When the pandemic hit, self-employed customer care consultant Madeleine Fisher* saw her income evaporate. “My business predominantly works in the leisure, hospitality and non-essential retail sectors and they all closed, or they didn’t have any budget for customer care. I went into panic mode,” she says.
As a limited company boss she had no government support to fall back on. The business owner decided to use almost a third of the £4,500 she had applied for under the government’s bounce-back loan scheme (set up to enable smaller businesses to access finance more quickly during the pandemic) – to pay for a coaching package with a “design influencer”.
At first, the phone sessions were “high energy”. Her phone would ping every morning with motivating texts. But she soon became frustrated at her coach’s lack of commitment.
“There were supposed to be one to two calls a week, but I only ever had one a week,” she says. “Appointments weren’t structured, and that’s when I began to feel the amount I spent was not worth five 35-minute phone calls and generic text messages.”
She is not the only person to pay thousands for online coaching to then find themselves questioning its value. During the pandemic, many freelancers, whose work fell or dried up entirely, have tried to improve their prospects by paying for coaching.
Ann Storr, 39, a writer living in Sevenoaks, Kent, spent £300 on a public speaking course last year after coming across a coach on Instagram. “The content wasn’t even organised and sometimes points would be repeated over and over because it was just spliced together.”
She says the one-to-one session she had as part of the package was equally disappointing.
“She was slumped on the sofa, holding her phone and fidgeting around. I felt like she’d just jumped out of the shower.
“She offered no real advice. It just felt like a pitch for her other services. It left a bad taste in my mouth.”
Storr says she decided not to take it any further as “I didn’t think it was a fight I could win, so I just shelved it”.
Francis Jenkins*, a business coach from Surrey, signed up to a programme which guaranteed her a certain income every month after completing the course.
The £1,200-a-month membership involved group calls with the coach and her business partner, and one-to-one sessions. The amount of time varied from month to month.
“She would constantly make promises, just basic ones like calling at a certain time, then not showing up. It was deeply unprofessional.”
Jenkins says she was “too scared of the fallout” if she requested a refund as she was an intimidating character.
The coaching industry has boomed over the past decade: There was a 153% increase in UK-based life coaches on LinkedIn in 2020 compared with the year before, according to the social network, while the number of business coaches soared by 115%. The value of this sector alone is forecast to reach $11.6bn (£8.4bn) in 2021, according to Ibis World. However, it is unregulated, and anyone can set up as a coach without training or qualifications.
“We exist to avoid these very things,” says Liz Rochester, president of the UK arm of the not-for-profit International Coaching Federation, which has about 2,000 accredited coaches in the UK.
“There are charlatans taking advantage of the current situation. People are considering their life purpose. They are at the point of ‘what should I do next?’ because they have been furloughed, or had time to think about whether they enjoy what they do. However, that doesn’t mean someone on Instagram promoting themselves can give them that.
“We make it categorically clear that we do not advise anyone to promote themselves as a coach after attending a programme for two days, for example. An entry-level coach has to do 100 hours of actual coaching practice, plus 60 hours of training.”
Lawyer Lucy Wheeler says the issues arising from the online coaching industry are increasing. “On average, I now get at least one entrepreneur approach me each week with a complaint about a coach they have worked with; sometimes there are many more,” she says.
“While bodies such as the ICF do great work promoting ethics and standards, there is no requirement in the UK that someone holding themselves out to be a coach has to have any qualifications. They could set up a website overnight and hold themselves to be a coach the very next day.”
Over one week last year Wheeler was contacted by more than 20 people, all desperate to exit a 12-month contract with the same business coach. “They were getting next to no benefit or coaching. For some, the monthly instalments were more than their mortgage payments. Those involved were putting the payments on to credit cards, or had borrowed money from the family, and many were hiding the escalating debt from their husbands.”
Similarly, the CPD Standards Office, an accreditation service for training and learning, reports that conversations and complaints about poor quality courses sold via Instagram have significantly increased over the past 18 months.
Amanda Rosewarne, its co-founder, says there is a worrying lack of social media regulation around promoting online education or coaching. “Many unsuspecting individuals fall foul of unscrupulous marketing tactics,” she says.
“Many Instagram courses, or ‘coach programmes’ are badly designed, overpriced and delivered by individuals who lack any authentic teaching or coaching experience.”
* Some names have been changed
How to find genuine help
Don’t go looking for a coach just using Instagram. “Don’t be seduced by the glitz, which may have no connection to the calibre of the coach,” says Olivier Herold, chief executive of The Oxford Group, part of City & Guilds group.
Seek authentic testimonials. Successful courses tend to have positive reviews that name the student and possibly link to their social media page.
Beware of “lifestyle-changing” courses with flashy pictures of mansions and sports cars, says Rosedale.
Research those training qualifications. Do your due diligence first, and really investigate any prospective coach’s training qualifications, says Wheeler. “Remember some life-coaching qualifications can be obtained via a remote course over a weekend.”