RateYourBurn | 15 Tips for Running a Successful Fitness Studio Business

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We typically like to dish out advice for instructors and their clients. But this time, we took a dive into the world of studio management. Here's a list of 15 improvements we think every studio should make to boost their business, based on the experiences and feedback of our bloggers and community. A selfish list, but hopefully a useful one :)

tips for fitness studio owners

1. Train the front desk to be friendlier than my goddamn fairy godmother.

In hiring and training front desk people, you need to JAM IT DOWN THEIR THROATS that every client should be treated like Mother Theresa. Would you be rude to Mother Theresa? Would you get frustrated with Mother Theresa? No, because that would make you an asshole.

  • Go through every possible scenario with your staff: angry clients, computer malfunctions, instructor lateness/no-shows, celebrity appearances...ANYTHING that could happen in your studio. Your staff needs to know how to handle it in a way that represents your brand.
  • Reward staff for handling tough situations gracefully. It is extremely stressful to deal with a raving lunatic Mother Theresa. Create a culture of pride when it comes to customer service.

2. Make signing up for my first visit THE EASIEST THING I'VE EVER DONE IN MY LIFE.

RYB bloggers have given up on many studios because the first glance of their poorly organized website elicited an "UGH." It should not be a chore for your clients to figure out how to give you dollar bills. Items that should be visible and obvious on the front page:

  • New client deals (and information on how to redeem them)
  • Studio phone number
  • Studio email address 
  • A clearly marked link to your class schedule (the word "SCHEDULE" should be smack on the front page—and obvious, please!)

In addition, if you use a scheduling platform where users can purchase a package online, make sure you include the new client special—even if it's a free class—as a purchasing option. That way, clients can book their first class without ever having to talk to you. (Pretty please! Calling is annoying!)

click here to give us money

3. Develop a strict 'new client' protocol.

From the the front desk interaction to the in-class experience to the post-workout follow-up...heed these words: You only get ONE first impression. Treating new clients like royalty is step one. Some additional tips:

  • Know who's new. Have your staff review the roster before each class, highlighting the brand new clients. I've been blown away by studios who do this. When I said, "This is my first time," or gave my first name, the front desk person would say, "Oh! You're Jane Doe! Welcome to the studio!" If you know my name before I even say it, I will feel irrational feelings of love for you. Irrational feelings of love = good business.
  • Ask new clients how they found out about you. Hi, do you want more business? Find out which outlets are bringing you traffic, and focus your marketing efforts there.
  • Read the forms your clients fill out. Did you ask me about my injuries on the waiver I just filled out? If so, make sure whoever collected that form both looked at it and communicated that info to the instructor. Don't make your clients feel like they're in a dungeon of bureaucracy where they fill out forms that never get read.
  • Tell your instructors who's new. Have them review the roster before class to know who is new.
  • Make newbies feel special. Encourage instructors to flood newbs with attention, ask them about injuries and whether they've taken a similar class before, check in on them throughout class, call them out when they're doing well, and generally watch them like a hawk.
  • Conversely, make sure instructors don't take it too far. For example, repeatedly taking a client's name in vain over the mic, especially when giving them corrections, can be bad for biz. 

4. Develop a strict 'angry client' protocol.

Clients come in every flavor (and yes, on occasion that flavor tastes like imbecile). BUT: Remind yourself that it is never in your best interest to leave a client angry.

Think of it this way: A client who is both unhappy AND eager to express that unhappiness is, by definition, a passionate consumer. Passionate consumers are more precious than gold. When they hate something, they HATE it, but when they love something, they can't get enough of it. If you can respond to an angry client in a way that wins their favor, you will create a super-supporter, a client for life who does your marketing for you. These types of clients are typically very receptive to above-and-beyond customer service.

And... constantly check yourself. For every vocal angry client, there are likely 10 silent angry clients. Most people avoid confrontation or criticism; they just won't come back to your studio. Evaluate every complaint to make your business better. This is the point of RYB, right?

