A gym owner friend of mine, Jake, is dealing with one of his trainers leaving the gym and taking many of his clients with him.

It’s not an uncommon story.

His trainer planned his exit for months.  He had been using the gym’s resources to help give his business a jump start.

He built a website, recruited a couple other trainers at the gym, let all of his closest clients know, started taking clients on the side for cash only, and a lot of other shady things.

Now Jake wants to sue the hell out of his ex-trainer.

While some gym owners have been successful in this approach, most have simply spent way too much money and time fighting this uphill battle.

As s a business owner, and a victim of this myself, I can’t think of a worse feeling than the moment you realize someone you trust is doing things behind your back…then purposely trying to hurt your business in the process.

Where is the respect?  You give them their start…you build up their clientele…you trusted them…and they ruin it all. It’s a horrible feeling.

Two things normally happen.  First you want to seek revenge.  The second thing that happens is that you start looking at your other employees and start distrusting them as well!

While these feelings are natural, I advised Jake to allow himself to breathe for a moment and think about the reality of the situation.

I told him his first action should be to focus on stabilizing the business.  Contact and keep as many of the trainer’s clients as he can.  Then focus on the ones who already left to go with the trainer.

There is such a small window of time to make all clients and other trainers feel comfortable about the big transition.  By beginning that transition with a lawsuit could position YOU as the bad guy.  And don’t start bashing the trainer or getting into a pissing match.  The only thing that is certain to happen is that you’ll both be covered in piss.

The best revenge you as a gym owner could get is to limit the amount of losses the trainer is trying to create for you, thus cutting off his supply of clients.

Then he can consider a lawsuit.  Jake is cash flow positive, so chances are good that he can outlast the trainer in court.  But you never know just how much you’re going to have to spend in court.

In most cases that I’m aware of, when a gym owner sues the former trainer, and they have a solid non-compete in place, the gym owner will win the case.

BUT…by winning they have also cost themselves a lot of revenue.  They’ve taken attention away from the gym.  They’ve wasted loads of time and they have created even more negative energy around the gym.

You may actually have started your business by first being a trainer who took clients and started your own thing.  Now that you’re a business owner, it scares the hell out of you doesn’t it.  Funny how things come full circle 🙂

And if you’re a trainer considering doing this…don’t.  It’s perfectly fine if you feel you’re destined for bigger and better than what your gym is providing you.  But integrity is the only thing you have 100% control over.  Lose it once, it’s gone forever. It’s better to have a surplus of savings, then build your business from scratch.

And you never know, if you do it the right way, communicate openly with the gym owner, and don’t directly compete with the gym, he/she might even be willing to help you get started.

No matter what Jake decides to do, he will need to take a long look at his own management style.  He has to take some responsibility for letting himself and his business allow the trainer to put him in this position.

It’s his job to make sure that clients and members are loyal to the gym and not only to the trainer.  They need to inspect what they expect and make sure the clients are receiving a high level of customer service from not only the trainer but from the gym as well.

If the trainers are the clients’ only contact with the gym, that could become a problem.  You as the owner or manager need to touch base with clients on a regular basis as well.

The clients need to know that the gym is looking out for them and that the trainer’s system is in fact the gym’s system.

Had Jake done that, he would have found out much sooner what the trainer was up to and he could have minimized the damage caused when he left the gym.

He can’t go back now and change the past, but at least he can avoid repeating it by taking a few precautionary steps with current and future trainers and clients.

And one last note…if you still have trainers as contractors…you have to make the switch.  They need to be employees and they need to follow your systems and your programming.  Period.

    184 replies to "How to Deal with a Personal Trainer Stealing Clients from Your Gym"

    • This is a really sad scenario as there is nothing worse than distrust and lies.
      Jake, I assume is an independent gym owner. It takes some balls to open your own club and hard work to make it a success. But Jake needs to protect his business and maybe work more closely with his trainers.
      As a trainer here in the UK myself (and previously a gym owner), I have to ask the questions why the trainer felt compelled to do what he did. Was his rents to high, or was Jake taking an unfair proportion of his earning, why would his members leave so easily to go with this trainer?..lots of questions.
      The trainer I think has made a bad move as having a club to work from, he has a captive audience and market
      It cost time and money to hire legal people and as you said spending so much time being negative.
      If it were me, Id try to salvage the situation, call him up and ask him for a meet and explain that long term both parties will suffer. Its always better to make a friend than an enemy. If the trainer won’t meet, move on, put it down to experience and learn from it.
      All the best.

