Building a Referral Network in Your Town

A man looks up at a graphic on a wall that shows connections between people.

Nobody refers to competitors.

Everybody refers to friends.

If people in your town know you, like you and trust you, they’ll refer to you even if they don’t use your service themselves.

Catalyst is a very successful gym in its 17th year. While we run Facebook ads once a quarter (max), we always have a constant stream of new clients from referrals. This is because we actively ask for referrals: We practice “help first” and tactfully ask clients how we can help their friends.

We don’t:

  • Offer discounts for referring friends.
  • Offer bribes for referring friends.
  • Run contests to see who can refer the most people.
  • Trade free membership for new contracts.

I just don’t feel good about any of those tactics. I don’t need them, and neither do you.

Here’s how we do it:

1. Earn the trust of health-care professionals.

When new clients sign up, ask them, “Are you seeing a physiotherapist or chiropractor outside the gym?”

If they say yes, ask for permission to send their workouts to the health-care provider “just to be safe.” Most health-care providers know less about fitness than you do; you don’t need their permission—yada-yada-yada. Yeah, I know. But set your ego aside for five minutes: that’s all it takes to build an amazing bridge.

Email the health-care professional and say:

“Hey, Dr. Roberts! It’s Chris here from Catalyst Fitness. 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: [give a brief overview]. I’m happy to send you the specifics if you’d like. As always, if you have any fears or known contraindications, please just reply to this email. Have a great day!”

I’ve been sending those emails for 16 years. The referrals 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 have stayed for over 10 years). But not once has a single pro responded with “that’s a bad plan” or even “I’d do something different.”

Most are absolutely thrilled that you included them in the conversation.

Note 1: If physical therapists see you doing “therapy” at your gym—or any health-care pros see you trying to act outside your domain of expertise—they will never, ever refer to you. As I wrote a few weeks ago, get therapy out of your gym.

Note 2 : Avoid crafting a formal referral agreement with any one provider. I’ve been tempted to do this many times, but you’re better to keep lines open with everyone. 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.

2. Publish a lot.

Nothing builds trust like media. Use that superpower for good by sharing free information with your community. (You don’t sell information—you sell coaching.)

This isn’t just a marketing strategy. It’s a nurture strategy, it’s a retention strategy, and it’s a recapture strategy. Overall, it’s a trust-building strategy. I often tell my coaches, “Teach our clients to know more about fitness than any other coach in town.”

For clients, we have a huge bank of blog content in the Two-Brain Growth ToolKit. Two-Brain gyms use it to build trust.

3. Show up everywhere.

Bring a banner or a tent. Be bright (the Catalyst colors are black, silver and chartreuse because that shade of green is visible from a greater distance than any other color). Forget the artistic ads and T-shirts: Get your plain logo out to the public. A catchy phrase—even your logo—won’t attract any new clients. But we all have “recency bias”: We think that the thing we see most must be the best.

In the previous post in this series, I said that my first three clients were teen athletes and my next 30 clients were their teammates or parents. That’s because I used to show up at track meets carrying a tent and a banner. My clients would show up at the tent to stretch with me before their races or games. Their friends would see them, and I’d often say, “It’s OK to bring your friends with you!”

Did I ask permission? Never. But I was never told to go away, either. Parents would point me out to other parents. I used to come home from these events with two or three new clients to call the following day.

4. Wake the neighbors.

You want your gym to be at the center of a sticky web of referrals. Walk around to all of your neighboring businesses with coffee. Make friends. When their clients ask about you (they will), your neighbor will say, “I know she’s great!” You’d be surprised how important that is in fitness.

5. 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’ve had bad local reviews, and I’ve had a parent write a letter to the editor because I wouldn’t refund her kid’s fees. It’s more important to be consistent than to please everyone: People want to know they’ll be treated with warmth and professionalism.

That means 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 100 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.

This Above All

The key to getting referrals? Don’t wait for them.

Other Media in This Series

“Building a Referral Culture”
“Building a Referral Culture: The First Year”
“Building a Referral Web (That Might Be all the Marketing You Ever Need)”


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.