What clients want out of a coaching engagement should be clear. They hired a coach for a reason and any ambiguity should be cleared up during the onboarding process. But as the coaching engagement unfolds, clients also appreciate flexibility and understanding to stay on track to meet their goals.
There is a great deal that clients don’t say about how they want to be coached, often because they’re not aware of their specific needs or how to express them within a coaching dynamic. Coaches may have hundreds of relationships under their belt; for the average client according to awarenow research, this is their experience with a coach.
For this research paper, we surveyed nearly one hundred coaching clients to identify their top 7 needs from coaching. The responses were strikingly consistent across industries, seniority, and type of coaching (one-on-one vs. group coaching, on-demand vs. structured programs, etc.).
We’ve grouped them below.
#1 Personalize their Experience
One of the most common responses in our interviews was that clients want a coaching program geared around their needs, not around a rigid coaching framework. Todd Ramlin of Cable Compare summarizes this point:
If you’re a coach, don’t just take my money and then put me in your ‘program’. There was no getting to know me or what I was trying to achieve and therefore no personalization. It was just here’s what to do, now go do it. If all I wanted was a generic self-improvement program I could have picked one from the many that are available on the internet for less money (or free). I pay a coach for a one-on-one experience that is personalized to what I’m trying to do and that’s what I expect.
There are a number of considerations here. One is that expectations need to be set up-front (see point 3 below); a coach should be able to explain before an engagement starts whether the relationship will be completely bespoke, based on a structured program, or something in-between.
In addition, some coaches may not want to offer a completely personalized 1-1 relationship. Experienced coaches who have translated their expertise into a defined program may not be a good fit for an “anything goes” unstructured relationship. Similarly, many coaches develop programs for which the pricing does not support complete freedom on the part of the client; as long as this is clear, it’s not fair for a client to expect a coach to go outside these boundaries.
That said, outside of the most rigidly-structured programs, there is no excuse for a client feeling that a coach didn’t take the time to get to know them and the problems they are trying to solve. Even if a client’s situation seems similar to those addressed in other engagements, the client will not have this perspective.
Coaches that did a less awesome job were in a rush to get into the 'advice' phase. They would swing and miss way more on things they'd assume about our business. If they don't know our situation totally, we can't trust the advice they give.
When appropriate, coaches should consider changing up their sessions to adapt to their client’s changing needs. Displaying this level of understanding and personalization creates deep client satisfaction, according Sally Wolf, creator of corporate well-being experiences:
My favorite coaches are both firm in their commitment to hold space for their clients and flexible in how they do so each session. I was full of gratitude to have coaches who paid close attention to my evolving needs in each specific moment, enabling me to leave our sessions feeling lighter and limitless.
In sum, as Ina Coveney, Founder of The Global Phenomenon podcast advises, the golden rule is to “treat every client like they're the only client that matters.”
#2 Align with them to Help them Achieve Their Goals
Clients seek coaches to listen to them and guide them through their problems in a way that they cannot do on their own. Clients who don’t feel that their coach is aligned with them to achieve those goals are often unhappy clients. This dynamic is compounded by the fact that for most clients, this is their first engagement. Many will be doubting whether coaching will benefit them or whether they chose the right provider, as Madhusree Basu of Best Play Gear explains:
Most of us are not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel when we hire a coach. We put our trust in someone else. If your coach doesn't care enough for your progress, this relationship will not go very far.
Similarly, clients want to see that coaches have a plan to get them to where they want to be. For example, motivational speaker and author, Jessie Shedden shares that she “now works only with coaches that deliver a 'program' with a clear process and end goal.”
Successful coaches build trust and alignment early in the process. Fitness coach, Danny James explains the importance of active listening and asking questions when clients describe their situation: “Being asked clarifying questions showed me that my coach cared about getting to the root cause of any barriers, rather than waiting to interject with his own brilliance.”
#3 Set Clear Expectations
We’ve already seen in the previous two sections the value of setting clear expectations up-front. That should ideally be a collaborative discussion, so clients can provide input into the process and give both parties an opportunity to address gaps or ambiguities. Setting clear expectations in coaching gives both clients and coaches a ‘north star’ to which they can always refer and return to. Clear expectations eliminate surprises, anchor regular check-ins, and give clients a reference for their progress.
A clear plan does not necessarily imply a day-by-day schedule; the bottom line is that clients and coaches get on the same page about what the journey ahead looks like. The ideal plan is “agreed on, understood, easy to put in place, and flexible,” according to Danny James.
Creating such a plan reduces the likelihood of client disappointment later on. An interesting example is provided by Alex Thompson, Director of Festoon House, where an agreed upon plan was clearly lacking and possibly where the coach - if aware of the issue - could have been more flexible or at least recognized the gap and provided suggestions about how to address it:
There are times when sudden ideas and questions come to me, and I need answers to them right away. My coach and I have a schedule to follow, and there are many times when he can't attend to my questions. This leaves me in a constant wondering state, and having to wait for answers can be slightly infuriating. Our sessions were indeed productive when the scheduled time comes, but I wish I could get advice even outside of that.
