The Challenging Clients…

May 21, 2013 at 5:00 pm 15 comments

Wouldn’t it be great if each client you work with is shows up on time, is kind, agreeable, works hard and says “thank you”?  That would be great.  But…not all of your clients are like this.  True?
How you deal with the difficult client is as important if not more important than how you deal with your ideal clients.
While you may wish that all of your clients are perfectly wonderful, the truth is that you meet up with all kinds of people when you teach.  Once, a new teacher said to me that she will just have a little studio and never teach people that she doesn’t like.  I thought “That is spectacular!  What a luxury!”  However, whether you are an independent contractor, employee or studio owner…you’re going to find yourself with a difficult client…even just for one session…but likely for many more.  You are not always in that luxurious position to be able to choose your clientele.
The issues between client and teacher that cause friction are multifold.  They range from:
Habitually late
Doesn’t pay on time
Late cancel and doesn’t want to pay
Gets frustrated at your cueing
Fights you on your cues and tries to control the session
Rushes you in the session
Doesn’t listen to your cueing
Treats you like a servant
Fights you on all areas from cleaning apparatus to paying for the sessions
Talks on the phone during the session
and so many more…
Let’s tackle two of them:
The client who fights you on your cues and tries to control the session
The client who doesn’t seem to listen to you
The first one used to really bother me
The second one used to really bother a friend and colleague of mine.
You, too?
The most important thing to recall when dealing with any client, difficult or incredible, is that you are in a service industry and while you do not need to serve all of your clients’ idiosyncrasies, you are meant to focus on one thing:  Giving your client the appropriate workout.  You are getting paid to teach Pilates (or whichever other modality you teach).  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  With that, you must behave accordingly on all accounts whether you love or hate your client.
The client who fights you on your cues and tries to control the session.
This client behaves as though she knows better than you on all points.  She knows which apparatus to begin on; which version of the exercise is right for her; which session time would be better even though you cannot accommodate with your schedule.  She thinks there is always something wrong with the apparatus, certainly not her.  Nothing you seem to say satisfies her…yet she still comes back for more and even wishes you had more sessions available. Oh, why won’t you open up time for her?  You arrive dreading the session, grit your teeth through it and then breathe a sigh of relief when she’s gone…depleted for the rest of the day.
Yes…we’ve all had or have this client.
Well, some people are like this.  Do they not need you too?  Of course they do.  Maybe even more than the seemingly perfect client.  Maybe <em>you</em> need this client, too.
You see, this person is quite insecure.  (We are all insecure, of course.)  She feels out of control.  She shows her insecurity here by trying to control the session and that means attempting to control you, too.  Of course.  In the rest of her life, she is the “top dog”.  She is the expert.  Everyone always bows down to her.  But now, in the studio, she is in a position of student, not teacher.  She feels like she is in a weakened position.  Of course, we know that she is not in a weakened position, but she can’t feel that, yet.  She doesn’t believe that being a student is strong.  However, we know that learning is everything.
Of course, there are times that you’d like to say “Hey, Lady…you’ve come to me to take a session…to learn from me.  I’m the expert in this scenario and you are the novice…so just do as I say and zip it!”  But…you can’t say that.  You lose the client, destroy your reputation and,<em> if you’re any sort of human being, you feel incredibly guilty that you just treated an insecure person like this!</em>
We have to make a plan, then, of how to address this client and how to address your own natural feelings of frustration..
First is how you behave.
You must not react to your clients’ behavior (in all instances)…unless they are being truly abusive of you.  You must always take the “high road”.  You have to take a deep breath, assess the situation, recognize this is an insecure person who feels out of control…and see her as a human.  She’s not a monster.  She’s just a human being.
Once you see this controlling client as the human that she is.  You have multiple options:
1 – You work around her controlling behavior by being kind.  You attempt a short explanation of why you are giving her the cues that you are, but if she fights you over and over again…you know what? Just skip it.  Move on or do the version that she wants to do as long as it’s not dangerous.  It’s not a big deal if she does semi-circle with fists against the shoulder blocks like you’d like because she is so petite or palms against them the way she was first taught and the only way that she’ll apparently do it.
Pick your battles wisely.  Because when it comes to the big stuff, then you will have stored up some points and extra leverage.
You can’t give in all of the time.  You must remember that you are ultimately in control of the session…but some things are not worth the fight.  That will be a manner of controlling the session.  She is looking for a fight…don’t give her the fight.
