Almost a decade ago when I was young and naive, in the very beginning of my career as fitness and dance instructor, in the early morning of a chilly day in February (at 6:15 am to be precise), I was at my studio, ready for a personal training with a new client, scheduled for 6:30 am. At 6:27, she texted me with the message “Sorry, can’t make it today. Will call you later.” I felt, to say it mildly, upset, a bit lonely, rejected, and inadequate as a trainer. It was pretty hard not to take it personally, even if the Cancellation was because of the circumstances beyond that client’s control.
So far, with my 12+ years as a fitness trainer, owner of a Pilates studio, and wellness coach, when I am not that young (but still naive), I have tried different approaches to late cancellations, no-shows, and make-up classes. The strategies range from a strict cancellation policy to no cancellation policy at all; and here is what I have learned to overcome the biggest hurdle for many personal trainers – last minute class cancellations from clients.
Whether you run a private personal training studio with one or two employees or multinational franchise of gyms, or you have experienced, at least once, your personal trainer canceled the class the last minute, I know you can relate to my story.
Ok, after that February incident, blaming the naivety of a youth and my business immaturity, I decided that I have been wishy-washy about upholding my Cancellation Policy. I realized that I needed strict cancellation rules, which shouldn’t be a challenge since I had not any policy until then.
My inner business goddess wanted to get paid for the value I brought and calm down anxiety about paying my bills
After all, my time is valuable. When clients cancel the last minute, and I don’t have the possibility to have another client in that particular time slot, I lose income. My rent and bills and work-related continuing education expenses don’t change because of these cancellations. So, I needed to inform my clients of my cancellation policy right away and ask them to sign a form saying they understand the policy. Because I thought, if you don’t establish boundaries, you will create resentment and reputation as a softie, and then you will be less effective in the work that you do with this person.
Looking for inspiration, I googled the examples of cancellation policy in gyms, Pilates studios, beauty salons, and even private family counselors. A standard policy was something like “For all one-on-one sessions, we respectfully require that you provide at least 24 hours advance notice for canceled appointments. If you are unable to provide at least 24 hours notice when you cancel, you will be charged the full fee for your session. Thank you for understanding.”
A few yoga and Pilates studios, however, used another phrasing: “A canceled appointment delays our work. When you must cancel, please give us at least 24 hours’ notice. This requirement allows enough time to fill the spot with another client. We are rarely able to fill a canceled session unless we know at least 24 hours in advance. We are happy to serve our clients.”
Ok, the picture becomes clearer. All I needed is the cancellation policy clearly stated on my website and in the material the client fills out on signing up. The client should also get a copy of the policy. Problem solved.
Unfortunately, not even close. The real challenge began when I started its implementation.
Even after signing it up, some clients tried to abuse the policy, calling to my inner kindness and explaining their last minute cancellations with emergencies at work, unpredictable diseases, and zombie apocalypses. I’ve amended my cancellation policy this way: “the only time I will waive 100% cancellation fee is in the event of serious or contagious illness, in addition to your willingness to reschedule a missed class as soon as possible.”
That approach didn’t work very well either.
I was a full-time personal trainer with a bunch of group classes, and my timetable usually got full (10-12 classes a day, no kidding). So, I had a problem with fitting in the rescheduled lessons! To accommodate the missed lessons, I taught from 7 am till midnight 7 days a week. And in a few weeks, it practically finished me off. I was exhausted and felt like stress was a permanent part of my being. I once scheduled two private classes at the same time as I started to forget some things because of serious sleep deprivation (it was pretty embarrassing).
When not rescheduling classes, I struggled even more with explaining to people with late cancellations, all over again, why I charge and all. They paid cash only; so, I could not use the advice I read on personal trainers’ forum such as “charge automatically. Keep a client credit card on file to make late cancellations and no-shows simple to charge.” And even if I could, it feels too cold and impersonal.
The more I get involved in this “to charge or not to charge” issue, the more stressed I became.
The very last drop in all that story was a one-hour cancellation of my class on Saturday: because of this only class, I missed out of town gathering with my old school friends. It hurt, because if you are a personal trainer, you are already some kind of social freak with all those evening classes.
I could proceed with examples, but I am sure you have enough of your own.
So, I decided to change my approach to late cancellations completely.
From that day, I have never charged any client for no show or late cancellation. I told myself: let it go and move on. This is what happened next: at the end of the month, and every month after that, I have gained bigger income from personal classes than ever before, being calm and happy. It seems that the fear to earn less without charging for no-shows was not reasonable.
After giving it deep thought, I’ve outlined a few strategies that help me deal with this common issue. Now I have 5-6 one-on-one classes a day with almost no late cancellations. I sincerely do not remember the last time when no show up happened, and can share my passion to Pilates and healthy lifestyle without fussiness.
