Meeting the Challenge of Problem Clients
Turn difficult clients into superstar success stories.
We’ve all had them. We dread seeing them. They are the clients who absorb your enthusiasm and lead you to question your abilities. They keep you up late at night, in frustration, and wake you with anguish in the pit of your stomach. They are your problem clients. It doesn’t seem to matter what you do, problem clients can make a 60-minute session feel like a 3-hour root canal. Each week, the struggle simply to survive the session increases, and you wonder whether it’s time to throw in the towel. Have heart; all is not lost. In many cases, there is a superstar client lying dormant underneath that rough exterior. This article will examine the most common types of problem clients and suggest techniques for unlocking their potential.
Before we look closely at particular problem clients and ways to help them, it’s helpful to understand the likely root of their behaviors. Most disempowering habitual behaviors come from patterns that were learned, modeled or conditioned early in life, says Tom Terwilliger, Mastermind executive coach, goal achievement expert and author of 7 Rules of Achievement (Morgan James 2010). “In most cases the behavior is based on an old neuro pathway or synapse created during the imprinting and modeling years of childhood.” Terwilliger suggests that, much like a person’s genetic blueprint, these learned neural programs run automatically, and they can be responsible for a client’s self-sabotage. “Those programs are so deeply conditioned and embedded in our clients’ subconscious minds that they often run without there being any conscious awareness that it’s ever happening.” However, unlike genetic makeup, destructive and limiting thought patterns can be detrained and made constructive. While it is far beyond a personal trainer’s scope of practice to “diagnose” client behavior, it is within range to set boundaries and implement lifestyle change techniques to promote success. “All we need to do is learn to recognize patterns when they show up, and understand how to deal with them,” adds Terwilliger.
Here are seven of the most common problem clients, along with expert techniques for working with them:
1. The Hypochondriac
You’ve worked with Dave for several months. He’s made minimal progress and always seems nervous during his sessions. He regularly arrives complaining of an ache or pain he believes resulted from the previous session. You’ve completed a thorough structural assessment and cannot draw a link between the exercises performed and Dave’s discomfort. Dave resists many of the exercises you give him, and you are not sure what to do next.
According to Jim Gavin, PhD, professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University in Montreal, Dave has a fear-based, anxiety-driven personality structure. “This person is particularly fearful around issues concerning the body and is hypersensitive to any physical symptoms that might occur toward the beginning of an exercise program.” Jonathon Ross, IDEA presenter and owner of Aion Fitness in Washington, DC, suggests that Dave may be using the symptoms—muscle soreness, for example—as an excuse for avoiding exercise. His pain and discomfort may be very real, but Dave’s hypochondriacal, fear-based nature may lead him to think the worst. Beware that this client is likely to search the Web for causes of discomfort and for the pros and cons of exercise, adds Gavin.
“Personal trainers need to address the hypochondriac client’s fear and anxiety through a combination of gentle exercise—designed to avoid physical symptoms—and reassurance,” says Gavin. A thorough explanation of typical exercise-induced discomforts may alleviate some of the concerns. Directing Dave to resources that support your information may also be beneficial.
Terwilliger suggests creating more of a partnership with Hypochondriac Dave by asking him to participate in exercise selection. “At first he may be reluctant to take on the responsibility for himself and may suggest that it’s your job to make those decisions,” he says. “Hang tough, set aside your ego and tell him you need and trust his input. If he accepts the challenge, he will begin to be empowered to make choices for himself.” Owning his workout may not only help Dave take responsibility but also ease some of the anxiety he feels toward exercise. Terwilliger advises approaching a client like Dave with caution, supervising him carefully and keeping detailed documentation of all movements performed. “[A hypochondriac] may even manifest an injury, blame you and seek legal action.”
