)
The key to exponential growth in your gym is to have your clients bring you more clients. I’m Chris Cooper. I’m the founder of Two-Brain Business. And if this episode is helpful or you want to get more tips and tactics, go to It’s a free public group with over 6,000 other caring, empathetic, tactful, and thoughtful gym owners. And you can ask your questions in there about any aspect of gym ownership. Today I want to talk to you about building a referral culture. And the number one reason that gym owners don’t get enough referrals is that they don’t have referrals baked into their process. And also because their clients aren’t expecting to generate referrals, they’re not expecting to be asked about their friends or family. Today I’m gonna talk about building that referral culture in your gym. Now, this isn’t a passive process.

Chris Cooper: (00:50)
You want your clients to bring you more clients, but you can’t just sit back and wait for it to happen. Your clients are not salespeople, they’re not evangelists. They probably love you, but unless somebody asks, who’s your coach? Or how did you lose all that weight? They’re probably not going to talk about you. So today, I’m gonna tell you how we’ve built a referral system at my gym and hundreds of other gyms worldwide. While we do occasionally run Facebook ads, around once a quarter, most of our clients come from direct referrals. Yes, of course you have to do a good job. Yes, of course you have to get people results, but that’s not why we get referrals. We get referrals because we’ve built a culture of referral instead of a culture of secrecy. In the first 90 days that they’re with your gym, a client is very likely to refer a friend.

Chris Cooper: (01:42)
So that’s where we’re gonna start. If you’re in the Two-Brain family, pull out your client journey from the Growth Toolkit and start taking notes. So here are the steps. Number one, prepare your client to refer their friends. At your first meeting with a client, say this: if I do a great job and you’re happy with your progress in 90 days, I’m going to ask you for the name of one other person who could benefit from this service. Okay? That’s it. Step two, do an excellent job and get the client some results. And you’re already great at this part. Step three, ask for a referral at your 90 day goal review. Measure the client’s progress, record the client’s story, and then say, you have made amazing progress. You’ve probably noticed how warm and friendly everybody is here. We curate our membership by working only with amazing people.

Chris Cooper: (02:36)
Who in your life would fit into this group? And then you make sure that you get that person’s name and their contact information. Then you ask, How would you feel about calling them right now while I’ve got you here? Now, this is a 50/50. Some clients won’t feel comfortable, and that’s fine. But if the client agrees, call that new lead and say, Hey Alan, I’m sitting here with Joan and we were just talking about you. She would like to invite you in to work out with her. What do you say? If the client would rather not have you cold call their friend, you could email instead, right? Just cc your client on the email for credibility. So your subject line is, like, your client’s name, Joan Lichowitz. And the text is like, Hey Alan, I was just chatting with Joan here and we agreed that we’d love to have you in for a partner workout.

Chris Cooper: (03:27)
Joan’s next appointment will be May the 3rd at three o’clock. Can you make it? This type of direct referral works best with low hanging fruit, right? Your client’s best referral, like their spouse or their sister, who’s probably pre-qualified and ready to try something new. These conversations will result in a new client 37% of the time. So what that means is that you can take 10 clients, put them through a goal review and come out with 14. And the beautiful part is that it’s gonna be 14 good matches who aren’t price shopping, who fit into the same demographic as your current clients, et cetera. Now, I want to talk about extending that process out over the first year. Your newest clients are the most excited about your service. And in his book, “Never Lose a Customer Again”, Joey Coleman says that evangelism is most likely to happen around that 90 day mark.

Chris Cooper: (04:21)
So I just told you what to say on day zero and what to say on day 90. And if you’re in Two-Brain, you can pull out your client journey map because I’m gonna share another referral strategy for the rest of the client’s first year. So to recap. Day zero, you set the expectation that you’re going to ask them a referral if you get them results. Day 90, you’re going to ask for the client’s most likely good referral. Okay? Now let’s talk about the rest of the year. Every 90 days you wanna book a goal review session with your client. So I’ve already said what to say on day 90. This is Day 180. Okay? They’ve been with you now for six months. You can grab the cheat sheet from our Affinity marketing guide if you’re in Two-Brain. Go to the toolkit under Affinity Marketing and grab the cheat sheet.

Chris Cooper: (05:05)
But what you wanna do is, basically before you sit down with your client for their goal review session, you ask yourself a few questions. Who does that client live with? Who do they work with? Who do they hang around with? And that should give you at least three opportunities for referrals right away, or three ideas for referrals. But you wanna put actual names on the sheet. So if you don’t know enough about your client to know who they live with or where they work or who they hang out with, then use that first goal review session to learn more about them. Instead of asking for a referral, solidify your relationship first. Get it on solid ground and then try to expand it. Looking at the client’s relationships though, decide which person would be the most likely to need your service, then practice help first.

