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Seven Critical Success Strategies

by Phil Kaplan

I remember the advisors at the Service Corp of Retired Executives telling me I’m crazy. 

I remember Jeff Everson telling me I'm an idiot.

I remember the executives at the health club chain that employed me 15 years ago laughing when I told them I was resigning to become a successful personal trainer. 



I remember sitting on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, literally penniless, questioning where my next meal was going to come from. 

I remember entering a legal battle that almost drained me emotionally and financially to salvage my career and my integrity. 

I’m thankful for every one of those experiences.  They drove me, they taught me, they motivated me, and at times they humbled me.

Today I earn $250 per hour for personal training.  To date I’ve had over 350,000 customers, over 1,000 personal training clients, over 50,000 seminar attendees.  I say that not to boast, but to illustrate that putting your hands over your ears and screaming when others discourage you can be extremely valuable!

Today I have the great pleasure and privilege of helping trainers avoid all the pitfalls that I stumbled through to help them zero in on lucrative and rewarding careers in an industry where the path to success resembles a twisting maze with dead ends at nearly every turn.  I’m often asked for “the best piece of advice I can give to a trainer,” and if I’m limited to one, it has to be “treat every client as if he or she is the most important person in the world.”  Unfortunately, while that’s valuable, it certainly leaves a lot of uncovered territory in the personal training success battlefield.

The real “secret,” for me was a nearly insane passion and determination to turn my love for helping others into a profession.  I considered throwing in the towel countless times, but I always managed to find the strength to get up and learn from each experience, and today, by collecting the lessons I’ve learned, I’m placed in an enviable position where I’m called upon to share “the secrets.”  Every day I take time to stop and appreciate the opportunity the journey has brought my way, and I’m thankful for every personal trainer acting as a part of the ground army, working diligently to help a near desperate population find fitness.

In this article I’ll go beyond the single “piece of advice.”  In analyzing the specifics of the road to $250 per hour and a growing trail of thrilled clients, I can break it down into seven specific strategies that helped to shape my career.  Any one of the seven can make a staggering change in any personal trainer’s business, but when all seven are combined, success isn’t a question, but a certainty.

I welcome your feedback and encourage you to keep me posted on the impact these seven strategies have on your career:

1. Switching to a “Series” System of Billing

For years, like most trainers, I followed convention.  I sold “packages.”  One session was $50, three were $120, and ten, ONLY $350!  I sold lots of 10-session packages.  My bank statements were as erratic as the tide.  They’d rise and fall, depending on whether I was in a “collecting” period, or a servicing period.  If I sold four ten-packs in a week, I’d deposit $1400, and then . . . I’d “owe” 40 sessions!  I was subject to no-shows and cancellations, and far too often I felt as if I were training people for free. The money had long ago been spent, yet I was still trying to fulfill the “owed” sessions.  When tax time came, I looked at my income.  I would tell people I was earning $50 an hour, but when I actually divided my income by the number of hours I’d worked, it was a far cry from that $50 I naively expected.  I decided that if I was in fact worth $50 per hour, I deserved to be PAID $50 per hour, and so I started charging the same “per hour” fee regardless of the number of sessions purchased.  

The next step was to keep my income consistently growing, and I decided much like a retailer, a massage therapist, or a hairdresser, I was simply going to charge “per session.”  I got together with my attorney and created a “retainer form,” which each client signed.  It stated they would commit to “every” something, a recurring session for which we’d never have to return to a calendar to answer the “next session” question. They’d pay me the equivalent of one session in advance, and prior to each session, they’d pay for the session about to take place.  If they failed to provide 48-hours notice for a cancellation they’d forfeit the retainer.  Amazingly, without significantly changing the number of clients I trained, I more than doubled my income from the previous year.  That led to the “series” concept I use in all of my operations today.

2. Viewing each session as an educational experience

The “series” concept was ideal, but at first it limited my market.  I was asking $50 per session and training clients three-times-per week.  I realized after awhile that once my clients saw some measure of results, they found a heightened sense of motivation.  Once they learned how to safely perform the movements, I realized I could show up once a week, update their programs, and they could follow through on their own.  That allowed me to take on a greater number of clients, but more importantly, if I began to view the “session” as an educational experience, I could make it affordable for those who could only afford $50 per week, or even $50 per month.  I’d simply customize the “series” to make it affordable for each individual.  At one point I had over 40 active clients, and I was paid what I asked for each and every session!  I’ve since learned to impact people greatly in small group and large seminars by simply recognizing that what people need most is clarity, and that clarity comes from education.  Today I hold group sessions in my office that net me $1200 per working hour . . . and it all evolved from recognizing what clients most need.

