Understanding Your Value as a Coach: Charging a Professional Rate for a Professional Service

by Andy Baker, SSC | January 06, 2021

lifter at the bottom of a squat

As happens at the beginning of every year, those of us in the fitness industry should generally expect to see a fairly steep rise in the number of requests for our services. It doesn’t all happen at once at the beginning of January, but certainly in the first quarter of the year demand tends to be at its peak.

Demand is good. A full gym is good. A full roster of personal training clients is good. But a full roster of clients doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to be making an income that is reflective of your talents. There is money to be made in this industry. Money is made in this industry every year by people less talented and less qualified than you. There is no reason why a qualified and experienced SSC should be out-earned by less-talented and less-knowledgeable personal trainers, or by those selling snake-oil and false promises.

And make no mistake – if you are charging for your services, you are a business. Businesses exist for a single purpose: to make a profit. Luckily we have a skill-set and a craft that enables us to both make a healthy profit and operate ethically, honestly, responsibly, and bring tremendous tangible value to our clients' lives. It’s the best of both worlds when you can both earn a respectable income, do something you love, and sleep easy at night knowing you are holding up your end of the value exchange with your customers.

I hear trainers and coaches often say things like “I don’t do it for the money!” or some other such feel-good nonsense. But when your landlord wants his rent, your bank wants its mortgage payment, and your health insurance premium is due, you better be doing it for the money or you’ll be doing something else very soon.

Many of the coaches I’ve met simply don’t charge enough for their services. No matter how full your client roster is, setting your rates too low is going to lead to burnout – long hours and not enough profit to justify the time and energy you’ll put into your clients.

Fear of charging a premium rate is common among many trainers and coaches – especially young people new to the profession. The Fear of Rejection is something that everyone has to deal with and eventually move beyond. The reality is that sometimes you will be rejected on the basis of your rates. And that’s okay. Not everyone can afford private coaching, not everyone values coaching to the same degree. We can’t train everyone, nor should we try. You don’t need to offer discounts. You don’t need to “try and work with any budget.” High-end restaurants don’t have a Dollar Menu.

Below are a few things to think about when setting your rates at a professional level. All of these were things I’ve had to learn along the way over the past 13 years of owning a private training facility.

Understand Your Market

The classic mistake many trainers and coaches make is setting their rates based on their own perception of what constitutes “expensive.” When you’re 25 years old and driving a car that barely runs, then $80 for a training session sounds like a lot – at 2-3 times per week it can really seem like a lot of money. It's certainly not something you could afford. And besides you could just read a few books, watch some YouTube videos and teach yourself how to do this stuff on your own.

But your market isn’t you. Your market is a 55-year-old businessman or executive that spends that much every day taking a client to lunch. His wife is an office manager for a medical practice and together they have a pretty hefty income. Their kids are grown and out of the house and their home is paid for. Now they’re ready to invest in themselves. They want to keep playing golf and tennis and go skiing 1-2 times a year without getting hurt. And they don’t want to spend their later years of life sick and frail, or fat and over medicated.

This is your ideal client. They can afford you. And they want the best – not the cheapest. What is expensive to you is not expensive to them. They might even go somewhere else if you are the cheapest in town. There is value in the price. Cheap often implies lower quality. And again – they want the best.

The Value of Your Time and Their Time

People who can afford your services understand the value of time. Their time is precious and they’ll recognize that your time is precious as well. When someone takes an hour or more of your time during the day, they expect to compensate you accordingly, as you should too. This rarely has to be explained, and if it does need explaining then your prospect is likely not an ideal client.

But many prospective customers don’t necessarily take into account the amount of time you are saving them by coaching them correctly from the beginning. How much time did you waste via trial and error looking for an exercise prescription that actually worked? Perhaps years. They don’t have years to waste on trial and error or self-study.

Your clients are leveraging your time spent studying, learning, and making mistakes so they don’t have to. This should be communicated to them. It helps to establish your value.

The Prevailing Market Rate

Your local market does matter. Affluent urban areas tend to command higher rates than suburbs. Suburbs tend to command higher rates than rural areas. Markets work this way. Find out who your competition is and set your rates accordingly. Does the local CrossFit box offer 1:1 or small group training? If so, what do they charge? What does your local health club or YMCA personal trainer charge for 1:1 training? All businesses research their competition. Do your homework. If your local ACE-certified personal trainer at the YMCA is charging $60/hour, there is no reason for you to charge $50/hour. At a minimum you should be charging $65-$80/hour.

If the local CrossFit box is charging is charging $200/month for chaotic large group classes, why wouldn’t you be charging $300-$400/month for better controlled and better coached small group training?

Expect Some Price Resistance

In other words, some people will say no. And you don’t need to immediately offer a discount. You thank them for calling you or stopping by, and move on.

If everyone says yes, your prices are too low. If everyone says no – then perhaps your prices are too high, but it's far more likely that your marketing and sales presentation are lacking. Are you marketing to the right demographic? When you meet a new prospect are you giving the impression of a serious and competent professional? Does your message adequately describe the value of what you provide?

With all new trainers, a few “No”s almost always lead to the temptation to drop the rate. But most of the time, the problem is not the rate. The problem is in your marketing and your presentation – your “packaging.”

Finding the Sweet Spot – Semi-Private Training

In this business, retention is everything. A “leaky bucket” will destroy a gym or training business. This means you have the business coming in, but they aren’t staying for the long term. A good retention rate is multi-faceted, but price does have a role. Businesses that have great marketing and sales but poor quality services tend to be leaky buckets. Most big commercial gyms are leaky buckets – but they don’t care. They spend a small fortune on marketing and they’re good at replacing lost personal training clients quickly. As a small gym or independent trainer, this cannot be your business model. You need to charge a premium rate but you need to keep those rates in a place where clients can pay the fees month-in-month-out for years at a time.

