Referrals are the lifeblood of your business. They require long game thinking if you want a sustainable referral pipeline. No single action will instantly fill your schedule and leave you waitlisted for months. Creating a self sustaining referral engine means doing a lot of things consistently. It means the belief in and execution of a philosophy of quality service to your clients while showing the world your skill and professionalism. It means approaching every action with integrity and doing the right thing, even when no one is looking.
3 Critical Behaviors For Generating Referrals
1) Serve Your Clients
Don’t focus on finding new clients, first think about keeping your existing ones. Every session, every interaction with each client is part of the effort to keep this client working with you. A client who shows up month in month out is a client who stays on track, builds sustainable habits, and sees results. Clients who enjoy your relationship and who see results stay clients and refer friends and family. Not every client can or will stay long term, but every former client who’s had a great experience is one more person speaking highly of you and someone who may generate referrals. Every act of service is brick laid to build your referral network. Never miss a chance to secure another brick.
Everyone notices the trainer who’s body language screams “I want to be anywhere but here”. Clients who don’t feel cared about don’t stick around, while onlookers discard the trainer as a stereotypical commercial gym trainer and mark you off as somewhere NOT to send business. The upside for you is the opportunity to distinguish yourself on the gym floor against a sea of nonchalance and mediocrity. Visible and genuine engagement with your clients sends a strong message to everyone how much you care, love your work, and appreciate the client in front of you. Clients feel valued, stay, and see better results. Onlookers see you as someone to interact with, learn from, and direct their network toward. Being able to refer a loved one to a skilled coach feels good. Be present with your clients.
Walk a line between focus on your client and not being dismissive or rude to other members. Smile and be pleasant even when focused on your client. I can’t count the number of times a member walked up during a client session asking to talk with me about training them. I always ensure I get their contact info to connect when I’m free, while never taking my eyes off my client. Meanwhile clients love seeing this as it validates their choice to work with you. They’re invested in you and your success so they enjoy seeing you thrive.
3) Know Your Craft And Display Your Skill
People buy from people they like. Themselves buying a service is one thing, recommending a friend or family member is altogether another level. It means guaranteeing their referral will enjoy the experience, be safe, and get results. It means guaranteeing money isn’t being wasted. It means your client needs to believe in your skill and professionalism to trust loved ones into your care.
It’s not just your immediate client who sees the quality of your work, but every member on your gym floor and everyone in your social media network. More on these 2 groups in the next section.
Commit to never ending education in fitness and nutrition. You’ll never arrive at a point where you can say “There, I’ve learned everything I’ll ever need”. This isn’t restricted to books, seminars, and courses, but also the ever present study of how the client in front of you moves and makes choices. Experience is often the best teacher, if you’re engaged and willing absorb the lessons.
3 Sources Of Referrals Other Than Clients
Though your clients are the most obvious place to generate referral business, virtually everyone you come into contact with could become a client or refer someone your way. If you approach everyone you encounter with kindness, respect, engagement, and professionalism, it opens the door to potential future business. Let people initiate this discussion after creating a connection, don’t be like the aggressive pyramid scheme recruiters who only see people for their potential to make you money. Here are some important and often overlooked sources of referral business for trainers. Don’t fail to engage these groups.
1) Gym Members As Clients And Referrers
Gym floor members are acutely aware of the trainers in their chosen gym. They know who’s skilled and caring. They see who’s professional and engaged. They know who’s only there for the paycheck. And those onlookers are an under-utilized source of referrals. I once worked with a skilled trainer who was engaged with her clients. She was also outwardly unpleasant and aloof to anyone who didn’t immediately benefit her. I crushed her on floor walk up business from existing members.
Many of my longest standing clients once walked up to me on the gym floor, telling me I was the person they wanted to train with. Those clients have collectively created dozens of referrals. Many went on to become my close friends.
Smile, make eye contact, and be engaged and pleasant with gym members. They may never hire a trainer, but each has family and friends who one day might seek those services. If you’re the skilled, busy, engaging, and friendly trainer they see, they will refer business to you. Across hundreds of gym members, this can sustain your business by itself.
Within my first few months working as a trainer, a young member approached asking if he could use his sessions left over from his previous trainer. He had given his 30 day notice to cancel his membership. Half way through his remaining sessions he rescinded his cancellation and wanted a price on a 24 session renewal. He later renewed a further 72 and referred a handful of friends over the next year. One of those friends created a chain of referrals leading to a formal relationship with the city police force to prepare police applicants for their physicals. I’ve coached hundreds of training sessions over 10 years because of the original client. Why did he originally choose me? He told me I was the only trainer who smiled and acknowledged him as I walked in the gym.
Everything members see in your presentation and behaviour could lead to respect and referral business, or lose it entirely. Sitting with lazy posture, being distracted on your phone, not paying attention to clients as they workout, and just looking like you’d rather be anywhere else sends potential floor clients and referrers elsewhere.
2) Social Media And Your Personal Network
Before publishing my first article, I frequently wrote about fitness and nutrition blog style on Facebook. I worked to establish myself as THE fitness authority among my friends, acquaintances, former coworkers, and former customers from previous jobs. Whenever possible I added someone as a friend on social media. By sharing consistent training and nutrition information I set myself up as the first person people thought of when they needed a trainer.
