Retention Fundamentals: Likable Gym Owners Keep More Clients

A composite photo of a man's face—one side is happy and the other is angry.

If you want to change a person’s life, the person has to like you.

I know this because I’ve lost clients by acting like an asshole.

I once had a client named Patty.

She’d been my personal-training client for four years. Even when her physiotherapist told her to stop coming to my gym and “rest” her shoulder, she kept coming. Because she trusted me.

But Patty had a really stressful job. When she got home at night, she didn’t feel like working out, so she rarely did her homework. She struggled to make progress in the gym—but she kept showing up for our appointments, every Tuesday and Thursday at 4 p.m.

Feeling guilty about her lack of progress, she said, “I wish you’d just come to my house and motivate me every day!”

I said, “Pfft. That’s not my job. If you can’t find the motivation to exercise, it’s your fault.”

Harsh, right? I’m embarrassed to even share this story.

Of course, I was having a horrible day when I said it. The rent was due, I’d been up since 4:30 a.m., and I was broke and fighting at home. I had a trainer who hadn’t shown up on time, and I was distracted trying to cover his clients. I was mad at my life and regretted owning a gym.

But Patty didn’t know any of that. She left and never came back. She didn’t even use the rest of her sessions. She just didn’t like me anymore—and who could blame her?

10 Tips to Be More Likable

The coaches with the best retention aren’t the Ph.D. holders or the Level 12-certified “experts.” They’re the likable coaches—the ones who are always smiling, always excited to see their clients, always the most energetic people in any room.

The most successful professionals are almost always the most likable.

You know who’s done a lot of research on this? Insurance companies. What they’ve found is that a physician’s likelihood of getting sued depends less on competence and more on bedside manner. In short: Nobody sues a doctor they really like.

But when you’re tired, broke, distracted and burned out, it can be pretty hard to be likable. Here are my top tips:

1. Have a door that closes. When you’re in a bad mood, go into your office and close the door. Keep your mood to yourself. Maintain a “backstage” area for coaches and managers that clients never, ever see. It works for Disney!

2. Hire someone else to take your early groups or your late groups—whenever you have the lowest energy levels.

3. Know your limit. I can stay energetic and focused for two groups, and that’s it. The clients in the third group aren’t receiving the same experience as those in my first two sessions. So it’s time to bring in a relief hitter.

4. Focus most on your “seed clients”—the ones who are most coachable and show up with batteries included. Let them shoulder some of the weight.

5. Never let clients leave less happy than when they arrived. You’re not their therapist, but you can certainly cheer them up with a smile, a pat on the back and a “good job.” They probably don’t get those things anywhere else in their lives.

6. Leave your phone in the back office. Don’t let your clients carry theirs into the gym, either. Distraction is the root of unhappiness for most of us.

7. Get a mentor. Overwhelm is what causes stress. Focus creates momentum. When you see momentum, you get excited.

8. Take a break from HIIT. Your body doesn’t know the difference between physical stress and mental stress. If you’re exhausted, stressed and overwhelmed, more high-intensity exercise isn’t going to help. It’s a little distraction from the bigger stress. But stress compounds.

9. Talk to someone. I meet with a psychotherapist every second week just to unload my burden. She doesn’t give me new knowledge. Mostly she just listens.

10. Know when it’s appropriate to rant, vent or complain—and when it’s not. Tip: Your spouse will always listen. Ranting on Facebook is always a bad idea.

Be a Pro

It’s impossible to be a happy gym owner all the time. But your clients should only ever see a happy face—they have enough drama in their lives without being burdened with yours.

Make sure you have real relationships outside the gym instead of mistaking your clients for your confidantes.

And most of all, when you have a rough day, take it outside.


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.