Working one-on-one with clients is a hugely rewarding experience for any fitness professional at any level. Translating your passion for exercise into a viable business is truly an example of experiencing the American dream. It’s what the personal training profession strives on and why the fitness industry continues to grow each year.

When a trainer obtains a new client, it’s an opportunity to change the life of someone who otherwise may not have done it without professional help. It’s an opportunity to show a client that there is a “mapped route” to his goal. He simply has to follow the direction of the guide. The experience becomes somewhat of a revelation to the client simply because he tends to learn more about himself and become more comfortable in his own skin, especially around his trainer.

However, there are times when the experience turns stressful and lines are crossed. Sometimes the relationship between the trainer and client changes from a simple exchange of words brought on by inconsistent moods, stress, or emergencies. Other times, a client may forget that the trainer serves as the preceptor and that coaching involves incorporating different strategies to achieve the desired outcome.

Everyone has a bad day, right? And a passionate job shouldn’t have to be a stressful job—at least not all the time. There are times when coaching others can be stressful and energy consuming, but we do it for the love and satisfaction that comes from it. However, there are those who don’t like to surrender themselves during instruction and coaching. In the realm of coaching, there is a small degree of submission that must be demonstrated by the client in order to receive, process, and execute coaching instructions. There are times when the very people we are trying to help become difficult, abrasive, and antagonistic. A client may arrive to a session upset, frustrated, or stressed, or his attitude suddenly contrasts the trainer’s personality.

What I’m going to talk about in the next couple of sections is how to distinguish if a client is simply having a bad day or is becoming “problematic.” The easiest way to distinguish the difference between the two is by keeping a mental log of how the client has been receiving your instruction and processing it versus the response in attitude and behavior modification. For instance, a dramatic shift in a person’s daily routine can alter his mood. Some may be able to “bounce back” or “recover” from changes or events while others may let it affect their outlook for an undetermined amount of time. When this occurs, we have to examine the length of time this change in mood takes place (temporary versus fixed) and determine if it’s redirected reaction to the actual training or trainer.

Short term—usually one day, possibly 2–3 days; brought on by a stressful situation in the client’s personal life. This could be brought on by an unforeseen event such as a traffic accident, job related deadline, disagreement with others, or unforeseen event in the family.

Long term—typically runs over one week; usually a change of attitude coinciding with a change in behavior, adherence, communication, and approach. This would be classified as problematic to the trainer and business.

There are other ways to evaluate why a client’s attitude may have changed. Conducting a mental inventory of recent changes in your client’s mood such as his response to exercise and his adherence and enthusiasm for the training is a good way to start. As the trainer, evaluating your recent changes in moods, stress levels, or instruction delivery can also tell a lot about why the client exhibits abrasiveness.

Here are a few questions to ask yourself about your relationship with your client:

  1. Did your client experience a traumatic event in his life, job, or current relationship (small scale versus large scale) in recent history?
  2. In recent history, was there something inappropriately said between you (trainer) and your client?
  3. Has there been a change in punctuality (trainer or client)?
  4. Has there been a change in personal training fees?
  5. Has your client not experienced any changes in his progress? Has there been any progress (length of time)?
  6. Has your client suffered any injuries recently? (Injuries will put a damper on attitude in people who are goal-oriented.)
  7. Has there been an event outside of the client session between you and your client that may have changed the relationship?
  8. Is your client easily affected by daily stresses at his respected workplace?
  9. Is your client fixated on numbers on the scale?
  10. Who is in control of the training session (trainer or client)?

When the business is strongly dependent on the relationships with your clients (customers), it puts a lot of pressure on the trainer to remain “cool” when a client deviates from the program (i.e. complains, whines, or misses a few workouts). The trainer needs to remain steadfast but professional, direct but respectful. What can a fitness professional do when a client is losing interest, missing sessions, arriving late, getting frustrated, or simply being a jerk when he does arrive?

I’ll tell you a personal story. My client, Bill, was a 58-year-old executive in a large investment firm. He was an avid golfer and stressed to me how “great he used to be at golf and tennis.” Bill and I would meet once a week for about 40 minutes to work on some golf specific exercise, mobility drills, and stretching. Some days Bill would arrive visibly stressed and frustrated from his day at the office. He was making great strides in training along the weeks. His swing was looking smoother, his shoulder flexibility increased, and his trunk was gaining strength. But it wasn’t good enough for him.

About six weeks after our initial start, Bill began arriving to the session seemingly upset about something that happened to him. He would grind his teeth and speak to me in short bursts of sentences and say he had to get “a better turn on his back swing.” Or “he wasn’t getting the velocity he wanted on the ball.”

