Kathy Conant, MS, an IDEA Elite Personal Fitness Trainer in Brookfield, Connecticut, recalls this story from her first formal job out of graduate school. She was conducting underwater weighings for body composition analysis. Gym members interested in learning their body fat percentage were told to schedule an appointment and to bring a bathing suit to get tested in. After 2 years and hundreds of underwater weighings, she met with a very handsome young man for his scheduled appointment. After the introduction, she instructed him to undress and said she would begin the test when he was ready. Conant entered the room to find the young man “buck naked” and ready for testing. She mumbled an excuse about the equipment needing calibration and fled the room, asking a male counterpart to finish the test.

Handling the Situation. Conant recommends, in retrospect, finishing the test with “100% professionalism and no less.” She says she might even have shared the “joke” with the client at some point down the road.

When Your Client Makes the Faux Pas

Most trainers and instructors can handle their own gaffes with apologies and humor, but they may not know how to handle their clients’ embarrassing moments. We have all encountered problems with ripped clothing, excessive sweating, passed gas, body odor, bad breath and lack of coordination. We can ignore some of these things, but we have to deal with others. Barbara Pachter, author of The Jerk With the Cell Phone: A Survival Guide for the Rest of Us, recommends sorting incidents into those you can change versus those you can’t.

Wardrobe Malfunctions. You must approach clients if something goes wrong with their clothing. If you ignore the problem and a client discovers it, he or she may become angry that you did not prevent further embarrassment. Holland recommends approaching the person matter-of-factly and discreetly. Act as though situations like this happened all the time. Take a “no big deal” but direct approach.

Karen Merrill, ACE’s 2004 Personal Trainer of the Year, who works in Kailua, Hawaii, adds, “Immediately, but quietly, inform your client.” She suggests taking the client to a less-occupied area or the locker room in order to point out the problem in a more private place—and then allowing the client to decide how to proceed. Many people carry extra workout clothes in their gym bags, so they can do a quick change and continue. Merrill always shares her own embarrassing moment so the client realizes that wardrobe malfunctions happen to everyone.

Equipment Problems. Merrill says that when a client or a class member has equipment challenges, the first priority is to make sure the person doesn’t get injured. She says, “Being sincere for the well-being of the client is foremost. It is imperative that the client realize that the trainer is not embarrassed, but is concerned about [the client’s] well-being.” She reviews the incident with the client to make sure it does not happen again.

What if a client falls off a resistance ball? As fitness professionals we know that most people fall off a resistance ball at least once, but our clients may not know this. When a participant falls off during class, my own approach (after making sure the person is fine) is to comment on how often I’ve fallen off myself. I may now add that Mike Morris, president of Resist-A-Ball®, from Destin, Florida, told me that even he has fallen off the ball a number of times, “usually while telling people what a safe and effective tool it is.”

Bad Body Odor. Pachter offers some advice for dealing with the class member whose body odor is bothering other members. “Once others complain, this becomes the instructor’s problem.” She recommends approaching the member in private when you are calm. “Think ahead on how you are going to word [the conversation]. Use some softening statements, such as, ‘This is a hard topic for me to discuss.’ Alternatively, say, ‘I’m sure you don’t realize it.’ Then describe the problem.” Explain that the fitter you get, the more you sweat, and that excessive sweating can become objectionable to others. Then suggest that the member be sure to apply deodorant and wear a clean shirt to class.

[Editor’s note: For more strategies on talking to a client with body odor, see the “Tricks of the Trade” column on pages 40–41 of the March 2005 IDEA Fitness Journal.]

Uncoordinated Students. Pachter describes lack of coordination in a class member as one of those things you cannot change. Chances are, if the person keeps coming back to class, then you are the one who is concerned, not the member. However, if he or she bumps into or interferes with other participants, you may have to act. Pachter suggests approaching the member and asking if you can give some feedback. Start with a positive statement, such as, “You’ve been coming regularly to class, and I can see that you are really working hard.” From there go to your correction; for example, “It does seem that you have had some collisions with other members. Perhaps you could stand a bit more to the side where there is more room.”

Bottom Line: Have Compassion. Pamela J. Holland, coauthor of Help! Was That a Career Limiting Move?, stresses just how important it is to be empathetic when working with people. If you take the time to stop and really know where someone is coming from, you will become aware of what is difficult for that person, what the priorities are and what might cause embarrassment.

Holland recommends using the principles that can cover any type of business etiquette: kindness, logic and efficiency. “Someone has said recently that we were raised with the Golden Rule, “Treat others as you would like to be treated,” but the Platinum Rule is that we need to treat others as they would like to be treated.”

She also advises never losing sight of the fact that your clients have invested time and money and made themselves vulnerable to be with you. Regardless of what occurs, make sure you remain focused on assisting your clients. Do what it takes to help them get past any obstacle, be it ripped clothing or tripping on machinery. Find the most efficient way to help clients reach their goals.

Forty Winks