As personal trainers, we like to address the concept of change. Everyone in the work force can relate to the word "change" at some level, but we are more powerful than most, at least potentially. We have the power to initiate change, maybe not to change the color of traffic lights at will, but better yet, we can actually alter the course of someone's life. When you really stop and think about the massive impact we've had upon the mindsets, health and appearance of our clients, the potential of our power becomes staggering.

            We also recognize that, a little at a time, the industry is changing... for the better. Why then, does the field of trainers fail to take a consistent and unified stand to declare its independence? Why is it taking so long for "Personal Fitness Training" to emerge, not as an afterthought component of the health club field, but as a respectable profession?

            Oh no. Here goes Kaplan getting up on his soapbox again, spewing forth his anti-health club conspiracy theory nonsense. Hold on there. I'm not suggesting trainers abandon health clubs any more than I'd suggest doctors leave hospitals. But our population respects doctors for their knowledge and their scope of practice, regardless of whether or not they practice medicine in hospitals, on the sidelines of NFL games, on missions in third-world countries or out of private offices. Trainers should be respected every bit as much as doctors, every bit as much as attorneys, regardless of where they practice, and every bit as much as dedicated health club owners who recognize the inherent value of a force of unified fitness professionals. Let's not forget, I sit on the other side of the fence as well. I understand the viewpoint of the health club owner intimately.

            So, I'm not suggesting rebellion, but I am suggesting it's time for a global change within our industry, and I'm promising to be instrumental in bringing that change to fruition. For the past several years, I've spoken at the IHRSA and Club Industry conferences about "The New Paradigm." I've attempted, with some level of success, to force the adventurous, the ambitious and the morally sound health club owners and operators to ethically capitalize upon the virtues of accomplished and competent fitness professionals for the proverbial win-win. Throw the members into the mix and you create a "3-Way-Win," the ultimate scenario for everyone involved.

            Now I'm going the next step. I want to personally play a role in raising the bar so high that the concept of mediocrity and the existence of a "personal fitness professional" cannot co-exist. It's time to redefine "what we do," and to shake things up so we can have the impact upon our obese over-fat population that we're truly capable of.


Change Requires a Strengthened Foundation

            Throughout history, there have been many distinctive periods of global change, beginning with man's discovery of the ability to control fire, up through and running right past the space age into a world where Tony Little sold 72,000 ab rollers on QVC.

            As Americans, there are many dates that are drummed into our heads throughout our history lessons, and I would venture to guess that few years rival the attention we've placed upon 1776. It's the year America declared its independence, but it's also the year economist Adam Smith began to identify the intricacies of capitalism. Who in the world is Adam Smith? Let's just say he was a very smart man, and he proved himself back in the days when Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin and a bunch of other guys with odd hairdos were trying to initiate change.

            Yes, it was a time when the word independence took on an entirely new meaning, and not only were Americans going to band together as a union, but they were also going to lunge forward into a society where anybody can own a business, where commerce was controlled by the common man and where a government was established to allow for independent prosperity.

            Could Adam Smith perform a side lateral raise balanced on his knees atop a stability ball? Probably not. So if he spent his time studying economics and commerce, why would you have any interest in this man who was buried over 200 years ago? I'll tell you why. If you aspire to succeed in the business of personal training, you really should understand business.

            I'm not asking you to become a historian, nor am I asking you to pursue an MBA, but in other fields of economic pursuit, people study their craft, hone their skills and pursue business knowledge. Personal trainers tend to study their craft, hone their skills and follow the flawed path laid out by an industry that failed to recognize the value of its skilled practitioners.


A Self-Evaluation May Be in Order

            Allow me to raise a few questions with the simple agenda of getting you to ponder a few issues you might never have taken the time to question or consider objectively.


1. What was your "net profit" last month?

            Most trainers would have difficulty answering this question. They may know how many sessions they conducted. They may even know how many dollars they collected, but "net" is the determining factor as to the financial success of your business. Have you accounted for clothing? Continuing education costs? Study materials, books, licenses, certifications, advertising, marketing, printing, etc, so on, ad continuum? If the answer is yes, if you absolutely know your "net," you're the rare few. In contrast, ask a retailer, a health club owner, a franchisee or the owner of an employment agency whether they know their net. I assure you, they'll know instantly.


