This column provides trainers with practical ways to approach common business obstacles using a coaching strategy called gap analysis. A gap analysis helps people identify where they currently are with regard to a situation, where they ultimately would like to see themselves, and the steps they must take in order to bridge the gap. Here’s how a gap analysis can help you improve your ability to establish and maintain professional boundaries with your clients.

Starting Point: Your Clients Are Your Friends

Many trainers fall into the habit of becoming friends with their clients. While developing personal relationships with people you see on a professional basis may not seem troublesome initially, it can lead to major hurdles for both trainer and client in the long term.

Trainers who regularly socialize with clients outside the gym environment can lose their professional status in the eyes of their clients. They often feel obliged or are expected to spend more time on these “friend” clients, and therefore may find it difficult to raise session rates and enforce rules (for example, cancellation policies). Consequently, these trainers are not able to conduct their business as they would like, because they worry about upsetting or losing clients and ruining friendships.

Destination: Your Clients Are Your Clients

When it comes to establishing and maintaining relationships, trainers with clear professional boundaries have a number of traits in common. They have cordial and friendly relations with clients, but they are always regarded as professionals. Their clients are very happy with the services provided and do not expect to receive additional time or attention outside of the gym setting. Most important, they have minimal personal conflict in their client relationships and are able to enforce business decisions without fear of clients leaving.

Bridging the Gap

Transforming yourself from a trainer who gets bogged down by the personal aspects of your client relationships into a trainer who successfully maintains your professional role is a two-step process. First, you must identify the specific things that successful trainers do to establish and maintain professional boundaries with clients. Second, once you have identified those actions, you must formulate a strategy for developing your own skills in those areas.

Below are three areas where successful trainers excel with regard to maintaining clean-cut client relationships. For each area, strategies are suggested to help improve your skills so you can bridge the gap between establishing professional boundaries with your clients and maintaining those boundaries.

Area One: Shaping Client Expectations

Trainers who are successful at establishing and maintaining professional boundaries understand the importance of shaping client expectations from the outset of the trainer–client relationship. There are many things a trainer can do to influence the direction of the relationship from the client’s perspective, so be aware of your actions and/or behaviors that might lead clients to consider themselves your friend first and your client second.

Discussing personal matters or issues not related to the client’s goals (particularly outside of scheduled training times), initiating or encouraging communication that doesn’t pertain to your work together, accepting invitations to meet for coffee or meals during your off time; and attending parties or other social functions together are examples of interactions that can lead to potential problems. While these situations will crop up in client relationships, the key is to be aware of how you typically handle them and try to minimize your involvement.

To improve your skills at shaping client expectations, look at your current client relationships and identify areas for which you may not have established clear boundaries as the trainer. If you are prone to engaging in any of the following behaviors with your clients, you are not conveying clear boundary messages:

Do you make unsolicited contact with clients about issues not directly related to that client’s exercise program? It is tempting to pass on a joke or an amusing story to clients whom you think will appreciate it, but that type of contact opens the door for them to engage in personal communication with you. Your failure to respond to your clients’ subsequent friendly communications may be viewed negatively.

Do you extend session times for certain clients or run overtime if a client is late to a session? Not adhering to or applying strict timekeeping measures for all your clients gives the impression that certain clients are favored over others. It won’t be long before those clients expect to receive preferential treatment from you all the time.

Do you regularly accept social invitations from clients to events or parties? Many trainers make the mistake of thinking that attending client parties is a good way to meet potential clients. However, a client’s friends and acquaintances whom you meet at a party are rarely as interested in your services as your client is! While it may be nice to be put in the spotlight by your client, before accepting an invitation to a social function evaluate whether it is a bona fide networking opportunity or not.

Do you feel reluctant to raise the rates of certain clients? Smart trainers increase fees periodically across the board to reflect the changing costs of doing business and their increasing education/experience levels. If you find yourself raising rates for some clients, but not others, or wondering if certain clients will be mad at you for raising their rates, then you have definite boundary issues with regard to those clients.

Area Two: Establishing Boundaries

Once you have become aware of your problematic relationship-building habits, develop a plan for establishing professional boundaries. Begin by creating guidelines that will help you provide structure to your role as a paid fitness professional. You may want to include protocols for addressing specific business issues like client tardiness.

For example, if a client is 20 minutes late for a session, acknowledge the tardiness when the client arrives, but inform the client that the session will end on time as scheduled. It might also be helpful to establish guidelines for accepting social invitations. For example, if there is not a direct or specific business reason for you to attend a function, decline the offer. Something as simple as “Thank you for the offer, but I will not be able to join you for that function” is a perfectly acceptable reply to invitations. Preparing a response in advance for use when clients invite you out will help you handle situations gracefully.

Area Three: Enforcing Boundaries

Establishing boundaries and guidelines for your client relationships is relatively easy; enforcing them is the challenge. Once you have created a plan of action for how to establish boundaries with your clients, stand firm and implement your decisions consistently.

One way to help yourself gain the confidence to maintain your professional boundaries is to hone your assertiveness skills. People often mistakenly equate assertiveness with aggressiveness, but these behaviors are not the same. Being assertive is standing up for your rights as a business professional and not allowing others to take advantage of you. Many trainers avoid being assertive when it comes to enforcing boundaries, because they are afraid clients may no longer like them. While not enforcing boundaries may help avoid personal conflict in the short term, it can ruin your professional relationships in the end as you will feel taken advantage of and begin to change the way you interact with your clients.

If your skills as a trainer are up to par, it won’t matter whether clients view you as a friend. Clients will retain you as a trainer because they respect your skills and the outstanding results you provide.