The holidays are fast approaching, and a common question asked, by both trainers and their clients – is what should I do for my trainer/client during the Holidays? Do I get them a gift or not? Recently someone posted that exact question on Facebook. I responded with a short answer of what I get my clients (gourmet fruit) and Jon Goodman, founder of theptdc.com and someone who has tremendous business sense and whom I respect a lot, said that he discouraged trainers giving consumables and presented some reasons why (outlined below). This got me thinking – had I made a mistake by giving my clients gifts? Was there a better way?
Let’s start with the easy one. Clients often wonder if they should get their personal trainer a gift for the holidays - a tip of sorts. Personal trainers are in the service industry and it is reasonably customary – although not expected – to give gifts during the holidays to those that perform regular services for you such as garbage collector, postal workers, cleaners, and in this instance personal trainers. If you google what a standard gift is for a trainer, it comes up that giving a gift the value of one or two personal training sessions is standard. Anything valued over 2 personal training sessions would be very generous; anything less than one session would not be as generous. To be clear it is certainly not mandatory to give a trainer gift. It isn’t like stiffing a waiter and leaving no tip after your service. However it is pretty standard, in my experience over the last 15 years about 75% of clients, with the percentage being even higher with long term clients, would give a gift at holiday time.
What to Give?
The natural follow-up question then becomes what to give? You have a lot of options here. Cold hard cash is always appreciated, although if you want leave a truly memorable impression you might select something else. A gift card to their favorite restaurant or grocery store or something like Amazon works well. If you want to give an item you can either get them a specific item or give them a gift card with the assumption they will get that item. For example, if a trainer kept talking about wanting to get this specific outdoor grill they saw at Lowe’s, you could buy them a gift card for Lowe’s and leave a note that says “I hope this helps you get that grill you always wanted.” This will leave a lasting impression and every time they use the grill they will think of you.
A Note for Trainers
There is nothing more annoying than someone that expects a gift. It is true that around the holidays a full-time trainer with 20 or so clients can receive some pretty sweet gifts, but nothing would be worse than showing up for your last session before the holidays with your hand open saying “so what did you get me?” as your eyes sparkle greedily. A gift is a show of gratitude, it isn’t mandatory and it shouldn’t be expected, even if it happened in previous years. Also some people just give differently. Some clients may be very generous (I have had clients give a full month’s worth of sessions; others have bought me plane tickets for my family) and others may not be. Clients themselves can vary, one year from a very regular client I got a toy Model T car (he liked antiques so we talked about them during the session, although this was just a regular toy) and a candle holder. I am not sure of the value of those items but it was likely less than $40 which is less than half of a session. The same client another year gave me a gift certificate to take my wife out to a very nice, high class restaurant near DC, all expenses paid. That would have been valued at over $200. Not everyone gives the same way you will and that is okay.
If the client gives you a card in person I would ask them if they want you to open it right there or not? Some might be embarrassed and might prefer you open it later. I personally like to save my cards and open them on Christmas day. But others might be disappointed not to see your reaction so they will want you to open it in front of them. Just ask what they prefer. Be sure to thank them later on for the gift, preferably more than once. A hand written thank you note is always a nice touch.
If you work for a gym it is a good idea to ask if you are allowed to accept tips and gifts? They should be in my opinion, so if your gym doesn’t allow it I would encourage you to suggest they do, but ultimately you don’t want to violate any rules and possibly lose your job over receiving a gift from a client.
If you are a Trainer
On to the trickier situation. If you are a trainer, should you get a gift for your clients? If no, why not, and if yes, what should you get? There are 2 sides to the story.
As I mentioned earlier, not everyone thinks that giving gifts to clients around the holidays is a good idea. They generally propose 4 reasons why that is the case.
Frequency – if you give a gift to a person that centers around a regular event, then it becomes expected that in the future when that event occurs again, the person will receive a gift from you. This can be problematic and it can be a long term problem.
Raise the bar – it is natural over time to want to raise the bar and improve the gift. This can be frustrating and costly if you feel as though you have keep “one upping” yourself every year by getting clients nicer and nicer gifts.
Noise – many argue that during the holidays, or on someone’s birthday, is the worst time to give a gift because the person is getting many other gifts at this time. Your gift likely won’t stand out and be that memorable and in some ways it defeats the purpose of giving a gift.
Might do more harm than good – sometimes giving bad gifts is worse than giving no gifts at all. If you give a completely non-personal gift or a super cheap gift, it can be seen as an insult and it might actually damage the relationship. In the podcast linked below he provides an example of an employee receiving a $15 gift card from the company for working there for 15 years. That is just an insult and no gift would be better than that.
To be fair, the advocates against giving gifts around the holidays aren’t suggesting you never give gifts at all, they just don’t feel around the holidays you get a good return on your investment. They do urge that you show your appreciation when you feel it, and I whole heartedly agree with this. A random gift really stands out in one’s mind because it just doesn’t happen very often. Imagine the impact it would have if you sent a client a nice gift “just because” in the middle of March when they weren’t expecting it. It would likely make their day and they might even blog, post, or tweet about it and it will be really memorable to them. I do encourage you to try to give random gifts to those people important in your life when you can. That is something I want to do more of myself.
