Building Relationships and Communication Skills With Phil Learney

Key Takeaways:

  1. Understanding your business and limitations. How are you going to grow your business and what do you need to do to develop it; the difference between busy and productive.
  2. Learn how to communicate. Being able to converse with different people will help you.  
  3. Build a relationship with your clients. Business will grow from referrals and renewals when you’re able to build a relationship with your clients. 
  4. Learn your craft. Understand that it’s an evolving industry and you have to constantly learn and grow.

Short Summary

An often neglected skill set in developing one’s personal training business is the lack of communication skills. According to coach and educator Phil Lerney, one needs to be able to communicate with various people and establish a good relationship with clients to keep a business operating. 

Learney speaks to DTS Fitness Education Director of Education Ben McDonald about business acumen and client retention

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#1) Understanding your business and limitations

Continuous growth and learning will help optimize business for personal trainers, but it’s important to understand the business portion of the industry as well, states Learney. 

“Business acumen is massive because it’s fundamental in terms of how you reach more consumers, reach more people and ultimately as a coach that’s what we’re trying to do,” he explains. “I started in the industry to help people. I wanted people to experience what I experienced when I got into training. I had an intent where I wanted to lose some weight, I wanted to do all these different things, I wanted to improve my sporting prowess. And in doing all of that, in the end of it, I thought, I wanted to pass this on. When you enter the fitness world, the better you become as a coach, the less people you have to deal with.”

A large part of business acumen is understanding how much revenue you are generating as a PT and what it means for your bottom line. 

“My revenue was capped because I was charging x amount of hours, I could only handle so many clients effectively, I could continue to take on more and more clients but my quality of service would drop because I would get tired or wouldn’t be able to service them as well,” says Learney. “If I didn’t have enough time outside of the one-on-one time, I wouldn’t be able to service clients in assisting them when they were planning for a vacation or business. I was capped at x amount of hours times x amount of session price and that was it. I was only helping 12 people. That’s when I started developing and thinking about business and things about a different way.”

The obvious route would be to gain clients, but for Learney that was only assisting one extra person who may pass on information to one other person. That in itself is a diminishing return. In the end, the biggest limitation to growth is time. 

“I talk to (new trainers) about time and that I don’t want to be spending time doing something that I can pay someone else less for that I would earn per hour if I were to utilize that hour for that list,” he says. “People forget this and they look at things like a luxury and say things like, “I can’t buy that because it’s a bit of a luxury.” Look, I’m going to pay someone to clean my car. I actually enjoy cleaning my car, I do. It’s a very relaxing thing and it’s almost therapeutic, but I just don’t have time. And I know if I stay in this lane, I’m going to get more out of it for me, my family, our quality of life. It doesn’t all come down to money, it also comes down to everything in this lane I enjoy doing. I can also flip this around and say, well, do I enjoy doing it because the revenue is good.”

#2) Learn how to communicate

For a new trainer, one of the biggest skill sets one can learn is the ability to communicate with everyone.

“It’s the biggest skill coaches are lacking,” says Learney. “Coaches are doing all these different courses to become a better trainer and they have this list of qualifications, (but) most of them lack communication skills.”

When he first started off as a trainer, Learney explained one of the first things he learned during his certification was how to coach an exercise without speaking. For example, if someone had to coach a chest press, one had to physically explain the exercise without speaking.

“Then he had us coach the exercise without moving so we had to vocally explain it,” added Learney. “Get coaches to be able to explain it verbally, get them to do it without the verbal cues, put it together, and then all of sudden you have a good coach who can do both of those things.” 

Once the coaching is set, from there the acquisition of clients becomes an easy process.

“I introduced myself to every single person I could on the gym floor. I used to stand at the reception and I used to lean over the receptionists shoulder and I would talk to members. People would say I was always at the receptionist and I was like, yes, because when people check in their names would be on the screen,” he says. 

Learney attributes his skills in communication to his time growing up in his parents pub. 

“I didn’t know it at the time and I didn’t know why I got busy because yes, I was a good coach, and I would think, maybe it was my physique but I wasn’t properly jacked like some of these guys and it took me years to figure out why I was getting busy and other people weren’t,” says Learney. “It was because I would go around and talk to people. I would use to introduce myself, find something in common with them, things my dad used to do at the pub every day every single day of his life, and I would talk to them. Whatever it was they were trying to achieve, I would help them with it, whether I was being paid or I wasn’t.”

#3) Build a relationship with your clients

Another part of growing your business is building a legitimate relationship with your clients, he adds. 

“The majority of clients that I finished with all came to my wedding. People keep saying your clients are not your friends. No, they’re not. But by the time I’ve coached them for several years, I have a meaningful relationship with these people because I give a crap about them, I care about them,” Learney explains. “They in turn care about me by default because all I do is look out for them all the time. That is my goal: I am looking out for these people.”

When clients ask various questions on how to do certain things, a favour about this, or stuff outside of coaching, sometimes the correct answer is to say, ‘I’m not in a position to answer this question.’

“As you build meaningful relationships with friends, family, colleagues, it will improve your quality of life,” he adds. “People are terrible at (communication) nowadays. They’re horrendous at building meaningful relationships because it’s something they’re not used to.”

The goal is to teach coaches how strong communication and relationships with their clients will help grow their business. 

“We’re trying to improve the quality of coaching, the quality of coaches, the quality of coaching businesses and therefore drive our industry the right way. You can’t have a slap-dash attitude to business. You can’t anymore,” says Learney. “Before you would take a weekend course, get your PT certification, go into a gym and you’re busy. We’re a professional industry as far as I’m concerned.”

#4) Learn your craft

If you’re looking to step up your game as a personal trainer, learn to be uncomfortable and step up, says Learney. 

“For people who are looking to expand their business in a private facility, I tell them to move. Learn your craft,” he says. “You’re an average coach, I’m that honest with people, with average skills because you haven’t practiced it yet. Coaching is a skill and we all know to acquire a skill it requires repeated practice.”

To Learney, cultivating your craft means as a personal trainer you have to be practicing therefore running an efficient business. 

“For someone fresh into the industry, one of the first things we know about the industry is the entry point is very low. When someone comes into the industry they’re not going to know or have the skills that they need to be very good at what they do. That’s down to a bunch of things because there are gaps in learning,” he says. “One of the first things we need if we’re going to be teaching them about coaching and nutrition and all these bits and pieces, is to get them busy.”

In the UK, the average number of clients a trainer will have is based on the stats that are available is 232 clients per facility per trainer in a larger facility.

“If you want to be busy, you want around eight to a dozen clients. Eight clients doing three sessions a week is 24 sessions. There’s not a lot of trainers out there who can service that many clients,” says Learney. “If you’re in a high-end location charging a lot of money, you probably want to do fewer sessions because the service they are demanding will be way higher. If I’m based in a low-income area, I probably wouldn’t do PT anyway, I would probably do a Bootcamp or group coaching so people can afford it. That also means my hourly time is spent better and my revenue goes up. Group training always works better in low-income areas for various reasons: social, financial, community reasons.”

The better understanding you have of your demographic and craft, the better your service and business will be in the long run. Similar to a five-star hotel, the costs being paid for training is based on service. 

“You can get two different five-star hotels, one for $1000 a night and another for $200 a night. Bedsheets, amenities, a swimming pool – everything is the same, but the service is different,” concludes Learney.