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The Four Ways Your Prospects Signal They Are Ready for Change

The language of motivation and change isn't always easy to understand, but by listening carefully, recognizing certain signals and understanding how to follow up, salespeople will gain more membership commitments from prospects.

Paul Amrheim, a psycholinguist specializing in the language of motivation and commitment, has been studying language by which people in natural conversation ask for and commit to certain actions. For example, if a student asks a professor to take a look at a paper they wrote, a professor might respond:

“I am sorry. I’d like to, but I am really very busy.”

“I’ll try to get to it.”

“I might be able to read it next week.”

“I promise I’ll have it for you in the morning.”

The four responses differ in sense of urgency and importance. Most fitness sales are lost because the prospect has little sense of urgency—or at least that’s what the salesperson seems to believe. We don’t always take the time to learn more about why someone offers a certain response.  Is it possible that your prospect is actually voting for change throughout the sales process but you don't recognize their change talk?

In motivational interviewing, this is called “preparatory change talk” or words that precede change. You must recognize and talk through these words for change to take place. According to motivational interviewing, preparatory change talk is categorized into four subtypes: desire, ability, reasons and need.

Desire. Desire preparatory change talk comes out in normal conversations. It sounds like:

  1. “I want to lose weight.”
  2. “I would like to feel better.”
  3. “I wish I were more comfortable around people.”
  4. “I hope to be in a healthier place next year.”

When you hear this sort of language, what’s an appropriate response? Do you feel the different sense of urgency in the replies above? By responding with a reflection about the response and then following up with a question, you could increase the odds of this prospect buying a program today.

Here are some possible ways to respond:

  1. “It seems that losing weight is really important to you. What is it about losing weight that’s important to you?" Notice the question began with a “what” not a “why." Although there is nothing wrong with a why-based questions, too many of them make your prospects feel interrogated, as if you are the one pushing for change. According to Amrheim, the person who is pushing for change is the one who seems to be putting a higher emphasis on change. That needs to be your prospect, not you.
  2. “It appears that you are interested in feeling better. Tell me more about that.” The key here is to better understand “would like to." Many people “would like to” feel better, look better and lose some weight. It’s important to continue to get the prospect to strengthen their level of commitment by talking more about this change that they want to make.
  3. “My understanding is that you don’t feel comfortable around people. Help me understand more about that.” You are looking for triggers that are going to make this change a must, not a should. Reflecting on the negative side (you don’t feel comfortable around people) will give you more negative responses. Keep in mind the opposite of those responses is what the prospect truly desires. Make sure to listen and highlight the desires that are most important to the prospect.
  4. “It sounds like you have a very positive spin on your fitness future. Define what it means for you to be in a healthier place.” Instead of just asking why-based questions, reflect what was just said and ask for clarity if something seems unclear to you.

Ability. Ability is self-perception about whether what the prospect wants to do is achievable. People won’t get excited about changing if they don’t believe that it’s possible.

  1. “I’d like to run a 5k, but I don’t think I could do it.”
  2. “I could get to the gym after work, but I don’t feel like it.”

Here are some appropriate responses:

  1. “It sounds like running a 5k is a good goal for you to shoot for, but there is something holding you back. Tell me more about that." The goal here isn’t to start telling your prospect they can do it, you will help them and all they need to do is train for it. Those are all obvious answers that won't necessarily move your prospect closer to running the 5k. The key here is to listen and take the time to understand the hesitancy, the road block and the uncertainty. The prospect must work through the road block with your guidance through listening and asking versus telling.
  2. “So time is definitely not the issue here, but maybe timing is something to talk more about. Tell me what you have to do or need to do after work that might hold you back from getting to the gym?” This might appear to be a lack of desire or a want and it might be; however, consider talking about timing first to better understand what might be a true obstacle.

Reasons. The key here is to get as many emotional, rational, positive and negative reasons why change is a must not a should. The pain of not going through with it must be greater than the pain of staying the same. In most fitness sales settings, prospects don't voice enough reasons to change. Here is what it sounds like in a real conversation:

  1. “I would probably have more energy.”
  2. “I might feel better about myself.”
  3. “It would help me control my diabetes.”

Here are some appropriate responses:

  1. “It sounds like you understand that if you exercise on a regular basis, you would have more energy. Maybe we need to discuss how you might feel if you don’t start exercising. How might that affect you in the next three to six months?" You might need to educate your prospect here, but if you do, don’t rant for a long time. Instead, make one or two points and then check in with your prospect. Make sure to keep your timeline in the future no more than three to six months, definitely fewer than 12. It’s hard for most people to see what their life would be like more than 12 months at a time.
  2. “It seems like you are not sure if exercising might make you feel better. Would it be beneficial for you and I to discuss the benefits of exercise and the consequences of not exercising?”
  3. “On one hand, it’s a lot easier to eat whatever you want, not exercise and do things as you wish. On the other hand, you know that exercising will help you control your diabetes and increase the quality of your life. There lies the conundrum. I was wondering if it would be alright with you to discuss both sides of the equation?" Sometimes pinning both sides of the equation in the same sentence is eye opening and moves prospects toward change. It allows the prospect to make more sense of the situation they are in when both sides are pinned against one another in the same sentence.

Need. There is a difference between reasons to change and a need to change. A reason to change has a why justification:  “I need to exercise because it will help me lose weight” while a “need” is just a statement without a justification. The key is to inquire a bit further and learn specific reasons behind these statements. Here is what they sound like in a conversation:

  1. "I need to lose weight."
  2. "I have to feel better."
  3. "I must be able to move better."

An appropriate response to all of the above would sound like:

“Tell me more about …" and then follow it up with “and why is that important to you or what is it about that that’s important to you?”

Listening for preparatory change talk along with offering a reflection and following up with a question could really take the conversation to another level. Being able to recognize change talk, promote it and encourage one to talk more about it transitions prospects closer to changing.


Michael Gelfgot is a franchisee partner in Anytime Fitness. He and his business partner John Spence operate 23 Anytime Fitness locations in the United States. His accomplishments include 2007 Club Operators of the Year, 2013 Success Story of the Year and Personal Trainer of the Year, and 2015 Community Outreach Award of the Year. He was the first Personal Trainer of the Year in 2012.

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