By Mary Falkenstern, Active Entities Partner

As a personal trainer, your ability to build rapport with clients is critical. How well you establish trust at the start is one of the strongest indicators for successful client outcomes. Yet, at the moment it matters most, many fail to execute. And, as the saying goes, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.”

This article highlights three key strategies that you can leverage to build rapport with your clients from the very first moment you meet.

1. Open Body Language:

Most people are so preoccupied with what to say in first meetings that they are completely unaware of their body language. Even highly skilled professionals often fall into the trap of leading with their expertise and miss the opportunity to nonverbally communicate confidence and intent to help.

I call this credibility dumping and it happens across ranks and industries. Yes- you need to prove you know what you’re doing. But wait. If you effectively establish non-verbal trust, you will earn the space to speak to your expertise. And at that point, your client will likely be more relaxed, more receptive and, assuming you are good at what you do, more on board with what you have to say.

What to Do: We process non-verbal cues much more quickly than words. Body language that is closed off—arms crossed, wide stance, hands behind back— or timid – fidgety, tense, forced smile—can be read as pushy, domineering, desperate. To exude relaxed, open confidence, take a moment to scan your body and release any tension or gripping. Take a breath, ground your stance and connect with easy eye contact before you speak.

2. Listen to Understand, not Problem-Solve

Regardless of the specific motivator, a person making the move to invest in their physical fitness is seeking improvement. They are either not satisfied with where they are now or they want something better in the future. That requires change—change of behavior, change of habits, and sometimes even change of identity—“I’m not disciplined, I always give up, I’m not a gym person…” Your job is not to argue with their current reality but to uncover their needs and help them believe that their desired outcome is possible.

What to Do: Ask open-ended questions with the intent to learn. Next, paraphrase their concerns, problems, goals. (We like to ask them what the consequences of “not taking action” could be. What will their life be like? This helps you to understand how you can truly help). Finally, name the potential you see for them if they commit to the process. The key here is the resist the urge to “problem-solve” by explaining all the possible solutions. Instead, focus on listening and learning. They do not need to do the whole process yet- they just need to believe the outcome is possible if they commit to taking action to work with you.

3. Agree on Shared Expectations

The more ownership a person feels in relation to their goals, the more likely they are to achieve and sustain them. By collaboratively setting expectations the client shifts from a passive student role to an active participant.

How to do this: Align on ground rules that are mutually supportive. Instead of just giving a piece of paper with expectations or, worse, assuming them, name them—e.g. the start time, cancellation or rescheduling, means of communication. These are highly variable depending on your organization, style, etc. The key here is you are actually asking for agreement. That is to say, they can say no. Or they may ask to adjust something. Then it is up to you to either flex to their needs or explain why you can’t.

Most of the time, if you’ve made it this far, you will reach agreement on expectations. However, if you don’t—no problem. Not every potential client is a good match. At this stage, you can part ways with mutual respect and prevent imminent conflict and frustration down the road.

Building rapport is not a check-list that you complete. It is the result of extending and earning trust. Some interactions will be easier than others. But the good news is, even if you follow these steps imperfectly, they can still serve you. Because at the end of the day, you cannot go wrong when you lead with the intention to connect, to listen and to support.

About the Author
mary falkenstern Mary is an Executive Communication Coach and Voice Expert with over ten years of experience coaching, facilitating and consulting leaders and organizations around the world. As an Executive Trainer and highly sought after Communication Coach, Mary has worked with leading executives from Fortune 100 and 500 companies. She has delivered dynamic presentations and trainings at national and international conferences. She is the founder of Speak Sense, a boutique communication coaching firm specializing in high potential talent.

Mary holds a Masters Degree in Speech-Language Pathology, with a specialized focus in the Professional Speaking Voice. She trained extensively at Mass General Hospital’s renowned Voice Center, an affiliate of Harvard and MIT.

You can reach Mary Falkenstern at