A list of randomly-generated career options — for a price tag of £1,650 including VAT, the result was underwhelming.
There are many articles extolling the virtues of investing in career advice.
Most, if not all, of these articles are written by other coaches and self-described experts offering services.
Don’t expect people who live in glass houses to throw stones.
While professional advisors give general tips as a way to promote themselves, they won’t go into specifics about how to hold a bad coach accountable and get a refund.
Yes, it is possible to get money back.
As the saying goes “a stitch in time saves nine.
” My friend’s experience prompted me to look deeper into this industry and spot the signs that an advisor might not be all that he or she claims to be.
Along the way, I learned that there are many things consumers can do to protect themselves at every stage of the process.
Before Hiring a Coach· Check the background and credentials of your coach“Garbage in, garbage out” is a term in computer science meaning that flawed, or nonsense input data produces nonsense output, regardless of how great a model is.
In short, the background of the facilitator matters.
The top complaint about the coaching industry is that there are no barriers to entry.
Virtually anyone can call themselves a “coach” by paying for “certification” or after only a few of days of training.
Aspiring coaches can also buy into an existing practice instead of having to build the business themselves.
At first glance, the company that my friend hired, Apples & Pears Associates*, appeared to be established, with Mayfair offices and claiming to have advised 3,000 clients.
In reality, Mr.
Mark Xander*, the coach who advised my friend, had acquired the business from the founder.
Before becoming a coach, Mr.
Xander had limited executive experience: According to his LinkedIn Profile, his career history comprised of 17 years working for a national gym chain, and his qualifications included a degree in “Human Movement Studies.
” (*When approached for comment for this article, the owner threatened to sue me for defamation.
Names have been changed, not because I am afraid of his threats, but because I do not wish to provide any publicity to his business or give this person the opportunity to capitalise on any attention.
The real issue is that he is one of many similar operators in a big unregulated industry.
)When he bought the business, Mr.
Xander inherited all the scripts, models and formulas — advertised on the company website as “a proven methodology.
” Using these materials, he took his client, my friend, through the process of producing a career options list which was, in the client’s opinion, generated without logical sequence and not based on any of the assessments, exercises or feedback that he was made to do.
Garbage in, garbage out.
Before choosing an advisor, try to understand their background.
Someone with leadership experience and a track record of successfully managing career transitions would probably make a better coach than someone who has had the same non executive job for 20 years.
· Verify the coach’s experience and career progressionChecking a prospective coach’s bio and LinkedIn profile is a start, but don’t believe everything written on a sales page, especially if it is written by the expert himself — verify.
We live in times where fake profiles and credentials-inflation are common, and even senior executives have being been caught padding their CVs.
A good career advisor should be comfortable to discuss his or her own career trajectory openly with you.
What decisions led the coach to where he or she is today?.Do you relate to, trust, and admire that path?Take notice of what roles the advisor had in the past and how long he or she was at each company.
It is not difficult to have worked for a number of name brand companies but they may have been lateral moves rather than managerial or leadership positions.
There are people who hit a wall in their own career and decide to reinvent themselves as advisors.
As the saying goes, “those who can’t, teach.
”· Ask for references from other paying clientsMake sure you are comparing apples to apples when it comes to checking references.
As they build their practice, coaches often offer free or discounted sessions to attract clients.
The person giving a glowing referral may not be a fee-paying client, may have paid a heavily discounted rate, or may be the coach’s mate.
Someone who paid zero will have different expectations from someone who paid £1,650, as my friend did, for the same service.
Don’t be afraid to discuss numbers, processes and timescales with the person giving the reference.
Asking questions upfront will save you a lot of frustration later on.
Ask about the coach’s typical client profile and look to talk to clients who are in a similar situation to you.
A coach who specialises in helping recent graduates will not be of much help to someone who is further along in their career.
Anyone who advertises ‘proven’ methods is not being realistic about his or her abilities.
You don’t need to pay the price to find out.
Some questions to ask referrers are: how did the coach arrive at the outcome?.Did it make logical sense?.What insights did the coach help the client discover?.Does the client seem satisfied or neutral about the result?.A good coach should be able to bring a fresh perspective or help the client uncover new insights, not just go through the motions.
· How do they view TimeA good advisor values time, both his clients’ and his or her own.
It took Mr.
Xander eight meetings over four months to come up with a list of randomly generated and generic career options for his client.
If an advisor fails to make an impact in the first session, chances are that he won’t be progressing much more by the 7th.
Remember, you are paying for insight, not facetime.
As the process continued, Mr.
Xander offered to continue meeting and further offered to provide “as much support as necessary in terms of meetings, email, and telephone support.