2 – If it is so difficult and you can’t manage a session.  Then there needs to be a discussion.  Whether she is your client or a studio client, you can surely say something like “I understand that you have done this other ways in the past…” or “I realize that you are concerned about this…” or “I know you love the begin on the reformer…” but “I have a plan for you and would like to make sure you get what it is that you’re taking this session for…”  (Then remind her why she is there.)  “Please give me the chance to give you a quality session.”
Most teachers are uncomfortable with a little bit of confrontation.  But…you’ve got to have a direct line of communication with your clients.  You must set up that you are in charge and you set the work in the session.  You have to resist giving the control over to the client.  That doesn’t mean that you are controlling or like a drill sergeant.  It just means that you have to “command the session with kindness”, as I am fond of saying.  Lead with a good and open heart, but do lead.
If this doesn’t work or you feel that it is not appropriate to your culture or the culture of the studio, then have a discussion with the owner or manager about the situation and see if she or he can act as a bridge, of sorts, between the two of you.  A gentle conversation between the three of you can change everything.
This client is not evil…just challenging.  Find a way to feel for her insecurity.  Take a look on line and see what it is that she does for a living.  Perhaps you’ll find yourself impressed by her work and/or efforts in life.  You might be surprised.  Maybe she has had a struggle.  There’s something in there that makes her behave as she does.  Have a heart.  Again…as long as she is not actually abusive…see the human in her.
The client who doesn’t seem to listen to you
Do you have this client, too?!  Of course you do!
This person does not seem particularly present during the entire session.  Perhaps he is the early client before work.  Midday client.  After work client.  Oh…he is the client who has work on his mind all of the time.  Yes…you know this man (or woman).
You give him cues that you know are going to get him in gear!  and…he doesn’t even hear you.  He doesn’t alter his movement to your cueing at all.  You wonder if you’re talking to a brick wall.  Well…you sort of are.  You’ve got to change your normal way.
Did I say that you change?  Yes.  You must change your normal way.
He is thinking of other things because work is on his mind and he is (like the controlling client) uncomfortable being in the position of student when he is usually in the position of lord and king…employer and head-honcho.  Of course, this is a strange position to be in…so he blocks it out, though he is there with you and moving.  Even more problematic…he continues to think about his business, while in the session.  He is still at work while in the session.  He even answers his phone, checks his emails and texts.
First, let’s congratulate this client.  A lot of people work all day and don’t even get any exercise in at all.  This person at least makes it to your session.  That’s special.  Whatever is accomplished in the session is good!
Know that this client is going to go in and out of being present in the session.  You will not be able to predict it.
Here are a couple of options:
1- Perhaps you need to begin by talking less, as a rule.  Perhaps his mind is elsewhere and your cues are white noise to him.  I suggest starting each new exercise with your strong cueing and then hold back from cueing over and over again.  Then…make sure your cues are really necessary.  (I suggest this as a rule all of the time, anyway)
If he still doesn’t respond, which is quite likely, then address him by name.  Of course, let’s call him “John”  (as in “John Doe”).  Perhaps your cue is in footwork and you want him to press the carriage out until his legs are actually straight, but he always stops short of straight.  Say something akin to “John, you must fully extend your legs.”  He might actually respond because you called him by name.  It will take him out of the fog or different place in his brain that he is in.  He has been addressed directly and the white noise is gone.
Call him by name and give a hands-on cue at the same time.  Then he is even more alert…back into present time and place.
2 – With that…varying  your cues is vital to keeping this client present…and all clients, as a matter of fact.  Say the the cue one way, then repeat it, repeat it in a different way and then hands on if you need.  With the same example as above, it might sound like this “Press the carriage away until your legs are straight.  Press the carriage out until your legs are straight.  John, push out until you legs are strong and long…longer”
3- Again, like our controlling client before, you may need to have a brief discussion with him.  Address the situation with kindness rather than harshness.  Perhaps something like “John, I understand that you are a busy man and have work on your mind even when you’re exercising, but I want to give you what you are here for and make sure you get the most out of the session.  Try to stay as present with me as you can.”
It may or may not work…but it’s worth trying.
Just be safe with your client and consider what is the most important aspect of the session you want this client to achieve.  Make sure that happens and it will be a successful session.
The Key
The key is NO REACTION
No matter how frustrated you might be with these two types of clients or any clients (or any other clients)…you must not react.  You must not lash out or show your frustration.  That is not your job and it’s likely the quickest way to lose your job…or at least the client.  It’s not helpful to anyone and it’s certainly not what a true teacher does.
That doesn’t mean you are not human.  Of course you want to react.  You just must not.
Good luck!
****Thank you for taking the time to read and continue your education in this way!
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15 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Merrily Stanley  |  May 21, 2013 at 6:21 pm