    • alfred

      Whenever any company loses an employee and/or customer, the most important question for the company leadership to ask is what they could have done better to create an environment where the employees and customers are so satisfied by the company’s services that they don’t want to leave. If leadership doesn’t look inward, they’ll never challenge themselves to improve. Best really IS the enemy of Better!

    • We rotate trainers on a differing schedule every week. They are coming to our program and not becoming loyal to the trainer. Also had a professional legal non-compete contract made that they have to affirm they understand and sign that and the contract. Also I pay my “coaches” twice the industry standard.

    • Jason

      First of all, the advice above in the article and the comments is sound.
      Though you can’t prevent this is in all situations, most likely the leading factor is money. If you are keeping 50% or more of the training fee, the trainer is going to feel used and will seek to hose you. If you want loyalty, you have to pay for it. I keep more like 30% and I haven’t had any “mutinies” because of it.
      Also I make sure to be around (I train clients too, just at a higher price) so I’m at the gym, supervising and interacting with the clients pretty frequently. This maintains a relationship with the client and keeps the trainers in line. All you have to do is say hi, and sometimes I give out some swag.
      Meeting with the trainers themselves on a regular basis also helps, letting them know that you two are on the same side.
      Basically you can’t be too hands off, if you aren’t there, bad things will happen. I you don’t want to be there, you should plan on leakage.

    • Excellent newsletter Curtis. As a studio owner, I’ve experienced this. Just reading this article is reminding me of the lost sleep and teeth grinding I went through.

      I completely agree with you about taking legal action. You’re right. It’s a drain on time, money, and emotions. I chose to look where I’m going and focus on building instead of fighting and reliving it. Better to move on.

      In my particular situation, the dubious trainer was part of the original team that I acquired when I bought the studio. We had a difference of philosophy and did not see eye to eye.

      Since then I have slowly hired a new “team of trainers” that are happy, productive, and loyal. So in the end, it was a blessing. Yes, we did lose a few clients that followed her, but some of them were not ideal either, and the vibe around here is much better overall.

      I am left with the idea that time permeates change and the best we can do is to “expect the unexpected”, and do our best to have a plan to be ready to handle difficult situations.

      Curtis. You touched a nerve with this topic.

      Thanks again,

    • I though non compete clause cant stand im court?Do you have samples of the non compete laws?

    • As sad and unethical as this is, Jake really should make a priority of cultivating relationships with his members. Ultimately that is the thing he can control that won’t lead to time and effort in court or walking around with a taste of distrust for all his employees.

      Plus, in doing so, it opens up all the other avenues for bigger and better business…namely referrals. It will have a snowball effect all the way round. And that goes for not cultivating that relationship. Whether with the trainer or not, a better option may come along and suck them away.

      Educate. Cultivate. And give all your members/clients an “experience.” Do that, and they will make sure they stick around.

    • If he has acted disrespectful and used your bussiness to launch a new carrier for himself. I would sue. Only if this has had a dramatic effect on my bussiness.

      However I would use this as a lesson, my members and clients know who I am and although I have personal trainers on a,commission basis, I make a habit of making good contact with these clients on s regular basis. My relationship is one of respect from the bussiness owner and member.
      If your members had no relation with you then they have no commitment and will follow the lead.
      That’s an invaluable lesson which will save you more money than you will gain from a law suit.
      Focus on making what you have set up already besides you can always gain clients back, sweet revenge.

    • I think appropriate compensation for the trainer is key. I would’ve never opened my studios had I not done some very simple math. I used to work at a high end gym… Split shifts 30-40 hours a week of training, never making more than 45k a year before taxes.

      My top trainers make 80k-100k teaching a very nice schedule. We pay two to three times the industry standard for Pilates instructors, and that creates a wonderful formula.

      Also with our affordable rates/ cleanliness/ customer service and prompt response time, even if a “top” trainer leaves the integral structure of the business is still intact.