#4 Make Coaching Practical, not Theoretical
Related but slightly different from the point about personalization above, coaches have a responsibility to make their content practical and as usable as possible for their clients. For example, as clients occasionally get off track, coaches who can not only offer positive encouragement and perspective but also turn these into actionable next steps provide a better experience. Alex Thompson gives a personal example of a coaching experience where this need was not met:
Advice is good, but it can also be highly theoretical. I would've loved it if I had a template or a roadmap to the specific actions I have to take to achieve my goals. My coach did help me understand what my goals are and helped me identify the roadblocks that are holding me back, but I needed more stepping stones to fully get to where I was going.
Mindfulness coach Sandeep Nath shares a similar example, with a happier ending:
While theory-based approaches (may) get results and familiarize the coachee with new knowledge and empirical constructs which are (sometimes) helpful, they do not inspire confidence in the coachee. I derived great value from watching a coach who was committed to a rigorous routine. That is infectious!
#5 Provide ‘Tough Love’ Where Appropriate
Guidance is only part of the value that coaches can provide clients. Providing structure and accountability is also important. As Madhusree Basu observes: “Some clients, especially at the beginning, need someone to hold them accountable for their actions. This helps them to stick to the task at hand and not go backwards.”
Clients generally appreciate and benefit from a thoughtfully proactive approach from their coach. Newer coaches often make the mistake of assuming that clients are executing on the next steps discussed at the end of a check-in; some will on their own while others need more attention. As Courtney Sandora of Go Social recounts, having more of a ‘push’ from her coach would have been helpful, like “calling me out more on the follow-through.” Similarly, Ryne Lambert of Sell My House In Wisconsin describes his disappointment with the lack of accountability in a previous coaching engagement:
If I did not complete a task that I said I would do in the previous meeting, the coach would not get on me and provide tough love. They would let me slide by with lame excuses or worse make excuses for me. Sometimes tough love is needed and that is what a coach should provide when necessary to motivate the client.
Again, some of this comes down to setting clear expectations up-front. Clients who want or need accountability will be less likely to sign up for a program if they are told explicitly that it will not be provided. Of course, while many clients want to be motivated and held accountable, few want to be browbeaten. A judicious approach works best, calibrated to the personality of the coachee. Coaches should be “willing to listen and cut some slack if needed, and in particular not be demeaning or belittling to clients for any lack in their abilities,” warns Madhusree Basu.
#6 Be a Confident and Humble Role Model
One reason that some clients choose to work with a coach is to gain insights and advice from someone who is more experienced in doing something they aspire to do or be. Seen in this light, coaches are role models who can really inspire their clients. How these coaches convey lessons from their work is as important as the lessons themselves, as Simon Elkjær, the Chief Marketing Officer of avXperten explains:
One of the best things I’ve learned from working with a coach is perspective. I was able to learn what qualities I needed to have to stay in the industry for the long run and even develop routines that made a work/life balance easier to achieve.
In a related vein, Danny James notes the importance of a bit of humility and quiet confidence on the part of a coach:
A coach has been there and done it all, felt the fire and now, dedicated his life to helping others. There was a quiet and calm about my coach that told me he'd seen a lot and as a result, he had confidence in his solutions. And so I had confidence in him. No mistake was unrecoverable and no question was beneath his time. When someone has been where you wanna go, confidence in your guide and humility on their part is key.
#7 Help them See their ‘Blind Window’
Often coaches can bring a great deal of value by helping clients uncover blind spots that they didn’t know that they had. Or, as Jasmine Chen, Founder and CEO of LIFE Intelligence, puts it: “A coach can give clients introspection to develop self-awareness -- provoking them to think about their work, their self, and their people.”
For Debbie King, Founder and CEO of Loving Your Business, offering insight into this ‘blind window’ was one of the best things her coach gave her:
The biggest benefit of coaching for me is uncovering thoughts and beliefs which work against me but are hidden from my view. Like a fish in water, we can’t see the water because it’s always there. Our beliefs are like water – we experience the world through the lens of our beliefs but rarely question whether they serve us, especially beliefs about time, money, and relationships. That’s where coaching has changed my life.
Similarly, helping clients develop increased self-awareness helps them identify root causes of their problems and the barriers to their goals, as Courtney Sandora notes from her experience:
I can’t stress enough the importance of having someone who is impartial on board to call you out on your own unhealthy beliefs. After working with a coach what I’ve learned is so much that holds you back as a business owner is your own personal baggage - whether that be beliefs about money or people. A coach truly helps you work through that, goal set, and see what’s possible.
While our research uncovered a variety of considerations relating to what clients want out of their coaching relationship, some common themes were repeated over and over. First among these is the importance of setting expectations upfront to avoid disappointment. We treated this as one of the seven key factors above, but it also underlies most of the other six.
Aside from helping clients set and achieve their goals, great coaches also provide the right amount of accountability, tough love, and insight while inspiring them with a confident yet humble presence. All in all, the clients we interviewed are looking to be coached by another human, not a textbook, making connection and empathy the oil that keeps the engine of a coaching relationship firing at peak efficiency.