Robert Linkul: Why Do We Fight Referrals?

One of my favorite questions to ask personal trainers, regardless of their specialty or primary demographic, is:

“How do you earn new business?”

Ninety-nine percent of studio owners, independent contractors and employed personal trainers all answered with the same response:

“Referrals.”

Every personal trainer seems to recognize that referrals are the lifeblood that feeds the growth of new business and yet, so few embrace it. Our industry sees an insane amount of money, time and effort being spent each year on group-on ads, social media boosts, mail outs, radio spots and large marketing campaigns.

Very few truly focus and take full advantage of their best marketing tool.

Maybe developing and implementing a referral program is not very exciting . . . and maybe the reach of new potential leads is smaller compared to a mass mailing or a magazine ad. However, the potential of earning the business of a targeted and like-minded new client is much greater, as they now have a living, breathing testimonial standing in front of them. A client vouching for us, their trainer, is the greatest compliment they could ever give us and the most effective marketing tool in our tool box.

The client shares the specific details of their training program, the successes they have had and the key components that they feel are most beneficial to them. The potential like-minded new lead (current client’s referral) also wants an experience like that. They see the excitement and the positive energy that their friend has for their training program and they want to share it.

In most cases the new lead and current client have the same goals and similar work ethic, as like-minded personality types tend to attract each other.

Establishing credibility and developing an affective (professional and emotional) connection with a client earns their trust. Enough trust that they want others within their circle of life to experience it as well. I call this “the reach of three.” If our current client is going to refer us to members of their inner circle, that means they feel we are worthy. We have proven to be a life-changing and top quality component of their daily routine and the client is willing to vouch for us. In a sense, they are giving their word that members of their inner circle will not be disappointed in their experience training with us.

We cannot take this recommendation lightly and when the time comes we must deliver, as each of our current clients provides an opportunity to help us build a schedule full of “lifers.” Lifers are permanent clients who reserve a space in our schedule each week. They don’t ask for discounts, they come to all our community events and they “check-in” on Facebook after every workout.

They are our biggest fans!
We need biggest fans.

You see, group-on ads and low bargain-basement discounts can be good for membership-based facilities looking to get bodies in the door. However, these individuals are not looking for a long-term health and fitness solution because they are basing their selection on the low price of a gym membership and not on the quality and value of a trainer’s program. For the commission-based personal trainer, we don’t want price hunting clients that “gym-hop” based on the discount they get off the internet.

There is nothing “personal” about a general fitness membership marketing campaign and yet, personal trainers try to replicate that same style of marketing to earn new business.

One of the most reliable and efficient marketing techniques we could offer is a coupon that we gift to our long time “lifer” clients for them to re-gift to a member of their inner circle. The coupon is ultimately given to a family member, friend or colleague and redeemed with a personal phone call allowing us the chance to schedule our initial interview and strategy session.


Simply offering a referral program is not the same as inviting current clients to utilize it. When a friend says to us, “we should get together some time” we nod and say how great that would be. However, an open-ended invite that rarely ends in an actual gathering.

But, if the friend were to say to us, “we should get together some time, how does next Thursday at noon sound? Lunch is on me!” We are much more likely to respond to a closed offer that is specific, timely and promising in value. Our problem (as personal trainers) is that we don’t ask our clients for help with referrals; we just hope that they will offer them. We simply need to ask our lifer clients for their assistance with developing and taking our business to the next level by providing them a referral reward program that can inspire them. This leads us to the development of a referral rewards program that is designed specifically for our demographic.

Referral rewards programs come in all shapes and sizes and the key component to designing one is picking a motivating reward that best fits your specific demographic. Let’s use being entered to win a free month’s worth of training and a brand new iPad for example. For every referral, a client sends your way their name gets entered for a chance to win this great prize. A demographic of 18-to 25-year-old college students would find this prize very intriguing and motivating, as a new iPad would be very helpful for school and the funds usually used on training could be saved or spent on another fun endeavor.

On the contrary, a demographic of older adult clients with an income of $150,000 a year or more would find little motivation in this as their budgeted funds to pay for each month’s training is set and they already have two iPads, their kids have two iPads and their dog has an iPad (that’s an Alwyn Cosgrove joke . . . I love that guy!). This demographic is more intrigued if offered the chance to win an experience. Every four months we pull the name of a winner and award them and nine of their friends a personalized, themed workout experience. We close the studio giving them a private workout feel as we decorate the gym with whatever theme they choose. We play loud music, give away some free t-shirts and personalize the workout to all their favorite exercises making it a fun, memorable and challenging experience for them all.

After the workout, we have a personal chef come in and prepare a meal as we host a brunch for our client and their nine guests. They get a fun, themed, challenging workout and after they get to eat, drink, talk and have a great time together. Ultimately, it’s a great experience that they can’t normally purchase for themselves or provide for their friends. That makes it a very memorable time.

Another perk to this event is the nine invited guests are now potential new clients for us to invite in for their initial interview and consultation as they have had a great first experience with us.

The referral of one client could potentially lead to nine new clients . . . all for a relativity low cost of hiring a personal chef and reserving the studio for the group. This is an example of what we offer, but the sky is the limit when it comes to creating an experience for your demographic. Be creative and try new things, if it works keep doing it. If it doesn’t work, change it up until it does. I’ve seen studios and small gyms give away prizes of all shapes and prices ranging from free t-shirts, workouts and memberships to sky-diving, motor scooters and all-inclusive trips to Hawaii.

It’s all about picking the right fit for your demographic; something that will inspire them to want to help you grow your business beyond the basic invitation to do so and the gifting of coupons. When a client does send a referral our way we need to make a big deal of it. We need to thank them above and beyond what we would normally do. Maybe with a hand-written note or a small gift that is specific to them. This all adds to the personal affective (professional and emotional) connection that we make with our clients. They need to see that we value them and their efforts to help us grown professionally. They also need to know that we appreciate their commitment to our program as they continue to come month-after-month making them a featured “lifer” client.

Lifers become more than clients. They become trusted members of our circle. Although some may come and go, as business always will, for a measurable time in their lives, they choose to allow us into their circle and share their time and money with us. At the same time, we choose to include them in our circle and share our time and knowledge with them.

Training our clients is more than just helping them get fit. It’s a mutual professional relationship, an agreement to include each other in working toward accomplishing a common goal.

By continuing to show value and appreciation toward your clients you will be able to earn their business for a very long time. You need to maintain their trust in your ability to challenge them and assist them in achieving their goals, all the while limiting their risk of injury. Continuing to do so will assist you in developing that schedule full of the lifer clients that you have always wanted.

This is how a career as a professional personal trainer is established, successfully grown over decades of hard work and eventually retired from, just like any other profession.


Robert Linkul MS CSCS*D NSCA-CPT*D is the NSCA’s 2012 Personal Trainer of the Year and the Career Development Columnist for the Personal Trainer Quarterly (PTQ) and for Personal Fitness Professional (PFP) magazine. Linkul is the chairman of the NSCA’s personal trainer special interest group (SIG) and speaks internationally on career development techniques for personal trainers and studio owners. Robert mentors personal training students and rookie trainers entering the industry on business strategies, client retention and professional longevity. Linkul has been in the industry since 1999 and owns and operates his own personal training studio in Sacramento, California.

For more information on career development strategies please feel free to follow Robert Linkul on Facebook or contact him directly at robertlinkul@gmail.com


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