You may think you don’t have original or sharable ideas. You may believe it’s all been said before. You may be friends with or follow a lot of established industry leaders, yet most of your network won’t have the same friends and contacts you do. If you consistently share from a place of passion and knowledge, you can establish yourself as THE fitness person in your network.
You can be the most skilled and professional trainer, but unless people see it, no one is buying. Letting the world see your work on social media adds to your reach. Sharing your coaching, showcasing your client successes, creating engaging fitness and nutrition content, and interacting with your social media network will establish you as the destination for referrals from the broadest possible group of people.
As you approach social media with thoughtful consistency, you’re able to establish a reputation of quality and grow a brand in what often feels like a saturated space(Hint: no industry is truly saturated with quality, there’s always room). You also have the ability to distinguish yourself, not just on skill and knowledge, but personality and relatable interests. When trainers seem otherwise equal, your love of Star Wars, The Witcher, or The New England Patriots may be the deciding factor. It also makes you more fun and relatable than all the bland fitness robots.
3) Other Fitness Professionals
My Instagram followers love my client Larry. Larry is a 70 year old retired tradesman who looks like Santa and lifts like Schwarzenegger. Larry was sent to my care by a trainer friend who left the industry. Larry and I hit it off and it’s been an inspiring and fun journey together ever since. Another client is a student and high level athlete. An industry friend on maternity leave referred her my way and she’s been going strong. In these and other cases I was top of mind with my friends who wanted a safe and professional place to see their people cared for.
Conversely I get a lot of referral asks for trainers in other parts of the city, country, and across North America. Sometimes I realize a potential client has needs or goals better served by one of the many reputable trainers I know. Through my network I have people I trust everywhere to ensure the people I refer are in skilled hands. Not only is my friend Hannah Gray located in a different part of Edmonton, her skill with competitive Olympic lifting and pelvic floor health, gives her 2 specialties I lack while being a trusted place to send people.
Zero sum game mentality is common in our industry. Developing a broad networking of caring, like minded people can land you clients or provide safe landing for people asking your recommendation. Not to mention the support, camaraderie, and potential to learn from your network. Those who disdain the fitness industry or choose to go it alone fail to see the benefits of a motivating community to learn from and miss opportunities from doors never opened to them.
Not Every Client Will Refer Business
Some clients will be walking billboards for your brand. My longest active client, Theresa, is my greatest supporter and an advocate for active lifestyle. Not only is she strong and in incredible shape, she encourages everyone to get active because she’s seen its power change her life, and wants them all to train with me. Theresa and her family have sent me over 20 clients spanning my 10 year career, amounting to well over a thousand client sessions. I’ve worked with the entire immediate family, many extended family, family friends, and coworkers.
Not everyone is Theresa. Many of my clients prefer not to share our relationship. They’re amazing clients but wish to keep me as a trusted outlet separate from their world. Respect this and treasure these clients every bit as much as your prolific referrers. Other clients just don’t think this way. They don’t think to put your card in someone’s hand or grab a phone number to pass on to you. They’re supportive and caring people but unless directly asked to be referred to their trainer, they don’t naturally think of doing it. Respect and value these clients too.
Don’t Forget To Ask For Referrals And Be Proactive
Don’t assume your clients and network know you need clients. The most common question I get from potential clients is “are you accepting clients?”. People often assume you’re full or can easily get all the clients you want. We know the hard truth of this. Work to establish a professional standard and trusting bond with your clients, then ensure you semi-regularly remind them how you would appreciate referrals.
I say this to not only my clients, but anyone in my network: “Someone in your world will talk about getting in shape or losing weight. I would love to meet with them and be the person who helps them. Instead of risking them driving by a random commercial gym and walking in on impulse, where here they might deal with a pushy salesperson and locked into a long contract and assigned to whatever trainer is available, please let me be the person they have their first fitness experience with.” Remind people not just to give someone your name, but to get you their contact info so you’re able to reach out. If people don’t move quickly the excitement and motivation soon fades. If you work for a commercial gym, ensure you’re in control of the entire process, as sales referrals can be “stolen’ by sales associates if the exact procedure isn’t followed, and your potential clients won’t know the difference of who gets compensated for their business.
If you wait to ask for referrals when you desperately need them, it’s already too late. Referral asks rarely summon immediate surges of new clients. They often plant the seed of thought, bearing fruit weeks, months, and even years later. Ensure every client knows you value and appreciate referral business. Mention it often to ensure it’s top of mind when those interactions happen to them.
Burn The Long Game Approach Into Your Soul And Every Action
Generating referrals emanates from everything you say and do. You’re on display at all times, not only in how you interact with clients, but gym members and the people you meet in your everyday travels. You’re crafting a referral network as you go. Don’t think of every person as a potential dollar, but as someone you value having in your world. Showcase relentless passion, professionalism, and commitment to learning to where you’re top of mind and everyone’s go-to trainer and referral destination. Along with the ability to retain existing business, generating positive word of mouth business is the difference between your success and failure.