The psychology of client retention: Empathy 101

By understanding your client’s world, you can forge a strong connection and turn your training sessions into their place of refuge.

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.

Client retention is the name of the game. Right? To retain clients, it’s essential to establish a strong connection. Your new client needs to feel welcome and valued. And to do that, you need to get into their heads, understand what’s going on for them, and work out what makes them tick.

Now be warned: this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Every person who walks through your door is unique. Sure, there will be common denominators, but never make the mistake of swinging into auto-pilot.

Let’s go back a step and take a look inside your new client’s head as he’s on the way to the gym for his first session with you.

Let me introduce you to Brett. Brett’s 35, married and the father of a new baby. He’s in sales and marketing and is working hard to climb the corporate ladder. Brett’s been fit and sporty most of his life until – yep, you guessed it – he married the girl of his dreams. Boy, can that girl cook! (research tells us it’s common for men to put on weight once they marry).

Now with the nipper in the picture, there’s no time for that run after work. When Brett walks through the door at the end of the day, he walks into the middle of the witching hour. Junior, the dream girl, and the dog all desperate for his attention, the dripping tap needs to be fixed, milk needs to be picked up… you get the picture.

Despite the chaos of his life, Brett doesn’t want to give in and buy larger clothes. He wants to keep his waistline, maintain his fitness, and perhaps even bulk up a little. He figures if he joins a gym and organises training sessions, he’ll have to go, and his better half’s supportive. He’s going to train in the morning so it doesn’t disrupt his schedule – he just needs to get up an hour earlier.

The 30-second article
  • To forge a strong connection with clients you need to understand what’s going on for them
    In addition to their stated fitness goals, clients are often seeking a refuge from the chaos of their lives
  • Empathy is very different to sympathy
  • Empathy requires you to make eye contact, listen carefully, ask questions, not make assumptions, and consider how you would feel if you were living your client’s life.
  • By being empathetic you can make your client feel cared about and valued, which in turn will increase the likelihood of you retaining them as a client.

What your client really wants

So let’s take a look at Brett’s expectations as he steps through the door for his first session with you. Brett tells you he wants to:

  • lose a bit of weight
  • improve his fitness.

What Brett isn’t telling you, however, is that he wants to:

  • muscle up so he ‘looks hot’
  • have a place he can escape from his responsibilities without causing friction at home or feeling (too) guilty
  • take a break from sales figures, targets and nappies
  • get some order and routine back into his life.

And you thought he was just there to train…

All of this is important for you to understand, as Brett’s personal trainer. Because when the going gets tough for Brett (and believe me, it will), he’ll need more motivation than losing weight and getting fit to keep to his training schedule. The second there’s a deadline at work, or the baby’s kept him up at night, he’ll drop his sessions so he can get through his day.

Unless, of course, you’re offering him that refuge he desperately needs, but hasn’t mentioned to you. And that’s where empathy kicks in.

Empathy vs Sympathy

Empathy is:

  • taking the time to understand Brett’s world from his perspective
  • not making assumptions about what’s going on for Brett (your sister has a baby so you know it all)
  • listening (and we mean really listening) to what Brett’s saying
  • walking a mile in his shoes.

When learning how to empathise with clients it’s crucial to be aware that empathy isn’t the same as sympathy.

Sympathy is:

  • feeling sorry for him
  • thumping him on the back and moving on
  • about how you’re feeling, and not about how Brett is feeling.

The difference between empathy and sympathy may feel subtle, but in reality, they’re a world away from each other.

Here’s how you do empathy:

  • slow down your interactions with Brett
  • make eye contact and listen carefully
  • ask questions about what it’s like for him
  • picture the chaos he’s faced with at the end of the day, and the demands of his work
  • think about what that would feel like if it was you
  • let him know you’ve heard (really heard) and you understand
  • and sure, thump him on the back if you must, but not until you’re confident that he knows that you ‘get’ his situation.

The environment of empathy that you create for Brett is an important part of what will keep him coming back when the s*&t hits the fan at work and at home. Empathy will make him feel cared about and valued. He’ll know he’s not just another dollar to you, because empathy has allowed you to forge a strong connection.

In the next issue, we’ll focus on honing your listening skills so you can gain the maximum information about your client and tailor your interactions and program to his needs.


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 YourWeightLossExperts.com