5. Always, always answer the phone.

New studios sometimes only host a few classes per day. If no one is in the studio, make sure those calls are being forwarded to an employee's cell. Most people call studios because

  1. They're new and have questions about the studio, or 
  2. They want to sign up for a class and have some related question.

Can you afford to miss those calls?

voicemail fitness studio

6. Emails and voice mails = ticking time-bombs.

Leave them long enough without responding, and your client's interest will vaporize (=you lose money). Some tips:

  • Create form emails. What are your FAQs? Consider creating a template to use in answering certain commonly asked questions - this saves your employees' time and minimizes client response time.
  • Keep a log of questions. Categorize the questions you receive, and try keeping a spreadsheet of how many times each is asked. If you're getting the same questions over and over, is there a way to convey the answer more clearly on your website? For every person who takes the time to call, you can bet that there were other people too lazy to dig for the answer - who lost interest.

7. Incentivize your instructors to fill their classes.

Duh, right? Easier said than done. The most successful studios create a culture that rewards instructors who go the extra mile to recruit and retain students. Of course, there is no formula for this; but happy instructors are the key to successful studios. Here are a few compensation structures we've seen:

  • Base + per-client reward. Contracted instructors can be paid a base fee plus an additional dollar amount per client. This structure rewards instructors directly for attracting more students. Over time, that base fee and additional fee can increase as the instructor demonstrates consistency.
  • Tier system. Some studios use a "tier" system, where instructors are paid a certain amount per class, and that amount goes up over time when they consistently fill classes. This is an indirect reward program. The drawback is it could put you at risk if a highly-paid instructor stops promoting their classes (or stops performing).
  • Salary + bonus. If your instructors are on salary, involve a bonus plan that is directly linked to the number of spots the instructor fills.

Whatever you do, make the conversation about data. Show them their numbers, help them set goals, and support them in achieving those goals.

8. Work on your non-monetary compensation plan.

Money is great, but at the end of the day, this industry is never going to be a get-rich-quick scheme. Most instructors do it because they love it. So because money is most likely not growing out of your ears, you should have a non-monetary reward system. How do you show instructor appreciation? Some ideas:

  • Feature them on your studio blog, interview them, ask them to chime in as an expert on certain topics.
  • Single them out for good work in weekly meetings. Public praise is an amazing feel-good tool.
  • Promote them like mini-celebrities on social media, with photos of them demonstrating proper form, doing something silly behind-the-scenes, or showing off their furry friend.
  • Support them. Is your instructor involved in other endeavors, charities, races? Share that information with your clients. It shows your instructors that you support them both in and out of the classroom.

9. Timing is everything.

Every studio learns over time which time slots fill most easily (after work? Sunday morning?). Pay close attention to which ones are filling and which aren't. A few notes:

  • If you find something that works, stick to it. Is one of your instructors seeing a lot of the same people every Thursday evening? Give that instructor 'ownership' of the spot. If it gets popular enough, maybe even give the class a special name to posse-i-fy the clients.
  • Take into account the sweat factor. Does your facility have showers? If not, a high-sweat class before work or at noon may fail.
  • Give your newbie instructors a fighting chance. Maybe you have a few prime-time spots where the instructors constantly rotate. If you want to set your new hires up for success, throw them into that popular spot once in a while. This introduces them to new folks and also serves as a vote of confidence.
  • Examine your neighborhood and clientele. Who frequents this neighborhood at what time? What types of businesses are in the area, and what are their hours? For example, are there schools nearby? Consider adding a 9:30AM classes for moms. Do you work in a financial district? Try early-AM or late-PM classes, or "express" high-intensity options.
  • Consider offering off-peak classes at a discount to employees of local businesses, especially consumer-interfacing businesses. It's in your best interest to make a connection with all of the folks in your area, both to get their business and to generate good will. Those people working at the coffee shop down the block talk to hundreds of people per day. When your name comes up, you want them to light up and say "Oh, we LOVE that studio!"

10. Foster the instructor-instructor connection.

If you create a community that works together and plays together, you'll generate loyalty to your brand—because people will LIKE working there.

