Erik Charles Russell is a gym owner, sales consultant and the author of The Art of Selling Memberships. He was also MMA fighter in his previous life who competed in Ultimate Fighter!
We were delighted to have Erik on and in this episode we talked about about how he learned to overcome common sales objections, how to talk about pricing and knowing the real value of what you are offering.
Wany a free copy of his book? Go to this link to grab yourself this excellent gym sales bible.
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Kevin: Erik Russell, welcome to the show.
Erik: Thanks for having me, man. I’m excited to be here.
Kevin: Great to have you here. I knew you grew up as a fighter. We’ve been talking a little bit about that before we started so maybe just tell me some of your background and what you do growing up?
Erik: Well, I don’t know if I have fully grown up yet so that could be a long story. At least it’s what my wife says. But yeah, I grew up in our business so to speak. I grew up training in martial arts and my adopted father had a martial arts school and fitness center kind of combo thing going on, so I grew up around that. I was a little bit of a, I don’t know, if you want to call me wild but mischievous kind of so, anti-authority kind of kid. That’s got me into a little bit of trouble here and there and got me into whole heck of a lot of fights. Then I started competing amateur level. Did well as an amateur and went on to turn professional and competed professionally for a number of years in both kickboxing and mix martial arts; actually appearing on the Ultimate Fighter TV show that was popular at one time. I think it might still be popular now but. I’ve been in the business as an athlete and as a coach for a lot of years. I actually started selling memberships at age 15 at my father’s gym, so that was actually my first sales job selling memberships. I’ve been doing it basically ever since. So that’s the clef note version of how I grew up.
Kevin: Your life story. Have you been a trainer, have you done less training or has it always been sales?
Erik: No, I’ve done a lot of training. I had my own gyms. I still actually own a gym to this day. At one point we have five locations. I sold those three that I owned and two that were license stock. I sold a lot of those expect for the one that I have now in the town that I’m in because I love the business and I don’t ever want to get too far outside of it being an owner no matter what. There are also things I like to test out first before I talk to clients about them, so having a gym and having the ability to do that is something that’s important to me so. Yeah, I was a trainer for a lot of years. I help a lot of people start their competitive careers and now I focus strictly on doing sales training. It seems to be the one thing that really separates me from everybody else that’s out there in terms of approach and results because I have a very unique perspective on how to sell especially in our industry. Traditionally sales in our industry it will work. I mean, you can get better selling memberships and closing more memberships with traditional selling if you have no training. But my biggest problem when I was selling early on was I didn’t like the feeling of traditional selling. I didn’t like how I felt about it, and I didn’t like how it made the prospect feel either, and that’s kind of how it started to develop into what it is now where it is almost doesn’t even seem like a sales process and it really kind of helps the prospect sell themselves really. So yeah, if you look at from a training perspective that’s really what I enjoy more than anything whether it is training athletes, or now training business people, and business owners, and salespeople to get better at what they do.
Kevin: What it is about you or what do you think are the natural characteristics of a good sales person? What are the pre-requisites?
Erik: Well, that’s an interesting question because our business is a different sale relationship than any other business. It is different than selling cars. It is different than selling phone services. It is a very, very unique sales process. It is a sales relationship I should say because I’ve got to not only sell a membership, but I’ve also got to create a long term relationship with somebody. I’ve got to build trust and I’ve got to build rapport with that person. They’ve got to look at me like an expert, not as somebody who’s trying to get money from them or trying to pressure them into doing something. So it is a unique relationship in that sense. My point to kind of lead into what the traits are is that this is a unique sales relationship in where traditionally what we think is a great salesperson, “Oh, they are this high energy, they are this extrovert, they are this person who was born to sell”, you know. Like all they care about is money, no problem putting high pressure on somebody. The typical thought that we have a salesperson is a complete opposite of who is good at selling membership, the complete opposite.
