Business Lessons, Square Pegs, Round Holes, and Cabana Boys


Today I’d like to tell you a little story about one of the more instructive situations in my business career.

When I was in South Carolina working as the head trainer (before going private) I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the business side of fitness, both what to do and what not to do. Some of the gyms I worked in had a lot of real Wild West shit going on and the training/education was often done on the fly. The story I’m going to tell you was no exception.

So at one place the Personal Training Director had this young guy hired as a trainer. Bear in mind that at this facility in order to be hired as a “trainer” you just needed to convince the Personal Training Director that you could sell. Training skill was far lower on the priority totem pole (and sometimes entirely not a factor). Seriously, the Director had hired waiters who’d never worked out but served him with a good attitude the night before. The next day they were wearing a “Trainer” shirt and training clients.

Anyway, this kid gets hired, and it almost immediately becomes clear that he’s a fuck-up. A world-class one at that. He’s 19, already been drummed out of the military, irresponsibly juicing, living out of his car (which he pulled into the parking lot), had creditors calling the gym after him, and a myriad of other issues going on. Disturbingly enough, he wasn’t even the biggest fuck-up on staff. Like I said, Wild West shit.

Upon turning him loose in the gym with a staff shirt on a chain of disasters unfolded. Hurt clients, MANY blown sales, messed-up accounting, some very questionable deals, and a source of stress for everyone else on staff. While it was stressful on us, it was ESPECIALLY stressful on the kid. You see, this is where things are different than a lot of this type of story; He really wanted to do well. This guy had basically failed at every step of his life except high school football and in doing so had internalized what everyone had been telling him as long as he could remember: that he was stupid and a failure. The gym was one place where he actually was pretty good (not a bad lifter) and it had become his biggest dream to be a trainer and work in the place where he was happy.

Needless to say, things were not going well and that dream was headed straight down the tube.

It became my responsibility (as head trainer) to deal with him, as our Personal Training Director wanted not much of anything to do with the situation. I wasn’t particularly thrilled, but I figured I might as well try to make it work or at least minimize the damage. However, after a little while I noticed something interesting. I noticed that this guy, while not really having any real idea of how to structure a workout and definitely no idea of programming, had the ability to make middle-aged female fat loss clients love him right to death. Not in that creepy gigolo-way (more to come on that later), but in that “doofy kid that makes my workouts fun” way. Clients that I didn’t vibe with at all were totally into him, and he loved working with them. That, and he had an amazing ability to meet these potential clients and get them all fired up for personal training… Right before he messed something up and totally blew the sale.

The other thing that we discovered that he could do, shockingly enough, was sell free appointments over the phone via what was basically cold-calling. Every week the training staff was supposed to call a list of members (this gym had over 8500 members at the time) who hadn’t been in lately and get them to come in for a free “recharge workout” which, in reality, was entirely for the purpose of selling them personal training. Corporate gyms are ugly places, people, if you didn’t already know.

As you can imagine, we all hated making these weekly calls with a passion. After all, we were trainers, not telemarketers.

This guy, on the other hand, despite not being able to carry on a normal conversation to your face, became a smooth-talking devil on the phone. He could close these sessions and fill up appointment books like nobody else, and because he was successful, he loved it.

Other than doing these two things where he was successful, he was miserable. When he was miserable, he pouted, threw tantrums, screwed up more, and basically was a menace. The upper brass wanted to fire him as they thought he’d always be a headache and never become a “Five-tool Trainer” and be able to train clients well, sell, generate leads, program, and consult on nutrition with any degree of success. Probably they were right.

However, I suggested something different. “How about”, I said, “we create a special position for this guy? Let him train a handful of clients as an instructor, while another trainer writes his programs” (this was common practice there). I went on to explain that then he would spend the majority of his time on lead generation, both on the phone and running first workouts. Then he would be instructed to bring the prospects to a better sales trainer to close the deal. Over time he could be better trained in other skills, but at this point it would maximize his strengths, at which he was stronger than most of the other trainers, and minimize his weaknesses. I suggested that they hook him up with a small salary (he was very excited about even the small paychecks he had been earning) and a title to empower him.

I was basically told to shut my mouth. Why? “Because that’s not the way we do it.”

I guarantee you that if they’d given it a shot, he would have been much happier, more pleasant to work with, and he would have rocked that job. There’s no question in my mind that he would have provided that facility with 30% more revenue from personal training AND made all of the other trainers’ jobs easier.

Instead he continued flail around, was fired/rehired a handful of times, got in various legal troubles, and ended up living with this creepy middle-aged gay dude as “helper” and being taken on trips to Thailand. Like I said, the fitness business can be a weird place.

Other than a disturbing story, what did I get out of all of this?

1. Maximize what you’re good at and you love. Don’t try to force things that you suck at or hate. Life’s too short, man. Don’t waste your time being miserable every day. He used to complain that he was getting sick to his stomach before coming into work (from the parking lot). I’ve felt that way about a job, too. It’s no way to live.

2. Just because someone has a bad attitude or is awful at a particular job doesn’t mean that they’re an awful employee. They may just be suffering from misuse. Most people, deep down, really do want to be successful and do well at their job. If you put them in the position where they can and they have the tools to be successful, they’ll work hard.

Make sure you warm your hands before applying the oil. *shudder*

3. If you make enough bad decisions in life you may end up rubbing oil on some wrinkly middle-aged dude on a South Asian beach before going out to romp with lady-boys that night. Not good.

What’s the number one thing experience has taught you? In life, business, fitness, relationships, whatever. Share it below!

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