Nancy’s forecast is gloom and doom, with little chance of sunshine. You can almost feel the temperature change as she enters the gym. She responds to your positive attitude with resistance, heavy sighs and eye rolling. Throughout the session, Nancy frequently complains about her dislike of your exercise selections and performs them with minimal enthusiasm. You find your eyes frequently drifting toward the clock and are bereft of all energy and vigor when she leaves.
“Negativity is one of the most contagious emotional states on the planet, and anytime you work with a Negative Nancy, you run the risk of being infected and infecting others,” warns Terwilliger. “She’s not just negative about workouts; she’s likely negative about life,” adds Trina Gray, owner of the Bay Athletic Club in Alpena, Michigan.
“You must avoid anchoring yourself and the session to a time-consuming pity party,” says Terwilliger. His approach is to place Nancy on an elliptical trainer or a treadmill for the first few minutes of each workout and to allow her to vent the day’s frustrations. “I’ll give her 3–5 minutes to unload and then start ramping up the intensity,” he says. If Nancy continues to spout negativity, Terwilliger will “immediately turn up the volume and send her into a full-on sprint.” This technique, he says, is designed to break the negative talk pattern. “If nothing else, it will send a very palpable message that you are more interested in her health and fitness than you are in the constant complaining.”
Ian McGriff, head personal trainer for Results Fitness Training at Tipton Lakes Athletic Club in Columbus, Indiana, takes a different approach. “What I try to do is change the way she talks to me first. I don’t expect an overall change in attitude, but I request that she not use any negative words during the session.” McGriff believes it is important to recognize the client’s feelings, and so he welcomes contact via e-mail or text messaging. “If all else fails, I suggest clients join a group training program,” he adds. “This way they’re forced to have positive energy or risk standing out in the crowd.”
Mark is a well-paid executive of a Fortune 500 company, for which he works long hours. He chairs or is a member of various community organizations and is training for his third triathlon. Mark often arrives at the gym frazzled and stressed, yet he demands that you push him to his limits. His nutrition is subpar, and you know he does not sleep well. On several occasions you’ve cut his session short because of fatigue or dizzy spells.
“Mark may be a type-A personality who is overcommitted to excellence and often burns the candle at both ends,” says Gavin. “He probably has some insecurities—something to prove—or some deep-seated issue that keeps him needing to be so active that he can’t address it,” suggests Ross. Because he tries to excel at everything, Mark tends to believe that the workout must be thoroughly exhausting in order to be effective.
Long-duration, high-intensity workouts do more harm than good, says Terwilliger. So how do you give Mark what he wants without placing him in harm’s way? “He is an ideal candidate for a 30-minute express session, where he is able to ‘get it all out’ and feel accomplished when [the session is] completed,” says Gray. Ross agrees and states that it’s okay to “leave a little in the gas tank” at the end of a session. “This is your opportunity to remind this Stress Case that your responsibility is to aid his pursuit of health, and you can see the signs that he’s pushing too hard,” he adds. If Mark is still resistive, provide him with research that points out the benefits of shorter workouts, says Terwilliger.
There is another element to address: nutrition. “You will soon discover that the overly stressed client eats very poorly and infrequently,” says Terwilliger. Working in tandem with a qualified nutritionist will add benefit to your services and give Mark access to professional dietary guidance that will improve his health.
You pride yourself on your knowledge base and regulary seek out education from industry conventions and publications. However, your client Sarah consistently challenges your exercise selections and fitness tips. She tells you that she spends copious amounts of time on the Internet and “knows a lot about exercise.” On more than one occasion, discussions with Sarah have grown heated.
Know-It-All Sarah can be a challenging client because she seems to undermine your abilities. “A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing with this type of person, and she may have a degree of arrogance and overconfidence about this knowledge base,” says Gavin. Terwilliger agrees that Sarah is probably not as knowledgeable as she suggests, and she may need to feel in control of the session.