The best people that I’ve ever found are people who are teachers, coaches; people like that because they have the right mindset, right? As a coach and a teacher, what are they doing? They are not trying to sell you something. They are trying to help you resolve something whether it is a technique that you don’t know, whether it is an obstacle that’s in front of you and how to get through it. That’s what a coach and a teacher does, right? And a good salesperson in the fitness side of it, in the membership side of it, is going to do the same thing especially with my process because that’s really what it is about. It is about helping people in understanding what their obstacles are, what their hesitations are, so that you can help move them through them in a way that they feel like you’re helping them and not selling them. You will have a higher closing percentage and they will feel better about it and so will you. You will actually feel like you’re helping somebody when you sell them a membership using my process, so that’s the biggest difference.
The traits that you find that work well with my process are the teacher people, the coach type people, the instructor types. It is people who actually care about other people that actually want to have an impact and want to help. With all the being said, there is an asterisk there because you got to be coachable. This is a completely different process than anything you’ve experienced before, and you’ve got to be coachable in it because all the baggage you bring to the sales process from what you learn in the past and all these other things, you all have to make some changes to it, so you got to be coachable. People who like to help, teach, coach, interested in helping others and are coachable themselves, they do well with the process really, really well.
Kevin: Tell us, is this I supposed something you always knew or what are the main lessons you learned along the way in the early days of your career?
Erik: Oh no, man. This is not something that you’d… The first week that I was involved in selling I had a lady come in, I talked about this in my book, but I had a lady come in, she had visited the doctor earlier that day. And the doctor basically told her, “Look, if you don’t start [unclear – 07:15] your business and you don’t start working out a little bit you’re going to die.” Straight up. And this is what she talked to me, she was just about crying in front of me, right. And so I’m like, holy cow, this job is going to be easy for me. I mean, I got somebody in here who’s got reasons. I can help her with that, right? Their motivation is there. You got the doctor saying, “Hey, you’re going to die.” I mean, how much more motivation they need than that?
Kevin: Yup, sounds very forward.
Erik: I can help this person and I’m going to get paid a commission. Like, holy cow, this is amazing. Goes through the workout and at the end says, “I love it, awesome.” I show her the membership packages. I’m showing her all these different things. She was like, “Okay, great. Yeah, let me talk to my boyfriend and I’ll get back to you tomorrow or call me.” I’m like, what, what are you talking about. You know, and like any great salesperson I say to myself, “Look how awesome I am. I already have a sale for tomorrow, right? I’ve already got a sale for tomorrow.” Well, guess what?
Kevin: No show up.
Erik: This never happened. I called her tomorrow, no answer. I called her the day after, no answer. So the bottom line was I had somebody in front of me that literally dying to get my services and I couldn’t close the deal. And this is one of the things that make our sales relationship in this business completely unique. Nobody goes into a car dealership and says if I don’t get this car I’m going to die, right?
Erik: But they will come into your gym and do it. And then they’ll tell you they need to think about it. You need to think about death? What’s there to think about? Yeah, I started out really rough at this. Based on the fact that I was getting paid a 100% commission, I was going to not be eating very well that week.
Kevin: Yeah, to figure this out.
Erik: Yeah, so I had to get better at it, man. And back then this was the 90s, so the access to the type of training that we have nowadays it just didn’t exist. Like you had to physically go to seminars, you had to listen to cassette tapes. You had to basically go hunt the stuff down and there was nothing related to our industry in terms of sales, nothing. And it just didn’t exist like it wasn’t out there. And so I had to learn traditional sales and I started getting better at closing memberships for sure because I started learning sales a little bit better, but I also felt like there was a better way to do it. And so over the years of just testing things out, tweaking things out, and then realizing, hey let’s flip this around. Let’s take this from how they do it traditionally where we talk about how great everything is, we’re great at this, we’re great at that. We’re great at this and you’re going to love us, and here’s our prices. You say no, well here is how I overcome that. Let’s flip it around. Let’s understand why they are here, understand why they are going to say no ahead of time, answer that ahead of time, so that at the end there is really no other option. Present a membership now, I know they are going to buy because there’s only so many objections that we’re going to deal with in our business.
