What can I do as a coach to avoid being taken to court?

As the online world of business grows and people invest more money, time and expectation into their business being a success, I have seen more and more conflicts arising, many of which end in court.

So what can you do as a coach to avoid being taken to court?

There are some simple steps you can take to ensure your relationship with your clients stays on the “good” side of the law.

  1. Have a mutual and ethical contract in place
  2. Set reasonable boundaries
  3. Fulfill all your promises
  4. Maintain open communication

1. The mutual and ethical contract

It is important to conduct your relationship with your client professionally and fairly from the beginning. This sets up a positive rapport with the client that should continue through the life of the relationship. One key component of that relationship is the agreement or contract you have in place regarding the services you promise to undertake as the coach of that client.

Your contract should include, at the very least:

  1. DETAILS OF THE SERVICE YOU ARE OFFERING – these need to be clear
  2. ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES – this lays out the expectations for both of you
  3. FEES AND SERVICE COSTS –  the cost of the service and any further expenses
  4. REFUND POLICY – in many countries it is not legal to say “no refund” because the relevant consumer law has implied warranties
  5. TERMINATION OPTIONS – to give you both an “out” if the relationship is not working
  6. CONFIDENTIALITY CLAUSE – This is important to build rapport and to also ensure your discussions remain behind closed doors.
  7. DISPUTE RESOLUTION CLAUSE –  This is important because it gives you both the opportunity to communicate with a third party rather than go straight to litigation
  8. GOVERNING LAW – Especially important since online relationships can be international.
  9. DISCLAIMER CLAUSES – To create clarity and put assumptions away
  10. NO GUARANTEE CLAUSES – Again to create clarity and put assumptions away

If you need more information on the guts of a contract – click here for my blog on contracts.

2. Set reasonable boundaries

This is an important part of building relationships and helps to maintain healthy limits. We don’t know what is going on in other’s people's lives and sometimes even when people seem open, they are only showing us a tip of the iceberg. What we do know though, is about our lives. Therefore we need to be willing to carve a space into our life for the coaching clients. Before you engage clients, sit down and brainstorm how much time you have/are willing to share with clients and then allocate that time to tasks associated with the clients - for instance. If you have 20 hours per week and each coaching call is 60 minutes and you have 6 clients then you have 20-6 = 14 hours for other tasks.  How much time do you want to allocate for:

  1. Client research
  2. Client resources
  3. Client correspondence
  4. Client referral
  5. Times you are available (for example - 9-5 Monday to Friday) /times not available And then allocate that time specifically and identify that in the contract.

EXAMPLE - In a recent mediation I conducted, a coach who ran a group coaching call with 10 clients, did not enforce time limits on discussions. As her coaching calls only last 90 minutes and she had 10 attendees, she had not realised, nor enforced, a 9 minute limit for each person on the calls which lead three participants to become very disappointed, and, as time progressed, very disgruntled. The coach, who was unwilling to acknowledge the concerns ended up in a legal battle because the clients were unhappy with her service.  The coach negotiated an expensive settlement before the matter proceeded to court because during the course of the mediation it was clear she was not going to win.

3. Fulfill all your promises

Too many people are burned in the online world by false promises.  Aside from the reputation you create for yourself when you promise the world and deliver peanuts, one day someone will be brave enough to drag you into court.

And then there are all sorts of problems. Why? Because once someone brings false promises into the public domain all sorts of legal issues may be invoked

  1. Breaches of consumer law
  2. Breaches of fiduciary duties
  3. Breach of contract
  4. Fraud - civil and criminal

All of these issues are serious legal questions and may create a huge disruption to your life and business.

4. Maintain open communication

This is one of the simplest things you can do in a business, and I have witnessed so many people running for cover when they are required to communicate with a disgruntled client.

Even though it probably feels easier in the short term, blocking someone on social media, refusing to answer their emails and ignoring them will only serve to fuel their anger.

Respectful communication goes a long way to bridging the gap between yourself and an unhappy client. You do not have to agree with them but you can say that in a polite and clear way. When your contract is clear, and your boundaries are clear, and you have fulfilled all your promises then it is easier to lay those issues out in correspondence. A disgruntled or unhappy client can give you feedback (even if it doesn’t “feel” so good in the first instance) as to where there may be holes in your business practice and can help you patch that for future clients. You can use all difficult conversations to your advantage.

Some easy steps for open communication:

1. Listen to what they are saying 2. Resist your urge to defend or attack 3. Separate out needs, interests, and strategies 4. Acknowledge, acknowledge, acknowledge 5. Understand the different between acknowledgment and agreement 6. Focus on what is happening rather than who’s fault this is.