Chris Cooper: (05:52)
So ask yourself, how can your service help this new lead get to their goals? And then when you meet with the client, make an offer to help that connection. I wrote an entire book about this with dozens of specific examples for gym owners. But here’s one. Mary, I know that your husband Bill likes to golf. What does he do to stay in shape in the off season? And then you can invite Bill in to do a personal training session with Mary. It’s not a free personal training session, it’s just an explicit invitation to join Mary for the workout that she already has scheduled. Day 270. So their third goal review, meet with the client for another goal review session. Now, even if your last session didn’t result in a referral, you should ask again, but try somebody else in their life. So remember, even if only 30% of your referral requests result in a new client, that’s a 30% return on every client you have.

Chris Cooper: (06:49)
That is, by definition, exponential growth. If you invested a hundred dollars in the market and you earned a 5% return for 30 years, you’d have $433. Imagine if you add a 30% return on your current client headcount every single year. That is exponential growth. So do another goal review. Go through the Affinity Marketing cheat sheet, you know, pinpoint one other connection and ask how you can help. That’s it. Day 360, they’ve been with you for a year. This is when you invite a client’s friends or family or coworkers in for an event. So you could do a Bring a Friend Friday, you could do a wine and WOD or a corporate challenge, or a Ninja Warrior challenge for kids, or even a birthday party or an invitation to watch them do a workout in the CrossFit Open. All of these can result in amazing referrals.

Chris Cooper: (07:39)
So here are some approaches to try. Hey Mary, we’re doing our quarterly “Bring a Friend Friday” next week. Who would you like to invite to do a partner workout with you? Mary, we’re hosting a women’s-only workout on Friday. I’m gonna bring in some wine. Who would you like to invite from your friend’s list? Mary, I know this time of year is stressful at work. What if we invited your team in on Friday night for a fun little workout challenge to blow off some steam? I’ll bring the snacks, you bring them. Mary, I know your daughter’s baseball team is nearing the end of their season. What if we brought them in for a team party on Saturday? I’ll set up a little Ninja Warrior challenge. You can bring in a snack and we’ll just let them have fun for an hour. How about it? Hey, Bill, I’m sure Mary’s been talking to you about the CrossFit Open at home.

Chris Cooper: (08:25)
She’s nervous, but she’s gonna do amazing. I’d love to have you join us. Lots of spouses and families come in to watch. Make it a surprise if you want to. The event is Thursday at 6:00 PM and I can save you a seat. Can you make it? Now of course, getting a body into the gym isn’t the same as signing the person up, but it’s a great way to start that conversation while you’re chatting to that new lead. Your goal is to get the person to book a No-Sweat Intro. The key is to look for ways to meet the people who surround your clients. My first three clients at Catalyst were teen athletes. My next 30 were their friends and their parents because I showed up at their events. Sometimes I even took a tent. And so now I’m gonna tell you how to set up a referral network in your town.

Chris Cooper: (09:11)
The way that I’ve done it, nobody refers to their competition, right? Everybody refers to their friends. If the people in your town know you, like you and trust you, they will refer to you even if they don’t use the service themselves. Catalyst is a very successful gym in a very poor town that is now in its 19th year. And while we do run Facebook ads once a quarter, we always have a constant stream of new clients from referrals. This is because we actively ask for referrals. We practice help first and we tactfully ask clients how we can help their friends. But we don’t offer discounts for referring friends. We don’t offer bribes for referring friends. We don’t run contests to see who can refer the most friends. And we don’t trade free membership for new contracts. I just don’t feel good about any of those tactics, and I don’t need them and neither do you.

Chris Cooper: (10:04)
So here’s how we do it. Number one, we earn the trust of healthcare professionals. When new clients sign up, we ask them, are you seeing a physiotherapist or a chiropractor outside the gym? And if they say yes, then we ask for permission to send their workouts to the healthcare provider just to be on the safe side. Now, most healthcare providers know way less about fitness than you do, and you don’t need their permission. But set your ego aside for five minutes, and that’s all it takes to build an amazing bridge. So you just email the healthcare professional and say, Hey, Dr. Roberts, it’s Chris here from Catalyst. Your patient Mary Green has just started at my gym. I’m really excited to help her improve her fitness. My plan for the first 90 days looks like this. And you can just give a really quick summary. You say, I can send you the specifics if you like, but as always, if you have any fears or known contraindications, just reply to this email.

