Ep. #70: Cherry Picking in the Coaching Industry

Cherry picking in the coaching industry is the big problem no one is talking about. When coaches are selective about sharing their clients’ results—they only share the good but not the bad—prospective clients are misled, and existing clients can feel cheated. Advocating for yourself as a coaching consumer is critical to avoiding these problems! This episode explains how.


Welcome to Rich & Thin Radio, the only podcast that helps you feel lighter, earn better, and live a wealthy life. I’m Kelly Hollingsworth. I’m very happy you’re here. Today we are going to talk about something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone else discuss out loud and in public, and it is cherry picking in the coaching industry.

The reason I want to talk about this today is that so many of my clients have gotten into expensive business coaching programs, some of them extremely expensive, and everything looks amazing from the outside, but once they are in the program, things don’t look quite so amazing. The picture from the outside is rosy, Come on in! The water’s warm, and everyone’s making money, but then on the inside it’s a very different picture. Very few people are actually making money, and the notable successes have been held up as an example of what’s possible from being in the program, but there are very few of them.

Does this always happen? No, but it does happen. It happens a lot, and when it does, it doesn’t feel quite right. It doesn’t feel quite right once you’re in there and you see how things really are, and the reason I want to talk about this is because when we don’t feel quite right about something like this, it can affect how we approach our own businesses. We can feel cheated, and when we feel cheated, we don’t really go out and make offers as effectively as we could. There are other ill effects that I will discuss today from cherry-picking, but the first thing I want to do is define exactly what it is.

And I’m going to define it by giving you an example. One of the clients I’ve been working with for over a decade has an amazing trading program that I have been wanting to get into for over a decade. What does it mean to be in this trading program? You open a brokerage account, give power of attorney to my client, and he will trade your money for you. Not in stocks. That’s what everyone thinks about when I talk about the trading programs that I get into, but he doesn’t trade stocks. He trades livestock futures, which basically means he bets whether the price of certain futures contracts, such as the futures contract on lean hogs, is going to go up or down.

And he called me on Friday after I first got into this trading program, and he told me, “You made some money this week.” And this is something I could have checked for myself. I own the brokerage account, I could’ve signed in at any time to see how my account was doing. But I didn’t look at it, and he called me and he told me, “You’re up $17,000 since Monday.”

And seventeen thousand dollars in a vacuum doesn’t mean much. If I had put $1.7 million in my brokerage account, and I made $17,000, that’s not an amazing percentage return. Well, actually it’s not bad, for a week. If I had put in $1.7 million, I guess I would have made 1% in a week. And this is after his compensation. It’s what would have netted in a week on that much money. Not bad.

But I didn’t put $1.7 million in the account. I put $20,000 in the account. So that meant I made 85% on my money in five days.

This is a true story. But the important question I want you to consider here is, is this a representative story?

The answer is no. It really happened. I really made that money, but another thing my client told me is that I had the single best first week of any customer of his who has participated in this trading program. It means I got lucky. My timing was terrific.

So why am I telling you about this? If I didn’t tell you that this 85% gain I earned in five days wasn’t representative, if all I told you about was the money I made in five days, and I didn’t tell you the rest of the story, I’m going to get to the rest of the story in a minute, you wouldn’t have an accurate picture. You couldn’t decide if this trading program was right for you based on all of the information.

And that’s something that would be nice to know, because there’s actually more to the story than this. This trading program over the last decade or so has generated some amazing returns—often double and triple digit returns–month after month, year after year. But that doesn’t mean it is been amazing the entire time. At one point, over a couple weeks or months, there was a loss of about 100%. The people who stuck with the program even when it was down that far came back huge. They lost their money during that losing period, but they stayed in the game, and they made a lot of money having done so. They’re enormously profitable now, because they didn’t get out at the bottom. They didn’t get out at the worst possible time.

So now what’s happened? I’ve told you about the good in this trading program, the amazing week I had making 85% in a week, but I’ve also told you about the ugly, and you have a more representative picture of what happens in this trading program

Why does it matter that you have a representative picture? Because this thing goes up, and it goes down, and it’s a skill-based game, my client has been trading in this market for a very long time, and I expect that his skill will persist. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any risk. The big loss I told you about reveals that there is risk.

