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How to Avoid the Freebie Pitfall

I had seen a member around the gym for months. We’d worked our relationship up from a smile and nod to commenting on each other’s workouts. She’d asked me a few questions about exercises to improve her running, and I had eagerly shown her a few of my best moves. One day, she asked for my number. I started getting excited, thinking about how to improve her running time. But when I finally got her voicemail, my heart broke. “I’d love to get together sometime to work out and maybe grab coffee afterwards.” I was crushed. She didn’t want to hire me. She just wanted to use me for free advice.

This happens often enough in the fitness industry to harden most eager trainer/instructor. Unlike the legal or medical industries, the fitness industry is plagued by uncertified know-it-alls. Anyone who reads “Muscle and Fitness” magazine thinks they can dispense training advice. And unfortunately, too many new or failing trainers see free sessions as a way to gain business. But rather than write these people off as users, gold diggers, and wastes of time, there are ways to handle the requests for advice, demonstrations, and free sessions not only with grace, but with the possibility of gaining a new client.

Avoid judgement

This is difficult, I know. It’s easy to take the request for a free session as an insult. But put yourself in their shoes with this scenario. If you were given the choice between a free iPhone, or having to pay for one, which would you choose? No brainer, right? How many times have you buttered up your bartender for a “free” drink? Or told your server it was your birthday to receive the free cake? We, as a society, are taught to try to get the most we can for the lowest price – or, better yet, free.

Plus, you’re missing something very important here. They approached you for information. When someone asks for your advice, they are telling you that they value your opinion and/or talent. I am certainly not going to ask for makeup tips from someone I think looks like a circus clown – let alone pay the clown to give me a makeover. So if people think you’re valuable enough to ask for advice, they might think you’re valuable enough to pay for your services.

Decide what you’re willing to do for free.

Are you open to answering questions? Demonstrating an exercise? Testing body composition? A “free” session on someone’s birthday? Choose in advance what you’re willing to give away and what think you should be paid for. I’m always up for answering a few questions; I’ll show you an exercise or two if I have time. But if you’re asking to come into my office and talk about goals and nutrition while I test your body composition, I’m getting paid. That’s a consultation that requires a lot more of my knowledge and time. And time, after all, is money.

Don’t assume it’s free or bust.

Remember how we would all choose the free iPhone? How many of you still got the iPhone (and trust me, if you signed a service agreement to get it, you paid for that phone)?

Just because someone doesn’t want to pay for something, doesn’t mean they won’t pay for it. They, like you, would just rather be given something free of charge. However, they’ve already established by asking you that they see you as an expert in your field. They are potential clients. Use this opportunity to court them. Give them tidbit of knowledge they haven’t heard before; show them an exercise/move that challenges them (but isn’t impossible – you want them to feel empowered). If you show them why they should hire your services, there’s a good chance they’ll be willing to part with their money to work with you.

Hold fast.

Months ago, I received an email from a woman who was training at another facility. But our gym was closer, and she’d be willing to jump ship and train with us…if the price was right. She wanted to know if I could match what she was currently paying for training. I couldn’t. No, that’s not right. I wouldn’t. I told her I wouldn’t possibly begin to match what she was currently paying, as our trainers all held multiple degrees or certifications and no one on the team had fewer than five years of training experience. Basically, I nicely told her “you get what you pay for.” But I thanked her for contacting me, and wished her well with her fitness goals, not ever expecting to hear from her again. She responded. She was a runner with a bad knee; did we have a trainer who could help her? I set her up with our ultra-marathoner trainer, and she’s been a client ever since.

Don’t feel bad for expecting payment for your services. You – like doctors, lawyers, accountants, and hair stylists — are a professional with experience, certifications, degrees, and the paystubs to prove it. You should be compensated for your talents. Hold fast to this knowledge, and the requests for “free” will, if not decrease, create opportunities for you to build your client roster.

Sarah West

A formerly overweight high school teacher who turned her back on the future leaders of the world in favor of fitness, nutrition, and skinny jeans, Sarah West has made a full time career in the fitness industry for over a decade. As an ACSM-certified trainer and training director, and Onnit Academy Foundations Trainer, she has appeared on TV, radio, and in newspapers discussing the latest trends in fitness. A California girl by birth, she now resides and works as the Training Director for Results Gym in Washington, DC.
Sarah West

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