For more detail on why NOT to give gifts, check out this insightful podcast from Jayson Gaignard of Master Minds entitled: Why Giving Gifts this Holiday Season is an Irreversible Mistake:
While I can respect and appreciate the reasons presented for trainers to not give a gift around the holidays, I don’t agree with them.
A personal trainer can (read should) have a very unique relationship with their client. It is very rare that a person will spend 2, 3 or 4 hours one on one with someone each week, for months or even years on end. While the client may not become a ‘friend’ per se, trainers and clients can develop very close relationships. I feel the advice above is better suited for big businesses and their clients, for example a doctor wouldn’t need to give a present to each of their clients at the holidays. But your client will only have one trainer – you. And you likely play a very important role in their life. I don’t think it is wise for a trainer to skip out on giving a gift to a client, particularly a long-term client, during the holidays. Here’s why:
You are probably going to get a gift from them. I think it would be pretty awkward to get a gift from someone and then not return the favor. Again you can do it randomly but they don’t know that and if you were planning to do something in the spring and they give you a Christmas Gift they might feel a little slighted. It is like that person who gets you a Valentine’s Day present and you have nothing to give back to them. Personally I could not handle that awkwardness of receiving a present but having nothing to give back. I have had dreams – or more accurately nightmares – that it is Christmas morning and I forgot to buy presents for everyone and I have nothing to give them. It is not a good feeling.
I personally like to give gifts. In the book The Five Languages of Love there are 5 main ways to show love, and giving gifts is one of them. You should get to know your clients very well and hopefully you can get them a special, meaningful gift.
I want to directly address the 4 potential problems raised by those that suggest one not give a gift and put them in the context of a personal trainer giving a client a gift.
Frequency – this one is pretty easy to solve. If the person is a paying client they receive a gift, if they are no longer a client they do not. It isn’t like a friend where you buy them a gift one year, then drift apart and you have to mentally calculate if you should get them a gift again? If they are paying you, you get them a gift; if not no worries.
Raise the bar – I really don’t feel this is necessary, you don’t have to outdo yourself every year. I have found that many of my clients were really excited about getting a gift even if it was a repeat of what they got before (more on that later). I would suggest that you spend about 1% of what they pay you per year on a gift to them. If a client spends $2000 a year on you, you spend about $20 on them. If a client spends $10000 a year on you, you spend about $100 on them. That way you are reasonably consistent and treating everyone as fair as possible. If they buy a lot more training then you might increase the gift you give them, but if their yearly rate is about the same then the gift can stay about the same.
Noise – while it is true that the client may be receiving many overall gifts at that time, they will only have one trainer and they will only get one gift from you. Just like a husband telling a wife “oh, you got so many gifts this year, I decided to skip buying something for you this year” isn’t going to go over well, you skipping them (when they got something for you) isn’t ideal in my opinion.
If you want to really set yourself up well you might give them a small gift 1-2 months prior to the holidays as one of those “just because” gifts. This way you are addressing the noise problem and honestly most people operate on the tit for tat principle – if you give them a gift they are even more likely to give you a gift in return.
Bad Gifts – while it is possible you might give a client a bad gift that harms the relationship, really this should not be the case. After training a person several times a week for several months or longer, you should really get to know that person quite well (this applies to members of your family as well). You should know their favorite restaurant, the types of books they like to read, the kinds of movies they enjoy, what they are interested in. If you need more inspiration look through their posts on Facebook. When they are talking to you about something during the session, even if the holidays are months away, make a little note about it in your training journal. When you can remember a comment a client made months ago about wanting a certain item or liking a certain thing, and then you get that for the person, that is a fantastic way to strengthen the relationship. Acts like that make a great impression on clients and in turn will really help your retention of those clients (this applies to gifts given around the holidays or at random times).
One way to make a client feel awkward is to give them a gift that is more valuable – in monetary terms – than the gift they give you. If a client is going to spend $50-$250 on you, you’ll probably want to spend $20-$100 respectively on them. They are giving you a tip or a gift thanking you for your service to them throughout the year, they are still the customer. You are giving them a gift showing your appreciation for having them as a customer.
What to give Clients?
If you decide that you do want to give clients a gift, either around the holidays or at other times, then the question becomes: What type of gift should you give them? When examining gifts, they tend to fall in one of two broad categories. Consumables and non-consumables. Consumables are something that is used up and then gone. Giving money, a gift card, or an apple pie is a consumable. Non-consumables are something that is not used up. A T-shirt, a movie, an engraved knife are all non-consumables.
Gaignard makes the argument that non-consumable gifts are better, and I agree with him, although I had been giving consumables to my clients. I don’t believe what I was doing was “bad” but I think there are times when you can do better. The basic idea is that once you give a non-consumable, every time the person uses that item they will think of you and appreciate the act. When you give a consumable, the person enjoys that for the moment but then it is gone and it was a one-time thing.
If you want to go the non-consumable route, consider some of these options:
A book – don’t just pick any random book but try to make it special. Select a rare book, a book signed by the author, or one that is on a very specific topic you know the client likes.
