To be successful, health club operators must use many forms of marketing: website, brochures, social media, networking, cross promotions, advertising and more. I have found that regardless of the marketing budget, the number one source of new clients was word-of-mouth referrals. For this reason, you must have an aggressive, effective and systematic approach to encouraging referrals rather than waiting for members to think about sending you referrals.

Here are seven ways to get more referrals:

1. Give promotional gift cards. Print up hard plastic promotional gift cards with magnetic strips (which can be functional or just for show) and give those out at any opportunity. People are less likely to toss plastic cards because they appear much more valuable than a coupon or paper gift certificate. We give new members $100 gift cards toward an introductory package. You can give these to local business owners to hand out to their loyal customers at community events, and you can give them to current clients to give to loved ones. A happy member raving about your facility acts as a walking billboard and is the strongest sales force you could ever imagine. Keep these gift cards with you at all times, and give tons to everyone on your team to hand out as well.

2. Gift certificates and real gift cards. Be sure your members know that they can purchase real gift certificates and gift cards (rather than the promotional ones mentioned above) to give to loved ones. Heavily promote the gift of fitness at key gift-giving times of the year. Most clubs experience tremendous success with this word-of-mouth referral system. In fact, at one club, 90 percent of members who started because of gift certificates or gift cards renewed.

3. High-profile referral funnels. Offer free and/or seriously discounted training rates to people in your community who know a lot of people and have charismatic personalities because they can be great ambassadors for your club. Perfect candidates include TV and/or radio personalities, high-level athletes, high-profile business owners who have a lot of customers (salon or spa owners/managers, massage therapists, chiropractors, sporting goods store managers/owners, restaurant owners, etc.). We offer these people complimentary group training classes that are offered six days per week ($130 monthly value) as well as VIP rates on all additional services (15 percent to 30 percent off). In return, these people display our marketing materials and promotional brochures and hand out our gift cards. We ask that they keep our arrangement confidential because it may upset our paying clients and because a referral comes off as more genuine if others aren’t aware of the arrangement.

4. Written “ask.” Include requests for referrals on your client feedback forms, client information packages, website and social media initiatives. Send out standalone "give the gift of fitness" postcards. Have your trainers ask each new client for three referrals using an approach such as this:

“Since you are such a valued client of our club, we would like to give you the opportunity to offer one complimentary session and two-week trial passes to your loved ones. You may be the inspiration for them to start moving and experiencing many of the results that you've achieved! Since it's a busy time for us, we'd like you to please limit the gift to three of your closest friends or family members.

5. Verbal “ask.” Personal trainers can be uncomfortable about asking for referrals, but you need to remind your trainers that their clients train with them because they like the trainers, and because of that, they want to see the trainers succeed. Asking for referrals is not at all overstepping the trainers’ boundaries. Here's a system to help your trainers comfortably ask for referrals:

  • Have your trainers inform clients about their present situation.
    “John, I've just had a time-slot open up on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Do you know anyone who might be interested in getting some help with their exercise program?” or
    “Sue, I've just started accepting new clients. Do you know anyone I could call and offer a complimentary initial session?" or
    “Bill, we have $100 gift cards for new clients that they can use towards an introductory package with us. Do you have any friends, family or co-workers who might be interested in receiving one?”
  • Listen for an opening. Many clients will mention people in their lives who are struggling with their health and fitness. Your trainers should listen for these and suggest that the trainer call the person to offer a complimentary session and/or a gift card.
  • Ask for the referral. Once your trainers get names and numbers of referrals from their clients, they should ask their clients if it would be OK for them to call those referrals to offer them a gift certificate or gift card in the clients’ names. Clients may prefer to contact the friends first or they may prefer that your trainers simply mail a package and gift card to the referrals instead of calling them.

6. Thank-you gift. To keep word-of-mouth referrals coming in, give members who offer referrals a thank-you gift. Our members receive a free personal training session or massage for any new client they refer to us. We also send a personal thank-you note and inform the members about the great results their friends are getting because they took the time to refer them. Your members will feel really good about being the one that got the referral started and will be more likely to want to inspire others.

7. Promote Your Referral Campaigns. Post fliers and posters throughout your facility highlighting your campaign, what a new member gets and what a referring member receives as a thank you. That way, members keep your facility at the forefront of their minds when someone expresses an interest in fitness and training.

If you have any questions about how to create and set up gift cards for your business, contact Kari Schunk, our fitness education director, at kari@nwpersonaltraining.com.

Sherri McMillan, M.Sc., has been inspiring the world to adopt a fitness lifestyle for more than 20 years and has received numerous industry awards, including the 2006 IDEA Fitness Director of the Year, the 1998 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and the 1998 CanFitPro Fitness Presenter of the Year. Her million-dollar training studios in Portland, OR, and Vancouver, WA, have received Better Business Bureau Business of the Year recognition. McMillan is a fitness trainer, a fitness columnist for various magazines and newspapers, author of five books and manuals (including “Go For Fit—The Winning Way to Fat Loss,” “Fit over Forty” and “The Successful Trainers Guide to Marketing”), a featured presenter in various fitness DVDs, an international fitness presenter, and a spokesperson for Nike, Nautilus, Twist Conditioning and PowerBar. She can be reached at www.nwfitnesseducation.com or sherrimcmillan.blogspot.com.