PT on the Net Research

Client Empathy Part 1


Did you know that 68 percent of customers who have decided to no longer do business with a particular organization have made this decision because they perceive an attitude of indifference by the company's employees? This means that if a client perceives that you do not really care about them or their individual situation, they will decide to discontinue the training relationship.

Sincere interest, understanding, compassion, respect and caring for your clients are probably the most essential ingredients to the longevity of your Personal Training career.

A Master Trainer is one who demonstrates exceptional leadership, business management, motivational and instructional skills while inspiring clients to greater personal growth and to a higher level of fitness. Personal trainers wear many hats, serving not only as a physical coach, but also as a confidant, role model, educator and a major source of motivation, support and encouragement.

The key to this aspect of the Personal Training relationship is to fully understand your clients. Be empathetic to their individual situations and attempt to step into their "shoes."

Attempting this lifestyle change is difficult. We love to exercise and can't imagine life without it. But for most people, attempting an exercise program is a very challenging ambition so it's our job to make sure we set up as close to a perfect program for our clients as possible. This means we have to ask a lot of the right questions to ensure we design an exercise program that fits their personality and lifestyle. This is why a Needs Assessment is so critical before you actually begin designing as exercise program for a client. Ask your clients the following questions.

  1. What's their history with fitness, nutrition, injury and stress? Try to get as much information from them so you can fully understand their particular situation. For example, if they've never exercised before, you're going to need to really help them with motivation. But if they are an avid exerciser, they probably have no problems with motivation, and instead are probably looking for variety and advanced programming. If they are struggling with nutrition, you may need to offer suggestions and suggest they keep a nutrition journal. If they are excessively stressed, you may want to suggest yoga, Tai Chi or stretch and relaxation classes. If they have been dealing with a chronic injury, you should have them contact their health professional to ask for restrictions, limitations and suggestions.
  2. How many days per week can they commit to? Which days? These are important questions. If based on their lifestyle, they believe, realistically, they can only commit to three days per week, you would be setting them up for failure if you asked for four. Find out which days are hectic days for them and establish these as active recovery or rest days so that they're not overstressed on those days trying to fit in a workout.
  3. How long do they want to exercise each session? If a client realistically believes they can only commit to one-hour workouts and you design a program that takes 1.5 hours to complete, you're setting them up to fail.
  4. Do they like to exercise indoors, outdoors or a combination? Find out what the perfect environment is for them. If they like to exercise outdoors, choose power walking, running, hiking, cycling or inline skating as their cardiovascular activities. If they like to exercise indoors, choose fitness classes or indoor cardio machines for their cardiovascular activities. If they have a hard time staying indoors, design a muscle-conditioning program they can do outside using nothing but their body weight and an exercise tube that they can wrap around their waist.
  5. Do they like to exercise in groups, solo, partner or a combination? If they like to workout in a group setting, enrol them in a running or cycling clinic, ballroom dancing class or Group Personal Training program. If they like to exercise by themselves, prescribe activities like running, walking or cycling or have them wear a Walkman while working out indoors.
  6. Which activities interest them the most? The best exercise program in the world is the one that your clients enjoy enough to participate in regularly enough to experience significant benefits. So the key is that you've got to find an activity that your clients will enjoy. And out of the endless options someone can choose to use to get fit, your clients have got to be able to find at least one that works for them. Give your clients many options until they find something they believe they can commit to doing regularly.
  7. If they could design an ideal exercise training week, what would it look like? Have your clients chart out what an ideal training week would look like. What would they do on Monday, Tuesday and for the entire week? This will provide you with a basic template that you can fine-tune applying proper training principles. By having your clients design a sample training week, it gets them involved in the process. This will enhance success because they have provided you with the basic outline of a program that they believe they could commit to. People generally support a plan or program in which they have helped to develop.
  8. How can you help them best? Which style is best? Some clients like their trainers to be very aggressive and want you to verbally prod them to push harder until they finish a set. Others want you to be more nurturing. Some want you to be funny and entertaining. Others want you to be educational. Find out which style works best for your client.
  9. Understand their concerns and potential obstacles. They may be concerned with whether they actually have enough time to commit to the program. They may feel like they don't have enough energy, they're too old, they hate exercise, they're too out of shape, and that the gym scene is not their thing. They may question whether they'll be able to commit for the long term and believe that other priorities associated with their career, social life or family responsibilities will interfere with their success. It's important that you understand these concerns thoroughly and work with your clients to develop strategies to manage these potential hurdles. Clients need you to understand that their life is not solely based on their physical ambitions. As a trainer, it is important that you understand and are able to tap into and affect all realms of your clients' person: physical, mental/emotional, intellectual, social and spiritual.

Clients Need You to Understand Their Expectations

You must determine what is most important to your clients. Do they want variety, education, accountability or a combination of all? Do they want a program that is quick to complete or something more extensive? Do they want you to help them stay motivated? Are they really concerned about safety? Do they want some exercises that they can do at home? Do they want to lose body fat, develop muscles, improve their posture, get ready for a sporting event or rehabilitate an injury? Do they want you to just help them get started? Do they want you to help them meet other people around the gym? Do they want to learn how to manage their stress? Do they want to learn more about how they can improve their nutritional habits? Do they like change or consistency? Would they appreciate regular motivational calls? Determine exactly what your clients hope to achieve from the training process.

