How to Deal With Difficult Clients

It is inevitable that challenging clients cross your path. Learn how to handle them professionally.

By Carrie Myers Smith
Apr 4, 2016

In the more than 25 years I’ve been in the health and fitness field, I’ve been very fortunate to have had some of the best clients and students a trainer could ask for—for the most part, anyway. I have worked with only a few clients whom I have had to approach regarding “bad behavior”—and I don’t mean eating a bag of Oreos.

It’s highly likely that you will run into difficult clients at some point in your career: from those who consistently show up late, don’t show at all or cancel at the last minute, to those who dominate your time beyond their scheduled session or always make their payments late. But there are ways to head off these problems and, hopefully, prevent them.

Explain Your Expectations

Lorrie Thomas Ross, MA, founder and CEO of Web Marketing Therapy® in Atlanta, feels that the number-one way to avoid dealing with difficult clients is to clearly state what your expectations are from the beginning.

“Have clear contracts! When someone signs a contract that lays out the rules and any consequences, then any issues that arise are not between you and the client—they’re between the contract and the client,” she explains.

This takes away the sting of feeling as if you’re personally targeting the client. “Being able to declare, ‘The contract you signed says, . . .’ or ‘Our terms state that . . .’ or being able to point out that the contract also proclaims, ‘The professional has the right to terminate the relationship if rules are not followed’ can save so much headache!” Ross adds.

“One of the most important business issues for wellness and fitness providers is establishing and clearly communicating their services, fees and cancellation policies to their clients,” agrees Allison Carmen. Allison is a life coach and business consultant; a blogger for Huffington Post, PsychologyToday.com and Inc.com; and the author of The Gift of Maybe: Finding Hope and Possibility in Uncertain Times (TarcherPerigee 2014).

While having contracts can certainly give you something to lean on, enforcing the policies still comes down to you. Ross recommends four things when you have to confront a difficult client: Stay calm, communicate clearly, be clear on consequences and be consistent.

Keep the conversation businesslike, advises Ross. “Remember, you are addressing an issue, not attacking a person. Breathe, and remember that you are in charge of managing this relationship. Have a plan for what you need to say, so you can say it well.”

Ross suggests that dealing with difficult clients is similar to parenting. “If you give children a rule, and then you let them break it sometimes and punish them for it other times, you are sending an unclear message. Rules are rules. If you are going to enforce those rules, do it with everyone and stay on top of it. Your clients will respect you more if you do.”

This is also important because clients could talk with each other. If you enforced a rule with one client, who then finds out that someone else broke the same rule and you let it slide, you can imagine the mess you may have on your hands.

To avoid the “he said, she said” routine, Carmen recommends obtaining another important piece of paper before you work with clients. “Have them sign a document acknowledging that they have read your guidelines and they agree to adhere to them,” she stresses.

Enforcing rules, however, doesn’t mean you have to be, well, mean.

“Establish a culture of kindness and partnership,” encourages Chip Bell, senior partner with the Chip Bell Group and author or co-author of several best-selling books, including The 9 1/2 Principles of Innovative Service (Simple Truths 2013). “Always show obvious respect, even to the most difficult of clients. Be the best listener and the most generous service provider they know. But be firm about the rules of your business. And remember, you will sometimes get difficult clients no matter what you do. It is the nature of the business.”

Stephanie Ciccarelli, co-founder and chief brand officer of Voices.com, adds that it’s important to listen to your clients and offer them a chance to be heard. “Being quick to listen and slow to respond can help tremendously,” notes Ciccarelli. “Giving your customers the freedom to speak their mind and share what’s in their heart creates room for constructive conversation. Doing so also demonstrates and affirms that you value them and what they have to say. Sometimes, all that people want is to be heard and to know that someone cares. Voicing their frustrations may be therapeutic in itself, and it could lift the burden they potentially felt before speaking to you.”

Don’t Get Burned by Late Cancellations and No-Shows

One of my difficult clients often canceled at the last minute—or worse, no-showed with no call. You may not have a policy in place until you find yourself having to deal with a particular situation. It’s okay to make a new policy. Remember, it’s your business! Just be fair about notifying clients of new policies.

In this case, after my client had no-showed three times, I decided to amend the 24-hour cancellation notice policy. I told her that because I was not only losing out on her session time but also could have been at home working on other projects, from here on out I would charge her for two sessions whenever she no-showed.

She appeared to be shocked, but I held firm. She then acknowledged the new policy and said that she understood. She also no-showed several more times, but now she knew exactly what to expect. And because my clients prepay their packages, it was easy to deduct two sessions from her package each time she no-showed.

Because last-minute client cancellations can be a common infraction, Simma Lieberman, owner of Simma Lieberman Associates in Albany, California, recommends having clients pay for their training sessions in advance. “If you don’t want to charge them in advance, take their credit card info when they sign up and let them know that their card will be charged unless they give you 24 hours’ notice,” she counsels.

Know When to Say When

And for clients who continue to break the rules? All of the experts say it may be time to cut ties.

“The key to preventing these issues is to set up your working norms and your expectations for their success, and review these with clients before they begin,” asserts Lieberman. “Too many people in the health and fitness field try to be too nice because they worry about where the next client will come from.”

“When working in a service industry, you must be flexible in dealing with the individual needs of clients,” Carmen advises. “It is important to honestly speak to clients if they are not keeping appointments, not paying on time or not acting in a respectful manner. If nothing changes over a period of time, you need to weigh the loss of income from giving up the client against all the aggravation and trouble of keeping the client. Whether to give up a client is a very personal decision. You need to remember that giving up a difficult client usually makes room for new clients to come in who are a pleasure to work with!”

Ross agrees. “Own your worth and run your business like a business! Have rules and policies, and remember to lead with love: love for your clientele and love for yourself. If you are burned out with bad clients, you don’t have energy for the great ones—and you owe it to the great ones to pull weeds out of the client garden to keep things beautiful.”

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Carrie Myers Smith

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