Professionalism in a Service Industry
By paying attention to details, trainers can collectively elevate the status of our profession.
In the first two articles of this five-part series, I discussed ways to create a successful corporate culture that feeds quality work, growth and positive dynamics (February IDEA Trainer Success, page 1); and ways to build leaders who will represent and replicate the corporate culture as your company grows, so as to help all staff improve and flourish as people and professionals (April, page 11). This article elaborates on ingredients that can upgrade professionalism in a service industry.
The number-one goal for me and my entire team at Twist Conditioning Inc. is to represent the field of fitness very professionally. We aspire to achieve continuous improvement; we aim to be the best in sport conditioning; we are passionate about impacting our athletes and clients; we love the relationships we develop with them; and we strive to be highly profitable. But every step of our business and service offering is predicated on representing the field well and, indeed, helping to build the field.
As you will discover in your journey as a personal fitness trainer (PFT) or facility manager, the more you give, the more you get. By paying attention to the small but important ways to enhance your professionalism, you help elevate industry standards. Collectively, this detail orientation enhances the market for all PFTs. Likewise, improved daily efforts that upgrade professionalism eventually become habits that are later solidified as good reputation.
Allow me to set the stage with a story: Following an excellent 2004 IDEA Personal Trainer Summit® in New York City, I went to the hotel gym to work out before my flight home. The gym was not very busy. A personal trainer dressed in jeans and a baggy, ripped sweatshirt was working near me with his client. The trainer would demonstrate a few reps of an exercise and say, “Do this.” He would then step back, chew gum, receive cell phone calls or stand with his arms crossed counting reps.
The client, who seemed to be a deconditioned neophyte, appeared to have an old injury. He was struggling with some of the exercises and asked the trainer for advice related to pain he was experiencing. The trainer’s answer was way off—it was clear he did not have the requisite knowledge either to answer the question or to modify the exercises in order to make the experience safe, pain-free and level-appropriate for the client.
The trainer did find time during his client’s session to speak at length to me, both ignoring his client and interfering with the flow of my workout! The trainer told me he had coached in the National Hockey League (NHL), not realizing that I had coached for 11 years in the NHL! I knew he had not coached professionally. He lied about his background.
Ironically, although the IDEA conference had been held at this very hotel and delegates had traveled from around the world to attend, this particular trainer boasted that he did not attend because he already knew enough about training. I found this a strange comment, especially because I feel as if I am just getting started and still learn so much every day, even after 22 years in the industry.
Perhaps this is an extreme example of how not to represent yourself and your profession, but sadly, this scenario unfolds daily in facilities everywhere, giving us all a black eye. By practicing and mentoring the necessary ingredients for professionalism—training knowledge, foundations, attitude, personal dynamics, visual moderators and business know-how—we can collectively raise the status of our profession to a new level and wipe out the negative stereotypes that drag us down.
There are several variations to the theme “The more I know, the more I know there is to know”; among them, “The more I learn, the more I realize how little I know.” Bottom line is this: To optimally service your clients in an evolving industry fueled by both long-proven techniques and rapid innovation, you must adopt a philosophy of lifelong learning. For example, the human body is the only machine in the world that is not fully understood by anyone. This requires that PFTs continually study the body itself and try to comprehend how different exercise stressors can stimulate specific adaptations.
Professionals are attentive to upgrading their understanding of human physiology, exercise prescription, periodization, special populations and dozens of other topics. Life learners attend conferences, take specialty certifications, enroll in home study programs, read association publications, and share ideas and experiences with peers to exchange learning opportunities.
Professionalism, as moderated by training knowledge, also refers to the scope of one’s expertise. It is important to stick to your core competencies and show confidence in yourself and attention to the best interests of the client by proactively referring out when needed to allied specialists, such as physical therapists, nutritionists, sports medicine doctors, naturopaths and others who can best provide valid information for your client.
This is a short but powerful category. Your very foundation as a person, as an individual trainer and as a business is anchored in your level of ethics and integrity. This is not a “sometimes” thing. Ethics and integrity need to be at the root of every single decision throughout every day. Most important, they cannot be compromised in the most challenging situations. That is when your true character shows and provides experiences on which you build your professionalism and reputation, defining who you are.