Beginning Clients Need You Most in the First Few Months

The industry statistics demonstrate that 70 to 80 percent of people who start an exercise program drop out by the second or third month. This critical period is when our clients need us the most. After they've locked into the program and have started to experience results, this will motivate them to continue moving forward. At this point, if they like, they can begin reducing the number of times they see you. But until then, it is important to encourage them to see you more regularly, so you can help them establish these new patterns into their lives.

Clients Need You to Understand Various Learning Styles

Some clients learn by seeing, others by doing, while others learn by hearing instructions. This is why as a trainer, it is important to be able to accommodate all of these various styles in your teaching systems. If your client is a:

Converting the Different Learning Styles in Training

  1. Provide a concise verbal description of the exercise. Start by naming the exercise, which muscle it works and how it relates to the client's goals or everyday activities. For example, "This exercise is a seated row and will strengthen your back muscles, which will help you to improve your posture - you told me this was very important to you."
  2. Demonstrate the exercise. Start slowly while communicating the important technique tips you want the client to understand. Then perform the movement at normal speed.
  3. Client practices the exercise. Start by having him perform the movement with no weight so he understands the correct movement patterns. Then have him perform the movement with a very light weight while you monitor and observe their technique, correcting errors and encouraging proper form. Then have him perform the exercise with a weight that is more appropriate to encourage muscle fatigue.
  4. Quiz the client to ensure comprehension and enhance retention. Ask things like, "Ok, now what was the name of that exercise?" and "Which muscle does it work?" "Why is it important?" and "What are the three most important technique tips you need to remember?"

Clients Need You to Understand their Individual Fitness Levels

You can't treat all clients the same. As a good trainer, you have to understand where your clients are on the fitness spectrum and deal with them accordingly. For example, they may have never exercised before and may need you to take really good care of them in the beginning. It is important that during this stage you set manageable goals for your clients and you nurture them until they pass through this critical period. Before a beginner exerciser should be advised to try a workout on their own, you need to be convinced your client will not stumble when trying to follow the program without you there. You can increase the likelihood of success by constantly reviewing exercises with clients and quizzing them on their understanding.

It may help to include basic stick drawings beside the names of the exercises so a client can easily recall the exercise. It may also help to number machines so you can record an exercise by listing Machine #10, Back Row. Record two or three technique tips per exercise to remind a client how to perform the exercise most effectively. Do whatever you can to ensure that when a client is ready to try his workout on his own for the first time, he will easily complete the entire program and feel very successful. If this happens, the client will know his investment in your services was well worth it. Eventually, clients will move into a stage where they will begin feeling disorientated and alienated at the gym when you're not around. During this stage, your clients may feel a bit insecure. They're making all these changes but feel they're not "locked" into the program yet. They may feel a bit awkward at the gym because maybe they don't know very many people or they're not familiar with proper gym etiquette. During this stage, you are going to want to introduce them to lots of other people - staff, members and your other clients. Introduce them to others who are succeeding at their goals. Teach them proper workout etiquette. Help them to overcome some of the emotional feelings, disorientation and alienation and let them know it's normal and will soon pass. During this stage, you are going to want to keep things simple so it is easy for your clients to succeed.

Don't try to impress your clients too much with all the advanced exercises you know. You will help them to feel more secure if they can manage their programs easily. Eventually, clients will move into Phase 3 - the Stage of Expectations. Your clients are now starting to lock into the program and now may be falling into the "expectation trap" where they start to focus only on the results. During this stage, you are going to want to ensure you are constantly reassessing and re-evaluating their goals and making sure they keep their focus on the action steps. You are also going to want to regularly point out their successes. Show them how far they've come since they first started exercising with you. Show them how much they've progressed even just since last workout. Be sure to demonstrate their successes quantitatively so they can't argue the progress. Most clients will then move into Phase 4: - the Stage of Exploration. This is when your clients will want to start trying new exercises, different programs or interesting pieces of equipment. They will start to thirst for knowledge, and you will want to keep them learning by regularly providing them with fitness tips and educational articles. And finally, clients will begin Phase 5 - the Stage of Independence. At this point, your clients don't need you anymore. They could feasibly continue on their own, if necessary. If you want to keep them as clients, you will want to continually stimulate them with advanced programming and exercises. You will gradually encourage them to get more involved in the design of their program by providing options and then letting them decide.

Clients Do Not Want to Feel Incompetent or Unfit

Go easy on them in the beginning. Most people fear that they're going to do things wrong, aren't going to be able to keep up or are going to let you down. So when designing the initial program, start at or below the lowest level training zone to ensure success and then advance gradually. Especially at first, design exercises that are easy for a client to succeed at. Their body awareness will be poor in the beginning and they will have a difficult time performing any activity that requires balance, and multi-muscle and joint movements. Design exercises so that all they have to do is push, pull, lift or press. Once they master proper execution and technique, you can then make the exercises more challenging. Also be conscious of your terminology. Avoid speaking in terms that a client cannot understand or relate to. Always make explanations simple to understand. And finally, always ask if your clients have any questions especially when sharing something new.