Twelve Things to Keep in Mind about Late Cancellations and No-Shows
1. If you are a personal trainer or studio owner thinking about cancellation policy, keep in mind that there is no wrong or right answer on how strict it should be: just choose the method that suits your instructor’s style. Obviously, you can have a 24hr, 48hr, or no cancellation policy at all. The key is to be happy with it, and stick to it. I believe that establishing a cancellation policy that you are comfortable with is vital.
My baseline is “treat others in the same way that you would want them to treat you.”
2. Be consistent. If you tell everyone that you are proud of managing the warmest and friendliest studio in the city, with a schedule and training program tailored individually for every client, perhaps, a client who was late for 20 minutes will consider your greetings such as “Thanks for coming. You have already used X minutes of our appointment and have another Y minutes left. Let’s get down to business!” unfriendly and cynical, as well as your threats with courts if they refuse to pay for late cancellations.
3. If your guts tell you something, listen to it. I have been guilty of allowing one client too many late cancellations (she used to cancel every other class 20 minutes after it should have begun). With experience, you learn how to recognize that type of “always-happy-to cancel” clients and fire them without hesitation. Obviously, a client who continually cancels costs the trainer more than he or she brings in, as the trainer is unable to book that slot with another client.
4. When you schedule a class, ALWAYS keep in mind that late cancellation is possible; and weigh your alternatives. The situation with no shows has grown more complicated over the years, as e-mail and texting have made it easier for clients to cancel a session without talking face to face with the trainer or studio manager. Often when talking to a live person, the client hesitates to make the cancellation and ends up coming. So, try to identify clients with a history of no-shows and schedule them in a time slot that will have less impact on your overall schedule if they cancel.
5. If you want to charge for late cancellations or set other boundaries in trainer-client relationships, but are too shy to communicate it directly to the client, outsource this task to an administrator or any other ‘independent’ colleague. I believe, in big studios, trainers should not be allowed to make the call whether or not to charge a client for a cancellation: that should be a task of the manager. The trainer doesn’t want to lose future business with the client and may find it hard to switch from “personal” to “business” mode.
6. Be generous and kind: personal training is not only about business. Clearly, a series of missed classes is a signal that immediate intervention is needed. To penalize a client at this point by enforcing payment for services not used doesn’t seem the best strategy to me. Perhaps, it is worth spending time with this client to figure out into why she/he might be doing it. What subconscious reason is causing her to be late? Then you may help a client to create strategies never to do it again and motivate her to give enough commitment to this to not be late again. Look for trends: rack the reasons a client gives for no-shows, maybe, it is a particular day of the week or time of day is particularly challenging for them – reschedule if possible.
On the flip side, if a client is chronically late, and certainly doesn’t know the reason why, it could be a signal that your classes are not a priority: when your heart’s not in it, you are late. And you may decide together to postpone the classes till better times.
Clear communication never hurts any type of relationships, personal trainer-client included.
7. Perhaps, the client with a tendency to cancel the last minute secretly wants you not to indulge her. Be a hero – charge 100 percent fee for a class and observe the reaction. It works if you feel like teaching someone a lesson
8. If the client is late but ok with shortened class, there is no need to be rude and highlight the problem with their time management. Also, encourage good behavior: always thank clients who reschedule or cancel in advance.
9. To maintain your inner peace is more important than to charge even 100 percent fee for a class.
10. Remind them. Provide the option for clients to receive text, email, or voice appointment reminders. Ask new clients to opt into receiving email, text and voice message reminders. They do have many things in life besides your classes. Get on the phone and talk to the client about rescheduling as soon as possible. You can’t wait for clients to call you back, they have many other things on their mind, and your appointment may not be the top priority.
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12. (This one is SO important!!) Speak up ahead of time. Be crystal clear on your attitude to no-shows and late cancellations. Don’t go through the waiting and hoping it will turn out okay. Say something simple while booking the first appointment – this can also go into a confirmation email: “Please plan to arrive no more than 10 minutes early for your session. Kindly note that the nature of my schedule is such that I cannot extend the time to you if you are late.” Having a cancellation policy sets up clear expectations for your clients regarding how missed sessions will be handled.
Finally, a note for all personal training clients: if you do not know exactly what cancellation policy is honored by your trainer/gym/studio, ask for it. Otherwise, you may accidentally provoke all kinds of bitter thoughts, mentioned above, at your trainer. And, paraphrasing Forrest Gump quote, “if a personal trainer isn’t happy, no one is.” That’s it! Oh, one more thing: try to do your best and avoid no-show and late cancellations.
Do you have a cancellation policy? Why or why not? How do you handle no-shows situations? Share your experience!