Professionalism and communication may well be the most important qualities distinguishing truly successful certified personal trainers from unsuccessful ones.

After 20 years in the fitness industry, I rarely introduce myself as a “trainer,” knowing well the connotation often conjured up. While I take immense pride in what I do, I know I can set myself apart by presenting myself as a knowledgeable, professional, and an empathetic health and fitness coach. Or fitness professional. Or exercise specialist. (Because those are the designations I’m more likely to use.)

When people hear personal trainer, they may think things like, “meathead” or “rep counter” or “exercise cheerleader” or “drill sergeant” or maybe even “Biggest Loser.” We do important work changing lives, and the only way we can alter lingering negative perceptions and biases toward fitness coaching is by walking the professional walk. We do this by improving our ability to communicate and conduct ourselves with professionalism at all times.

Communication is the Master Key to Professionalism

While there are various obvious ways anyone can behave unprofessionally on the job, such as looking at their cell phone while in a session, gossiping about co-workers, or crossing lines with clients that should not be crossed, there are more subtle ways folks tend to reveal their poor work ethic. Such behaviors and lack of professionalism will surely result in fewer clients and even less respect.

Respond to emails

If you have a website or social media account that fields direct messages, answer them! It’s wonderful to set up an auto-response if you know you don’t check accounts frequently, but for heaven’s sake, do check your inbox and send a personal message if not a good old-fashioned phone call if someone reaches out to you to inquire about your services.

It never ceases to amaze me how many service people in various industries have blown off my business over the years. You can never be too busy to ignore potential clients. Ever ever ever. Ever.

But that doesn’t stop with clients. Your peers, colleagues, managers, etc. may also expect a certain level of communication that you are obligated to fulfill. It will always behoove you to respond or stay communicative in situations that may not interest you or that you’ve perhaps changed your mind about. I’m surprised by how many people I have personally reached out to who responded at first, and then ignored the following attempts I made to involve them in something that would most certainly behoove them.

Make the effort.

Hone your verbal and written skills

There is nuance and complexity with communication whereby some folks are highly skilled and others have a hard time finding words or expressing thoughts adequately. This can be frustrating for everyone involved. You don’t have to roll over and accept an innate deficiency in expressing yourself. Several things can help you improve in this area. One of them is reading! (like this blog)

The more you read, the more your brain incorporates different styles, phrases, and vocabulary. You will understand people better, sharpen your brain skills, and get better at expressing yourself.

Verbal communication can be improved by a number of approaches rooted mainly in patience, mindfulness, and empathy—all of which will help you to be a better human in general while also lending to your professionalism!

Be forthright

If you’re going to be late to a session or you have fallen short somehow, prepare the person you’re letting down ahead of time. Going to be two minutes late? Don’t assume that two minutes is nothing; let your client know as soon as you do that you won’t be exactly on time. If you have to reschedule a session, do so as soon as you possibly can. And if you have to cancel on a client last minute, hold them to the same standards you hold them to. If you have a 24-hour cancellation policy that involves charging them for missed sessions, then you should offer them a free session in addition to the make-up session.

Apologize when necessary

Finally, remind yourself that no one is perfect—not you, not your clients, not your colleagues. We all make mistakes and have room to grow. If there is even a small chance that you have dropped the ball in some capacity, or a client has provided difficult feedback, fight the natural reaction to become defensive. Arguing with your clients or potential clients will immediately be perceived as confrontational and unprofessional.

Instead, let yourself feel smaller for a moment, reflect on what you may have done or not done, and how you could have done something differently. Even if you can’t think of a single thing to have improved upon, you can still apologize for any lapse in trust or reliability (or what have you) that a misunderstanding/miscommunication/bungled situation may have caused.

Validate feelings coming at you even if you don’t understand them, and make a diplomatic attempt to smooth things over.

Now, this doesn’t mean allow yourself to be mistreated or become a doormat. Establishing boundaries of what is acceptable to you is important too, and then be sure to honor those boundaries. If a client does not vibe well with you, you do not have to keep training that client.

At the end of the day, you are a professional and should conduct yourself as such representing NFPT and our title as personal trainers with dignity. If you want to keep your clients happy (or simply keep your clients), acknowledging your failures or shortcomings, no matter how small, can go a long way. Your clients will sense your authenticity and humanness, making you more relatable. If your clients find you unrelatable, they may not want to work with you.

If you are losing clients despite being an excellent and/or skilled trainer who gets results, this may be a signal that your professionalism is lacking, and a chance to evaluate your behavior for areas to improve.

Michele Rogers

NFPT Publisher Michele G Rogers, MA, NFPT-CPT and EBFA Barefoot Training Specialist manages and coordinates educational blogs and social media content for NFPT, as well as NFPT exam development. She’s been a personal trainer and health coach for over 20 years fueled by a lifetime passion for all things health and fitness. Her mission is to raise kinesthetic awareness and nurture a mind-body connection, helping people achieve a higher state of health and wellness. After battling and conquering chronic back pain and becoming a parent, Michele aims her training approach to emphasize fluidity of movement, corrective exercise, and pain resolution. She holds a master’s degree in Applied Health Psychology from Northern Arizona University. Follow Michele on Instagram.