Developing close, personal relationships with clients can cause problems and awkward situations that you didn’t anticipate even though getting personal is essential to your role as a trainer. There is a subtlety in striking the balance between establishing rapport and laying the foundation of a business relationship from the first initial contact.
You need your client to trust you, to like you, and to have faith in your professional abilities. You also need to make it clear that the ultimate goal of the conversation is business.
If you feel even the slightest bit uncomfortable with the initial interaction, know that you always have the option to refuse the client or refer to someone else.
It can get complicated as the client-trainer relationship progresses over time, however. Things may have begun perfectly innocently, but somewhere along the line, feelings may have developed.
If the client begins making comments, sending inappropriate texts, or even making physical advances, how you handle that moment will dictate if that relationship can be salvaged or should be ended immediately.
Having been in this situation a few times myself, I can say with honesty that I wish I had handled it better.
One relationship, in particular, was years long and involved one of my highest-paying clients, whose wife was also a client. He was so shy for years that I almost didn’t believe that he was being inappropriate because it didn’t seem characteristic of who I knew him to be.
I ignored the comments at first (which were only texts initially). When he started to become more suggestive I asked him to stop. I was married, he was married, this was crossing a line. I went wrong by telling him that my husband would be very upset if he found out, rather than saying I would not tolerate his behavior.
He backed off some, but never completely… I allowed myself to feel uncomfortable and devalued as a person for another two years. His intention was to flatter me, or “to have fun” as he put it. But the impact was anything but. I betrayed my own self-respect because the money was good and on some level, I was afraid of hurting him!
Since there are no clear rules on how to properly handle these scenarios, the best you can do is to think through potential situations and how you might respond. If I could go back and respond differently to the experience I described above (an extreme example, I think), I would have told him that one more inappropriate comment uttered and I would no longer be his trainer.
A more likely scenario is a client might pay an over-the-line compliment on your physique.
Be prepared for such moments with the right response, such as, “I know you’re trying to be complimentary, but I’d appreciate it if you didn’t make that kind of comment.” If you don’t want to lose the client, then you have to be diplomatic in how you respond. It’s entirely possible for some to move beyond that moment and never see it repeated.
Determine your threshold of what you’re willing to put up with.
Maybe you have a “three strikes, you’re out” rule. But if one incident was enough to put you off permanently, honor that, and refer the client to someone else. I recommend being honest in your reasons for terminating the relationship. Sometimes people don’t know that their behavior is offensive and need to be told.
Lastly, do recognize the difference between someone behaving inappropriately and outright assault. Unwanted flirtation and being grabbed are two different things. Certainly, being forced to do anything against your will is unmistakably a crime.
Trust your instincts and remember that any situation that makes you feel uncomfortable is a red flag. If you’re unsure of what to do, confide in a trusted mentor, supervisor, colleague or friend.