2. Do you accommodate clients with freebies?

            Perhaps you conduct free consultations, as most trainers do, or if you work in the health club arena you may perform as many as "three free sessions." Perhaps you spend an extra 15 minutes after the session is up reviewing exercises or discussing scheduling. There's a cost attached. Maybe you do free fitness assessments. If you don't do any of these things, and you have a thriving business, you're to be commended. But again, those who consistently charge for their time do not comprise a majority by any means. Think about it this way, would you even consider asking a doctor to perform a free exam? If you answered "no," why should you perform those services you are typically paid to perform for anything less?


3. Do you discount your rates in exchange for commitment?

            Most trainers sell packages. The mistake lies in believing that training sessions are a commodity that can be packaged for increased profit. The truth is, packaging your time for reduced fees ensures you'll earn less money by year's end.


4. Do you allow your clients to dictate your schedule?

            When I ask trainers this question, the knee-jerk response is, "of course not," but then a new perspective on scheduling begins to unfold. If you ever ask a client, "when do you want to train next?" You're allowing your clients too much control. I defy you to try to get a haircut appointment at a time that is not "on the schedule." Try to get a dentist to hang around after posted hours. Trainers admirably bend over backwards and fail to recognize they're contributing to their own subtly impending burnout. And burnout always, always, always leads to reduction in revenues.


5. Are you subject to no-pays, no-shows or last-minute cancellations?

            The calendar says, "session," the phone call says, "can't make it," the bank account takes a hit. It's the burden of our profession, as clients see our relationships as casual and somewhat social. If I hadn't learned to overcome this burden, I'd believe, as you might at this moment, that it's a necessary evil. I ask every client to submit a retainer, equal to one session's fee. In the event that the client cancels or doesn't show, the retainer is forfeited, the client has paid. The idea is not necessarily to collect money for no-shows. But when you employ a policy requiring commitment and money's on the line, something funny happens clients show up.


6. Do you spend any money on advertising?

            Advertising is flawed in three primary ways. One, consumers are subjected to information overwhelm on a daily basis, so even the most creative ads can fall flat due to nothing more than mass desensitization. Second, consumers are savvy enough to know that you paid for the ad, thus the information is biased. Third, it immediately puts you in a cash flow deficit. In other words, the ad has to deliver not only interest, but actual revenues just to recoup the dollars you forked out. Trainers never have to advertise, but they do have to learn to market. If you believe the two words are synonymous, it further reinforces my point that trainers need foundational business skills.

            If you feel I've been unfair or taken a myopic view of a massive industry where over 400,000 people call themselves trainers, where over 20,000 health clubs employ trainers and fitness directors, I understand your sentiments. But I stand firm. I have met the great trainers, I visit the rare health clubs who do prosper with a commitment to excellence, but I see the other side. For every trainer who commands respect and achieves prosperity, I'd conservatively guess there are 250 floundering. I don't want to point fingers as the cause. I simply want industry-wide recognition that as our population gets further into deconditioned land, we have an obligation to excel. We deserve to be compensated and respected as professionals. In the fitness arena today, fitness directors are pushed beyond their level of competence as they're asked to lead and manage without any actual training in those disciplines. Trainers are asked to generate clients, but nobody ever teaches them to comfortably sell. When personal trainers take the leap into operating their own facilities, they are typically naïve related to bookkeeping, payroll, and surprised by the number of "I didn't expect this" thoughts. Perhaps worst of all, when they try to hire, they find that the words "fitness professional" have never been clearly defined and aspiring trainers, although they may be well-intentioned, believe that any certification "counts."


            Phil Kaplan is a fitness professional with a commitment to helping personal trainers find success at the highest levels. Visit Look for Part 2 of "Global Change and Human Capital in the Fitness Arena" in the November-December 2005 issue.