John Hanc is a long-time contributor to the New York Times and Newsday and a former Contributing Editor to Runner's World magazine. His articles have also appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian, Family Circle, the Boston Globe and Columbia Journalism Review. In the past year, two books co-written by Hanc have garnered a total of five major literary awards. Your Heart, My Hands: An Immigrant's Remarkable Journey to Becoming One of America's Preeminent Cardiac Surgeons (Center Street Books), which Hanc wrote with Arun Singh, M.D., won four awards, including Gold Medals in both the 2020 Nautilus Book Awards the and American Society of Journalists and Authors annual writing competitions. Fighting for My Life: Living in the Shadow of Alzheimer's Disease (Thomas Nelson), which he wrote with Jamie Tyrone and Marwan Sabbagh, M.D., also won a Gold Medal in the Nautilus Awards.
Is it Possible to Turn a Bad Client Into a Good One?
Every successful trainer has had a few along the way. Clients that can frustrate you; stress you out; or cause you to question your own skills and even your own career path. For sure, they’re in the minority, but they’re out there. Maybe you even have one or two you’re working with right now.
If so, here’s the bad news about bad clients: You’re going to have to deal with them.
“We’re in a service business,” says Robert Morea, co-owner of Great Jones Fitness, a one-on-one studio in Manhattan. “All kinds of people are going to be coming into our gym or studio. Part of the key to success in this industry is learning how to deal with them.”
“It’s definitely part of the business,” says ACE Certified Personal Trainer Stefanie Lujan, who is also the content project manager for ACE. “Not everybody is cut out to be a client, and not every client and trainer are going to have the perfect relationship.”
Which leads us to the good news: Most bad client situations can be remedied, or at least improved.
That process starts by re-thinking this word “bad.”
“You should see it as a problem to be solved, rather than a problem person,” says Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist and professor at University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, Mass.
Frustrating as difficult clients may be, try not to see the problem as a flaw in the client’s character, Dr. Pagoto suggests, but rather as something circumstantial. Think of your job as being the one to decode the combination of the inner lock that is barring them from achieving their health and fitness goals.
To help you, we’ve organized these bad—make that “challenging”—clients into common types, with some suggestions on how to scope out the problem and solve it, to your mutual benefit.
The Unreliable Client
This is the client who shows up late consistently, cancels frequently and can usually be counted on for some kind of drama. They cost you time and money—and only hurt themselves.
To Bob Phillips of CompleteStrength.com, this is one of the most critical client problems a trainer can face. “If you have a lot of clients cancelling,” he says, “then you don’t have a business.”
Phillips has been in business as a personal trainer on Long Island, N.Y., for more than 25 years, so clearly most of those in his stable of clients show up. But not always: In late 2016, a new client of his began cancelling frequently. “She’s a very nice woman,” he explains. “I had to find a way to talk to her about it, and I didn’t want to make her feel bad.”
Right after the New Year, he managed to work her spotty attendance into a conversation. “I told her that at the beginning of every New Year, I review all my client’s appointments...which I don’t,” he admits. “But I told her that I didn’t realize how bad the situation had gotten. Again, not true, because I knew full well how bad the problem was. That’s why I was having this discussion with her.”
Phillips told his client that she had missed nearly half of their twice-weekly appointments.
“She was like, ‘Oh, I can’t believe it,’” Phillips says. The client was apologetic—most of her cancellations were usually spur of the moment things. She really hadn’t been thinking about how last minute no-shows would impact her trainer’s schedule. But Phillips didn’t rub in the guilt. “I tried not to couch it in personal terms, but more along the lines of ‘Gee, how are the two of us going to solve this?’” he says.
The solution, which Phillips had already thought through before initiating the discussion, was to cut her sessions down to once a week. After all, he points out, this was almost what she had been doing with the cancellations. Now, he had a second time slot that he was able to fill with a more reliable client, and the constantly cancelling client could commit to the one time slot.
Which she has: “It’s worked out well for her,” he says, “and me.”
Instead of having one client causing too many headaches with her constant cancellations, he now has two reliable clients.
The Know-It-All Client
You’ve worked hard to earn your ACE certification. You’ve devoted your life to training and helping people. But that doesn’t seem to matter to this client, who supposedly has a brother-in-law who thinks a split body-part routine and max bench presses are the ideal workout for the prediabetic 55-year-old man who is your client. Know-it-alls often demand to know why you’re not doing the latest hot workout they saw on GMA—or the regimen for professional CrossFit competitors they watched on YouTube.
“I have a client like that right now,” says Morea. “She’s very well read, and she Googles everything. There’s nothing wrong with being informed. But she’ll see something on the internet and bring it to the session and now she’s an expert.”
Morea’s response is not to get into a “who-knows-more-about-exercise” debate. “I don’t engage. I keep her moving,” explains Morea. “Also, I dig into my toolbox. I’ll say, ‘O.K., if you don’t want to do this movement, let’s try this one instead.’”
In this case, the actions speak louder than words. “She’s seen results,” Morea says. “And, importantly, she hasn’t had any injuries, which she well might have had we tried some of the things she read about and that in many cases were not appropriate.”