This is where having multiple pricing tiers can be beneficial for a small gym or independent trainer. Where 1:1 training might be $80-$100/hour, having a small group or semi-private option available for $40-$60/session is great for both the client and coach. For the coach (you can work with 3-4 clients at once), making an average of $200/hour while the client only pays an average of $50/hour is a win-win.

And trust me after years of doing this when I tell you that semi-private/small group training should be your core offering – 1:1 training should be reserved for those with very specific goals or needs and limited to non-peak hours. Peak hours should be reserved for semi-private/small group training. Clients still receive plenty of 1:1 coaching, the price is more affordable long term, the coach makes more, and the clients will enjoy the sessions more in most cases.

However much you decide to charge, and whether it’s for 1:1 coaching or small group coaching, never allow clients to book or pay by the session. Never ever. For your regulars, the best bet is a flat monthly rate for the reservation of their time slot each month. The rate is based on whether they are doing 1:1 training or small group training, and is also tied to how many times per week you meet. This is due on the first of the month via auto-draft. There are other ways to collect payment (such as larger packages of sessions), but the flat monthly rate is the way to go.

Understanding Value

When we talk about offering our clients “value,” what do we mean? Value is largely the sum of 3 factors: client results, the client's experience at the gym, and their relationship with you.

In order to secure the highest rates you have to deliver more value than your competitors. Are your clients meeting their goals? Are they getting stronger? Is their body composition changing? Are you being judicious with volume and load to keep them feeling fresh and recovered outside the gym? This is the “results” part.

Do your clients enjoy coming to your facility? Is it chaotic and poorly managed, or is it organized, efficiently run, and clean? Are the other members welcoming, supportive, and friendly? Is the music too loud or too low? Are you always stocked with toilet paper and soap? These are little things, but they are expected of your facility if you charge a premium rate. This is the client experience. Create an environment and atmosphere that your Ideal Client enjoys.

Lastly – you are in the people business, like it or not. Your relationship with your clients is what keeps them coming for 10+ years, not your ability to coach the squat. Emphasize the personal aspect of personal training, while keeping it professional. Be positive and encouraging. Answer questions. Teach. Listen. Show them that you care about their goals. Push them when they need to be pushed. Don’t be an asshole. Don’t bad-mouth your competition. And while your clients may often use you as a sounding board for their personal stress, that has to be a one way street. They don’t need to hear about your marital or financial struggles. Personal, but professional. If you cultivate a membership that knows you, trusts you, likes you, and respects you – as a person and as a professional – you’ll have a client base for life.

Pre-Qualify Prospective Clients

Before you sit down and meet with someone for a more formal consultation – you need to pre-qualify them to make sure they are a good fit for you and your gym. As part of my process I still like to sit down with a prospective client for a 20-30 minute chat. The Consultation is where we discuss their goals in detail, take care of paperwork, etc. But before you waste their time and yours, you need to make sure that the prospective client can (1) afford your rates, (2) conform to your schedule, and (3) has goals that you can help them with.

Usually your first contact with your prospect is via phone or email. During that initial conversation you need to make sure they have a good idea of what you charge and what your availability is. There is no reason to sit down with a prospect for 30 minutes only to find out in the last 5 minutes that they cannot afford your rates or that they cannot meet your schedule. If you pre-qualify them correctly, the consultation is all but a formality.

Sessions vs Clinics/Camps

As an SSC you are in a unique position to offer something that most other trainers cannot: you teach a system. And many of your clients will come to you already educated about the system you teach. They want to learn the system from you. You will have requests from people that live far enough away from you that they cannot become regular weekly personal training clients. You need to have a service for them, because it will be very lucrative for you.

“Sessions” are what we deliver to our regulars. Private or semi-private sessions delivered 2-3 times per week in most cases, usually about an hour in length. During the session our job is to get the client trained. We teach as we go in most cases.

“Clinics” or “Camps” are what we deliver to people that might only come and see us once. Perhaps they are driving a long distance and then will return to their home or local gym to pursue the program on their own. Clinics and Camps are more about teaching, coaching, and educating, and a bit less about today’s training. But the value is immense and people are willing to pay for it.

A four-lift clinic is generally about a 2-3 hour affair depending on the number of attendees. Do not charge the same for a clinic as you would a session, and do not call it a “session.” It’s different, and the terminology matters. I would suggest a complete 4-lift clinic be no less than $250 for an individual. And it will generally take place on a weekend, further justifying the higher rate.

The Value of the SSC

I'm telling you these things because I want you to succeed. The SSC is the only credential in the industry that your prospective customers are actively seeking out. Customers do not look for ACE certified trainers, NASM certified trainers, or even the “gold standard” CSCS. Your clients don’t even know those things exist, and they won’t ask for them. But they know about the SSC credential. They will seek you out because of it – ready and willing to pay you to teach them.

People want access to the expertise we possess. I want you to be able to make a living doing this if it’s something you love to do. It’s entirely possible to work full time as a coach, and don’t let the skeptic inside of you convince you that coaching has to be relegated to simply a hobby or a part-time gig. You can buy a house, take nice vacations, save and invest for your future, and provide a comfortable life for you and your family – but all of that takes money. So don’t be afraid to ask for it. To demand it. And be worth it.   

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