  • Make it studio policy for your instructors to take classes with one another.
  • Create a mentor program and pair new-to-studio instructors with vets.
  • When a new instructor comes on board, have that instructor assist more established instructors in class with corrections, or even teach a small portion of the class. Make it common practice for the experienced instructor to introduce the newbie and give them the seal of approval by saying something like, "Guys, this is Jane Doe, a new instructor here. She's especially awesome at [what she's awesome at], and she'll be teaching on Fridays!" This not only makes the students confident through referral, it also makes the new instructor feel welcome in the community.

11. Incorporate social media into your instructor training program.

Instructors are talented at teaching fitness, but that doesn't mean they know how to market themselves. When you bring instructors onto your team, consider training them in good social media practice.

  • What platforms are most important to your business? (Facebook? Twitter?)
  • How should instructors connect with clients outside of class?
  • How should instructors use their social media platforms to let clients know about which classes they're teaching?

And, make sure they know what NOT to do, too. Here's an article on social media no-nos to get you started. 

12. Require instructors to be certified by a respected program and to have CPR training.

It is literally shocking how many studios still do not require formal certification and CPR training. Don't be one of them.

13. Take a long, hard look at your exclusivity contract.

This may be a controversial suggestion, but we think it's plain nonsense to block instructors from teaching at other studios - if the method is different. Not only does it set a negative tone to the instructor, but it also can inhibit your own business. Cross-training is extremely popular right now. If your spin instructor wants to teach Pilates down the street, why wouldn't you allow it (and potentially attract some of those Pilates students to try cycling)?

  • The more fitness circles your instructor is in, the more reach they have. The more reach they have, the more potential clients you have access to.
  • Allowing your instructor to pursue a variety of teaching passions sends the message that you support his/her professional growth.
  • A diverse teaching repertoire often brings a fresh, well-rounded perspective to the class. For example, yoga breathing techniques might be a great asset to a high-intensity kickboxing class.

14. Respond to every review you get, no matter the medium.

Regardless of whether it's RateYourBurn, Yelp, or a personal blog - if someone reviewed you, respond to them. Just like you wouldn't ignore a client email, don't ignore a client review.

Responding to positive reviews: If someone had a great experience and took the time to write about it, take the time to thank them and complete the circle. Here's a video that will make you laugh (but also show our point).

Responding to negative reviews: Here's the tricky part. Especially with negative reviews, always remember that your response is NOT a response to one person. It is a response to the public. You're speaking to every single reader. If you take a negative review in stride, even if the content seems irrational or unfair, you're sending a message to all of your potential clients that you care about feedback and strive to be better. Conversely, if you respond with a negative or immature tone, even if the review was unfair, those who read it will likely get that yucky feeling and take their business elsewhere.

If reviewers criticize specific things, try to respond specifically. Examples:

  • Criticism: "The bathrooms were tiny." Response: "We know our bathrooms are not huge, but we hope as our business grows we'll be able to expand them!"
  • Criticism: "The front desk woman was so rude." Response: "We're so sorry you had a bad customer service experience. This is truly disappointing as we pride ourselves on our friendly and competent staff. We hope you'll come in and give us another try."
  • Criticism: "The class was so boring and slow." Response: "This class is meant to be more restorative than active. If you want a more intense class, we recommend trying [a class with a higher intensity]. We'll try to make this clearer in the class descriptions going forward!"

Bonus: Offer naysayers a free class. Kill 'em with kindness and professionalism. Remember the thing about passionate angry clients?

15. Let your clients know that they can review you on RateYourBurn (and that you want them to).

Scary? Yes, maybe a little. But hear us out:

  1. Every day, between five and ten thousand New Yorkers alone visit RYB (and the numbers are growing in L.A., Boston, and Chicago). If you're not actively seeking that client feedback, you're missing out on a lot of eyeballs!
  2. Every client loves to hear that their opinion matters. Asking for feedback alone will likely increase their opinion of you.
  3. The odds are in your favor. These are the people who are already giving you money! If they didn't like you already, they wouldn't be handing over the benjamins.
  4. Over 75 percent of reviews on RYB are positive. People like talking about things they love. 
  5. The client-instructor bond is special. Clients who love their instructors...LOVE their instructors. A talented instructor makes your day better and can even CHANGE YOUR LIFE. Given the chance, most people will jump at the opportunity to give back.
  6. You want to run an amazing business, right? Help your clients help you. What could you improve to make them happier? One review with useful criticism could save you a lot of money's worth of lost clients who had the same qualm but no forum to voice it.

