How to Recognize the Seven Warning Signs of Personal Trainers Who Lack Respect for Clients

Leslie Nolen is CEO of the Radial Group. Her professional experience ranges from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies. It includes 20-plus years of senior management positions in sales, marketing, operations, finance, human resources and strategy. She has worked closely with private equity investment firms on financing, mergers and acquisitions. She is a certified public accountant with a master's degree in accounting and business from DePaul University, a master's degree from Northwestern University and a bachelor's degree from the University of Mississippi.

Do your personal trainers treat their clients with respect? You probably said "yes" right away. And for most trainers, that's true. But some trainers become jaded, impatient, or actually hostile towards clients. Others judge their clients, describing them as lazy people who just need to "suck it up." And some trainers who are fit, have never been overweight and have never faced a personal health struggle are smug about their healthy lifestyles.
Watch for these warning signs. Personal trainers who exhibit these behaviors place your business at risk.

1. Jokes or sarcastic comments to coworkers at the client's expense.Trainers with compassion and caring are consistent in how they talk about clients in public and in private. Burned-out or judgmental personal trainers say the right things when they're with clients but make demeaning or critical comments behind their backs. Take this inconsistency seriously. It gives you insight into how they truly feel. Clients are remarkably good at detecting insincerity or disdain, and they don't appreciate it.

2. Poor client success, retention and referral rates compared to coworkers. Compare client success rates and retention and referral rates across your personal training staff. Eliminate factors that might distort the comparison such as a trainer who usually works with the most challenging clients. Then zero in on the individuals whose clients typically turn over the fastest or whose clients rarely refer others.

Observe client interactions for trainers with low client success rates. Ask their current clients for feedback about what they like and what they'd change about their experience with your business. Contact their former clients and find out whether their experience with your business was what they expected and wanted it to be.

3. Limited prior life experience.Effective personal trainers often have first-hand experience with a fitness or health challenge. Perhaps they've been overweight themselves or have a chronic condition. They've also had to balance a commitment to fitness with the demands of family, work and friends.

Your labor budget may force you to hire inexperienced trainers who haven't yet had these experiences. They often believe that clients use work and family obligations and health concerns as excuses. Look for the word "just" because it often accompanies an oversimplification of the client's situation. For example, these trainers might ask clients, "Can't you just tell your boss you've got to leave by 6 p.m.?"

These staffers need focused listening and communication training. Help them think through the potential consequences of their suggestions. For example, refusing to work late may be completely unrealistic for a client.

4. Judgmental or strongly opinionated beliefs about fitness.Watch for trainers who resist new information and prefer to hold on to the beliefs they've always had. They often believe that all unfit or overweight people are lazy and gorge non-stop on high-calorie goodies. They're convinced that all the information clients could possibly need to be fit is readily available, so if clients are unfit, it must be lack of willpower. They blame clients who don't see results for lying about their eating habits or workout schedule.

As we continue to learn about health concerns like obesity, it's clear that two people can carefully follow the same dietary and exercise habits and get very different results due to differences in genetics, body chemistry and metabolism. Effective trainers update their beliefs based on the latest data. (And playing the blame game is sure to drive away clients.)

5. Pride that they "tell it like it is" even when it's uncomfortable. Effective personal trainers tailor their communication to each client, based on what they feel will be most effective for each individual. Some trainers pride themselves on "telling it like it is." They often use terms that are at best blunt and at worst rude and discourteous. Clients typically view this tactic as arrogant or intimidating. They're reluctant to raise issues or disagree because they expect the trainer to "slap them down." Either way, this behavior usually confirms their worst fear: no one's paying attention to their special concerns.

6. Impatient or aloof demeanor with clients. Effective personal trainers stay engaged with the client. They discuss the client's goals, actions and behaviors. They thoroughly demonstrate techniques.

Watch for trainers who dump vast amounts of information on clients, say "OK?" and promptly wrap up the session. Others may stare off into the distance, failing to offer form pointers while their clients do rep after rep.

7. Conviction that they've seen it all before. The value of experience is that trainers recognize recurring patterns among clients. It helps them develop approaches that will work for many clients, not just one.

The risk of experience is that trainers sometimes operate on autopilot, falsely confident that they've seen it all. They mentally pigeonhole clients (emotional eater, frazzled mom, frail senior, etc.) and stop listening for new information.
Health club owners and personal training directors can keep their members satisfied by hiring trainers who show respect for their personal training clients. By looking closely for these seven warning signs, managers can identify trainers whose behaviors are detrimental to the club's bottom line and look for trainers who can help them grow their business.