Converting Sarah from a problem client to a successful one may be an easy fix, says Gray. “She wants to feel validated. Simply listen to her research, praise her for taking the initiative to learn on her own, and then steer the session your way.” Gavin suggests creating a collaborative relationship with the client. “You might say something like, ‘With the information you’ve provided and my credentials and background, let’s work together to create a program that we can both agree on.’” Tell her you will reassess the program in 3 weeks to discuss results and new ideas, he adds. “It is extremely important to create a relationship that doesn’t negate the client.”
Jerry might be one of your favorite clients, but if this were a cartoon, he’d have a nose a mile long. The Fibber works hard during his sessions and assures you that he always completes his exercise and nutrition homework. He seems thoroughly mystified that he has not reached the goals that were set during the initial consultation. You suspect that you’re not getting the whole truth.
The Fibber might lie to you for several reasons. “He doesn’t like to disappoint,” suggests Gray. “He’d rather lie about his habits than let you down.” Ross believes there may be a deeper motivation for this behavior. “The real reason is that he hasn’t fully taken ownership of his own fitness and health and is relying on a couple of hours a week with a trainer to get results,” he says. “He’s probably thinking that all he has to do is spend enough money on a trainer and the results will follow.”
How do you approach this client without alienating him and making him feel self-conscious? “Gently confront him with evidence,” says Gavin. Tell him that you’re confused as to why he hasn’t made a certain amount of progress. “The likelihood is that your client is going to have to fabricate information on a more and more implausible level,” he adds. “Eventually, the suspicion of lying becomes obvious and verifiable.” At that point, Gavin says, it’s important to avoid placing blame on the client, or you will lose him. “Set a list of weekly goals, and require that he sign it. If one of those goals is to exercise on his own, ask him to do so at a time when you can verify that he’s there; he needs to wave to you when he arrives and before he leaves.” The bottom line is that this Fibber is a walking billboard for your services. Prospective clients will notice his lack of progress and blame you. “Do not keep clients like this long term if they are not willing to change,” adds Ross. “They will drain your energy, no matter how much they fill your bank account.”
One of your most frustrating clients, Melanie, is chronically late—if she shows up at all. You adhere to strict cancellation policies and charge her for no-shows and “late cancels” on a regular basis. She does not seem to mind this, but you are an inspired professional who is driven to help others achieve success.
Gavin calls this person the “resistance exerciser or athlete.” She believes she should exercise and has every intention to do so, but she lacks the follow-through. “This is the equivalent of buying [season] tickets for the opera and never going. It gives the illusion of participation.” Terwilliger says this type of client is often moved to purchase training because of a negative personal experience with a spouse, a friend or her own reflection in the mirror. “She decides to make herself a priority and purchases 12 sessions,” he says. “But soon enough, life gets in the way and the other ‘more important’ values—work, kids, spouse—make their way to the top of the pecking order.”
“It’s important to derail this behavior early in the relationship,” says Ross. “Otherwise it will become a set pattern, and the client will never respect you enough to act any differently.” He recommends addressing the Ghost client’s priority list and helping her understand that improving her fitness level will benefit all the items on that list. Gavin suggests taking on a coaching role with Melanie, appealing to her in a way that won’t make her feel defensive. “You might say something like ‘I am aware that you’ve been late and have missed several sessions. I sense that something is going on at a deeper level. Let’s decide if this is something you want to be doing.” Gray says that Melanie will be successful when she accepts that fitness can enhance her ability to care for others. “If you help her make this connection, she’ll be running red lights before she misses 5 minutes with you.”
Fred relies on you for everything. He contacts you on a regular basis with questions and expects your undivided attention. He becomes distraught if you ever have to cancel a session and is reluctant to exercise on his own.
“This person is obviously highly dependent and has underlying feelings of anxiety and inadequacy,” says Gavin. “His constant need for approval or contact is a covert way of bringing his trainer into a supportive therapeutic relationship to meet an underlying need to feel cared for.” Gray adds that this type of codependency is likely to transform into a negative experience. “A client who is completely dependent on his trainer will never be pleased, because [the training sessions] will never be enough.” Fred will try to invade your personal time with regular phone calls and e-mails if you let him.