”“I am pretty confident that I mentioned that I would be happy to continue having meetings with him if [the Client] thought it would be of benefit, but from my perspective I was not too sure what that would have achieved as there was nothing else I could think of that I could offer, but the offer was made.
Xander is right in that more sessions would not have achieved much.
The coaching was not working and more interactions would not turn poor advice into gold.
The lesson: Be wary of coaches who focus on the amount of time they are willing to spend.
They probably don’t have many clients and time may be the only thing they have to offer.
· Ask the coach about (his own) successes and failuresA good coach is able to see past his clients’ current state and assist in finding ways to tap into their potential.
How did clients’ career paths evolve in the six months or 6 years after the coaching?.If the outcomes are mainly that the client is ‘in the right job’ or should ‘keep doing research’ — i.
more of the same — chances are that the coach won’t be able to bring additional value.
No one is perfect.
How someone handles his or her own failures as a coach reveals a lot about his character: Does the coach admit to mistakes or recognise when he is not able to help?.Or do they blame the client?When he was confronted about the manner in which he conducted the sessions and how they led to the results, Mr Xander’s response was to blame the client:“I could be corrected, but at no point in this meeting or in the previous delivery meeting do I recall the [Client] ever producing any substantial qualitative or quantitative evidence based research that I felt we could work with to help him.
”If Mr Xander did not feel his client was submitting useful work, why provide further guidance or not admit he could not help?.Why did he continue the sessions for 4 months and keep the fee?The Legal Fine PrintMy friend had to take Mr Xander to court over his poor coaching.
Along this journey, he learned of how little protection consumers had when it came to purchasing a service.
If you buy a toaster and it does not work, you can return it for a full refund with no questions asked.
Not so simple when you pay for a service such a coaching that costs a lot more.
The fact that there are no professional standards in the industry, makes it difficult to prove that the service is not fit for purpose.
Maybe you are struggling through the sessions, but the coach asks to keep an open mind and you don’t want to quit too early before the big reveal.
By the time you meet for the 5th time, chances are that you won’t be getting any refund.
My friend was dissatisfied early on, but felt compelled to continue partly out of a desire to give the coach a chance to demonstrate his skills, and partly because the option to cancel was never mentioned.
These were early signs that the coach was less than honest:· No explicit right to cancel.
The right to cancel a service is a basic right.
Xander nor the contract he gave my friend to sign explicitly discussed the right to cancel at any point, neither before, during or after the programme.
A client who may not be aware of their legal rights may unwittingly continue with the service thinking that there is no way out.
· No complaints procedure.
The coach did not provide a written complaints handling process, which is also a legal requirement.
The closest thing to a complaints procedure was a much milder “feedback clause” in the contract.
· No chance of a refund.
Xander did not inform his client of his right to cancel or how to complain, the option of getting a full or partial refund was never discussed.
How to Protect Yourself and Get Money BackCourt action should always be a last resort, but it is a step towards getting money back.
My friend had to take Mr.
Xander to court.
As part of the mediation process, Mr.
Xander offered a refund of £825, half of the fee paid.
Before getting to the unpleasant stage of taking court action, there are other steps you can take to protect yourself:· Don’t pay a lump sum.
Ask to pay in instalments far apart or after each session.
This way you can assess your progress and decide if you want to continue working with this person.
· Speak up and complain if necessary.
You are the client — don’t spare another’s feelings and hurt your own!.Set expectations clearly, give feedback and complain in writing if necessary.
· If it doesn’t work, quit — as early as possible.
If you are not happy with the service, stop the sessions immediately and ask for a refund.
If you quit early on, you have a fair chance to get a refund.
But if you keep accepting the service, it will be difficult to get any money back, no matter how poor the service.
· Don’t be afraid of getting legal.
Read the contract carefully and know your rights as a first step in getting the evidence to back your claim.
Be sure to follow legal procedure before taking matters to court.
The journey to take Mr.
Xander to court took over a year and involved a lot of work.
You may wonder if it is worth it to spend additional time and money in this pursuit.
Didn’t my friend have more important things to do with his time?.The answer is Yes and Yes.
Yes, my friend had better things to do.
In the same way, most of us have busy lives with many commitments.
We may not realise when we are being short-changed or we let things slide because we don’t have the energy to deal with a situation.
Hiring a career coach was my friend’s attempt to take control of his career, a decision that backfired and yet it was worthwhile in the end.
Rather than simply walking away, he learned to stand up for himself, articulate his issues and build a compelling case.
The skills gained through this experience will help him advance, not just in his career, but in life.
Ultimately, we are all responsible for our own lives — that means our successes, our failures, and putting things back together then they fall apart.