      I think Jake should revisit his plan with trainers/ definitely not sue…. And do some extra special marketing promotions for all the clients… Like do a constant contact email blast with a deal TOO good to be true deal (only to the clients who left even) . 10 privates for $400 etc… Or perhaps offer a great deal to train with him. At the end of the day money talks, and people LOVE to train with the owner 🙂

      Also non compete clauses DO NOT hold up in court unless it is business owner to business owner. If I sell my gyms, then openup a new business down the street from the one I sold then there’s an issue. But nothing can be done with employees or contractors.

      What you think about you bring about. Focus on abundance and being the best. Good Luck! Seriously offer some SWEET promotion and show case your team! 🙂 it’ll all be good

    • Michael

      I think a lot of true things have been said. However, I am not sure it is about how much they get paid.

      I had a studio where two trainers lied and did things behind my back. It’s hard to say if I could have caught them but there were other signs. I did a lot of handholding. Looking back, I should have fired them when they stepped out of line-and they did a lot.

      I paid them 50% of the hourly and gave generous bonuses. After a while, running the business gets easier and the trainers think that you have it easy and begin to envy your lifestyle. I originally figured that by paying them more, they would stay but some trainers have expanding egos.

      What also hurts is what they tell their clients. I mean they can’t call you a fantastic guy. They have to paint you as greedy, insensitive or something that makes them look justified. Later the situation gets awkward when you run into the clients at a store or passing by them on the sidewalk.

      I debated the lawsuit thing but I do know that the winners are the lawyers and the one with the biggest pile of cash. It isn’t always about right versus wrong.

      I did what most will probably do. Lick your wounds while managing an urge to want to sue or pounce them. I figured out a way to compensate and move on.

    • alec

      Once Jake works through this issue he needs to get in front of it so it doesn’t repeat. Have all trainers sign a non solicitation of clients agreement as terms of employment. Non compete agreements can also be used but are harder to enforce, as most locations won’t inhibit a persons right to employment. A non solicitation of clients and propriety and trade secret information protection can be easily enforced, and often the simple threat of this is enough, no need to get the lawyers involved.

    • Sam Stone

      The sad part is losing the trusting nature an owner needs to have and maintain in order to guarantee the trainers and other employees feel good about. Since the trainers have direct contact and build a personal relationship with the clients they train enforcing (by law) after the departure ends up being bad MOJO in many circles. Those clients have friends and family and bad words travel fast. I agree wholeheartedly with ALEC above. If there is no agreement in place before the departure you are better off moving on. This recently happened to me a couple of times and it is very upsetting but with new energetic trainers coming on and a good quality marketing plan you can always make the best of the loss. Sam

    • Junie B Jones

      Non solicitation does not mean the independent contractor can’t ADVERTISE. There’s some naiveté here on the the part of business owners. For one thing: Solicitation and Advertising are two different issues. Solicitation is saying “come with me” NOT “I now teach elsewhere at such and such.” And YES income makes a huge difference in loyalty. Anyone who thinks otherwise is a fool. A trainer will not stay long term if they can’t make above 50K–especially if they are supporting a family. It’s ludicrous. If an owner is making 80-100K or more than they need to realize that there will be jealously and frustration when their subordinates can’t make more than 40K; either because the owners purposely flood the schedule with too many teachers for the amount of available clients (clever but will create mutiny long-term) or because the owner is taking as much of the prime hours as possible in ADDITION to a cut off the top.

    • I agree with being present at the business and greeting everyone to make them feel at home and extra special. And I understand pay contractors well but How does a studio pay more than 60% of the fees when the owner pays all the rent and overhead? How can aomeone stay in business that way?

    • Try and plan for this the day you interview someone and remember your in a business relationship not a friendship! Plan for the worst and hope for the best!

    • What goes around comes around! Odds are he won’t last in business if that’s his number one way to get clients!

    • Yeh, I feel the pain but don’t panic. I have found the clients that are serious about their training come back. Some with cap in hand, some just glad to be back.
      I have run gyms for nearly twenty years, trainers come and go, but this gym is home to the clients, this is where they feel comfortable. It’s not just the trainer, it’s the vibe, the motivation and the feeling of a second home.
      Call the clients, they may be a bit embarrassed to hear from you but talk to them, are they comfortable, still getting results, is the equipment up to the same standard, wish them luck and offer them a free session with another trainer at your establishment.
      We had a client that sent his friends to us after he followed a trainer into another business. I rang him to ask why he had not returned, he said he “felt obligated to help this trainer start-up because he had been training with him for so long” I told him the purpose of my call was to thank him for the referrals and offer him 2 free sessions for each of the three referrals so 6 sessions, he couldn’t get started fast enough and was happy to be “home”. He even brought another friend from work, four referrals in all.
      Business is business, if your trainer wants to go into business against you , out business him and have fun.