Chris Cooper: (10:59)
Have a great day. Now, I’ve been sending those emails for about 17 years, and the referrals that they’ve earned me have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ve had doctors and therapists sign up for my gym, and some of them have even stayed for 10 years. But not once has a single professional responded with, That’s a bad plan, or I would do something different. Most of them are absolutely thrilled that you even included them in the conversation. One quick note, if physical therapists see you doing “therapy” in quotation marks at your gym, or any healthcare pros see you trying to act outside of your scope of practice, your domain of expertise, they will never ever refer to you. So in a previous podcast, I said, you gotta get the therapy out of your gym and form a web instead of trying to fix every problem yourself.

Chris Cooper: (11:47)
Here’s my second note. Avoid forming a formal referral agreement with any one provider. I’ve tempted to do this many times, but you’re better to keep lines open with everybody. You’ll probably be the only coach in town following this strategy. You’ll earn the trust of nearly everyone. It’s better to keep that trust than to try and go deep with one chiropractor or doctor who might refer you three people a year for 20 bucks each time. All right, so step one was earn the trust of healthcare professionals. Step two is publish a lot. Nothing builds trust like media. So you need to use that superpower for good by sharing free information with your community, right? You don’t sell information, you sell coaching. You give your information away for free. This isn’t just a marketing strategy, it’s a nurture strategy. It’s a retention strategy. It’s a recapture client strategy. Overall, it’s a trust building strategy.

Chris Cooper: (12:42)
I often tell my coaches, teach our clients to know more about fitness than any other coach in town. Now for Two-Brain clients, we have a huge bank of blog content that you can just swipe and use in the Growth toolkit, right? Use that. There’s more than a year’s worth of stuff in there that you can just copy-paste. The third strategy is to show up everywhere. Bring a banner, bring a tent, be bright. Like, the catalyst colors are black and silver and bright green because that shade of green is visible from a greater distance than any other color. Forget the artistic ads. Forget the t-shirts. They don’t count. Get your plain logo out to the public. A catchy phrase or even your logo won’t attract any new clients. But we all have recency bias. We think that the brand that we see the most often must be the best.

Chris Cooper: (13:33)
So earlier I said that my first three clients were teen athletes, and my next 30 clients were their parents and teammates. That’s because I used to show up at track meets carrying a tent in a big green banner. My clients would show up at the tent to stretch with me before their races or their games. Their friends would see them and I’d often tell them like, Hey, it’s okay to bring in your friend to stretch with you. I would give them warmups to do and stuff like that. Did I ask permission to show up with a tent? Never. But I was never told to go away. Either parents would point me out to other parents, Oh, that’s Janine’s coach. I used to come home from these events with two or three new clients every time, and I would call them the following day and sign them up.

Chris Cooper: (14:12)
Number four is wake the neighbors. You want your gym to be at the center of a sticky web of referrals. So walk around to all the neighboring businesses with coffee. Make friends. When their clients ask about you, because they will, your neighbor will say, Oh, I know she’s great. You would be surprised how important that is in fitness. I screwed this up. So, when I opened our second location, this was 2006, we were in a second story location. We were right above this store that sold sweaters and fancy clothes to professional women, right? My target audience. And the first day, I meant to take some coffees down to meet the neighbors, introduce myself, and I forgot. And of course, at 7:00 PM I had a client drop a snatch bar and it knocked out all of the track lighting in the store below.

Chris Cooper: (15:04)
We got off on the wrong foot. They hated us. And any women who came into that store for the next five years heard that we were jerks and loud and crazy upstairs. I totally shut down that avenue. Before you can ruin a relationship by having one of your clients pushing a sled behind the parked car of the tire store next door, forge a friendship. Go take them coffee, wake the neighbors. Number five is be a pro. While it’s super important to maintain a positive reputation in your town, it’s more important to maintain a professional one. I have had bad local reviews. I’ve had a parent write a letter to the editor because I wouldn’t refund her kid. It’s more important to be consistent than it is to please everybody. People wanna know that they’ll be treated with warmth and professionalism. So if somebody leaves you a bad review, you wanna respond to that review on Google or Facebook or wherever else with, I’m sorry this didn’t work for you.

Chris Cooper: (16:04)
We have policies that we adhere to to provide the best possible service for our clients. That’s your response. That’s a professional response that you can give consistently. It is more important to be consistently professional than it is to be positive all the time. Okay? You have to be kind, you have to be tactful. You have to publish your rules and your agreements, and you have to stick with them a hundred percent of the time. Potential clients are watching, even when you think they’re not. Reputation is a pillar of longevity in any service business. The key above all to getting referrals is to not wait for them, to actively pursue them. Now I’m gonna talk about what happens when you get to the Tinker phase. You’re making more than a hundred thousand dollars a year. How does this referral network help you then? Well, your job as an entrepreneur is to be the CEO of your business.

