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Healthy Working Relationships

How do you avoid—or resolve—communication problems among staff and clients?

In any company, relationship issues are bound to surface between staff members and clients—or among staff members themselves—at one time or another. Even service-oriented companies like the Ritz Carlton and Nordstrom sometimes have to deal with upset clients or disgruntled team members. But world-class organizations have a detailed plan for minimizing the risk of problems and managing them when they do arise.

Client-Staff Relationships

To maintain professional relationships between clients and staff, it’s helpful to set specific guidelines for employees. Following are some rules we have outlined in our corporate manual to regulate trainers’ behavior:

  • Avoid passionate conversations that may offend clients. Taboo subjects include politics, religion or matters of a sexual nature.
  • Although clients might bring you gifts at certain times of the year, report any gift above $100 in value to your manager, who will decide if it is appropriate for you to accept the gift.
  • If a client invites you to a get-together and you decide to attend, demonstrate professionalism at all times. Attending any one-on-one dinners or parties with clients of the opposite sex is unacceptable.
  • When training a client, avoid any position or spotting technique that would place you in such close contact as to make the client uncomfortable.
  • Dating clients is unacceptable. If a close relationship begins to develop between you and a client, refer that client to another trainer.
  • If a client asks a question to which you do not know the answer, write down the client’s name and phone number and let her know that you will get back to her with an answer within 24 hours. In the meantime, do some research and speak to your manager. Then follow through by calling the client!
  • If a client makes a suggestion, write it down, along with his name and number. Talk to your manager about what action might be taken, and follow up with the client.

Handling Disgruntled Clients

No matter how carefully staff members follow the above guidelines, clients may get upset under certain circumstances. We suggest that our staff employ the following method to defuse the situation:

  • Listen intently to everything the client has to say. Sometimes people just need to vent.
  • Paraphrase what the client tells you. You might say, “Let me make sure I’ve got this right. You left a message to have someone call you back so you could reschedule your appointment, and no one returned your call. Then your trainer called to ask where you were for your appointment, and said that you were going to be charged a cancellation fee.” It’s helpful to take notes—and let the client know that’s what you’re doing.
  • Empathize by saying something like, “I understand how frustrated you must feel. That type of situation would upset me too.”
  • Come up with a solution. If you can fix the problem on the spot, do so. If possible, tell the client what action steps have already been taken, or ask questions to determine whether the client understands company policies and why and how these policies are carried out. If you can’t resolve the problem immediately, let the client know that you are going to do some research and speak to your manager, and you will get back with a solution within 24 hours.
  • Own the problem. Do the research; speak to your manager. Determine a solution, and then follow up with the client as promised.

We give our staff the authority to offer $30 worth of product(s) to a client as an apology for any lack of service. A trainer who decides to offer this gift has to inform the manager of the situation and explain why this “peace offering” was necessary.

Internal Staff Relationships

When people like what they do and the people they work with, the working environment is much more positive. With this in mind, we encourage staff members to continually give praise and acknowledgment to their fellow team members and to be patient if someone is not as skilled as they are in a particular area.

Communication at all staff levels is key to resolving any job-related problems. If a difference of opinion does arise, the individuals involved should first try to resolve the issue themselves. The following four steps help both supervisors and employees come up with satisfactory solutions:

  1. Find something positive to say about the person with whom you are having a problem.
  2. Discuss the specific issue.
  3. Brainstorm a win-win solution.
  4. End the conversation on a positive note.

Getting Management Involved

Sometimes staff members can’t resolve a problem without outside help. If their attempts to settle an issue through one-on-one negotiation fail, the next step is to go to their immediate supervisor. If the issue still remains unresolved, the employees should go up the chain of command to the boss. No one should ever suffer any retaliation for bringing a problem to management’s attention for a resolution.

Staff members should never discuss their relationship issues with other staff members or clients. Gossip can really harm the working environment and damage clients’ perception of the staff as a unified team working together in the clients’ best interests.

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan was named the 2006 IDEA International Program Director of the Year and is the owner, president and co-founder of Northwest Personal Training and Fitness Education.

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