Kevin: Yeah. So tell me, Erik, because I want to dig in to more of these tactics but before we go deeper maybe paint a picture for people listening what difference a good salesperson can make in a gym or a fitness studio versus not having one. How make or break is it to have somebody who is good at sales?
Erik: It is everything. It is the one competitive advantage that you have in the marketplace. Now, before everybody starts freaking out and emailing you over how nuts I am because your program is so great, and you do this and you do that, you’ve got a great culture and you’ve got all these things. None of that happens without somebody buying a membership from you. They can’t experience your culture. They can’t experience your workout. They can’t do anything without them being in the door. Even on a free trial you still got to get them show up. Getting them to show up is sales. How I handle that prospect so that they feel comfortable about showing up and they feel secure about showing up is sales. It’s the competitive advantage and your competitors are terrible at it.
Kevin: And maybe tell us a story about a transformation you’ve seen for a studio that wasn’t good at sales and made some changes and turned things around. I’m sure people would love to hear a couple of those stories.
Erik: Yeah, I mean, there are so many of them. I’ve had clients who… We’ll just talk about show up rates for example. I have a client in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. They are a pilates studio and they were getting 50% of their appointment showed up. That’s pretty average. So they are getting 50% to show up and they have a great program. I knew that if we just focus on affecting their show up rate a little bit they were going to ultimately close more sales anyway because they were good face to face. We can help with that too but the biggest impact that we’re going to see if we can improve the show up rate. So we sat down and we started working on this right away. We got it squared away and they were doing well, everybody in our business does, they are doing what, every client that ever comes to me is doing. And they were talking about how great their program was. They were talking about the technology, they were talking about why it is so awesome. And they are doing it with the right intentions. They are doing it saying because we think that if we tell people how great we are then they are going to want to train with us even more. The problem is gym intimidation is real. And so what you’re doing is you’re taking somebody who is scared of what you have and you’re making them more scared. Because now they’re thinking, well… and I’m sure some of your listeners are going to relate to this, “I better get in shape before I go to that place.” But that’s why you are calling me to get in shape. You know, and we are feeding that fire, we fueling that fire instead of squashing it.
Kevin: Do you think that’s still pretty common or do you think people caught on to this in terms of how they sell the average gym, fitness studio, or do you think maybe only 10% are really addressing this?
Erik: It’s low. I won’t even go 10%.
Erik: I talk to people every single day and I go to conferences, I was just at a conference, I hear it all the time. This is how we do it. Because we get the idea that our prospects are like us, owners, salespeople, right? We want the best so that must mean if we talk about how we are the best then they are going to want us more but that’s membership stuff. Your members want the best. Your prospects want to be secure. They don’t want to be afraid. They want to know that they are going to fit in. Members? Different story. The members will brag about how awesome it is, and certification, and how great you are, and all these stuff. They are not intimidated anymore. They are members. The prospects still in the intimidation phase. That’s why when we are contacting and we are talking to them we got to talk about how they don’t have to worry about being a beginner because we are good with beginners, so it is not even an issue that they have to worry about. We got to talk about you want to lose weight and get in shape? That’s cool because that’s really the number one reason people come to us and you’re going to fit right in with everybody else. Because what they are thinking, they are the only fat person showing up at your gym. They are thinking when they show up everybody is going to be in shape, everybody is going to have 6-pack abs, everybody is going to have the curves, and they are the only person who is out of shape and fat.
Kevin: And you think this still happens today a lot?
Erik: Yeah, it does happen today. [unclear – 17:44] you know the little shaker company there, they just did a study on this. You can google this thing. I forget what the study was called in the exact numbers. But it was something like over 80% want to work out of the people that they survey. Over 80% want to work out. Almost 60% aren’t working out because they have a fear about showing up and being the only who’s out of shape. They have a fear about showing up not knowing what to do which goes to what I just mentioned about being a beginner. This just came out. I think it was 2017 study that they published in 2018. So I’ve been talking about these for years because I’m in the trenches. You know that this is what’s going through their minds. Then the study came out and I’m like, “Sales [unclear – 18:34] look at this.” It’s not that I’m start it is just because I’m in there. I’m hearing. I’m having the conversation. So let me just wrap this pilates studio. So we work with them, still working with them to this day actually, their show up rate went from 50% to average over three months because this is the last stats I got from them, average over three months, so this wasn’t a fluky one-time, one week deal, 91.4% show up rate.
