Running Start Chapter 14 | Dealing with difficult clients

In this chapter, I’m going to show you the different types of difficult clients you may encounter and how to handle them effectively.

Dealing with difficult clients

You’ll gain a lot from this knowledge; so let’s get started!

As a personal trainer, life is not a bed of roses at all times, that’s for sure.

There are occasions when you are going to have to deal with some negatives.

And perhaps the biggest ones will relate to your clients.

So what do you do when a client is a no show regularly?

Or a client who is totally uncommitted towards anything you try with them. 

The thing is, in reality, fitness and training is not normally the number one priority a client will have.

Other things in their lives are simply more important.

And that’s understandable when it comes to their family and their work, for example.

Getting an eager client that you don’t need to work on from a motivational point of view is pretty rare.

So let’s start this chapter off by looking at some of the ways that clients can make your day seem like it’s never going to come to an end.

Types of difficult clients you can expect to deal with

In the introduction to this chapter, I mentioned a few types of clients that are less than co-operative and that personal trainers will have to deal with at some point during their career.

Let’s look at a few more examples of clients that can be considered to be difficult through their behavior.

Note, however, the definition of a difficult client is different for every personal trainer.

The client who doesn’t pay on time

The first client we are going to take a look at isn’t unique to the fitness industry.

You can find them all over. 

For personal trainers, it’s all about offering a service.

And as you know, a client will sign up for X amount of lessons.

Normally, from the outset, they would have paid for those lessons but when it comes time to renew them, it’s difficult to get the non-payer to finalize payment, even though they have signed a new contract for a new batch of lessons.

You will hear all kinds of excuses from “sorry, I forgot” to “I will do it straight away when I get home”.

Most of the time, it’s people that can afford to pay you that show this non-paying behavior.

And it’s frustrating. 

The client who objects to everything

The objector certainly can be frustrating to work with.

You will be able to recognize them straight away.

That’s because they usually start their sentences with, “but what about if we (or I)…”

Objectors usually have plenty of experience when it comes to training in a gym and could have worked with a personal trainer before.

They will have ideas about everything and will sometimes question your approach, exercise plans, and more. 

The client who does their own thing

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No matter how hard you try, this client just seems to never want to listen to what you are telling them.

And this shows itself in many ways, from not carrying out training instructions properly, to not following any advice you give them while they are away from the gym, for example, eating healthily. 

Let’s be honest, how can they expect to get results if they aren’t following the advice from their personal trainer?

The client who does everything you expect from them but doesn’t get results

Yes, these can be classified as difficult clients.

Not so much in the sense that they exhibit difficult behavior but in the fact that they should be getting somewhere but aren’t.

And they can be extremely tough for a personal trainer to deal with.

The thing is, you can judge them in the gym and if they are doing everything properly, there may be other underlying factors as to why they aren’t getting the results they should. 

Just as an example, this could be someone who binge eats or doesn’t eat as healthily as they say they do away from the gym, which stalls weight loss, despite their 100% commitment to training.

The client who is always late for their training session

Clients that are occasionally late for their training sessions can be forgiven, especially if they let you know they are running late.

And there also might be other factors involved, for example, traffic or a meeting running late at their work.

It’s those clients that turn up late to every training session that become a serious problem if you don’t step in.

It’s even more difficult when they turn up late but still expect you to train them for their allotted time, which could then push you over into another client’s session.

And that’s likely to cause even more problems, right?

The client who is a no-show regularly

For personal trainers, the no-show client is one of the worst. 

That’s because you have taken the time to prepare for this client and they can’t even be bothered to turn up.

And what’s worse, they don’t even let you know they are not going to make it.

While you can use that time in other ways, especially if you have a small office in the gym where you work, it’s still a major inconvenience.

A client who is always pessimistic

A client that’s a pessimist can be a real drain on you as a personal trainer.

That’s because, even though you are trying your hardest to help them, their continual pessimism just sucks the life out of you.

The thing is, these people are not just negative when it comes to training, they are generally negative to everything around them as well.

Motivating clients like this can be extremely difficult and you’ve got to decide if it’s worth it at the end of the day.

Ways to deal with difficult clients

So now the question is, how do you deal with a difficult client.

Well, there are several ways to approach a situation in which a client is being difficult for whatever reason.

Note, these strategies apply to some clients but not to others, but they are a good guideline for how you can approach the situation.

You need to set ground rules

In the world of personal training, setting ground rules is a must.

And this should be done with every client once they have signed up to make use of your services. 

That’s because if a client is proving difficult, you can remind them about the ground rules and revisit what it is you expect of them.

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Setting ground rules doesn’t have to be difficult either.

At the end of the day, it’s all about mutual respect.

So how do you set ground rules?

Well, they are going to be unique for each personal trainer but in a nutshell, they should cover what a client can expect from you as well as what you expect from them as a client.

All of this is done with their input of course.

For example, ground rules regarding your expectation of the client can include things like:

  • Your policy when dealing with a no show
  • Your policy when dealing with an uncommitted client
  • Your policy when dealing with late payments
  • Your policy when dealing with last-minute cancellations

It’s up to you really what you think is important to establish as a ground-rule.