A movie – as with a book, I don’t think just buying one basic movie is a great gift for a regular client, but if you bought a series or a group of movies with a theme that could go over really well. Imagine training a 20-year old male client who loved lifting weights but who had never seen any of the classic Stallone or Arnold movies, so you put together a set of your favorite 5-10 movies from that time period. I think he would be really stoked to receive that gift.
This would be one awesome movie set to give a lifter
A picture – if you know your client well you can get a picture made up for them. It could be of their family (particularly if they mentioned in passing one day how much they loved this certain picture), it could be of the two of you, it could be of them lifting or showing their progress, or it could be something motivational in nature. Now with places like Snapfish and Shutterfly it is easy to customize pictures and do fun things with them (put them on mugs, mousepads, etc).
Specific Item – if you know a client wants a specific item you could get that for them. If a client is really getting into lifting then giving them a special powerlifting belt; or gloves; or training shoes; or a fitbit; anything like that should work well. Maybe they need a new blender for their protein shakes? Or a new heart rate monitor? The more you can customize it the better.
Calendar – A client might appreciate you making them a customized fitness calendar or a personal calendar. For the former you can come up with motivational images and build a calendar for them; for the latter you can look through their Facebook and use pictures they like to build it. I wouldn’t make a personal calendar for a client I had only been training for 2 months, but for someone that you knew very well and you knew the important people in their life, you could make them calendar like that.
Customized Workout Apparel – Trainers often like the idea of giving customized workout clothing to their clients, such as a T-shirt with your company’s name on it. I think this is fine in addition to a more personal gift or as a random present that happens without a specific reason, but if all you give the client is just a T-shirt or a water bottle with your logo on it I don’t think that is an ideal present. It appears to be too self-serving in my opinion.
As mentioned, I do think it is mostly ideal to give non-consumable gifts in most scenarios, but sometimes you may want to give a consumable or honestly it may just be easier. If that is the case, then consider these items:
Gift Card – Try to make this as specific as possible. For example, you could just give a gift card to Amazon and be done with it, or you could say “I thought you might be able to order those really cool running shoes we were talking about with this gift card, I wasn’t sure what size you were”. That way they will associate the running shoes with you and it becomes like a non-consumable but it is more convenient. Generally gift cards are not very personable so I would use this method sparingly.
Gourmet Food – If you give food around the holidays, the first thought might be chocolate or cakes or cookies or something, but to me it seems incongruent for a trainer to give a lot of sweets to a client. What I ended up doing for most of my clients was I would have gourmet fruit delivered to them, either just once or sometimes once a month for a few months for my very serious and regular clients. This is a consumable and I am aware that is a potential negative, but this did work out well for me for several reasons.
First, it was fruit so it goes with the whole “as a trainer I want you to be healthy” moto. The fruit was very high end and usually super tasty, it wasn’t just a few apples and oranges that they could pick up at their local grocery store whenever they want. It was also very seasonal so literally for only one or two months out of the year that specific fruit could be delivered (I typically ordered gourmet pears). While it was consumable, it often lasted several times (for example a client might get 6 huge pears and eat ½ a pear at a time, thus enjoying the gift 12 times). I had many clients tell me either how much they enjoyed it and/or how much they were looking forward to it if they were regular clients. I used the company Harry & David and their system was pretty convenient. The first year it took a while to set up but then after that I could just reorder the same gift or modify it, hit a few buttons and the gift was ready to go out again. If you have 20 clients it is helpful if you don’t have to spend one hour on each individual client buying them a gift. Many personal training clients are very affluent and as such they are sometimes picky about the gifts they get, but this company caters to those clients and the clients were almost always happy (for example if it was delivered but the client is on vacation they will just send another box free of charge when the client gets back home).
If you don’t want to go the fruit route you could also consider setting something up with a local or organic butcher if you know your client enjoys meat, or you could get them a fine bottle of wine (but make sure you know specifically the type of wine to get, don’t guess).
If you get your client a gift you want to avoid making it a bad gift. Avoid cheesy gifts that in a week or two they will just throw away or have no use for. Avoid going too cheap, for example if your client collects knives you could get them a knife. However if you can only spend $20 on a knife and everything in their collection is $200 or more, they probably won’t appreciate the cheap knife very much. I would try to get them a rare book about knives or a special light for their knife case instead. Don't give a client money directly, that is a definite no-no.
I certainly believe that gift giving when done well can be very powerful. It can help cement current relationships and help build new ones. In the ideal world gifts should be personable, they should show the other person that you care about them and that you take note as to what is important to them. I also agree that it is ideal to mix up the traditional idea of giving gifts and to give gifts at more random times, with varying frequency. However it doesn’t have to be either/or proposition.
You don’t have to be this cool gift giver who also forgoes all holidays and social norms, you can do both. Remember, you are your client’s personal trainer. You are not one of many or some random encounter they have such as a security guard at the front desk of their work place. Apart from their family it is very likely that you are the most important person in their everyday life. That is a very impactful position and as such I believe it behooves trainers to use social norms to strengthen that already key relationship.