Building brand loyalty and client success managers, versus a building an authentic relationship with a coach

I recently read an article Two-Brain business put out to help gym owners learn how to break through that 150-person membership base, a place many gym owners tend to get stuck.

All the respect for Chris Cooper, who I know is truly in this for the right reason—to help gyms be successful—but I couldn’t help but fundamentally disagree with the logic in this article.

The article argues the following:

  1. We’re personally only capable of maintaining around 150 interpersonal relationships before we start losing our ability to service each one properly.
  2. To get around this, you need your clients to shift their loyalty from YOU—their coach and probably the owner—to your brand in general. When they’re loyal to your brand, you’ll be able to get above the 150 barrier.
  3. To do this, you need to “create redundancy,” meaning your clients will receive the same service from all of your coaches. “Every coach should be replaceable with another of your coaches,” it states. This also means personal training clients should do training sessions with various coaches.
  4. Finally, you should hire a Client Success Manager, who’s job is to maintain your clients’ relationship to your brand, and ultimately make sure they stick around.

These all seem like reasonable, logical arguments, I admit. 

But having been in the industry working as a coach for a decade, I couldn’t help but furrow my brows and cringe a little bit as I read this advice. 

Here’s why:

1. 150 relationships

Personally, I don’t think 150 relationships with clients is possible (not for a coach, an owner and certainly not for a Client Success Manager, but I’ll get to that one later). 

Ok, maybe you could forge 150 shallow or fake relationships, but not real ones that have any true integrity.

It would be incredibly challenging and time-consuming to properly service 150 clients on my own, especially if I’m providing any kind of individualized service—be it personal training, individual program design, lifestyle consults or nutrition counselling. And if you’re not providing any kind of individualized service—i.e. if all your clients are doing are group classes—then good luck keeping these clients around very long! That’s all I’ll say about that…, but if you want to read more check out this article about the link between the group class model and churn.

What? So how can I ever make a decent living if 150 clients is too many?

If you have your own stable of clients, and your coaches have their own stable of clients, then I would argue closer 50-75 clients is the sweet spot. 

In our system at MadLab School of Fitness in Vancouver, our full-time coaches get paid on a percentage of revenue basis on their own book of clients and earn between $60,000 to $110,000 a year. They do this coaching a reasonable, sustainable number of hours (20-25 a week), and are also able to take a few vacations each year. While this is all outside the scope of the article, check out this piece for a better understanding of what being a professional coach in our system looks like in practice.

2. Brand versus relationship with a coach

Brand loyalty might work if you’re selling a product (Even then, though, I would argue people are fickle. I lived for Lululemon for years, and although I still like it, I didn’t hesitate to move away from the brand guilt-free when others started producing similar products that were as nice and were a bit less expensive. And I’m certainly not unique in this regard).

But even if brand loyalty sort of works when it comes to selling a product, it certainly doesn’t work in the service industry.

In other words, a product or a brand is never going to invite you to their house for dinner and drinks and deep conversation (Again, this is outside of the scope of this article, but my client dinner parties are definitely helpful for building client trust and loyalty. Never have I ever had a client quit on me in the months following a beef wellington feast at mine).

OK, maybe brand loyalty is more likely in the service industry if you’re just selling group classes and a hard workout (which is ironically more like selling a product than a service), but if you’re looking to retain clients and help them with their individual health and fitness needs for the long-term, then a relationship with a coach is an absolute must. 

This doesn’t mean clients can’t also go to other coach’s classes and receive coaching and develop relationships and friendships with other coaches (or attend open gym times of other coaches if you’re running an individual program design type of gym), but for a client to be committed and loyal for the long haul, a more in-depth relationship with a coach, who understands the client’s individual challenges and limitations, priorities and lifestyle habits is non-negotiable if we’re talking about keeping clients for years. This is the goal for any gym, isn’t it? 

Quick example of something that happened just this week: A client of mine is currently struggling with the side effects of taking Accutane (acne meds). She told me her joint/bone pain was so bad she was thinking of putting her membership on hold until she’s finished with the drug in 6 months. No loyalty to any kind of a brand would have kept her around, that I am sure of. But instead of quitting, we met up this past weekend and talked. She cried, I listened, and we figured out what is causing her pain. Then we put her on a trial individual program for the next two months that takes into consideration her current situation. Again, no chance this is happening with brand loyalty or because some Joy Girl has been hired to call out clients “bright spots.”

3. Replaceable coaches versus fixing coach retention

This argument almost sounds like Two-Brain Business has accepted the fact that coach retention is as dire as client retention (“every coach should be replaceable,” they say).

In a world where coach retention IS DIRE—mostly because most coaches can’t make a decent enough living even when they do work 40-plus on-floor hours a week—this argument might actually make sense. 

However, when we fix coach retention through turning coaches into professional coaches, who service their own book of clients and are paid a professional wage, then we can move away from accepting the unfortunate reality that currently exists in the industry when it comes to the inability to develop and retain full-time career coaches.

Not only that, but this argument that all are created equal just feels idealistic. If a person’s pay check and livelihood isn’t directly tied to the success of their work—in other words, if coach pay isn’t tied to client acquisition, client retention and average client value—then what’s in it for them to care as much and offer as good of a service as the owner? Speaking as a coach of 10 years, I will say: Absolutely nothing.

4. Client Success Manager: Big title, ineffective role

This one boggled me completely. 

If you google client/customer success manager, you’ll see it’s a legitimate job—a project management, implementation and inside sales-type of career. It pays in the neighbourhood of $65,000 to $100,000 + as an annual salary. 

Somehow I don’t think small gym owners are going to give their part-time administrator, whose job it is to spend two to three hours a week on clients retention (as was stated on the Two-Brain website)—or Joy Girl as they used to call this  position—$75,000 + a year. So in essence, this job is more like calling your part-time secretary a Senior Vice President and hoping you trick them?  

In the description of the job, Two-Brain explained other roles include:

  • Call clients with “bright spots.”
  • Goal reviews with clients
  • Call clients who have been absent
  • Follow up with texted videos

Big title aside—this position sounds like we’re headed back to the Globo gym days, where we were welcomed by the corny greeter—It’s a great day at GoodLife, how can I make you smile today—and almost puked.

I know for me, a pig with lipstick isn’t going to increase my brand loyalty!

One final thing I’ll say about this role: It would be a completely redundant role in a gym that has actual professional coaches, who establish genuine relationships with their individual clients, as they will naturally do the Joy Girl’s role and with way more efficacy, efficiency and authenticity.



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