One of the primary focuses in working with the Static Cling is to set specific boundaries on the extent of your services. This may be tricky at first because your client may have grown used to your consistent guidance. If this is the case, Terwilliger suggests that you shift slowly to a more professional position and set clear boundaries with regard to your time. In his own practice, Terwilliger allows a client up to 1 hour per month extra, free of charge, for mentoring and answering questions. “Set limits to the number of e-mails or calls, and reserve the right to respond or not,” adds Gavin. “Explain that your busy schedule is prohibitive of continuous contact.” Gavin also suggests using the first few minutes of each session to answer questions.
Regarding Fred’s inability to exercise on his own, Gray has found that introducing the Static Cling to other clients and gym members can improve self-confidence. “Build his support system by connecting him with other clients in small-group training. Encourage him to supplement training sessions with group exercise classes so that he feels supervised when he is not with you. Help him see that you are just one piece of the puzzle.”
Fitness professionals face a wide variety of personality types. It is not a personal trainer’s job to diagnose those personalities, but it is possible to create a successful relationship with each of them. As Terwilliger says, every client presents with a behavioral blueprint that can be constructive or destructive. Awareness, understanding and clearly outlined expectations and boundaries will help transform that problem client into your greatest success story.
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Unfortunately, there may come a time when the client-trainer relationship is beyond repair. Despite your best efforts, you know that your interactions with the client have become increasingly strained and difficult to maintain. As a consummate professional, you believe there is always a solution to the problem. But chances are it may be time to let your client go. Mary Bratcher, MA, DipLC, and co-owner of The BioMechanics in San Diego, sheds some light on how to know when it’s time to end a relationship and how to do so as professionally as possible.
"It's time to let clients go when lyou realize they are not as committed to their health and fitness goals as you are," says Bratcher. "Many people like the sense of accountability that working with a trainer or fitness professional provides, but we all know that a trainer cannot be responsible for making decisions or changes for a client." Here are some other red flags that may alert you that it's time to fire a client:
- The client blames you for her lack of progress.
- You lose objectivity with the client because of repeated negative interactions.
- The client always has excuses for why he cannot commit to exercise and nutrition.
- The client continually misses or reschedules sessions.
Once you've determined that your energy and efforts are being wasted with a client, it's important to approach the potentially awkward situation professionally. "Unfortunately, there is no simple way to fire a client," Bratcher says. "It is usually an unpleasant task because of the history [you share]."
Bratcher suggests addressing the issue as early in the relationship as possible. "Be honest and straightforward about why it isn't working out (explain what the clients are doing/not doing and how it affects your ability to effectively run your business), and be clear about not accepting them back until they can demonstrate a willingness to commit to making changes." Make sure that you or your company has clearly defined policies regarding refunds and promptly return any money paid in advance, she adds.
"Keep in mind that you can't control how a client will feel about being 'fired'; you can only conduct yourself in a professional manner so that you feel satisfied with the way you handled the situation."
Jim Gavin, PhD, professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University in Montreal, believes that the personal training contract should include more than payment information and a cancellation policy agreement. He advocates including specific criteria designed to streamline success. “When you have difficult clients, some behaviors become issues. You want to take those issues and include them in the contract—setting up very concrete terms for the objectionable behavior,” he says. “Trainers need to draw clear lines in the sand in a very supportive way,” says Gavin. In this aspect, the client-trainer agreement is evergreen; in other words, it is subject to ongoing revision.
“When the client is not meeting the normal conditions of the training relationship, it becomes the trainer’s responsibility not to collude with the client,” adds Gavin. For example, if you have a “Negative Nancy,” it may be appropriate to add to her contract that you will tolerate negative talk only in the first 5 minutes of the session. “Typically, the client will straighten up and know the limits.” If not, it might be time to let your client go.
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