Kevin: From 50%.
Erik: From 50% and their highest month was 94%. So basically, everybody is showing up unless they get in a car accident, right, that kind of number. It is crazy numbers. But see, when you address what the issue is with the prospect, they show up. And not only do they show up, they are more excited about showing up than when they first became a lead.
Kevin: And just to be real tactical about this, this is happening on the phone call after they make an appointment or as they make an appointment this is when you have the chance to make that change. Is that where it happens?
Erik: It’s got to be conversation number one whether it is face to face, they are walking, or whether it is on the phone they called you or you called them. It’s got to happen initial contact. I’ve got to allay their fear, I’ve got to reassure them that they are going to be taken care of, that they are going to fit in with everybody else. And I’ve got to do that right out of the gates because if I do that I’m separating myself from everybody else in the marketplace because nobody else is doing it. Everybody is talking about themselves and they do have the right intentions but they don’t really get the prospect side of the business. They get the member side. There are a lot of clients and a lot of people who have successful businesses because they get the member side and they can retain people, so over time they grow and they do well. But if they got the prospect side squared away it’s a wrap.
Kevin: Yeah, so you really have to understand that those are two different types personas and you have to really have a game for both.
Erik: Yeah, they are completely different people. The members are in, they bought in, and see once somebody buys in now they got to justify it and they justify it by bragging about how awesome you are. Prospects are not going to do that. Prospects are like scared little children. You got to reassure them. You got to let them know, “Hey, it is cool to show up. Everything is going to be alright”, type of thing.
Kevin: So tell me for your clients you train the whole team or you train the owner. It sounds to me like to do this properly you need to train the whole team.
Erik: Whole team. Everybody is got to be on the sales game. Everybody is selling, coaches, owners, salespeople, front desk. They all got to know the process. They are not going to [unclear – 21:22] Do it day in and day out. But at the very minimal I don’t want them screwing it up so they all got to be dialed in. They’ve got to understand how it works. They’ve got to have an all review of it. Your business relies on sales. With no sales you have nothing. It is the most important business function of this business next to retaining the members that you sell. Your program has to be solid. But I could tell you this even if your program isn’t solid and you have great sales you can still be very successful.
Kevin: So maybe let’s dig in to a couple of the more tactical things because I’ve been reading some of your material, and one of the things you talk about is price and how and when to talk about price. What are some of the do’s and don’ts of addressing that topic with a prospect that you’re talking to.
Erik: You never talk about price until somebody is ready to buy. Because what’s the point of talking price if they aren’t ready to buy. They are only going to get to know.
Kevin: And what if they are asking about it?
Erik: Well, if they are asking about it, here is one of the big things. First of all, I don’t deal with low price clients. I don’t deal with the $10 a month type places because they don’t care about selling, right. They care about marketing. Marketing is what sells a $10 membership. So I don’t typically deal with that. I deal with the people who are trying to compete with them. And I like dealing with them because one you could charge more of your services, and you should charge more. But the bottom line is unless you can beat $10 a month you shouldn’t be talking prices because even at $15 you weren’t winning on price. So why put price out there if you can’t even win. You got to stay in your lane and go after the things where you can win. So being second best at price is still second best. You’re still the first loser. So if that’s not you, if you can’t beat $10 a month, then you shouldn’t be leading with price and leading means putting in your website when people call, “Hey, how much is it?” “Oh, it is $14 a month… it is $15, whatever.” You can’t win that, you’re leading with it, you’re losing. The other thing is what you’re telling people if you give price is that that’s the only benefit that you have. I’m a low price. And being a low price is a very expensive game to play. And to answer your question, if somebody says to me, “Hey, how much is it?” You got to understand something. This is the biggest problem that most owners and salespeople have is the mindset of this. Because they think if somebody ask about price that you have to give them a number for an answer. The answer isn’t a number. Just because they said how much is it doesn’t mean the answer is a number.
