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Would you ever turn down a new client for training?

Q & A section with experts discussing common challenges trainers face.

I will turn down a client under only two conditions: when it is physically and logistically impossible to accommodate him based on scheduling conflicts, and when a prospective client’s goals and expectations are unrealistic. The first is pretty straightforward: if my schedule is fully booked, I have a waiting list and will contact the prospective client when a time slot becomes available. Alternatively, if he would rather not wait, I’m in the fortunate position of being surrounded by a dozen highly qualified contracted trainers to whom I can easily entrust any client with an appropriate fitness goal.

The second circumstance is a lot more delicate, since it is essential for a client’s goals to be in alignment with the trainer’s philosophy. To allow for a positive and effective trainer-client relationship, both people need to be on the same page concerning a safe, sensible training protocol. In order to establish mutual expectations, I meet briefly with the potential client to openly discuss and thoroughly understand her current health status; her ideal fitness level; the time frame within which she’d like to attain that desired fitness level; and any current or previous issues or circumstances that have obstructed her path to better health and fitness. If I determine that her goals are extreme, unrealistic or unsafe in any way, I educate the prospective client about the pitfalls and hazards of a “quick-fix” mentality and training approach. I explain my philosophy of dreaming big but setting small, attainable goals based on sound exercise design for optimum performance, health and well-being.

I encourage baseline measurement and event involvement to heighten motivation and to get the client thinking beyond the scale, the treadmill and the weight room. I assure her that my programs will be challenging and fun, but I emphasize that I can’t do the work for her. If she is willing to seriously tackle her goals with 100% effort and commitment, I guarantee my unequivocal support. To solidify our understanding and agreement, I ask her to complete a goal-setting sheet and to sign my client rules. These documents serve to identify and clarify not only the purpose and path of training but also common trainer-client issues, such as a 24-hour cancellation policy, prepayment for all sessions and the potential of touching for technique correction.

If the prospect disagrees with my approach and is unwilling to modify her goals or expectations to ensure success, we simply don’t have a good match. I thank her for her time and ask her to kindly seek the services of another trainer. I firmly believe that if both sides’ expectations are clearly laid out from the start, the trainer-client relationship will thrive and results will follow. Even for new trainers eager to build a client base, I recommend establishing and standing by high standards early on, to reduce the chances of big headaches later. On some occasions, I may have already trained a client for one or two sessions before his inability to comply comes to light. In these situations, I fully appreciate having my client rules and goal-setting sheets to fall back on in order to bring to task the client’s promised commitment.

Ingrid Knight-Cohee, MSc
Health Education Manager,
YWCA Health & Wellness Centre
Vancouver, British Columbia

Yes, I would turn down a client, and I would recommend him to someone else. However, before making this decision, I’d take several steps to ensure that our company could provide at least one service to help that person. When a potential client hires my services or those of my company, the first step is an interview. During the interview process I ascertain the client’s goals and determine whether my company can help him reach these. If the goals he is trying to reach require knowledge and/or training beyond our scope of practice, I forward him to the specialist he needs.

If I think we can help him with his goals, we do a health history and physical assessments. But if we see then that he needs services beyond our scope of practice, I forward him to a specialist.

The last step is the personal connection. It is so important that the client and trainer have personalities that work well together for success. If the personalities are not a perfect fit, we find a personality that fits the client better.

I believe it is our mission to provide the best service to all our current and potential clients, even if that service is referring them to someone else.

Lori Patterson
Co-Owner, Midwest Fitness
Consulting, LLC
Creator, Boot Camp Challenge
St. Louis, Missouri

Any job working one-on-one with people takes patience, understanding and flexibility. Invariably we will have clients we do not mesh with, but this is not a reason to turn them down. Our job is to motivate all types of people to achieve a healthier lifestyle.

Given that, there are a few circumstances in which it would be in the best interest of the client to turn her away or refer her to someone else.

  1. If a client came to me with physical issues in which I was not specifically trained, I would turn her down. If I did accept this type of client, it would not only compromise my ability to help this person but also raise some challenging liability issues. I would help her find someone else who might fit her needs.
  2. If scheduling was an issue and the client and I could not come to a compromise or the client was not willing to wait for an available spot, I would encourage her to find someone else who could schedule her appropriately.

As far as referrals go, I feel the best thing we can do is network. I will gladly refer a client to another trainer—be it for sport-specific training, medical issues or other reasons—if that is what will help the client most. My number-one goal is to help the client succeed. If that means accessing the resources of those around me, I am all for it.

Not every match is made in heaven. The sooner we, as personal trainers, realize that and put the client’s welfare first, the better it is for all those involved.

Lynne Bouton, CPT
Lifestyle Fitness
Hudson, Ohio

I have been training for 9 years and, to date, I have never turned away a client. However, a month ago, I almost did.

