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How to Deal with Problem Clients

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Pilates Instructors Dealing with Problem ClientsBy Devra Swiger

If this were a perfect world, we’d all have ideal clients. They would rarely cancel, always give us their complete, undivided attention and adore us for the wonderful instructors that we are. As we know, however, this isn’t a perfect world and sometimes clients can make our lives difficult. As instructors we must learn how to deal with clients who may not fit the “ideal” client profile by changing the way we react to them or by learning to just say “no.”

Here are a few examples of problems we may face as instructors and some suggestions on how to best deal with them.

The “Always-Has-an-Excuse” Client
This client always cancels at the very last minute yet rarely wants to pay for the missed session. While some excuses can be valid and prepaid commitments can be waived, you must draw a line somewhere. For example, I had a young client who loved to party pretty much every day of the week. Around 15 minutes before her session was to begin, she would call to cancel and then beg me not to charge her. Since I don’t count regular hangovers as valid excuses, I would charge her the appropriate cancellation fee.

It’s important to be clear up front which cancellations are allowed and which are not. Of course there is always the risk of losing the client if he or she feels offended at being charged, but that might be a better alternative to having someone constantly take advantage. Also, this only works when sessions are prepaid via credit card or package price. It is much more difficult to collect a missed session fee if they have not yet paid. So if you have a client who is prone to canceling, try to get him or her on a prepaid plan to protect yourself and your time.

The “You’re-Not-as-Good-as-My-Last-Instructor” Client
This one, thank goodness, is rare. It tends to be more prevalent with instructors who sub or those who take over for very popular instructors.

I once inherited a client who fell into this category when an instructor moved out of state. Nothing I did was the same as the previous instructor, and nothing I did seemed to please her. She was also part of a duet and while her partner seemed very pleased with my teaching style and seemed to be progressing nicely, she was never happy. I also discovered that I was spending too much time trying to tailor-make exercises to fit her needs and, as a result, not spending as much time with the partner.

Ultimately, I moved her partner into another duet and then let the difficult one go. I suggested she see someone else who might be a better fit. Some clients and instructors just don’t make good matches. When this happens, rather than change the style to meet the needs of the client, it may be time to let go.

The “Chit-Chat” Duet
Sometimes duets are made up of friends who like to get caught up during their Pilates session. Sometimes getting caught up means a lot more talking than listening or moving. As nice as it is to know you are instrumental in bringing two friends together, they are there for Pilates and not for chit-chat.

An instructor I know will stop the session and wait for them to stop talking before she continues. She also tells them that if they are willing to pay for her to watch them talk that’s fine with her, but not a particularly good use of their money. Once when I was working with a particularly talkative group, I stopped teaching and told them to call me when they were done talking. I then picked up a magazine and started to read. That did the trick. I’m sure that most duet clients don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars chatting when they can more easily do that over a latte at the local coffee shop. You just might need to bring it to their attention every once in a while.

The Gym Rat
I believe we have all met the Gym Rat at some point in our career. This is the client that spends a lot of hours in the gym and already has a theory of personal fitness. That personal theory may or may not be the same as yours. Sometimes these clients can be the hardest to work with because they need to be taught how to focus and use control. They are fit and can do a lot of the work, but they tend to lack body awareness.

With this client you have to spend time from the very beginning explaining how Pilates is a different experience altogether from other forms of exercise. The best way to deal with a Gym Rat is to really cue into the core and challenge them as much as possible without giving them the option to load up on springs. I find that these situations take care of themselves in that one of two things will happen: The clients don’t stick with the program, or they are fast learners and come to learn the magic behind the method. Many Gym Rats need to understand that Pilates is something to do in addition to their regular workouts and not instead of.

It’s crucial that a client and an instructor have a good working relationship. This doesn’t mean they have to be best buddies, but it helps if there is mutual respect. There are ways that we can learn to deal with clients who tend to be more difficult than others, but there are other times when we just have to let them go and send them to someone else. Since there are no perfect clients and really no perfect instructors, it is always nice to have a few guidelines to follow to keep the sessions flowing as smoothly as possible.

Do you have any tips for dealing with these types of problem clients? Or a different example to share? If so, please share your comments below.

Devra Swiger has been teaching Pilates since 1999. She is certified with Polestar, Alternative Fitness, Colleen Glenn and PhysicalMind. She is also an ACE certified Group Fitness Instructor and Personal Trainer since 1996. Devra is the owner of Ab-Solutely Pilates in Huntington Beach, California. She also teaches group reformer classes at Physical RX Physical Therapy in Huntington Beach. 

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Posted on Monday, July 7, 2008 at 06:56PM by Registered CommenterAmy Leibrock in | Comments23 Comments | References5 References

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Reader Comments (23)

One of my "favorites" is the client who blames you for their injuries or pain. This person will leave the studio and carry 10 bags of groceries up three flights of stairs or rearrange their furniture and somehow attribute their pain to something in their session. The best way to deal with this is to never apologize or accept blame. I always ask what they did after class and more often than not their injury occurred in their home.