When I taught Bill new drills, he looked terrible. As his trainer, I wasn’t happy with the technique he was using or the form he executed. I felt he was digressing. We were making great strides in recent weeks, but now I would occasionally stop the drill and break it down into parts. Bill would get visibly frustrated. When I spoke to Bill, he towered over me. I was his coach, his preceptor. I was “his boss” for 40 minutes every week. And let’s face it. When you’re an executive at a large investment firm, the last thing you want to do is submit to a little pip squeak fitness guy every week, right?

I was stern and direct with him—all five feet six inches of me! Bill’s eyebrows would crinkle on his six foot one inch frame, and he would get really hard on himself if he didn’t get something right. I encouraged him to stay positive and praised him every time he performed a drill better.

As the weeks went on, I began to frown onto my appointment book whenever it was Tuesday and I saw that I had Bill scheduled for 4:00 p.m. I knew the session was going to consist of dealing with an upset man who wasn’t content with the progress and who had a loss of motivation on his part. It was obvious to me that Bill had set expectations higher and was used to getting what he wanted when he wanted it. Now, he had to put some effort into something, and he wasn’t used to doing that.

One day, I had to cancel Bill’s session in order to visit the doctor’s for a check up. I gave Bill a call at his office at 9:00 a.m. that day. When I spoke to him, I let him know that I had a doctor's appointment at 4:00 p.m. and wouldn’t be available for our session. I had alerted Bill of this appointment weeks earlier when we had looked at each other’s calendars. It was understandable seeing that I made the appointment weeks before I met Bill and rescheduling it would mean pushing it down another four weeks. Surprisingly, Bill grew agitated with me over the phone and threatened to end our sessions. I was bewildered at his attitude and not sure how to react. At first, I thought he was joking with me, but he seemed serious. With the proper demeanor, I managed to calm him and convince him that I could see him on a different day for this one week. He agreed.

When I hung up the phone, I was convinced that Bill was stressing me out. I wasn’t looking forward to our sessions anymore. I dreaded Tuesday, and my morning clients leading up to his appointment could see a change in my attitude. I was leaving work stressed because of this one person. There was only one thing that I could do.

Letting a client go isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s a risk for your business. It can be misconstrued that you “don’t care enough about your business or your clients,” or it can be seen that you “really mean business.” Word to the wise—if you mean business, you had better back it up with client results.

Luckily I did. And people knew that. My other clients also knew that I was very tolerant and patient. Things had to be done my way though in a session, and my clients needed to relax all barriers when it was time to train. However, when a particular client is affecting your mood, stress, or energy levels and ultimately affecting your business, it’s time to remove him from your list in a professional manner. Severing ties with a customer is always a rough call and one that should be executed with precision, planning, and preparedness for consequence.

Here are a few tips for doing so:

1.)    Start with direct communication:

Call your client at a time when you know it’s convenient for him. If your client is handling two children at 9:00 a.m., don’t call him. If you know your client relaxes after dinner, try calling then. If you call your client while he is at work, make sure he can accept calls and try calling during his downtime. I called Bill in the mid-morning when I knew he was done with meetings. I also called Bill at work because I knew he was an executive and could accept calls.

Be polite but be firm. Begin the conversation by explaining the session content and how it correlates with the goal of the client. Discuss the progress made thus far. Then explain to your client how his attitude is affecting you. Explain to him how his attitude hurts your business. Don’t focus solely on negativity.

Note: Communicating with your client may help him change his attitude. If he can hear how his attitude affects others, he may consider changing it. This is good and may actually be the only step you need to take. But if you sense no changes in the eminent future and are steadfast on removing him from your list, move on to tip number two.

2.)    Offer your client a hard copy of the exercise program and any paperwork associated with it.

Don’t leave him empty handed. Chances are he still wants an exercise program, and you should give him copies of any paperwork associated with his program (food diary, associated stretches, weight lifting diagrams).

3.)    Refund your client any money for unused sessions.

Perform number two before this step. It shows that you’re offering something to him in exchange for this inconvenience. (Let’s be honest. This is an inconvenience for your client. If he really didn’t like you, he would’ve “fired” you first.)Don’t wait to refund him and don’t keep his money. This can get ugly if you do. Rightfully, you’re terminating the relationship, and like an employer, refunding him for unused sessions is like giving an employee two weeks paid vacation. Its been banked, so it doesn’t hurt the bottom line.

4.)    Suggest a different trainer.

If you have a network of colleagues, give your client the names and contact information for them. Explain to your client that it may be a “better fit.”

