Retention: What Actually Matters (and What Doesn’t)

Chris Cooper

Mike (00:01):

Retention. It’s one of the most important things in your business, yet most gyms have very poor client retention and it’s killing them. So how do you improve your numbers? First, listen to Chris Cooper on this edition of Two-Brain Radio.

Chris (00:15):

Hey everybody, it’s Coop here. And today I want to talk to you about what actually matters with retention. Retention is maybe the core of your business. If you can keep a client longer, it means you have to worry less about marketing for future clients to replace them. Clients who stay longer are more likely to get results. They’re more likely to refer their friends and they cause a lot less grief for your staff and you. There are so many reasons why you should focus on retention before you focus on sales and before you even think about marketing that today, I wanted to dedicate a few minutes to sharing what is most important, because you’re gonna see a lot of strategies out there to improve retention. You’re also gonna hear a lot of myths. When I started coaching, I thought that the best way to retain a client was to teach them as much as possible.

Chris (01:05):

And in fact, our motto at Catalyst for the first few years was teach our clients to know more than any other trainer in town. But what we found over time is that while that does help a little bit and getting people results, of course, that does help a little bit and having an amazing supportive culture, yes, that does help a little bit. These things are necessary, but insufficient to keep a client engaged long term. The average micro gym’s length of engagement, the amount of time that they keep the average client is way too low. It’s 7.8 months. If you think about the ability to change somebody’s life in eight months, it’s very slim, right? That’s not enough time for them to create a lifelong exercise habit. And so if somebody quits your gym after eight months, it’s probably not because they’re going to another gym. If somebody quits your gym after three years, they’re probably going to keep up their exercise habit.

Chris (02:04):

They’re just going somewhere else. They’re not quitting exercise. And so it’s critically important from the perspective of service to keep people at your gym longer than the average. From a business perspective, if you can keep people at your gym for 13 months, instead of the industry average, you’ll add about $45,000 a year to your bottom line. And this is the average size gym with the average revenue per member that we see across 14,000 gyms in our state of the industry data sample. So it’s really, really important to keep people as long as possible, preferably up to three years so that you can change your life, but also so that you can build a stable business in which you’re not constantly on this marketing flywheel. How do you do that? You know, I said being really great at coaching and getting them to their goals and building a supportive community are necessary, but insufficient.

Chris (02:57):

So what is going to move the ball down field for you? If we think about a football field and we think about starting in our own end zone with a brand new client, right? They are the football and we want to get them all the way down to the other end zone. And that means keeping them for about three years, long enough to change their life and build a sustainable business on their clienthood. Here’s what actually moves the ball downfield. First off, having a prescriptive model, including a conversation at intake where you prescribe the best service for them, and then regular follow-ups every three to six months on a rotating schedule in which you sometimes change the prescription as necessary. It doesn’t have to change every time, but you know, clients do get bored and they do make progress and they need different things at different times, just having that prescriptive model is going to take you 40 to 50 yards, halfway to your goal of keeping them for three years.

Chris (03:57):

And these progress review are really key. It’s not just a matter of like having a good sales process, a good NSI or doing motivational selling, right? Your sales process on day one is, you know, it’s the start of your relationship, but it’s not the last time you have to have a sales conversation. Like your retention model is really the ability you to sell somebody on showing up the next day, stretched out over a thousand reps. So the prescriptive model will take you about halfway to keeping people, you know, for three years. So the gyms using the prescriptive model have an average LEG of about 13 months. OK. Even if they do none of these other things. So that’s gonna take you just about, let’s call it the 45 yard line. The thing that’s gonna take you a little bit longer too is a one-on-one onboarding process.

Chris (04:50):

So you can call this on ramp. You can call it foundations or fundamentals or whatever you want to, but just having that one-on-one onboarding process will take you another 25 yards. So if we’re already on the 45 yard line, having that one-on-one onboarding process makes such a huge difference that that’s gonna take you all the way to the 70-yard line. OK. And the key is that you’re tailoring somebody’s onboarding process to help them get up to the group training, you know, as quickly as possible. Now, interestingly, the group training model itself doesn’t necessarily aid retention over a certain point. So if you look at our data set, groups lower than seven have less adherence and retention and groups over 13 have less adherence in retention. The sweet spot is a group of seven to 13 people. And what that allows for is enough time for the coach to give the client one-on-one attention.

