Assertiveness is Key to Running a Fitness Business | Athletic Business

Assertiveness is Key to Running a Fitness Business

Rob Barry Feature

You know how being physically fit and strong is supposed to make people confident and self-assured? Then please explain to us why we're an industry of wimps.

One of the things that has washed over us during the past year, as we have traveled and met fellow club owners and managers from around the world, isn't how nice so many people are — we've known that for years. It's that our collective niceness comes with a huge lack of self-confidence and conviction.

Maybe it's that you're a little bit beaten down and afraid. You sell a product that so few people want. You read everywhere that you're going out of business, whoever "you" are. Mid-priced clubs will be put out of business by low-priced clubs. Low-priced clubs will be put out of business by wearable technology.

Maybe it's social media beating you down because every post can lead to public ridicule ("I can't believe you canceled my favorite class! Are you going to refund my dues?"), or you have staff members who think that you're there for their convenience, rather than appreciating having a job. Does any of that sound familiar?


So, you're nice. You're tired of taking the bullets. You'll just eat whatever gets thrown at you, put a smile on your face, make that unreasonable member happy, cover that employee's shift, and make it through another day.

You know it's wrong. You know you should proactively fix problems. You know you are supposed to manage things, not be managed by circumstances, but it just hurts too much. And — let's face it — you haven't been trained properly on how to do that.

Maybe we can help.

Get over it. You're running a business. There is right and there is wrong, and your interests and the interests of your business need to be protected. If you don't have a backbone then you'd better grow one, because our circumstances in the health club business are only going to get more challenging, not less.

You are under assault, whether you run a low-, mid- or high-priced club. Even if you are running a hot, new studio you are at risk. (How long until the next hot trend makes your studio look old and stodgy?) Technology is changing, consumer tastes are fickle, and everyone wants a piece of your business. You'd better know what you stand for and guard it jealously.

We recently received a question from a club owner who wanted to know what to do about a member who was clearly acting as a paid personal trainer for various other members. The simple answer is put a stop to it.

It's your business and that rogue trainer is stealing from you while also putting your business at risk of liability. You need to confront the trainer, explain that you believe he or she is doing this, and that if it doesn't stop, the person's membership will be terminated.

You also need to document your observations and be sure that you have the legal authority via your membership contract to terminate memberships for reasons you feel are appropriate. If you don't have such language in your contract, a) you need it, but b) you still need to terminate the offending member if the training doesn't stop (and deal with the ramifications later if the trainer/member causes trouble).

Most important, you need the courage and conviction to say, "You're not going to do this." Might you lose that trainer as a member? Of course. Might you lose some of the clients that were being trained? Sure. Should you learn something about what those clients were looking for that led them to seek out that trainer and not one of yours? Absolutely! But none of that means that you need to take that abuse.


Employee issues also become areas where niceness undermines your long-term sanity. We know you have employees who seem to think that they can tell you when they feel like working. We know you have employees who think nothing of giving two-hours notice of an absence and expect you to find coverage for them. We know that you have employees who "need" to give up some (but not all) of their hours in order to pursue their latest interest, and they are shocked — shocked! — if you propose that perhaps they need to give up all of their hours so that you can find someone who wants to actually work. What's especially maddening in these cases is when the employee in question is one of your best.

Here's what you need to do: Have a clear conversation with employees who think that their personal schedules are more important than your business, and set them straight. If that doesn't work for them, then you need to find new employees. We know that doing so is awful and painful and time-consuming, but that short-term pain is worth it when it saves you from that sick feeling in the pit of your stomach that comes with covering their hours or running around frantically trying to get someone else to do so.

Another example is personal trainer pay. We have spoken to many club managers in the past year who are so paranoid about losing personal trainers that they are running PT at break-even or even a loss — and don't even know it.

How do we know it? We simply realize you can't pay your trainers 70 percent of what you bring in for training and expect to make any profit from it. In fact, if you are paying out that much, you might as well not even offer personal training or accept it as a loss-leader (which would be incredibly silly to do).

To clubs that think they must pay out that much to their trainers, we'd remind you that you're the one paying for the mortgage or rent, the electric bill, the heating bill, the water bill, the paper products, the credit card processing fees, the payroll overhead on that trainer's salary, the advertising that brought in the clients, the staff that signed up the clients. The list goes on and on. You need to be able to look your trainers in the eye and proudly set things up as a win/win, and that means starting pay at 50/50 or 60/40 (in your favor). You might top out at 60/40 in the trainer's favor, but should go no further than that.

Might they leave for somewhere else? Might you have to take a few steps backward before you go forward? Might you have to revisit and reinvent how you run personal training? Sure. But you'll be better off for it in the long run.

So, we say to our fellow owners and managers — man (or woman) up! That sick feeling in your gut is of your own making. Take back your business and stop being so nice. You'll like yourself a whole lot more.

This article originally appeared in the May 2014 issue of Athletic Business under the headline, "Man (or Woman) Up!"

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