And what happens in a cherry-picking situation is that no one talks about the risk that is really there. When you’re in a cherry-picking situation, no one talks about the pits. All they talk about is the sweet, juicy fruit where everyone’s making money, or they talk about one person who’s making money and they don’t mention the fact that it is the single best success story that they possibly have to tell, and a lot of people have lost money. The picture you get in a cherry-picking situation from the outside is that life is good for everyone on the inside, so plunk down your five or ten or 35,000 bucks and get in here because you’re really going to miss out if you don’t.

That, my friends, is the definition of cherry picking. You see the success, and it’s not representative, and no one’s telling the full story. And when it happens to you, it doesn’t feel right, and the reason it doesn’t feel right is because it isn’t right. It’s illegal.

In some industries, cherry picking is tough to get away with. With folks like my client who trades lean hog futures, he has to publish a track record that shows his percentage returns every single month. And that’s not all. He also has to show how many clients have gotten into his trading program and left the trading program having made money, and how many clients have gotten into the program and left the program having lost money.

This kind of statistical information is unusual. It’s required for the types of clients that I represent as an attorney. And now you may be asking, “Wait a minute. If the trading program is profitable overall, if month after month, year after year, this trader is making positive percentage returns, how can it be possible that someone could get into this thing and lose money?”

And the answer is it depends on the timing. I got in in the best possible week. If someone got in right before that hundred percent loss occurred, and they lost all their money, and then they quit, they didn’t put in more money to keep going, they would have bought high and sold low. Buying high and selling low is how you lose money every single time, even if everyone else in the program is making money because they’re sticking with the program.

And this is a fascinating perspective, isn’t it? What if every single person who was selling a group coaching program, or even one-on-one coaching, had to publish statistics like that? I said that this kind of reporting my lean hog-trading client has to do is unusual. In most industries, including the business coaching industry, this kind of reporting is unheard of.

What if we had it in the coaching business? Well, one thing that would happen is you would get into the program having some idea of what’s actually going on in there before you plunk down your credit card. You wouldn’t hear podcasts about, “Hey, everyone’s making millions of dollars in here, come join our mastermind,” and then you get in there and you’d realize, “Hmmmm… There are about three people who are making money in here and there are about 300 people who are not.”

The reason I want to talk about this is… Actually there are several reasons I want to talk about this. One, I just want to pop the balloon. At the risk of being a kill-joy, I want to assure you that success is notable because it’s rare. No matter what it is you are setting out to do, whether it’s achieving lifelong weight loss, or working part-time and making a full-time income, or becoming a successful coach or lawyer or hedge fund manager, whatever it is you want to be, whatever it is you are endeavoring to be successful at, I can promise you that most of the people who are trying that thing do not enjoy notable levels of success. As I said earlier, the reason notable success is notable is because it’s rare.

And I want to talk about this during this year that we are focusing in this show on making offers, is because my clients who are participating in group coaching programs that cherry-pick in their promotional message get in to those programs, and then they find out, the Emperor has no clothes. People aren’t really making money that they thought they were making in there.

And then my clients use this bit of information to decide that the possibility of making money is slim, and that’s a tragedy when they think thoughts like that. Because what do we know about our thoughts? If you think that the possibility of making money is slim, what do you do? You certainly don’t fling yourself into your work with wild abandon, serve your customers to the nth degree, and enjoy handsome compensation for doing so. What do you do instead? You hang back.

And you can find yourself hanging back for a couple reasons. More than a couple actually. Today I’ll discuss three.

One reason is that we hold back in situations like this, when you get into a coaching program where you’ve seen the rose, but not the thorns until you get inside, is that you can feel cheated. You can think to yourself, I don’t want to be like the person who’s running that program. If misrepresentation is how things go, if that’s what it takes to make millions of dollars, and this multi-seven-figure coach who I wanted to emulate before I bought into this program and before I knew what was really going on, is doing stuff like this, then I want nothing to do with it.

And with these kinds of thoughts, you can turn yourself away from serving your own customers, and away from generating cash for yourself, because you’re thinking that business, at least business past a certain level of success, is all about smoke and mirrors, and you just don’t want to be that person, you don’t want to do anyone dirty, so that’s one reason you might find yourself hanging back after being in a situation like that.