Dr. Pagoto offers another approach to the know-it-all: “I might say to this client, ‘It sounds like you have a lot of ideas of how you’d like to approach your fitness. What are you hoping to learn from me?’”
And of course, the know-it-all client should also be reminded about what every real fitness professional knows—that everyone’s exercise regimen is highly individualized, and that what might work for a CrossFit champion probably won’t be right for that client.
The Penny Wise, Pound Foolish Client
“Wait a minute, this is $75 an hour?”
Larry Indiviglia, an ACE Certified Fitness Professional in San Diego, has heard that from prospective clients. “They look at it as shelling out money, before they’ve even seen it or experienced it,” he says. “I find it troubling when it starts that way.”
Such clients see personal training as another bill to be paid, another commodity to be haggled. Of course, it’s understandable that people want value for their money, but they also need to be looking at the training for what it is: An investment in their health. And a cost-effective one at that.
“I try to tell them that, politely but emphatically,” says Indiviglia, who works with superstar trainer Todd Durkin. “I tell them that I’m going to work hard to develop a regimen that’s personalized for them, I’m going to hold them accountable, and I’m going to go the extra mile for them in helping them achieving their health and fitness goals. And I might remind them that they’ll probably pay a lot more for doctors and prescription meds than they ever will for me.”
That logic, Indiviglia says, is often compelling. But not for everyone.
“It is tough to always feel like you have to prove your value,” Dr. Pagoto agrees. One option she recommends is to suggest fewer sessions, to minimize the cost impact to the client. But, she adds, “at some point I might recommend saying, 'It sounds like you aren’t sure this is worth the investment. One option is we take a break to give you some time to sort out how much time and money you are in a position to invest and perhaps to explore other options. Of course, call me anytime if you’d like to continue.’”
The “I Can’t” Client
For some, the barrier to one-on-one training or exercise in general is not cost. It’s age, or a self-perception of weakness, or simply fear.
Meet the “I can’t client”: Generally a little older, perhaps with some preexisting conditions and often neophytes in the world of physical culture, these are the clients who are afraid of exerting themselves, afraid of trying some new movements, afraid of doing almost anything.
More often than not, they are training because their doctor strongly urged them to get more active, and personalized instruction sounded like a good idea. It would be, of course, if they would give it a chance. In some cases, their fears are understandable, and it just takes a trainer with some sensitivity and patience to help them work through it. Other times it might be simply because they are unwilling to exert themselves.
Lujan had just such a client: An overweight, middle-aged woman with limited range of motion—and an even more limited sense of expectations.
“She said, ‘Stefanie I can’t do 30 minutes of cardio and strength training,” Lujan says. Instead of pressing her on it, Lujan suggested they start with something more basic: stretching.
“I wanted to set her up to succeed, so I created a program that I felt she could be successful with,” she explains. Initially, it was static stretches done while lying on the mat. Then, they progressed to using props, such as blocks and yoga straps. Eventually, with the confidence this client built from her increased flexibility, Lujan was able to coax her off the mat and into the cardio and free-weight sections of the gym.
Today, Lujan’s former client is thinner, healthier and happier. “She’s doing great,” Lujan says. “She travels, she hikes with her kids and her husband. I’m very happy for her.”
The lesson: “Set them up so they can succeed, however you choose to define that,” urges Lujan. “If they’re successful then they’ll keep coming back.”
The “I’m Not Seeing Results” Client
Clients who complain about lack of results are very often non-compliant in some aspect of their regimen. And it’s usually not the part they’re doing in the gym with you. It’s often what they’re not doing the rest of the week that’s hampering their progress.
“I hear these kinds of complaints from clients, and they’re usually about how they look, not about how they’re performing in the gym,” says Morea. “`If only I could lose this.’ ‘I still can’t fit into that dress.’ ‘Why can’t I get rid of that?’ The next step is blaming the trainers.”
The solution? “We put the responsibility back to where it belongs,” Morea says. “With them.” And, more often than not, with their diet: While he doesn’t believe trainers should give dietary advice, “we are allowed to have conversations about food. So we talk about what they’re eating...and remind them that in addition to the time they spend with us, they need to be thinking about that. What we’re really doing is pushing them to take responsibility for that aspect of their health and fitness.”
This approach has worked. “Once they take responsibility and make the dietary modifications they need to make, then they’re happier,” he says.
“I like the idea of bringing up diet and referring them to a dietitian or an evidence-based weight-loss program, or having them use a calorie-tracking app,” says Dr. Pagoto. “This way they are putting the same amount of energy into the diet side of the equation as there are the exercise side.”
Pagato adds that one of the best strategies for dealing with the “I’m not seeing results” client might be to lay out expectations from the beginning. “Give a client realistic expectations in the beginning about how long it will take to increase lean muscle mass, lose inches and pounds, and increase fitness,” she says.
In that conversation, be as specific as possible: How long, how hard, how often? What kind of exercise is going to help the client achieve his or her goals? What other responsibilities does the client have when the trainer is not around?
“I would always circle back to this conversation too,” Pagoto says. “Having it in writing so there’s a document to go back to is ideal. That way you can decide together if, with the effort put in, you should expect to see these changes.”
By spelling out expectations at the beginning of your relationship with a client, you might be solving a problem before it—and the client—becomes one.