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Controversial Coaching 101: Life Coach Red Flags that are Losing you Business

How many red flags are too many?

Multiple red flag pins stuck in a journal
1 red flag, be aware. 2 red flags, proceed with caution. Multiple red flags, run away!

The Life Coach Red Flags

We all understand the term "red flag" to mean a warning sign, indicating potential problems and advising us to steer clear. While the term is often used in the dating world, consumers also use it when evaluating services, including life coaching.

Prospective clients searching for a new coach are also on the lookout for red flags that warn them to avoid certain coaches, yellow flags that suggest caution, and green flags that signal they’ve found the right coach.

This behavior is completely understandable. Life coaching is a relatively new and unlicensed profession. Despite efforts by major accrediting bodies to uphold high standards, there are still some shady areas in the industry where so-called "coaches" may be looking for their next grift.

That being said, one person’s red flag might be another’s yellow flag. Many potential red flags may simply be due to a lack of knowledge or experience. Join Jen Long (ACC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Anthony Lopez (MCPC), Brooke Adair Walters (ACC), and Lisa Finck (MCC) as we discuss how to recognize potential life coach red flags and determine whether they’re dealbreakers for clients.

Red flag: Unrealistic Promises For Quick & Easy Goals

It’s a famous old phrase: if something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

This little rule of thumb is often handy when being approached with ‘business opportunities’ or jobs that will "make you a millionaire before twenty-two". Scams that come into your life promising the world and instead take your time and money with no result. For clients, It's good to be hesitant when seeing improbable promises from anywhere.

For us, ICF Coaches can’t really promise a guaranteed specific result. By advertising that a coach can fix your marriage, or that you will have a successful business after becoming a client, we are already overpromising. Meeting goals is on the client. The coach can help them along the way, sure, but promising from the very start that you will show the client how to get their desired success is a red flag.

Instead, we can turn that red flag into a green one by advertising how our clients will benefit from their time partnering with a professional who understands their goals and where they want to be at the end of a coaching relationship. By emphasizing the support, partnership, and insights we provide, clients can appreciate the realistic and sustainable path to their personal and professional growth. Highlighting past client success stories and testimonials can also showcase the potential benefits without making exaggerated promises. But coaches cannot straight up promise a client will reach their original goal on day one.

Red Flag: Marketing Luxury Lifestyle and Income

Photo of a yacht and mansion on a tropical island

Following the same trend as our first red flag, this form of overpromising comes in through the marketing. While it's not as specific as the overpromise, it's close enough. It's saying "If you coach with me, you too could live my beautiful and rich lifestyle...maybe...possibly... 🤷‍♂️".

More and more consumers are told to beware the business that advertises mostly with pictures of the coach and their life alone, only showing incredible scenes, luxury activities, vacations and boats and more. Many coaches that do this are pretty vague about what it is they actually coach about, leaving clients to wonder how it is this coach can sustain this lifestyle and wondering what that secret is. The catch? Well, they’ll need to pay the coach first, of course.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission warns against ‘coaches’ that claim you will be able to make large sums of money just by having sessions with them, not by getting any other experience. Their website calls out the businesses that promise they have “experts” who will teach (another red flag) “a proven method”, when they themselves don’t actually have education or experience in the fields they’re talking about. These empty promises will lead to lighter pockets and likely little else.

Yellow Flag: No Experience In What we are Coaching

Here's one that may ruffle some feathers. Can you be an amazing, ethical, and compelling coach, but not have any direct experience with your niche? Yes!

Will potential clients care anyway? Probably!

Just to illustrate more clearly what we are talking about, imagine the following:

  • A marriage coach who's never been married.

  • An executive coach who's never ran a company.

  • A fitness coach who has never worked out.

  • A parenting coach who has never had children.

  • A recovery coach who has never struggled with addiction.

  • A sports coach who has never played the sport they are coaching.

While these examples are a bit overblown, they highlight the potential disconnects between a coach's qualifications and their niche, it’s important to note that expertise can also come from academic study, mentorship, and other forms of indirect experience. However, clients often look for a coach who has "walked the walk" and can relate to their journey on a personal level.

Turning this yellow flag into a green flag involves transparency and highlighting the unique strengths that compensate for the lack of direct experience.

Coaches can:

  • Emphasize their extensive training and certifications.

  • Share success stories and testimonials from past clients.

  • Highlight transferable skills and relevant experiences.

  • Demonstrate their commitment to continuous learning and development in the niche area.

By addressing these concerns proactively, coaches can build trust and credibility with potential clients, even if they lack direct experience in the specific niche they are coaching.

Yellow Flag: The Coach That Did Something Once And Now we're the Expert

It's fantastic when someone achieves a significant goal or experiences impressive success. However, just because we have done something remarkable once doesn't instantly make us qualified to sell the exact formula for that success to everyone else. This yellow flag appears when a coach markets themselves as an expert based almost entirely on a single successful experience. It’s a good sign for customers to proceed with caution and take their "expertise" with a grain of salt

Consider this scenario: You're looking to expand your brand and want to hire a viral marketing coach. You find someone who went viral once on social media. They have no background in marketing, no testimonials, and no sustained success—just the memory of that one viral moment. This “viral marketing expert” built their entire business on that singular success, promising they know the secret to make it happen again, despite having never repeated their own viral achievement.