Another reason you can find yourself hanging back is that in a cherry-picking situation, the reason they’re picking the cherries and only telling you about those, and they’re not disclosing that the results that they’re touting, the success stories they’re holding up as shining examples, aren’t actually representative… They’re not telling you about that, is because their  coaching programs don’t actually work. The most expensive group coaching program I have ever participated in, more than $20,000 price tag on that thing, was an utter disaster in terms of business advice. For example, in that program, before anyone figured out their message, before anyone had a clue what they were supposed to say, what would work, we were all slapping up websites and running Facebook ads. And that might be what you do when you’re flying by the seat of your pants on your own. It is not what you should be doing when you paid twenty thousand dollars for business advice.

And what I have seen in that program is that the few people who have made significant amounts of money seem to have made it not because of what they learned in that program, but because of what they learned elsewhere. So that’s another thing that happens. Sometimes, the “shining examples of success” that are touted as the reason you should get into a particular coaching program are misleading. The successful person that’s held up as the example isn’t successful person as a result of the particular coaching program. They’re actually successful for some other reason. Maybe they’re successful in spite of what they were told to do in the particular coaching program that is touting them as an example of success.

So why am I telling you about all of this? I’m a coach. Am I saying that all coaching programs are scams? Of course not. The reason I’m telling you about this is because April is our month for advocacy, and I told you this week I was going to talk to about the government rules. I don’t care what industry you’re in–even if you’re in an industry that is largely unregulated, such as coaching.–there are rules against cherry picking. The Federal Trade Commission says that if you are touting a success story, and the success is not representative, you are required to say that it isn’t representative, and very few coaches are doing that, and I buy a lot of coaching, and I know that the results aren’t representative because I’m actually in the programs and I am actually in the programs and I am seeing that cherry picking is going on. And it’s not a little cherry-picking. It’s a lot of cherry picking.

What does this mean for you? One thing it means is that there are rules, government rules, that people are breaking, so you have to advocate for yourself. You have to be an intelligent consumer of business coaching services. With anything you buy, you have to be an intelligent consumer. For example, I try to do all of my shopping at Nordstrom or Costco. If there’s a problem, they make it right.

And I do exactly the same thing with my coaching clients. If I don’t help you achieve a result, I don’t want your money. Hundred percent refund policy. That’s what I demand as a consumer, and the only times I’ve been sorry are when I bought into something where a refund wasn’t available. They said, “no refunds.” And I was so enamored with the coach who was selling the program that I said, “Oh, okay that’s fine. I trust you.” And what I’ve come to realize, when there is a no-refund policy, there’s usually a reason for that. it’s a warning sign, in my mind. So, what I demand as a consumer for myself, I also offer to my coaching clients. And whomever you hire as your business coach, I don’t care if it’s me or if it’s anyone else, I think this is something you should demand from them. And I think if they’re not offering it, that should raise questions.

And of course, they could say, “I’m going to show up to do the work. The only reason you would need a refund is if you don’t show up to do the work, and that’s why as a coach I don’t offer refunds.”

And here I have to say, I think that’s pretty much hogwash. The one coaching program I was telling you about that I bought into with a no-refund policy, the multi-seven-figure coach who I thought I was going to get to work with, disappeared in that program, and handed all of us off to her assistant. I’m a business coach myself. I did not need or want to work with an assistant who’s never actually built a business. I wanted to work with the coach I hired. A coach who is more successful than me. Not someone that an ultra-successful coach hired to do her work for eighty grand a year.

I guess I’m going off on a little bit of a rant here, so I’m going to rein it in, and I’m just going to tell you that advocating for yourself, in my mind, means getting in writing a no-questions-asked refund policy. This is what I offer to all of my clients, and when I do, people often ask, “Aren’t you worried about being cheated?” And the answer is no. I’ve never been cheated. I’ve never had someone work with me, get amazing results, think that I really helped them, and then say, “I want my money back.” I guess it could happen. It never has, but I guess it could. But I’m okay with that, because in my experience, it’s not the clients who are the problem. It’s the coaches. Or at least some of the coaches. What’s happening is many coaches are so interested in scaling, in doing group coaching programs, in delegating, that quality is eroding. Not everywhere, but in a lot of places, and consumers of coaching services are suffering. Particularly consumers of group coaching services.