Chris Cooper: (16:58)
And that means that your job is to match new services to your audience and to forge new partnerships. In short, your job is to be the connector. Whether you have one client and you’re in the Founder phase, or 300 clients, a million dollar gym, and you’re in the Tinker phase, being the connector is your job. But the connections that you forge will change and become more valuable over time. So I just told you several ways to set up a referral culture in and around your business. Now I want to have you set up a referral web for your whole town. This works best when your business has been around for a while, has a good reputation, and shows obvious signs of success. Because I’ve been around a while, I’m often the first fitness professional that the media contacts when they need a quote. I’m often in the local news because we’ve made donations through the gym or something like that.

Chris Cooper: (17:48)
And I’ve met dozens of other business owners through my gym. So when my gym needs five new clients, I don’t turn to Instagram. I turn to my contact list in my brain. I think about other entrepreneurs in town. I send them a text or an invitation for a coffee, and then slowly I turn that conversation to exercise. Then I invite them to join me at the gym, where I offer to introduce them to a trainer. My niche is really entrepreneurs. Yours might be too, or you might be something different. You probably have entrepreneurs in your gym, but you can use a help first strategy with nurses or teachers or any profession to form a tight bond, right? You wanna be known as the one who helps first responders in time of crisis. The way that you get that reputation is not to give them 20% off.

Chris Cooper: (18:36)
That’s not why they became a first responder. The way that you get that reputation is to send 50 lasagnas out to first responders when your city is going through a crisis. I’ve done that. You wanna be the one who works with the social workers in your town. You don’t do that by giving them 10% off if they refer a friend. You do that by buying bikes for local kids or collecting gifts at Christmas time. Alright? I like working with entrepreneurs at my gym, but you can do this with any service based business. So the way you start is that you set up a referral board at your gym. You pin up the business card of any professional who works for you. So I have a referral board at Catalyst. It’s just a cork board with client business cards pinned to it. Then you invite entrepreneurs and CEOs from your gym to a local round table or a coffee chat.

Chris Cooper: (19:25)
You can propose a topic if you want, but this isn’t a lecture. Your job is to connect them. So the last time we did this, I chose a topic. I said, We’re having really great luck with Facebook advertising right now. I’m happy to show you exactly how to do it. Do you wanna get together next Friday? And I’ll walk you through it and you can bring another business owner if you want. We had 13 people show up. Only five were members from my gyms. Some of them were absolute beginners with Facebook, right? Like one of them asked me, how do you get a website? And some were really advanced, like, what should our cost per lead be for lead ads with a video? But I had a really fun hour with five of my favorite clients and eight of their friends. And then we talked about the gym.

Chris Cooper: (20:07)
And if you have several entrepreneurs in your gym, then you can make the meetup a regular occurrence and introduce topics if you want, right? And if you’re in Two-Brain, I’m happy to send you copies of my books if that will help you, whatever, hand them out. If you wanna work with nurses, then what I would suggest is that you host a nurse’s week at your gym with lectures, nutrition, coaching. Maybe you do a free trial class just for nurses on the 3:00 PM shift or something like that. Or maybe you do lunch and learn meetups. Lots of mentors do that right now. They’ll find a local partner, they’ll offer to do a lunch and learn. They’ll go into that workplace and just teach for an hour. And then fourth is invite trusted connections into your gym to speak with your clients.

Chris Cooper: (20:52)
Right? So for example, I love my financial planner Jordan. Every March I want Jordan to come into Catalyst and tell people how to save money on their taxes. And then of course, they’ll have more money, which they will often spend at my gym. Jordan will probably get some clients. The caveat is that he has to email his clients too. So his clients come in, they get this tax seminar, they’re exposed to my gym and I get to meet them. Another example is we had a physio come in and talk with our clients about aging and fitness. And, you know, that was also awesome. This is a long and rewarding game. It takes a while to set this up. It takes even longer for it to bear fruit. But the strategy offers returns that compound over time, like any long term investment.

Chris Cooper: (21:37)
When shutdowns happened for two years, I kept over 70% of my clients the whole time. People referred to me, the media called me. Other practitioners were calling to say, Are you open yet? Right? I went out to lunch with people. I still get invitations to speak at local businesses. This referral strategy means that Catalyst does not have to run ads, even though we haven’t like actively pursued any new referral relationships in probably three years. The rewards are big enough that it can replace almost all of your marketing. And the best part is that while most marketing disappears or loses its effectiveness, over time, this grows and compounds and you get more and more from it. The book on this topic that I wrote is called “Help First”. But if you wanna talk about strategies that gyms are using, go to Join our Facebook group and ask about this episode. We’ll post a link to the episode in that group. We’ll share some comments, tactic strategies, and ideas below. And you can use these forever. They don’t run out. You can repeat them for as long as you want. I’m Chris Cooper. I hope this helps. Build yourself a sticky web.

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