    • Stating what you believe is ethical business practice in your agreements with trainers is important. Legal or enforceable ? it doesn’t matter as long as the trainer knows where you stand. The clients must be first clients of the facility and the gym staff and managers must interact with all the clients no matter who is training them and check that they are satisfied with the service their trainer is providing.
      If trainers are bringing clients to the facility then perhaps they deserve a greater cut of what they are generating but most in my experience sit back collect the enquiries as they come in and make no time or effort in bringing in new business or selling to gym members if they are paid too well. If Trainers are contractors then they should be acting like business owners, spending time and money on growing their businesses and in turn the facility owners business. If they are not then they are acting like employees or subcontractors and should be paid accordingly. Getting the business is at least half battle so if Trainers can’t or don’t through choice generate their own business / clients then accepting that the revenue from their sessions, is not simply for the implementation of the session but also for the upkeep of the gym, advertising, sales person who booked the session etc is integral to a happy relationship with their employer or business relationship with the gym owners.

    • What goes around comes around! Likelihood is he will not last in company if that is his variety one way to get clients!

    • Trainer Blake

      This is a tough situation. On one hand, it’s kind of an “all is fair in love and war and personal training” situation, and I can see the trainer’s desire to branch out.

      But they also have to keep it fair for all parties. Has anybody had any luck actually using and enforcing non-compete agreements with personal trainers?

    • Pissed trainer

      What if it’s the other way around… And another trainer aquires a client on the suggestion of a receptionist at the front desk… Or even the gym owner? Practically stealing one client from one trainer to give to another trainer…. Because they like the one trainer more than the other or what not! After the first trainer established the client and trained with them for several years. Where is the ethics in that??? Loyalty should go both ways

    • Ethical trainer

      As a trainer who has been at a gym for 8 years and wants to go out on my own, what is the right thing to do? I have several clients that Ive trained for years and clients who came to the gym,speciifically to train with me. Is it wrong for me to tell them I’m starting my own business? Ii want to do whats right.

    • Ugh

      trainers who steal clients are trash. pisses me off to no end. that is all.

    • Joseph

      Good article Curtis. As always. Thanks for all you do!

    • Shawnda Lewis

      I hate to say it, but several of my clients came with me when I left the box gym 4 years ago. I never marketed to them, they just loved me and followed. Neither I, or the gym owner, can stop them from going where they choose. It’s just a necessary evil for a trainer going out on her own.

    • fitness studio Minneapolis

      How about a non-compete? Do they actually work? I’ve heard stories that they are completely not able to be upheld in court.

    • Allison Rankin

      I see this both ways. I too got my start when clients followed me. And I too still get upset if a trainer leaves me and takes clients. It’s just the way it is.

    • Patty Gallows

      I just sent this to my sister who just opened a studio. I sent you an email also. Thanks Curtis

    • Vic

      I don’t normally comment on blogs, but this one was good. I have owned three gyms and this has happened multiple times at every gym. I’m afraid my level of trust in trainers is all but gone. Good article though.

    • Corine

      I’m a trainer and I can’t say I love the gym I work for, but if I were to ever go out on my own I couldn’t take the clients I have. The karma follows me lol

    • Sarah Paulsen

      It’s happened to me twice. Thanks for the advice!

    • Chuck

      Hey there! I’ve been reading your site for a long time now and finally got the courage to go
      ahead and give you a shout out from Kingwood Texas! Just wanted to mention keep
      up the good work!

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    • For 10 plus years I split 25/75 in favor of the trainer. I still had theft and shady, underhanded, and just sad experiences.
      I had little motivation to promote the program and it went nowhere. Over the years, the city I live in required me to give everyone vacation time, so I made even less.
      Currently almost all my trainers split 50/50 and we are doing better. After reading some of the responses I may increase the percentage based on performance.
      Shady people show you who they are in small ways, those little question marks add up.
      I wish you the Best fellow fitness business owners, we do good work!

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