Kevin: What’s the alternative?
Erik: So the answer is this. Price depends on ultimately what you end up choosing, okay? We have a lot of programs to pick from. We have a lot of options. Let me ask you something. I want to help narrow this down so we can figure out what makes the most sense for you. So, have you ever trained before, is this something brand new to you?
Erik: The answer is, “There are options here.” But I don’t just leave it at that. Because then what happens is people go, “Well, I want to do this, this and this. How much is it.” They create their own options.
Kevin: Sure, sure.
Erik: They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re not an expert. I am. I need to be the leader here. I’m not going to let them lead and tell me what their workout program is. They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. So I got to take control of the conversation. I take control of it by now asking a question that does two things. One, like I said, it takes control of the conversation. Two, it gives the impression that I’m now narrowing down options for them so it’s satisfies their question about pricing. If I’d say something, and this is what sometimes people will do also is they’ll go, “Well, what we like to do is have you come in.” And now they’re going, “Oh-oh, I know what’s going to happen when I come in.”
Kevin: Yeah, just trying to get me in the door.
Erik: How you answer is very important. Well, the price actually depends on what program you end up picking. We have quite a few options for you to choose from so, let’s try to narrow this down a little bit so we can get you the right price on this and the program that’s right for you. Let me ask you something, have you trained before? Is this something brand new to you?” They answer the question, “Well, I’m a beginner.” “Okay great. Well look, we’re very beginner friendly. As a matter of fact most of the people that call us have never trained before so, you have absolutely nothing to worry about as far as that concern and being a beginner. Now did you have a specific goal that you’re looking to accomplish with training? Is there something you trying to get out of it?” “Yeah, I want to lose 20 to 30 pounds.” “Oh okay, great! Well, that’s awesome, losing weight, getting in shape we’re the number one place for that and you’re going to fit right in here, so.” I’m just kind of now starting to ask about and then I’m reassuring them that, “Hey, the reasons why they’re coming to me are the reasons why other people come to me.” So that they’ll feel secure, they can feel safe about it. They don’t have to worry about being a beginner. They don’t have to worry about being fat or out of shape or want to lose 20 or 30 pounds because that’s the reason why people come to me. You’re going to fit right in with the rest of my members.
Kevin: So I think what you’re saying to me is you’re kind of positioning yourself as a salesperson as somebody who’s trying figure out what’s the best package is rather than somebody who’s putting the options on the table.
Erik: Right, because you don’t know what the best package is by just giving them options. And here’s the other part, what helps the member? What gets the member results? Is it how much they’re paying or is it the program that they’re in? It’s the program, so why are you giving them options based on price when program is what gets the results. And if I have a program that is $99 a month, and I have a program that is $200 a month; and you need to be in the $200 program to get where you want to go and I sell you the $99 program, then I’m doing myself a disservice and the prospect to disservice. Because they’re not going to get what they need and I’m not selling what they need because I’m weak at sales. And if they give me any grief about the $200 program we got to have a conversation about why they need that. But I don’t need to get in to that because by the time we get there they know I’m recommending in the best thing for that, period.
Kevin: Tell us about the book. I would just love to know why you wrote it and what’s in it and how it’s going?
