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Wendy Buckingham / Creator, Life Coaching Professionally
As the saying goes "When there are no rules, people make up their own" so one of the first thing you need to do when you start coaching is to create a firm coaching agreement that sets out precisely the terms you operate under with you clients.
It's really easy to assume that when someone works with you that it will be all sweetness and light, and in most cases your coaching relationship with your client will be fruitful for them and rewarding and profitable for you.
However, in these days of "shoot from the hip" litigation, it’s super important to make sure your life coaching agreements, contracts, disclaimers and refund policy are in place to protect your income and reduce your liability. This applies whether your specialty is personal coaching, in all its numerous niches, to working with executives in corporations or owners of small businesses.
So with that said, let’s first take a look at the content of your agreements, those things it is vital to have confirmed before you actually start coaching.
There are many things you should include in a coaching agreement, from how the sessions will be conducted, to the method and terms of payment of your life coaching fees and your refund policy. These are some of the things I have found really need to be set out very specifically, so there are no misunderstandings or assumptions.
They should be agreed to with a signature on the agreement from both you and the client and both of you have a copy. For distance clients, get them to print the agreement, sign and scan and email.
And if there are any variations down the track, make sure they are confirmed by both you and the client in writing.
Here are some of the things it is vital to include:
Include in your agreement the length and frequency of sessions agreed upon and how they are to be done, face-to-face or remote by phone or online platform, or a mixture.
You may want to include a sentence that allows for flexibility in the length of the session something like this one:
Sometimes if we are done we may finish a session early. Other times, our schedule permitting for both of us, we may run over.
Be clear about who calls who?
I did the majority of my sessions by phone or skype, and contrary to what most agreements state, I chose to do the calling, rather than have the client call me. This meant I was't waiting around for late comers or forgetters. I'd try calling twice and then maybe send a text before giving up.
Also be clear about contact between sessions if that is part of your coaching. You can opt for limited text, phone of brief phone calls. It's important to be specific so you are in control of your time and are not at the mercy of a too needy client.
Be specific about how much notice you require if the client has to reschedule or miss a session if that session is not to be forfeited? Be really firm in your statement on this one. You can always use your discretion to be more lenient in extenuating circumstances. Life happens😀 and you may even need to schedule sometime!
You can also include the rule that if a client is late for a session, the session still ends at the allotted time. You don't have to stick to this but this rule is there if you need it.
The fees for a session or series of sessions and terms and times of payment you and the client have agreed on should be clearly stated. Most coaches get paid in advance. If you don't get paid in advance be very wary of letting unpaid sessions build up whatever the excuse.
To protect yourself, make sure the client agrees that all decision and actions they take are a result of their choice not your coaching. This is to ensure there is no comeback to you if things don't work as they hoped. Your lawyer can help with this if needed but I have found this simple disclaimer quite sufficient for life coaching.
(Your name) role as coach is to facilitate the client towards his/her own choices of action. Whether to make a particular choice or take a particular action is entirely the responsibility of the client. (Your name) accepts no legal responsibility for the actions or outcomes of actions that the client may take as a result of the coaching.
A disclaimer is especially important if you coach in a physical or mental health related field and are not a licensed therapist. On my page on this site on on achieving Weight Loss Goals, I have a disclaimer that is an example of this you are welcome to adapt.
Please note: This page is written as general information on goal achievement only. It is in no way intended to be or replace a coaching client's own medical advice. The tips are not intended as medical advice and should not be taken as such.
If you find you are working with a client who has weight issues, do keep an eye out for a problem that is really an eating disorder that should be immediately referred on to a relevant therapist.
The client needs to know that what occurs and is said during the session, stays in the session. That is unless you have specific permission from the personal being coached to share with another person. And this can apply even if someone else is paying, such as in a corporate situation or where a one family member is paying for another, for example such a parent is paying for a child's coaching.
Nobody like to give a refund, but having a clear policy around this essential. Some coaches have a "no refund under any circumstances" type policy but personally I think this is too draconian and can lead to a nasty experience for both the client and the coach.
If you have a refund policy for sessions committed to but not taken, or if the coaching simply is not working out, be specific about the circumstances that would warrant this. Situations such as a real life trauma that occurs for the client or needing to refer the client to a therapist, before the series that has been paid for in advance, is completed.
There may be clients that you find you just can't coach. They may turn out to simply be uncoachable, at least by you, for whatever reason such as being a a total mismatch or even (as I once had) so oppositional they undermine your coaching confidence.
Have a clause that allows both the client and the coach to end the coaching agreement if things are really not working out. Be specific about what situations warrant a refund.
I would add here that I believe it is sometimes better to graciously give a refund (even if it is not really deserved) than to have an unhappy client out in the world putting you and your coaching down to other people.
Refunds for course and webinar content
Unfortunately, some clients and course participants (in person and online) may request a refund that is completely unjustified. And again sometimes to avoid nastiness it is good policy to just give them their money back so they have no reason to speak badly of you or your coaching.
However occasionally, with online courses, the request is really a well thought out scam to download all of your course content and then say “it was not what I thought it would be, so can I have a refund?" The answer here is to be really clear in your course or webinar promotions about the syllabus.
Also you could design it so the whole course cannot be downloaded in one click. Rather have it in modules and only offer a refund if the participant is dissatisfied and requests a refund after say two modules.
Unfortunately plagiarism - stealing other people's website and course content, is rife in the coaching industry and not new. I once discovered, many years ago, one of my newsletters had been sent out, almost word for word, by another coach under her own name and with no acknowledgement to me.
So how can you find out if your content has been stollen? I regularly check through a free service called Copyscape. If you discover a large part of something you have on you website or in one of your newsletters, or webinars has been exactly copied without permission or acknowledgement there are steps to take.
1. Write/email the source that has copied your stuff and request them to remove it.
2. If you receive no answer you can report them to Google.
Google takes a very poor view of "duplicated copy", and will take action on your behalf. The first few paragraphs on the explainer page from Google will tell it better than I can.
Of course there are some generic things you may have on your website such as a version of "what life coaching is" that do not warrant action.
It is more difficult to protect the content of "live" presentations. If you discover another coach or trainer has stollen your content without alteration or addition of their own interpretation, your only option is to approach them and ask that, at least, they acknowledge you as the source.
You'll find there are loads of free sample agreements available, that give varying versions of the items discussed about, including a very detailed one from the International Coach Federation.
The important thing is to make sure your agreement meets your needs in the coaching field, state and country you are working in.
An affordable resource I can recommend is the Welcome Pack from the Coaching Tools Company, which includes a coaching agreement template. The pack is just the thing you need to get off to a great start in your coaching business. It has 16 great tools for you to brand to your own coaching including:
If you have a lot of intellectual property such as courses, webinars and website content that needs protecting, I would strongly suggest you get a lawyer to help with your coaching agreement. It will be worth the cost in peace of mind.
So there you have it. I hope this has helped you get clear on what you need to know about keeping your coaching business legally congruent and protected from litigation and plagiarism. Think of it as an investment in your integrity and peace of mind.