5.)    Upon mutual agreement, follow up in writing.

Send an email (copying yourself) or send a letter to the client’s home detailing that there has been communication between the client and yourself, sessions have agreed to be ceased, refunds for unused sessions have been issued, and a suggested list of available professionals has been provided. This is simply a professional move.

Keep this letter or email in your records. If you have this conversation in person with your client, I suggest you have a third person in the facility or close by. They don’t need to be in the same room, but have them in visible view of the conversation. You can also draft a letter of session cessation and present it to your client. However, in order to prevent aggression or dissatisfaction with this situation, always have the refund paperwork ready. Don’t hesitate on giving a client back his money. Holding on to his money is one way to rub your name and business in the dirt.

Some may say that “firing” clients is the last thing you want to do in tough economic times, and I agree. But severing a relationship with a paying customer is the last resort and only warranted if you, the trainer, absolutely loathes a particular client or his attitude. Poor attitudes by clients cause a domino effect and not only drag the trainer down but affect the energy and mood of the entire workday. The culminating effect of the stress can risk the entire business.

Actually “firing” a client should be conducted privately and professionally. It is wise to take the proper steps to ensure that your reputation isn’t damaged and your integrity is intact.

Here are some quick tips:

1.)    Write everything down.

Keep a log or jot notes in a folder regarding your client’s attitude and response to the sessions. Any weird comments or snide remarks should be noted and dated. This will give you reference when planning to sever the ties with your client.

2.)    Keep every email or voicemail.

Arm yourself with evidence of changes in attitude. You can always refer back to this information to support your decision or present it to the client. Sometimes people don’t remember “being a jerk” when they say or write things. But their effect can take a toll on you remembered or not. Today, many email services keep messages for a very long time. Categorize your message folders and don’t delete anything you think is pertinent to this decision.

3.)    Highlight areas of the contract that state the relationship can be severed under your conditions.

If it’s stated in the contract at the time the client looked it over and signed it, you have a good reason to let them go. For instance, contracts can dictate that if a client misses a number of sessions without notification, is continuously late, doesn’t adhere to the program, or makes others feel uneasy, the contract can be terminated. If you have it in writing, you can let them go. Make a copy of that contract and give them a copy.

4.)    Plan on a refund.

If you keep his money, you lose the initiative. You look like a bad guy. If you plan correctly, budget a refund as soon as you “fire” the client. Make it known that you simply want to cut all ties. Refunding him for unused sessions will save you from any legality issues that may arise. To soften the blow, give the client a list of fitness professionals in the area that may work with him.

5.)    Don’t discuss the incident with others.

If you have higher tiered staff or a business partner, you may want to alert them of your decision. Do not under any circumstances talk about the incident with clients, even if you feel you can trust them. In a situation like this, it is best to let it “dissolve.” The less you talk about it, the more likely it will go away.

But what if it doesn’t go away? Your newly “fired” client may feel insulted or disgruntled. If he doesn’t want to go down without a fight or smears your business to others, you need to be ready. In this situation, you can draft up a notice that reinforces the conditions of your contract and display it in view of others. If asked, you can be genuine—yet professional—without leaking out too much information. If others ask, you can simply give them minor details. Good businesses don’t “air out their dirty laundry,” and others should respect that. Or you can go the military route and create a diversion. How do you do that?

Here are some ideas:

·    Immediately hold a free trial offer of boot camp classes.

·    Raffle off sessions.

·    Purchase a prize (flat screen television, gift cards, iPod) and hold a contest for most referred clients.

·    Create a new program that involves a group (walking group, biking group, running group).

·    Create a social network and ask everyone to join.

·    Have a guest speaker come in for a free seminar (doctor).

If you market it effectively and immediately, the smoke will blow over sooner than you think. You will be on your way to feeling better about your day, and the decrease in stress levels will enable you to focus more energy on the business. Remember, you shouldn’t be minimizing your client load—only increasing it. “Firing” a client is your last resort. However, the elation you feel once negative energy is removed from your life is unexplainable. Your positive clients will appreciate your newfound happiness!

John Izzo is a fitness professional located in central CT. He is certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) as a personal trainer and performance enhancement specialist. He is also a co-author for the NASM "Introduction to Personal Fitness Training" manual, and the author of his own title, "Secret Skills of Personal Training". John trains on average 30-40 clients per week and is an avid lifter in Hartford, CT. Since 2002, John has been conducting educational workshops for personal trainers and exercise enthusiasts; and has created a catalog of educational DVDs that can be found on his main website:
More info is also available on his blog:

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