Chris (05:44):

Even in a group class. That’s super important, but also there are enough people that the client can make another friendship or partnership with one other person in class. So it’s not their relationship with your entire gym that matters. It’s their ability to create what I would call a triad. So a three way relationship between client coach and one other person, preferably another client, maybe that’s your CSM at the gym. You need to have this to keep them in the tribe. And if you wanna see research on this, I mean, I can send you some books, but you wanna create that triad. So if you’ve got like an amazing caring community and somebody new joins, and they like the workouts and they like the coaching, but they don’t forge one other relationship with another client, they’re far less likely to be retained and stay for that three year long term goal that we’re after.

Chris (06:35):

  1. So this one-on-one attention will carry the ball, you know, another five to 10 yards downfield, but that triad effect will get you like another five yards. So having a prescriptive model, let’s call it 45 yards, having a one-on-one on ramp. I said, that’s worth about 25 yards right there. So now you’re at the 70 yard line. One-on-one attention in the group we know is worth 10 to 13 yards. And we, we have great retention and adherence data from COVID lockdowns. So, yeah, you know, now we’re on like the 83 yard line. We’re pretty close, right? Like we’ve, at this point, we’ve kept the person about two years just by doing some very simple things. And we haven’t talked about birthday cards or badges or like the hundred wad club or any of that stuff. If you look at data from the best gyms, these are the things that they’re doing really, really well: prescriptive model, one-on-one on ramp, one-on-one attention, forming like a triad with the client.

Chris (07:33):

  1. So the next thing that we want is this is maybe surprising to a lot of you, but we want a solid referral process. Now this is really interesting. So first off, people who pay more stay longer. So you want like higher value clients, but people who refer also stay longer. If you think about this, it kind of makes sense. Like if I referred my wife, right, and I brought her into the gym, then the compounding effect of both of us being at the gym is greater than the effect of me going to one gym and her going to another, right. The whole is more than in the sum of its parts. If we’re both at the gym, it’s harder for us both to quit. Or if one of us quits the other one quits too, but there’s another psychological effect here too. And that is, if I say to you, my trusted friend, you should join this gym.

Chris (08:28):

Then I have inherently bought into that recommendation because none of us ever want to be wrong. So when I say you should join Catalyst, I’m kind of putting my relationship with you on the line a little bit. I am risking the trust factor that we currently have because I don’t want to be wrong. And so I will go way outta my way to prove that I’m right. When you try the gym and you’re like, I don’t know, I’m gonna try and talk you into staying. When you’re saying I’m gonna quit. I’m gonna try and talk you into retaining. And now we’ve got a really solid triad effect of keeping a client engaged. And so something that really boosts retention that most people don’t think about is referrals. If I refer you, not only are you more likely to join, but I am more likely to stay.

Chris (09:10):

  1. And that’s gonna probably take us to about the 95 yard line. OK. What’s gonna take us the rest of the way? There are some bonuses, some things that you can do, you know, I call it a CSM role that takes care of these things like remembering people’s birthdays, making sure that they’re on the right track, making sure that they’re making progress, making sure that they’re held accountable for their eating, for adherence, calling them when they don’t show up. I’m not great at any of that stuff. And so I have a CSM role that does all of those things, but what actually makes the difference, what actually takes you into the end zone is consistency in your operations. So not only do you have to have a prescriptive model, not only do you have to have a referral process, not only do you have to have like one-on-one coaching, but what makes a difference over time is consistency.