July 9, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJill Harris

I have a few of these. On the client who keeps cancealing, I always emphasize the importance of adherrance in any exercise routine. There is no way they are going to meet their goals if they do not make it. I also make a big deal about cleints who do showup. Getting to their appointment is 90% of the work. I definitely would rather honor my time and reputation and let a client go who can't showup for their appointment. On the "chatty" duet, I always remind them if they want their butt to get smaller they better keep moving. It is a challenge and I am usually more mentally fatigued after these clients, but for the most part I have "weeded" those out who do not value my time with them. I think that is the key, we have to value our time as much as their money. Good subject.

It is unprofessional to discuss studio/client issues on a public access forum.

It has been my experience that if there is a problem with a client there is most likely something lacking in the ability of the teacher.

Instead of discounting, dismissing, or complaining about your clients, you should be asking yourself what you need to do to improve either your client management skills or your teaching skills.

When teaching Pilates becomes more about you than it is about the needs of your client, it may be time to start considering a new career.

August 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Dreisbach

Geez, who died and made you the Pilates God??

August 5, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterrebelred

Joseph Pilates

August 6, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Dreisbach

My, my... not lacking in the ego department, are we?

August 6, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterrebelred

With expertise comes ego. You can't command the attention of a room full of educators without one. Your successes and failures are based on how you choose to manage your ego.

Rebelred, what exactly is your goal? If you have nothing constructive to contribute to the subject at hand, why waste your energy attacking me? You only make yourself look bad by trying to "bully" others.

August 7, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Dreisbach

Wow! You must be the BEST Pilates teacher in the world. Can I come learn from you, Pilates God? I will crawl...

August 7, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterrebelred

Wow you two. I can honestly say I laugh at loud reading your exchange. AWESOME.

August 13, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

To Stacy:

Excuse me, but isn't this a newsletter for Pilates professionals? Am I mistaken? Perhaps I am wrong but I have always thought that professional publications should be a venue for us to discuss problems and situations that arise in our profession. I for one am the first to admit that I am not a perfect instructor nor do I expect anyone to see me that way. By having this wonderful newsletter, we can finally discuss openly some of the problems we do have with clients, exercises, the method and not have to pretend to Know-It-All. My point in writing the article was to both share some of my client experiences and to offer a few solutions that have worked for me. I was also pleased that several other instructors were willing to open up about some of their experiences.

One of the things I have learned from both age and experience is that we don't have to always pretend to know everything. There is always more to learn and if we have to always feel guarded about the questions we ask or the topics we discuss, then we stop learning.

I agree that this topic should not be discussed among clients (goodness gracious no), but why not among other instructors? Therapists, doctors, teachers to name a few reputable professions all are allowed to talk about the things that give them trouble as a way to resolve some of these problems. Are Pilates instructors exempt? I hope not.

August 21, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDevra Swiger

My, My but you are all quite defensive. Your clients are your livelyhood and they deserve to be treated with respect. The scenerios described were handled at a level of immaturity that is unacceptable regardless of your age or level of experience.

As far as who reads this blog. My clients read it, just to see how other teachers act. Rodale press reads it, publicists, editors and a whole range of people not in the industry.

Devra, doctors and therapist do not discuss their patients on a public forum, they discuss their illnesses. You made it personal.

August 26, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Dreisbach

Folks, there will alway be one person who needs to feel they have the answer. Move on and be greatful as you go about your day that you are who you are. Ask this question. Do I like this forum? Is there always going to be someone "different" in a forum like this? Can I look past that and enjoy the communication with other instructors like me? Have a nice day all.

August 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterPatti Forte

Stacy, you are obviously quite full of yourself and really need to take a step back. Devra contributed an article that was lighthearted and funny. It touched on some areas that we all deal with with clients. Nowhere in that article did it name names. Doctors, of which I know many, discuss patients problems all the time, they just don't mention their names. Therefore, there is no breach of confidentiality. I think you are the "bully" here!

August 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMaryann

Geez, Stacey's comment that "with expertise comes ego" says it all (about her) and couldn't be FURTHER from the truth in any profession. Glad she's not MY instructor.

Every profession has problem clients. How wonderful to have this forum in which to exchange ideas on how to handle these challenges.

In my opinion, we should all be supporting one another.

I'm guessing Stacey's eyes are green (with envy).

August 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterMaureen

Nasty, Nasty girls. Hasn't anyone noticed my posts have all been in defense of the clients?

Remember them. They are the ones that come to you for help.

It has been my experience, and I have quite a bit, that people's behavior is a reflection of how they feel. Someone that needs to talk through their session, obviously is looking for someone to listen. I don' t know about the rest of you, but I realized my job was more than dragging someone through a workout a long time ago.

You can assume ego, envy and make any nasty comment you want. I stand behind my clients and I protect their right to be a little neurotic. Not once did I ever feel it was right to share that information with the rest of the Pilates community.

