Solving The Icon Problem

The following is adapted from Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief.
When you first start a business, you are the face of your company. But eventually, your business grows and you need to phase yourself out of the starter jobs. The first hurdle in replacing yourself in any role is to solve the icon problem. 

Give Your Clients Appealing Substitutes

As the figurehead for your business, clients expect to see you in every position and view your staff only as substitutes of lesser value. 
For example:

  • Athletes ask which classes you’ll be coaching and book around those times.
  • Clients aren’t willing to do some of their training sessions with another trainer.
  • “When will Chris be back?” is a common question in the gym.
  • Members text you, saying, “It’s not the same when you’re not here.”

These are flattering at first. You feel loved and irreplaceable. But don’t fall into the trap. How will you ever take a week off without your business struggling? How can you ever sell your gym or move on to a higher-value role or make the time to improve your business? If clients are disappointed when you’re not around all the time, you’re an icon. That’s a problem.
“My clients think I’m their personal servant!” Have you heard that one before?
“They think I can just drop everything and listen to their little dramas!” I’ve been there.
“They think I just drink coffee and surf the internet when I’m not coaching!” Been there too.
When I finally realized that a stable income meant working ON my business, not IN it, I struggled to separate myself from the day-to-day stuff. I wrote blog posts and read articles while sitting at the front desk of my gym. Clients felt like I was ignoring them. When I expanded and put in a small office, they’d knock and ask why I was “hiding” in there. I was frustrated because I really liked these people and didn’t want them to think I was avoiding them, but I also needed to get things done, or the gym would fail. It took a long time to realize they were knocking on my door because they didn’t know other coaches could answer their question.
The only replacement for an icon is a team. Establish the expertise and authority of your staff. Refer to yourself as one of “the team.” Attend seminars led by your stylists. Attend your coaches’ classes as an athlete. Take yourself off the pedestal. And when you remove yourself from a role, hand it over completely and let everyone know.
I had a booming personal training business in 2012: thirty clients spent a minimum of one hour each week with me, and that revenue was a significant part of our business. It was a risk to stop taking one-on-one clients, but I knew the only way I could devote the time necessary to create a sustainable business was to cut back. I just didn’t have any other time. 

Treat Your Clients Fairly

It was scary to hand clients off to another trainer, but I started to identify a few who might make the switch. I told them the change was absolutely necessary and that I’d miss training them, and I assured them they would be in good hands. Unfortunately, I forgot one detail:
“Why can you train HER but not ME?”
I couldn’t pick and choose a smaller clientele because someone’s feelings would be hurt. Because of my own “icon problem,” I had to remove myself from personal training. I had to establish the expertise of my other coaches quickly and then stop doing one-on-one training entirely. You can avoid this problem by demonstrating the expertise of your replacements before you step back. If your coaches want a career in fitness, they can have it, and you can help by creating intrapreneurial opportunities and then backing away.
If you plan your transition to another role and execute the switchover elegantly, you’ll free up more of your time, your staff will advance in their careers, and your clients will be happy with your replacements—a win-win situation for everyone involved. 
For more advice on business ownership, you can find Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief on Amazon.
When his first business almost went bankrupt in 2008, Chris Cooper sought a mentor and began chronicling his turnaround on a blog called After 400 blog posts, Chris self-published his first book, Two-Brain Business, which has now sold more than 20,000 copies worldwide. Chris now shares his lessons learned from the trenches of mentoring over 2,000 business owners worldwide in Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief.


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.