Chris (09:59):

Because if you do the prescriptive model with 10 clients, but not everybody, if you call some people when they don’t show up, but not everybody, if your class has an amazing adherence rate, but not every class, then none of these count. You have to be consistent across all of them. And so, while it is important to do these things, you have to be able to do them all with consistency over time or they don’t count. OK. It doesn’t matter if you’re the quarterback who can throw an 80 yard pass. If you can only do that one time out of 150 tries, you’re not gonna get anywhere. Instead, you’re far better to move the ball downfield consistently with short passes or even running plays. These things that might even seem boring to watch, but if you can do them over and over and over again, they compound and that’s what moves the ball down field for you.

Chris (10:54):

So consistency in your operations and all these things is key. Now I left you on the 95 yard line. What’s it going to take to get you to that hundred? It’s client ascension, it’s identifying exactly what this client needs and moving them to get that. So maybe some clients do want to compete at CrossFit. Great. That’s what the Open is for, right? That extra five yards to get you into the end zone. Maybe some people do wanna lose that extra 30 pounds. OK. Well, that’s what you know, accountability is for maybe the client does want to do like a Ragnar race or something else, right? Or maybe they’re training for an athletic goal, or maybe they wanna reduce back pain. Well, that’s super important stuff. And so these are higher value services that you can’t really provide too well in a group class setting because you have to be completely focused on that client’s goals because their goals are not just general and inclusive, like your group classes are.

Chris (11:55):

And so what you’ll find is that to really get into the end zone, to keep clients longer than 13 months, and up to three years, you have to have a high value program that’s ready and waiting when the client is ready for it, that they can ascend into. That’s focused very specifically on only their goals. It’s customized to what they want to achieve. And it is 100% personal. You have to be able to ascend people to this. Now in CrossFit gyms, this is actually a bit of a problem. What actually happens is that as people get better and better at CrossFit and they wanna do little competitions, what happens? We feel less qualified to coach them. So we coach them less. We let them follow their own programming. We let them show up at the gym in off group times and just train by themself, right?

Chris (12:45):

We provide a lower value service as the client actually ascends in our method. It’s completely backward. And it’s all to do with what’s happening between the ears of the coach and the owner. And they just don’t think that they’re qualified to train these high level athletes anymore. Now, if the athlete showed up for a different sport, basketball, then yeah, we would say the best service that we can offer is one-on-one training, a one-on-one nutrition plan. One-on-one accountability. Daily follow up to make sure that you’re not over training, but when it comes to competitive fitness athletes, we feel unqualified because we are not going to the Games beside them. And so we actually descend the client, or we ascend them out of our box. Instead of saying, yeah, we can help you. Here’s the price of the service. Instead we say, we’re gonna sell you access, or even we’re gonna give you free access if you trade for some coaching and over time, you know, because we’re not providing them value, they leave.

Chris (13:43):

So the real keys to long term retention are first to have a goal. You improve what you measure. If you are currently at length of engagement of like eight months, make your goal 13 months. If you’re currently at 13 months, make your goal 16 months. If you’re currently at 16 months, make your goal 21 months. And I’m not just choosing these numbers arbitrarily, you know, research shows that if you can keep somebody to 13 months, they’re likely to stay to the 16 month mark. And if you can keep somebody to the 16 month mark, they’re likely to stay to the 21 month mark. And if you can keep them to the 24 month mark, they’re likely to stay for three years. And this is all to do with just habit formation, really? So when you set a goal and you work backward from that goal, then you can say, all right, what can we do differently? Instead of just leaving it up to the hands of fate or the judgment of the client, how can I coach this person to stay long enough to create a meaningful change in their lives? And you should start by adding the big rocks first, like a prescriptive model, and then worrying about the little tiny details like birthday cards later. Hope that helps.

Mike (14:52):

Two-Brain Radio comes out twice a week and it’s always packed with info that will help you improve your fitness business. Be sure to hit subscribe. Now, Chris is back with a final message.

Chris (15:01):

Thanks for listening to Two-Brain Radio. If you aren’t in the Gym Owners United group on Facebook, this is my personal invitation to join. It’s the only public Facebook group that I participate in. And I’m there all the time with tips, tactics, and free resources. I’d love to network with you and help you grow your business. Join Gym Owners United on Facebook.


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