August 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterStacey Dreisbach

Stacey, I read on your website that you are self taught and writing a book on the work of Joseph Pilates.Do your clients ask if you are certified and can you recieve Personal Liability insurance as a Professional Pilates instructor without a Certification? I wish you the best!

August 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterJust Curious

Its time for a new site.
Defamed: Pilates Instructors That Kvetch Online.

And I thought MYSPACE was bad.

August 27, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteranon

You may have wished to keep your annonimity Stacey. People in the pilates industry including those not (I have a friend who is a publisher at Rodale, never heard of you or your expertise) Also, I had a friend who is well known and admired in the Pilates Industry take a look at this site and he has confirmed what I thought. By the way, now any of your clients that read this are going to know you have just called them neurotic.
Sound to me like someone isn't practicing what they are preaching.

August 27, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterTory

"...Dragging someone through a workout?" That is definitely not Pilates, at least not from what I have learned from my teachers. Maybe it's time for you to "start considering a new career." From your bio it sounds like you have quite a few choices!

August 28, 2008 | Unregistered Commenterrebelred

Hi Devra,
I am fast becoming a fan of your writing…light, humorous, reminding us not to take ourselves too seriously. You mentioned studio protocol and etiquette issues, which are actually serious topics, as these pose “problems” for us to solve—as teachers we need to learn to conserve our energy for the task at hand, which is pilates*. You also touched upon teaching styles, and so, you got me thinking….

How do I usually accept the “challenge” from "The Gym Rat”? Or, what if the title had been “How to Deal with “Challenging Clients.” These are clients with difficult or delicate mental, physical, and emotional issues—mind/body/spirit—“pilates” teaching issues. Some of these include “The over-amped client” who has difficulty understanding or accessing anything other than a high-tension level (like "The Gym Rat”), “The sensorily-sensitive client” for whom everything hurts, or “The emotionally-oriented client” who can tend to be defensive and even question your intentions. (The first post from Jill mentions another challenging client). As I began teaching “without a net” before the “p” word meant anything, with no set protocols or other instructors to forum with, these clients have proved to be my greatest teachers. They indeed asked for my help, committed to the practice with me, and I have been blessed and honored to work with them.

What a great forum this is. I really enjoy the conversations…. I remember one time when I decided to tackle the “chatty” issue by working out myself and chatting along with them. When I did a twist on the reformer…the conversation shifted to “ooh, can I try that?”

Thanks, Devra,
Carole Amend

October 30, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterCarole Amend

“I enjoyed writing it and I enjoyed reading all of the posts even the not so nice ones.”
October 25 Devra under Community, “lighten-up” in response to my post.
(If you haven't read that discussion...you might want to.)

So true, Devra. If I may also say, on this October 31st, I guess there is a little angel and a little devil in each of us.

“Geez, who died and made you the Pilates God??”
August 5, 2008 By “rebelred”
rebelred is a perfect screen name, you “little devil” for breaching that topic.

Someone may appear “crazy” to think that they are the reincarnation of Joseph Pilates, but who, in reality, wouldn’t publicly admit that he/she wishes to embody his Spirit.

On page 23 of Return to Life, J.H.Pilates stated, “With body, mind, and spirit functioning perfectly as a coordinated whole, what else could reasonably be expected other than an active, alert, disciplined person?”

In this election time, is it crazy to believe in peace on earth? In the words of Seal, “We are never gonna survive…unless…we get a little crazy.”
Is it “mental” to think that we can all communicate and get along? If we all did yoga, maybe we could have written “Imagine” by Lennon.

But, we teach pilates. So, I was thinking, LA, JW, dropshot, and Stacey could all dress up as the “Beatles.” Will there be a fight over who's going to be Lennon? (I love them all, but, personally, George Harrison is my favorite. He died the year the PMA began.)

Yeah, my mind can wander…to some, it may even seem “scary” inside this head of mine, but I couldn’t be happier. I know I am “not the only one” who believes that practicing pilates will lead to world peace…yeah, it may be a S-T-R-E-T-C-H…but use your imagination!!!

Me…I think I’ll go as "MISS UNDERSTOOD", complete with sash and diamond tiara. And when you ask me the one wish I have for the world…yes, you guessed it! World Peace!


peace out.

October 31, 2008 | Unregistered Commenteronebody

Working with clients is a two way street. We both must put in effort to achieve results. As instructors, we can bend over backwards to make clients happy in how we deal with their "eccentricities" and social inadequacies but, when they do not treat us with common respect and courtesy with the excuse that they are neurotic, that goes too far in my book. There is a limit to what is required of a business person performing a service for clients and boundaries must be drawn in any relationship.

November 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJ.R.

Hi J.R ,
I am very pleased to hear your comment cause i too as a teacher like to give and also would like to have a certain boundaries! I would like to hear more from other instructors , as for me that's the biggest challenge to have client who doesn't want to do the work and are quite disrespectful to others, and they think that's ok.
Awaiting for your answer.

January 23, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterajk

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