Don't take it from us, ask the studios that are already doing it: Barry's Bootcamp, Exceed Physical Culture, Pilates ProWorks, Flywheel Sports, Revolve, Pedal NYC, Fhitting Room... to name just a few. These are studios that actively seek feedback on our platform, and are reaping the benefits (lots of reviews, lots of eyeballs) as a result.

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Are you a studio owner? We want to hear what you think! Burners, what other tips would you give?

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Comments 12 Comments

rainbowkaine 03/19/2013

Phenomenal article! Especially like the point about getting to know the businesses around you - like Flywheel Flatiron & DreamDry Smile

Lactic Addict 03/19/2013

Is that a blowdry salon?

Lactic Addict 03/19/2013

JK I just used the Google like a normal human

MeMeMe 03/19/2013

How about Physique57 on Spring NEVER answers their phone and manager Colleen is completely delusional and rude about that! Totally thinks it's acceptable to call someone back TWO days after signing up for a wait list??? Why bother?

Flexy Sas 03/20/2013

I love everything about this!

user24601 03/20/2013

To add to #2:
- physical address of your studio INCLUDING THE FLOOR/SUITE #

And, explain what your classes are! Ok, some are self-explanatory, I can get what 'spinning' or 'beginner ballet' might entail, but for those of us who are newbies to the fitness scene, who have recently uncovered a love of exercise and want to try new activities, I don't want to have to right click + Google to be able to figure out exactly what it is that happens in your studio. The fancy flow-y titles and descriptions are pretty, but I'd like to be able to tell: is it cardio? will there be weights? etc. too.

BeFit 03/20/2013

This article sums up roughly half of my fitness desires, bravo. Not to point fingers (AHEM, NDG Fit) but there are places that I will actively advise people not to buy packages at or go to because they are so non-responsive you'd think they owed me money (which in the end they did because I asked for a fucking refund on the class package I bought). On the flip side, be nice to me and I will remember it forever. For example, Kindra Hanson at Peak Performance was such a DOLL when I visited on Sweaty Saturday I almost wish I could write her her own review. I have also thus far never had a bad experience with the desk staff at Equinox (and I love that they greet everyone by name). People remember shit, I swear to God.

danceface 03/20/2013

This is amazing, totally spot on. Studios had better listen up!

Weanzy 03/20/2013

How about beefing up a website?  I get the FAQ on what the classes would be like, but wow, if they could also tell me what to expect when I walk in (like, when you get off the elevator, you will be IN the class) so I can be prepared and not feel foolish (or be 'greeted' by a mat that says "Go Away".  Awkward.)  Showers.  Do you have them?  Great!  But what comes with that?  Do I need to bring my own amenities?  Hair dryer? Do I need my own lock?  Is there a separate changing area?  I’m okay to bring what I need if you don’t have it, but if you are not answering the phone or e-mail I’m not prepared.
It doesn't take a long time to put together the 'experience' of the studio along with the classes.  It's not mandatory, but what an exception extra touch that would be, especially  if it’s the first time at your studio.

Lactic Addict 03/22/2013

Weanzy - good points. I think we're going to do a separate article on studio websites!

Fit To A T 03/23/2013

Agreed, Weanzy. The first time I walked into SLT, a class was going on and I was completely disoriented/confused to suddenly just be standing behind them. Oh and for studios that have buzzers - buzzer number on the site so I don't have to scroll through like 7 different numbers to get to yours.

sportybee 08/08/2013

I love point #13. Of note- many studios won't even let teachers from one type of studio take class at another studio. That's bananas! Have faith in the uniqueness of your brand, and take people's money, no matter who they are!