3. Positioning myself in the media

I’ve had TV anchor people, radio personalities, and media personalities as clients, and every time they would mention me, my phone would ring.  Interestingly, when I tried running some radio ads, I didn’t get any response at all.  Finally my thick skull opened up and I figured out why.  When you run an ad, people perceive you as an advertiser.  When you’re mentioned on the air . . . people perceive you as an expert!  Think of someone you know with a pony tail and a tendency to scream, or think of someone from a 1970’s sitcom who sold millions of spring-like devices promising great thighs.  Are they the most renowned fitness experts?  Probably not in your eyes, but they achieved recognition as experts . . . just because they were in the media.  I started reaching out contacting producers of local TV shows and radio shows and while it took a great deal of persistence, it led to my appearing “on-air” regularly, and attracting clients became a simple matter of answering the phone!

4. Being a lifetime learner in areas where education is most needed

There’s so much to be learned about kinesiology, physiology, and human adaptation, but the reality is, most people are failing because they don’t understand the very basic formula we all know as a must, “eat right and exercise.”  I found a consistent underlying trait among those who were achieving significant physical improvement with individuals on a consistent basis. They were educating people in foundational exercise elements and real world nutrition.  

Everyone knows we should “eat right,” but nobody seems to know what “eat right” means.  I began exploring the realities of supplement advertising, food labeling, restaurant based food preparation, and the emergence of the weight loss drugs, and as I learned, I became better positioned, not only as an expert, but as an expert who could deliver “the fitness truth.”  While I’ll always maintain a thirst for better understanding human movement, I realize the exercise part is simply a piece of the puzzle and I’ll also find a greater knowledge in the realm of human psychology, marketing, and nutrition.  With each year, as I find greater knowledge, I further my position as a “resource for Basic Understandable Truth.”

5. Committing to Delivering More Value Than Anyone Expects

When clients started telling me their results were “unbelievable,” it opened me up to a new thought process.  Why were the results unbelievable?  Wasn’t the result the goal when we first spoke?  I came to understand that people are so used to fitness failure they’re shocked when they achieve a result, and that helped me to understand, the “value” wasn’t in each session, but rather, in the result.  Even with infrequent client sessions, I could facilitate thrilling results, and with a greater awareness of the “value” I could deliver, I learned to gradually increase my fees.  I’m far more comfortable today asking for $250 per session than I was asking for $15 per hour when I first started in this field.  The reason?  I know beyond the shadow of a doubt I can deliver more value than my clients expect, and I’ve never had even a single client tell me I was “expensive.” Instead, they say the words we all want to hear.  Thank you.

6. Deciding to live by “professional” policies

Doctors, lawyers, CPAs, and other respected “professionals” live by paradigms that had been established to assure them professional respect.  When I decided to emulate those strategies, I was apprehensive.  I thought clients might be offended if I charged them for my “time,” even if that time was spend in conversation rather than on the workout floor.  I was worried that I’d face resistance if I started charging “regular fees” for consultations and assessments.  I was concerned that clients might react if I kept their retainers when they cancelled at the last minute.  Here’s what I learned.  When you behave as a professional, people treat you accordingly.

7. “Growth with Integrity.”

Today I maintain a money back guarantee on all of my products and services.  It forces me to have to deliver “value” to keep my business producing.  I never want to have any clients speak negatively of their interaction with me.  The money back guarantee assures I’ll never leave anyone disappointed.  Since 1986 I’ve kept the words “Growth With Integrity” on my desk, and that simple three-word motto has served as a guiding light, allowing me to form strong associations with those I respect and admire and to happily shy away from “opportunities” that promised income at the expense of morality.

I know many trainers wish “The Secrets” were simpler, just as many of your clients wish the perfect body could be achieved with the blink of an eye.  Here’s the lesson to be learned from this article. Success is a matter of consistent and directed effort.

I didn’t have any advantages you don’t have.  If you have the passion and desire, I’ve now given you the fuel.  The fuel can power the journey and the journey can prove to be immensely gratifying.  If it were simple, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as rewarding.  I wish you all the reward you can handle!

Oh, why did the folks from SCORE tell me I was crazy? Because I planned on starting a "fitness business" without a facility. They couldn't grasp the concept. I was going to train people in their own homes and establish a business in the process. I was speaking a language they didn't understand, but their insistence that "a business without a place of business" wasn't possible ultimately led me to prove them wroong.

Why did Jeff Everson call me an idiot? Well, he's blunt and had some insight I needed at the time. I was struggling trying to get a book publisher who had issued me an advance to pull the trigger and release my first book, "Mind & Muscle: Fitness For All of You." I shared my frustration with him and he told me, "You're an idiot. You're on the radio. You don't need a book publisher. If you self publish you keep all the money!" If he hadn't called me an idiot that day, I don't know that my publishing company, Great Atlantic Publishing would ever have come to exist, and I might have earned $5,000 on my first book when his advice resulted in my earning five times that amount the first year it was released!

If calling me an idiot and telling me my idea was unrealistic served as fuel for my fire, imagine what these seven strategies can do for you!




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