Clients Want to Know They Are Improving 

Regularly point out how much a client has improved. Show them how far they've progressed since the first time they saw you and since the last session. Be sure that all your feedback is quantitative and objective. For example, comment on how much more weight they're lifting, how many more reps they're performing, the increase in the level they exercise at on an indoor cardio machine, or the increase in the length of time they can keep up at a certain pace. If a client starts becoming frustrated because they perceive they aren't improving, they will often start focusing on their body and the fact that maybe they haven't lost any weight yet or achieved their expectations. But if you consistently point out how much they've improved, they'll be less likely to focus on their body and more likely to stay focused on the program. However, keep in mind that most clients do want to experience physical changes to their body. This means that you need to stay up-to-date on all the research regarding exercise programming to ensure you are designing the most safest, effective and efficient programs to help all clients achieve their individual goals. In the event that you need to offer constructive feedback to correct technique errors or misconceptions, be sure to avoid focusing on the client. Instead of saying, "Sally, your technique is wrong" focus on the technique itself by commenting, "Sally, the speed of this repetition is a bit too quick. Try going a little slower and see if you can feel the muscle working more….How does that feel?"

Clients Want to Know You Really Care

Clients don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care. Be sure to greet your clients with a warm and genuine smile and a sense that you're very happy to see them. You can show you care by always showing up early for sessions, being fully prepared and rarely canceling or rescheduling sessions. Always give your clients 100 percent focus during the session - it is inappropriate to be interrupted by cell phones or pagers. Make notes regarding special events and family members and be sure to inquire about them at later sessions - they'll think it's great that you remembered. Be sure to acknowledge your clients even when they are not training with you - if you only pay attention to a client during a paid session, they will begin to think the only time you're interested in them is when they are paying for your services. And when they don't show up or cancel a session, call your clients to inquire if everything is ok.

Clients Want to Trust You

Clients will tell their Personal Trainers confidential information about things in their life. They want to know that anything they share with you will never be repeated. And it's because of this that we must be very conscious and respectful of client confidentiality. Because our profession is not presently regulated, we do not have very strict guidelines in this area. But other professionals who receive the same type of personal information that we do, such as psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors, are given very strict guidelines with regards to client confidentiality and we should abide by these same rules. Whatever a client tells you in a Personal Training session should stay within that session and should not be repeated. It can be very easy to breach client confidentiality without even realizing you're doing something wrong. For example, you could be in the staff room and one of your colleagues could casually mention "Hey, I see you're working with Sally. That girl is so skinny. Does she have an eating disorder?" It would be so easy to quietly whisper "Yeah, she's seeing a specialist, and I'm just trying to help her control her intensity and volume of workouts." Although it appears completely harmless, in other professions this type of release of information would be grounds for a suspension of license. It is easy to deal with these types of questions by making a joke of the situation. For example, "Well Jack, you understand client confidentiality eh? So if I told you I'd have to kill ya!" Your colleagues aren't trying to put you on the spot. They probably don't even realize that what they've asked you is inappropriate. And of course, I'm sure it goes without saying, that you should never discuss a client's individual situation with another client. The client you are releasing the information to will instantly lose trust in you as they consider that if you're willing to release another client's confidential information, you may be sharing their situation with others too.

Clients Want to Know You're Always Acting in Their Best Interest

A client does not want you to sell them on something only for the sake of making a commission. Be honest and up front with them in these types of situations. If a client hears, and they will, that you are making money from their purchases they will question your motives and your ethics. But if you say to a client "Hey Joe, I've done some research and I believe that the XYZ Supplement is a very quality brand and the research suggests it can help you achieve your goals. I think it's your best choice. But hey, I do want you to know that our company is sponsored by this brand. But we all do believe it’s the best one on the market." Your clients like you and of course they will want to support you but just be sure you're honest with them right from the beginning. You may have also been in a situation when a client has set a goal that is very unrealistic. Let's say, for example, they want to lose 20 pounds for their wedding, which just happens to be in one month. It would be pretty easy to appease them and say something like "Alright, well then let's get started!" But a more honest approach would be to be completely up-front with them and inform them that perhaps their goal is not unrealistic but the time frame is. For example, you could suggest "Well Sally that goal is very realistic but unfortunately not within the time-frame you'd like. In one month, based on the safe and healthy fat loss guidelines, you could realistically lose eight pounds. And it would be eight pounds of fat instead of just water and muscle. And because you've lost it more slowly, it will be easier to keep it off. Would you be happy with that?" In the earlier situation, you may have sold the client initially but as soon as they realize you've told them only what they wanted to hear, they may discontinue your services. In this latter approach, the client will appreciate that you are not just trying to sell them personal training sessions and are really acting in their best interest.