Erik: So The Art of Selling Memberships is the book that I wrote and I wrote it because mainly I’ve been thinking about doing it for years. And in the back of my mind I was like, I should put this out there. And the reason I thought that is because everybody that I hired and trained did really, really well at selling. So it wasn’t just me, it wasn’t a personality thing. I had people from all walks of life. I had people who were landscapers, previously managed videogames stores, all kinds of different backgrounds coming, learning the process and doing well with it. So I knew I had a process that work well within my company and within my organization. And I always kind of thought maybe I should put it out there, but then I kind of held it back a little bit. One is, you know, I failed English twice in high school, so what kind of author am I? I can’t even pass regular English in high school. What kind of book is this going to be? So that held me back a little bit. I had this self limiting belief about it like I had to have the right grammar and I had to write a certain way and all that stuff, so that held me back a little bit too. And then one day I was just like, you know what, I’m just going to do it. I’m just going to put it out there, and we’re going to see what happens. And so I literally sat down and I just started writing this bad boy. Some of it I recorded it to a microphone and then transcribe it and then Google voice and so it was some talking and some typing and then I put it out with all the dang typos and everything else was out there. It was kind of funny because I started getting feedback from readers and they ended up becoming my editor because every time they send me something I’d fixed it and put the new version out. So right now I think we’re pretty good. I think we’re just about got all the typos out of it. But I just decided, you know what, I’m going to put this bad boy out and I’m going to go next level with this thing, man. Not only do I want to put this out but I want this book to be number one. I want to be number one, not some random category, but I want to be number one in sales. This is what I want to do. So I hired consultant to kind of teach me some things in the marketing side of stuff. So anyway I preloaded my book the day before it was going to launch on Amazon, and then I went back to update the description a little bit later and the dang thing was #8 already.
Kevin: Okay, not bad.
Erik: I haven’t released it yet. People were buying it. I couldn’t even read it or anything. It was just based on the title and reputation a little bit I guess. I don’t actually know. And so first of all I was concerned because I’m like, “Oh man, those sales aren’t going to count for tomorrow when I release it.” So I started getting a little nervous but then I’m like, whatever. Well, what happened was when that happen, Amazon said, this is going to be a hot new release and they literally promoted my book over the world as a hot new release for free.
Kevin: That’s awesome.
Erik: I didn’t pay a dang penny for it. So when you log in and you look at the charts on the top right hand corner they have the hot new releases, boom there’s my book. The day it comes out #1 in three categories – selling, sales presentations, entrepreneurship in the US. I was #1 in Australia, #1 in Germany, Top 5 in Canada, UK, India. All these country, man, it was crazy. So I’ve been sitting on this thing for years and nobody cared about the typos. It was selling and it was selling because the content was resonating with people. The reviews were coming in, they were positive. It was awesome. It was really an awesome thing. So I had no grandiose expectations to be a consultant or to be a sales trainer but I got so many request for it that I just was like, I should start doing this, I should start teaching. Obviously there’s a huge need for this and I can fill that need. So let’s do it and that’s why I am actually talking to you today right now.
Kevin: Yeah, what’s next on your to do list?
Erik: Well, I’m going to continue doing what I’m doing obviously with doing the sales training. I’m staying focus on our industry because it is such a unique sales relationship and the process works so well so I have a huge competitive advantage there, so I’m going to stick with that. I’m working on a second book and just continuing to grow. I’m going to be speaking out more in conferences and that’s basically it. Just continuing to grow that side of things and the next book, I don’t know when I’m going to be done with it. I’m working on it.
Kevin: Alright, and just last question before we wrap up. How do people get in touch with you, Erik? How can they get talking to you if they want some help with their own gym.
Erik: Well, if they want some help what we can do is anybody that’s listening, I will hook them up with a free copy. I’m not talking about like some PDF download, you know a little click of mouse, dink deal. I’m talking about a real 220 page physical copy of my book, I’ll hook them up with that. They just go to sellingmemberships.com/freebook. They’ll be shipping and handling and I’ll send it to you anywhere you are in the world, and I’ll hook you up with it.
Kevin: Awesome. That’s very nice.
Erik: sellingmemberships.com/freebook, I hook all of you listeners up with a free copy. That’s how they could start the process and get it implemented in their business and start selling more memberships.
Kevin: Nice one. Alright, Erik Charles Russell, thank you very much. I’ve honestly learned a lot here. Thank you very much for being on the show.
Erik: You’re welcome, thanks for having me. Had a lot of fun.
Kevin: Thank you.