When evaluating such coaches, consider their pricing as part of the yellow flag. Coaches who charge high prices based solely on one-off success stories might be more interested in profiting from their moment of fame rather than offering valuable, sustainable insights.

Turning the Yellow Flag Green

Instead of riding the coattails of a single success, coaches can turn this yellow flag into a green one by emphasizing their ongoing achievements, professional development, and client successes. Here’s how:

  • Show Consistent Results: Highlight multiple instances of success, not just a one-off event. Share testimonials and case studies from various clients.

  • Continuous Learning: Demonstrate a commitment to ongoing education and professional development in the field.

  • Realistic Promises: Focus on the process and the support you offer rather than guaranteeing specific outcomes. Emphasize the personalized strategies and tools you provide to help clients achieve their goals.

  • Transparency: Be open about your journey and the steps you took to achieve your own success, and explain how these can be adapted to fit the unique needs of each client.

By focusing on these aspects, coaches can build trust and credibility, ensuring clients see their value beyond a single viral moment.

Red Flag: No Clearly Defined Coaching Contract

This is a big red flag. While technically you could be a great coach who just doesn't yet have a clear and formal contract, it’s normally a sign of either inexperience, ignorance, or a lack of training. In the worst case scenario, it could be a malicious obfuscation that combines no coaching contract with high fees.

A clearly defined and formal contract will explain from the start what is involved for the coach and client. It will establish boundaries on the part of the coach, explain what they can and cannot do, the right to refer out to a different professional/end the relationship, establish the pricing, refund policies, and insurance, and more. For clients, It’s not worth the gamble of taking on a coach that doesn’t know or chooses not to use a formal contract. How do we turn this into a green flag? Coaches should draft a comprehensive contract that outlines roles, responsibilities, boundaries, financial terms, confidentiality, and termination clauses. It's crucial to seek professional advice by consulting a lawyer to ensure the contract is legally sound and protects both parties. This not only demonstrates professionalism and transparency but also builds trust and security in the coaching relationship.

Red Flag: Lovebombing, Lacking Boundaries, or Being Overerly friendly

Being a professional is important as a coach. If we aren't acting like a professional and try to act like friends with our clients, it may be a sign to others to be cautious and start considering if the coaching relationship is likely to work.

As much as ourselves and a client might have hit it off, neither of us are there to be one another’s friend. Being nice and polite is one thing, but a coach that’s overly friendly, shares irrelevant personal things about themself, texts clients after hours often, or invites clients to meet outside the coaching session is is being too nice- to the degree where there is a coaching boundary encroached upon. This isn’t even touching on the question of whether or not coaches and clients can persue romantic relationships with each other (spoiler: they certainly shouldn’t!).

Constant compliments from a coach in and out of sessions might feel nice for a while, but it can also make many people feel uneasy and for good reason.

Should a coach have rapport with their clients? Absolutely! But rapport stays mindful of the role and the responsibilities of a coach to abide by a professional code of ethics. If that code is being breached, be mindful of your own boundaries and look out for if they too get stepped over.

Red Flag: No Education, No Certification, No Credential

Finally, there’s one red flag that, if seen, will often be accomanied by more red flags. A lack of education.

For this example, we will speak within the bounds of an education that is accredited by the Internation Coaching Federation, but there are many other great accrediting bodies out there that can validate the education of a coach.

Yet, having no education or certification in coaching is problematic for numerous reasons. First, it suggests a lack of foundational knowledge in coaching principles and methodologies. Without formal training, a coach might lack essential skills in active listening, goal setting, and ethical decision-making. Additionally, untrained coaches may not adhere to established ethical guidelines, leading to potential boundary issues and unprofessional behavior. A coach without credentials also lacks accountability, making it difficult to ensure they provide quality service. Furthermore, the absence of education might mean they are unfamiliar with the latest research and best practices in the field, potentially limiting their effectiveness and the value they can offer clients.

Want to turn this red flag yellow?

Get an education, any form of education. As long as its related to coaching.

Want to turn this yellow flag green?

Get an education that has been validated by a major accrediting body. Whether thats the ICF, BCC, or NBHWC.

Final Thoughts

As coaches, being aware of red flags is crucial for both our clients and ourselves. Unrealistic promises, marketing based solely on personal luxury, lack of niche experience, leveraging a single success, absence of a clear contract, overstepping professional boundaries, and no formal education or certification are all warning signs to our clients that should not be ignored. These red flags can be indicators of inexperience, unethical practices, or a lack of proper training.

However, these red flags can be turned into green flags with the right approach. Coaches should strive for transparency, continuous learning, professional behavior, and adherence to established standards and ethics. By doing so, we can build trust and credibility, ensuring a productive and respectful coaching relationship. For clients, choosing a coach who meets these standards can lead to more effective and fulfilling coaching experiences.


Thank you,

Jen Long (ACC), Jerome LeDuff (MCPC), Lisa Finck (MCC) Anthony Lopez (MCPC), and Brooke Adair Walters (ACC)!

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