Attitude is a massive category, but some of the ingredients are more prevalent in exercise settings and more influential on the level of professionalism. First, don’t cut down other trainers in an attempt to elevate your stature in the eyes of prospective clients. If they have their wits about them, clients will immediately question your confidence and character. Celebrate the successes of other trainers, who, by their success, are raising the bar for all trainers. Avoid exaggerating your background in an effort to create an in-demand bio. Be honest and sincere, and try to lose your ego. Quiet confidence and a humble approach are usually more respected than an overt ego. Clients will be sold on substance, compassion, enthusiasm and a caring, respectful manner.
Your attitude moderates the personal dynamics you are able to define and enjoy with your clients. There are other behaviors that affect trainer-client dynamics. Be an active coach, physically engaged in the workout, visually aware at all times, verbally delivering cues, regressing, progressing, motivating, modifying and teaching based on the moment-by-moment, rep-by-rep, real-time evolution of each workout.
In building relationships and sincerely showing interest in your clients, it is helpful to have some personal information to discuss, such as their places of work, family members, sports they participate in, goals they aspire to and so on. One of the great features of training is that it is a “people” business and there is some brief, light socializing before, during and after workouts. However, avoid bogging down workouts with chatter, and keep the conversation away from gossip and other inappropriate content. Be friendly and enjoy laughter, but remember that you are coaching and teaching, which requires that a certain line be drawn.
Source and wear clean, good-quality performance apparel. If you have staff or co-workers, define your apparel to look cohesive and professional. Avoid sloppy clothes and sloppy postures; upgrade them to a more polished look. Determine your own interpretation of what is appropriate and professional. For example, Twist Conditioning’s male coaches may be relaxed and prefer to “dress down” on their own time; however, when coaching, they dress to a standard that an elite sport coach may opt for at practices, to look professional in his environment. When working out in any facility, Twist Conditioning’s female coaches may opt for the latest yoga and fitness fashions, which lean toward more revealing and tighter clothing. But when they are in a coaching role in our sport conditioning center, their choice of clothing must be more conservative, to emphasize their professional leadership role.
To be clear, I do not believe that “clothes make the man.” Professionalism in any environment is less about expensive fashion than it is about brains, heart, compassion, work ethic and the many skills and intangibles that define expertise and professionalism. However, proper performance apparel lends a level of seriousness to the service you are providing, generates a sense of team spirit and pride among co-workers and demonstrates respect to your clients.
Actions that destroy professionalism include speaking on cell phones in the exercise area and exhibiting nonverbal behavior that suggests a passive, low-skilled, disinterested coach—such as standing stationary with arms crossed or hands on hips. Focus your eyes on the client; teach, cue and motivate verbally; and be physically active to stay engaged and to help demonstrate and spot exercises.
A messy, cluttered or dirty exercise environment can undermine the most professional coach. Clean training equipment that is set up and ready to go before the workout begins illustrates quality and preparation.
The fourth article in this series will approach key business considerations for growing your business and serving your market. Under professionalism, suffice it to say that if you are a personal trainer who spends 95% of your time training clients hour by hour, you have a good career—which is great—but not a business. If you are operating a mom-and-pop-level business but are not reading business publications and are not part of a peer learning business group, you likely have ingredients you can upgrade. If your business is enjoying growing success, you need to relearn all parts of your business, because with growth you will experience pain, and the quality of your service and business fulfillment will show cracks. Success brings growth, and handling growth demands different systems, processes and infrastructure.
At the other end of the spectrum, the smallest of businesses need to have definitive customer service methods, registration processes, follow-up procedures and other methods that mature the business and provide better quality to clients during all exposures outside of the actual workout time.
To improve professionalism, be prepared to work on yourself, both as a person and as a trainer, and on your business. Stepping away from working in your business (i.e., training clients) is critical in order to improve your individual know-how (for example, at an IDEA conference) and to assess your operation, look ahead and take the time to work on your business.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of all the ingredients that go into professionalism, but these are some of the more common in our industry. To summarize, attention to professionalism is not a tedious process and does not make for an uptight or rigid trainer. My team laughs a lot and has way too much fun. Being a professional does not mean being boring or conservative or losing your personality. It does mean being aware of the simple ways you can upgrade your level of professionalism—changing how your clients perceive you, how well you represent the field at large and the quality of coaching you provide. Good luck!
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