You could even have these ground rules written up as terms and conditions in the contract that both you and your client sign.

We’ve included that resource in chapter 8. 

When it’s in black and white, there can’t be any arguments down the line.

Of course, it’s best to have one set of ground rules for all your clients, that just helps to keep everything simple. 

Know when to fight and when to let go

Difficult clients can be extremely taxing, that’s for sure.

And sometimes, they just might not be worth the fight.

For example, an uncommitted client has now missed 6 out of their last 8 sessions.

And that’s despite you calling a meeting to remind them of their obligations as well as going over the ground rules we mentioned above.

So what do you do?

Well, in honesty, isn’t it just better to let them go?

For one, you are committing your time to train them and then they choose not to turn up.

That time could have been spent on another potential client, right

A client that is uncommitted and is never looking like they will change despite you trying to win them over, is not worth your effort.

Rather cut them.

That’s choosing your battles the right way.

But let’s look at another example.

What happens if a client demands a refund from you, citing the fact that they weren’t happy with your services?

That’s a tough one because it’s going to impact your cash flow.

But again, even if you believe that you gave your all and the client is wrong, perhaps it’s just better to cut your losses and give a refund. 

Don’t forget to praise positive change

Sometimes, even with difficult clients, you can help to turn things around.

One of the ways to do this is by simply acknowledging when they do make positive change.

Even that client that keeps missing sessions, over time, if they follow your exercise plan and keep to your recommendations, they should still see progress.

It might be a little slower, however, but that’s because of the missed sessions.

Take the time to praise them, acknowledging the effort they are putting in.

You might find that it makes all the difference as their motivation grows. 

And above all, despite everything, it will show your clients, even the difficult ones, that you do care about their wellbeing.

Always keep expectations in check

Clients can sometimes become troublesome in a situation where they feel that their expectations are not being met.

But that’s not only true in the personal trainer relationship, but it’s also true for all relationships, right?

This can even form part of setting the ground rules which we discussed earlier.

When meeting with clients for the first time, it’s easy to ask them what expectations they have of you. 

Of course, you need to guide them here so they don’t expect anything outlandish.

And make sure that you have an open channel to allow them to bring up any problems that they feel might be emerging further down the line concerning these expectations.

Look at things from their perspective

In life, it’s difficult for us to sometimes admit that we actually might be wrong.

A client might start proving difficult because of something we are doing wrong, that’s just a fact.

Often, it’s just little things that we don’t acknowledge that can be the problem.

In those times, it’s important to take the time to approach your clients, hear them out and actively try to see things from their perspective.

More often than not, they might have a point.

For example, a client might argue that they are getting more and more frustrated because you are paying them enough attention.

If you analyze their complaints, you might find that you do talk to other trainers, or look through your phone from time to time while training them.

That’s a legitimate problem and you should apologize.

And then don’t do it again. 

By giving them your full attention again, you can change their attitude back in your favor. 

So as you can see from these examples, there are plenty of ways to try to deal with difficult clients, changing their behavior in the process, and sometimes yours, to retain them in the long run.

Even if a client gets more and more difficult, you should always act towards them in the right manner and that is with dignity and respect. 


In closing this chapter, I think one of the most important things to note is that while we have defined a range of difficult clients here, each personal trainer could probably add even more.

As I mentioned earlier, there are obvious clients that I would call difficult, for example, those who tend to no-show on occasions.

But for each of us, other clients might present another problem that would classify them as “difficult” in our perception.

The thing is, with difficult clients, you need to try and stop the problem before it gets out of control.

And that’s why one of the solutions is to put agreements in place even before you start training a client, just in case something goes a little haywire. 

While that’s not always the perfect solution, it certainly can help with the more regular types of clients that make the “difficult” list.

And those include the no-shows, those who tend to pay late or those who are never on time. 

Don’t forget to take the chapter takeaway quiz to make sure you have a good grasp of everything covered here.

Chapter 14 Takeaway Quiz

Running Start Chap 14

1 / 6

Dealing with difficult clients is part and parcel of the life of a personal trainer. They include people who don’t pay on time, those that are always late and which other example below?

2 / 6

It’s important to set the _____________ when taking on clients so they know where they stand if they are late or can’t make a session.

3 / 6

True or false? Clients that have caused problems in the past should be praised when they start to turn around their behavior, for example, making sure that they arrive on time and not 10 minutes late.

4 / 6

Which of these can cause problems from a client’s point of view if not dealt with?

5 / 6

True or false? If a client is rude to you, it’s ok to be rude back, especially if you are right.

6 / 6

If a client is not adhering to your rules and continues to show up late, or not at all, then you should cut them from your training roster and let them go. True or false?

Your score is


Tyler Read

Tyler Read, BSc, CPT. Tyler holds a B.S. in Kinesiology from Sonoma State University and is a certified personal trainer (CPT) with NASM (National Academy of sports medicine), and has over 15 years of experience working as a personal trainer. He is a published author of running start, and a frequent contributing author on Healthline and Eat this, not that.

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