I was approached by a friend of a friend, who wanted me to train her father-in-law, who suffers from a form of dementia called Lewy bodies. This disease resembles both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, with the distinguishing characteristic of hallucinations. The disease itself was not what scared me off, but rather a conversation I had with this gentleman’s prior trainer. He told me that the client could understand only a single command at a time, that his attention span was nonexistent and that the only thing he could do was walk on a treadmill (and that required constant monitoring). The trainer went on to say that the client would be a danger to himself and to me if given a dumbbell, a resistance band or tubing. He strongly urged me not to work with this client. I gave the conversation a good deal of thought. The fact that this trainer never asked me about my experience or qualifications made me suspicious. I met with the client and his wife, and we agreed to four sessions on a trial basis.

We have now worked together for 2 months, and I am so glad I made the decision I did. It is hard work for both of us. I have really had to think about and re-engineer all the exercises I’ve wanted him to do, but he has far exceeded my—and, more important, his own—expectations.

So, I am more committed than ever to not turning away a potential client. I have spent many years honing my skills and furthering my education. These days, I actively seek out clients with health or medical challenges because I learn so much from these people and get so much back. It is quite amazing just how fit they can get with the right dose of encouragement and effective training techniques.

Everyone deserves a chance!

Joan E. Glick, ACSM, ACE, NASM
Owner, Fit For The Ages
San Francisco, California

First I think it’s important to mention the reasons I would not refuse to work with a potential client. I would never turn someone down because of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, physical disability or disease, or for any other reason that could be considered discriminatory. That said, there have been numerous occasions in the past 17 years when I have turned down or ceased to work with a client.

No one trainer can know everything. These days there are so many areas of specialization that a trainer must choose some and leave some to other trainers. In my practice and continuing education, I have chosen to focus on wellness, athletic performance, preadolescent and adolescent training and postrehabilitation. So, for example, if someone calls me wanting to become a competitive bodybuilder, I’ll refer that prospect to a trainer I think can serve her better. Likewise, while I do have some education and experience in senior fitness and in pregnancy and postpartum exercise, other trainers with more training can do more good for clients in these categories.

I will also not work with someone who has pain from movement. Doctors and physical therapists work clients through their pain; I’ll take over once the clients are pain-free.

Mostly for legal reasons, I insist on a doctor’s written clearance for individuals with multiple identifiable risk factors. I have had clients tell me this was not necessary. I did not work with them until I had that note—and did not work at all with those unwilling to supply it.

Doug Slobodien
Trainer, Riverside Health & Fitness
Mansfield, New Jersey

I will turn away a client who has medical issues that should be screened or cleared by a physician before the client starts an exercise program. I will also turn away a client whose goals or issues may require training that is outside my area of expertise. In this case, I will refer the client to another trainer, if appropriate.

Example 1. Prior to training with me, all my clients complete a PAR-Q form, a detailed health history and other lifestyle questionnaires that cover their personal fitness goals and readiness to change. These screenings are extremely useful for more than just client programming. I can actually “catch” issues during testing, or sometimes during sessions. I recently began working with a client who had irregular heartbeats during fitness testing. Of course, I explained that I was not a medical professional, but I was noticing an irregular pattern in her resting heart rate and recovery heart rate. I told her that it might be nothing, maybe even an error on my part, but I explained that I could not continue to work with her until I had her physician’s clearance, because she could have an issue that needed to be evaluated by a medical professional. Upon my recommendation, she did see her physician, and it was discovered that she had an asynchronous heart rate and needed further medical evaluation, including a stress test. Before I could work with her again, I required a note from her physician, because I needed to make sure she was cleared for exercise and was being monitored by her medical care provider.

Example 2. I will turn a client away and recommend another trainer if the client’s needs and goals can be better met by another trainer. For example, a current client of mine asked me to train her son, a 14-year-old football player who had recently completed physical therapy for a shoulder issue. After meeting with him and obtaining more information about his shoulder and other concerns, I realized that another trainer on staff might be a better fit for him. The trainer I recommended was a certified athletic trainer who was currently working with high-school athletes. I felt that she could provide more appropriate programming for this particular client’s goals and issues. Could I have worked with this client? Yes, I absolutely could have and I would have provided adequate programming and safe and effective exercise recommendations. However, I believe that each client should be matched with the best trainer possible, based on the client’s needs and goals and the trainer’s specialty areas and expertise. Clients don’t always realize that another trainer might be a better fit for them. Often, as a demonstration of loyalty to their trainer, clients will refer friends or family members, even though the trainer’s skill set may not be the best match for those individuals’ needs or goals.

I am not intimidated by this system or concerned with “losing” clients this way. In fact, I am confident in my ability to identify quality and expertise and will recommend other trainers if I feel that they will provide clients with more comprehensive programming.

Irene Lewis-McCormick, MS, CSCS
Recreation and Wellness Coordinator,
Des Moines Area Community College
Ankeny, Iowa

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