    Thank you so much for this post, I’m stressing about this very subject right now. My controlling client is in a group and the two women who shared the hour originally are so stressed by her they want to go back to just the two of them. So, how do I gently direct her to a different time when I know she likes the group. I don’t want to hurt her feelings but I also don’t want to make up some story about why I need her to change times. Help!

    • 2. theverticalworkshop  |  May 27, 2013 at 8:20 pm

      Hello, Merrily,

      Thank you for reading this and commenting. My apologies that it’s taken me a handful of days to get back to you!

      This client of yours.
      Do you own the studio?
      Is this woman a client of the studio or of you…or both?
      Are you an employee at this studio?
      Is this your own client and you rent space at this studio?

      I ask these questions because the answer is dependent on who is truly responsible.

      If you run the show and this is completely your client and space…I would be very direct. Owning a business is quite confrontational. That doesn’t mean cruel. Just direct.

      Something like “I really enjoy working with you. Your enthusiasm for Pilates is great. I encourage that. However, in a group class, everyone must focus in and work together. You seem to have a difficult time just doing the work. Perhaps you need to do privates. But in a group situation, it isn’t fair to the other participants. So, you are welcome to stay in this group class, but you must refrain from interrupting and just get the good workout. Or, let’s plan some private sessions.”

      If you are not in charge, then the manager needs to do that.

      Does that make sense?

      Please let me know your thoughts.

      All the best,
      – Shari

  • 3. Jodey Lowber  |  May 21, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    Love this post!! I have had so many prickly clients I can’t even count them….it’s very frustrating but you’re so right-they need us/Pilates. Sometimes they need us so much it becomes unhealthy for us, though, in my opinion. I’ve had the bullying clients, the kind that complain constantly & nothing you do will appease them. Alot of the clients I see do Pilates for pain relief so, theyre not only uncomfortable, theyre as you stated, suddenly the student & not in charge. Not always an easy transition but, after you try with continuous fail, another instructor might have a fresh spin on a grumpy habit if the relationship remains rough terrain.

    I do have a question: How would you handle a client who is abusive towards other clients & or instructors during their session? Again, I’ve got some prickly pears! I’m occasionally put into some tough spots with inappropriate behavior amongst my older (spicy) clients!

    Thanks Shari!!

    • 4. theverticalworkshop  |  May 27, 2013 at 8:15 pm

      Hi, Jodey,
      Indeed, indeed, we have many personalities to work with!

      This “prickly” client. Hmmm…
      Is it your studio?
      Your client and your rent at someone else’s studio?
      Is he a client of the studio that you are an employee at?
      There are different ways to handle him depending on who runs the joint and whose client he is.
      Let me know and I’ll have good answers.

      Thanks…and see you in a handful of days!
      – Shari

      • 5. Jodey  |  May 30, 2013 at 12:09 pm

        I’m independently contracted yet considered an employee. Our studio owners are amazing! I get into the middle with a couple of my older peeps who get crabby when other people are “loud” or they don’t like what they’re doing, etc. It’s much like middle school, lol. So far I redirect like I do my 6 year old. I guess I shouldn’t worry about it. The people they accost understand they are older but, it is embarrassing sometimes none-the-less!

        See you Saturday!!!

      • 6. theverticalworkshop  |  June 6, 2013 at 3:37 pm

        It was great working with you and everyone this past weekend!
        Thank you for your extra effort in coming up for the weekend!
        All the very best!
        – Shari

  • 7. mollynilesrenshaw  |  May 21, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    Great post, Shari! I have certainly had clients in both groups and currently have one who doesn’t seem to hear a thing I say. He is a great person but it seems like there’s a force field around him that my words and cues bounce off of. I will try these tips! xx

    • 8. theverticalworkshop  |  May 27, 2013 at 8:13 pm

      Hi, Molly!
      These clients are tricky, indeed!
      Any luck with this particular client over the week?
      – Shari

  • 9. Ruth Alpert  |  May 22, 2013 at 12:23 am

    Thanks Shari, this is great! So universal, and so wonderful to have it acknowledged out loud!

  • 11. M  |  May 22, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    *peeks in*

    Expecting this to be an interesting discussion.


  • 12. Evelia Rushe  |  June 21, 2013 at 5:51 am

    Great post! Challenging clients are indeed so taxing on one’s energy! It takes effort to show no reaction when they turn up late or when they don’t show up at all for an appointment and don’t bother to inform before hand.

    • 13. theverticalworkshop  |  June 21, 2013 at 6:59 pm

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment!
      Indeed…it takes a lot of effort to do all of our tasks each session: The tasks we love and the tasks we done.
      All the best,
      – Shari

  • 14. Theodora  |  February 6, 2014 at 11:01 am

    What a great post!! (Like all of them of course)

    Thank you for taking the time to write down actual practical steps in dealing with these situations! There have been many times when I thought that tears would come pouring out without me being able to control them, and have tried to do my best in appearing reaction-less. It’s hard when it happens, and I’m glad to know I’m not alone, and that there is a strategy to deal with it!

    My two cents on the matter (especially when it comes to clients who are difficult and demanding people and trust no one): you have to deal with them for one hour, they have to deal with themselves 24/7!

    • 15. theverticalworkshop  |  February 7, 2014 at 9:42 am

      Theodora, indeed…it’s wise to remember that it’s only 1 hour of the day…that must not drain us. We can’t give too much value to 1 hour of any day.

      Thank you very much for reading and responding! I hope to “see” you here again!

      All the best,
      – Shari


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