This isn’t unusual, by the way. It happens in all businesses that get too big, no matter what the industry. I remember back when Golden Corral—this was a hundred years ago—but I remember when they served real food. I went into one a few years ago, with my husband. I was so excited because I had such fond memories of things like real mashed potatoes and real pot roast and how much I enjoyed eating there, way back when, and when my husband and I went in there a couple of years ago, and we sat down to eat the food, he was looking at me like I was crazy, because decades later, everything—all the food—was processed garbage.

This kind of thing is going to happen with businesses that scale too quickly and try to do too much, and coaching is no exception. So that’s another important thing I want to tell you about today. Coaching is an interactive process. If you’re in a group and the group is so large your coach knows your first name and that’s about it, you’re probably not going to get your money’s worth. Your coach’s brain should be engaged in what’s going on in your brain for the coaching to be effective. Your coach should know about your situation. Your coach should have a deep understanding of you, your business, your strengths and challenges and what’s working and what isn’t. Your coach should know YOU, and what I’m seeing lately, in too many situations to count, is that’s not what’s happening.

It’s almost impossible to find a good one-on-one coach these days, and it’s really easy to find yourself in a situation where you’ve paid through the nose but you’re not getting what you need. So that’s one point I really want to make to you today. Advocate for yourself when you are purchasing business coaching services. There are rules to protect you, such as rules against cherry-picking, but for the most part, the government is a paper tiger and there’s so much going on that isn’t right but that doesn’t rise to the level of government involvement. Cherry-picking has to be really egregious before the government will step in and shut things down.

The other thing I want you to know is that people not getting results is not always the coach’s fault. Most people aren’t successful, whether they have a coach or they don’t, because most people simply don’t do the work. Having a great coach helps, there’s no question about it. But it’s entirely possible to thwart your own success even if you have the best coach in the world. It’s a little like my client who trades lean hog futures. I think he’s one of the best lean hog traders in the world. He’s doing his job. If there is a client who gets in at the top, suffers a bad week or two, and won’t keep going, they decide to get out at the bottom and go home and lick their wounds, that’s not all on my client. Many people get into profitable trading programs and they don’t make money because they don’t have faith in the trader’s skill, all they see is the risk, and they pull out at exactly the wrong time. They take their money off the table at the precise moment when they should be doubling down.

This happens in coaching, too. If you’re not in there doing the work, the best coach in the world cannot save you.

So what I’m saying here is that success is a collaborative process, and nowhere is this as true as when you’re working with a coach. The right coach for you might not be the right coach for me, and vice versa. Having a coach is very individualized.

Perhaps the most important thing that I have for you this week is that, as with everything, your participation in a coaching program that turns out not to be everything you dreamed about is neutral. You get to decide what to make it mean. You get to decide what everything means in your head. If you go into a coaching program and there are a bunch of people who aren’t making money, you get to decide that you will be different. You will be the rock star. You can also assess what’s going on. Is it the fault of the program? Is it the fault of the people in the program? Is everyone a bit to blame?

However you answer these questions should be what’s most useful to you. You get to decide, For example, what to make it mean if a group coaching program that you’ve paid a lot of money for goes off the rails. If someone you admired doesn’t show up, and in your view shirks their duty. You can make it mean that earning a lot of money is the province of shady people who don’t show up and who don’t keep their word, and that you never want to be like that person, so you just back off from your business and feel frustrated. Or you can make it mean that you will be different. You will be the service provider that everyone wants to deal with, because you are showing up and keeping your word and serving your clients rather than delegating your work to an assistant who doesn’t have nearly your skill level or experience and who won’t serve your clients nearly as well.

It’s all how you think about things, my friends. I’ve decided to use my cautionary experiences as a consumer of coaching services as fuel to structure my business in a way that I can feel good about, and if you are feeling like you need a business coach that you can feel good about, get in touch and let’s see if there’s a fit. We can talk about where you are, what’s in the way, and whether I can help, and I hope you take me up on this offer, because my clients either get their result, in their sole discretion, or they get a refund. So email me if you’d like to chat. kelly@richandthin.com. Thanks and I’ll talk to you next week.

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