The psychology of client retention:
embrace your inner sherlock

The more you can find out about your clients, the more you can help them engage with fitness.

In this series on client retention, psychologists Kate Swann and Kristina Mamrot provide unique insights into what makes your clients tick, and how to keep them coming back week after week, month after month, year after year.

In the previous article in this series we discussed how to use empathy to develop ninja listening skills. Here, we’re going to take our cue from Sherlock Holmes and become detectives…

So, what does being curious and listening hard to the smallest of details have to do with personal training? Everything, people, everything.

As psychologists, when we engage new clients we like to find out as much as we can about them. It’s like detective work – and it’s great fun! Most people love talking about their favourite subject – themselves. And if you’re genuinely interested in learning more about them, they’ll be only too pleased to fill you in.

Don’t be afraid to be guided by your natural curiosity. If you stomp over any boundaries or step on any toes, your client will be quick to let you know. They’ll shoot you a speedy frown, or brush away your question – your cue to respect their boundaries and back off.

Of course, we’re not suggesting you psychoanalyse your clients – that’s our job. We’re talking about digging out your magnifying glass, putting on your deerstalker and finding out what makes them tick when it comes to their fitness and health.

Ask your client:

  • What’s worked in the past, and why?
  • What hasn’t worked, and why?
  • What do they find fun, and why?
  • What are the obstacles going to be, and why?
  • What’s going to be a cinch, and why?
  • What are their short term, and long term, goals?

The twists and turns the conversation can take are endless, and provide great opportunities to further engage your client. Everything you learn will increase your understanding of how you can help them achieve their goals.

Let’s take a look at detective work in action.

PT: So tell me what made you decide to join the gym?

CLIENT: Well, I’m a bit thick around the girth at the moment, and my partner’s worried about my health and has been nagging me to do something about the weight. I used to work out at the gym when I was younger, and I really loved it. But life got kind of hectic… I don’t really know how or why, but I gradually stopped going. Anyway, I’ve been driving past your gym every day for years, and finally decided to drop in and join.

PT: Good for you!

CLIENT: [Surprised] Thanks!

PT: But I’m curious. Why is your partner – wife, girlfriend?

CLIENT: Wife. Her name’s Sarah.

PT: OK – why’s Sarah worried about your health?

CLIENT: Oh! I’m fine. But there’s a history of heart problems in my family, and she stresses about it.

PT: I’m not surprised! Who has ticker trouble?

CLIENT: [Slowing down, and becoming thoughtful] Well, my dad had a massive heart attack when I just finished school, and died. And his dad died young too of a heart attack.

PT: That’s awful. That must have been terrible for you.

CLIENT: Yeah, it wasn’t great.

PT: How old was your dad?

CLIENT: Five years older than me.

PT: No wonder Sarah’s worried.

CLIENT: Yeah…

PT: And are you worried too?

CLIENT: I am, actually. But I don’t talk about it at home because she gets pretty wound up.

PT: Sounds like she’s got good reason to get wound up. What does your doctor say?

CLIENT: Well, she’s put me through tests, and everything’s fine. But she says I need to look after my diet, my stress levels, and get fit.

PT: Right. Sounds like we’re on a mission then.

CLIENT: Yeah! We are.

PT: OK, let’s get started with the assessment.

In this interaction, the trainer was confident in letting his curiosity guide him to each question. Keeping the conversation naturally flowing, he was able to find out:

  • that the client loved the gym when he was younger
  • there’s a history of heart trouble for men in the family
  • the name of the client’s wife
  • the client’s concern about his health and the fact that he can’t talk about it at home
  • the client has been checked by his GP.

On top of that, by demonstrating interest in his client’s world and helping him open up, the PT made his client feel that he really cared. And just like that – the first steps to engagement have been achieved.

In the next issue we’ll look at how to further develop your engagement skills.


Kate Swann and Kristina Mamrot are Melbourne-based psychologists specialising in treating overweight and obese clients. For information on their books The Ultimate Guide To Training Overweight And Obese Clients, and Do You Really Want To Lose Weight? visit pscounselling.com.au