Awkward Business Conversations: How to Train a Misbehaving Client
Welcome back to Awkward Conversations week! As we promised yesterday when we were discussing how to fire a client, today we’re talking about what to do before you fire a client. Let’s talk client training. It’s kind of like dog training, except with clients.
(Actually, that’s not true. It’s nothing like dog training at all.)
Client training is something you’re going to want to do if you have clients who you can’t (or don’t want to) fire, but they’re behaving in a way that makes working with them untenable. Maybe they don’t pay on time. Maybe they email too much. Maybe they call randomly in the middle of Let’s Get It On. Maybe they’re making the work impossible, maybe they have wildly unreasonable expectations, or maybe certain personality elements are making you want to put their head in a lake.
Whatever the situation, they have to change. It’s not you, it’s them.
There are two possible objectives for sending a client training email.
1. You genuinely hope the client will change their behavior.
You are looking forward to having a long, successful and lucrative relationship with the client. There are many aspects of the work or the relationship or the person that you like very much. It’s energizing, it’s rewarding, it’s generally hunky dory. But if they don’t stop doing that thing, well, the head goes in the lake.
You want to work with them. You just want them to start behaving themselves. You hope that if only you had a template to work from – perhaps one from IttyBiz, for example – you could modify it appropriately, send it off, and you and your client could ride off into the sunset on a bicycle built for two.
2. You’re pretty sure they won’t change and you don’t really care anyway because you kind of hate them.
This is the alternative to the tandem bicycle utopia described in scenario one. In the first example, you’re giving a bit of a cry for help. “Help me help you” and all that. You want them to succeed at making the change. You hope they succeed at making the change. And you are probably willing to overlook a lot of their failures and missteps if you can see they’re genuinely trying.
This one is a straight-up ultimatum. Fix it or I’m out.
In this case, you are probably more than happy to fire them. In fact, you might even prefer to fire them and the only reason you’re going ahead with this first is because you want to be able to look yourself in the mirror and still see a fair person. And even if you aren’t happy to fire them, you’re pretty sure they’re never going to change anyway and this email isn’t going to make an iota of difference.
Now for the easy part.
Internally, these two scenarios are very different. One feels like a collaborative attempt at mutual satisfaction and the other feels like an interpersonal ransom note.
But externally, the situations are exactly the same. You do the exact same thing in both cases. Your wording, your tone, and your approach do not differ whether you love them and believe in them or hate them and want them dead. No difference. One script.
A lot of people screw this up because they involve their emotions in their communications. They get all emotionally dysregulated and think that because they’re mad, or frustrated, or the wounded party, or because the client’s behavior was seriously beyond the pale, that should alter how the whole thing shakes down.
Because here’s the thing:
If I’m driving in my car – which I’m not because I don’t drive, but work with me here – if I’m driving my car and I’m distracted because Jack is spouting philosophy and it’s harshing my mellow and I accidentally steal your parking space, I didn’t mean it. I was perhaps careless. I perhaps have a habit of carelessness. I perhaps could work on my mindfulness. But you shouldn’t fly off the handle at me because, regardless of what I should do, you should keep your cool.
This is because keeping your cool is good. And you seem like the kind of person who does good things regardless of the stimulus.
Now if I’m driving in my car – which I’m still not because I still don’t drive – and I’m a manipulative, parking spot stealing harlot, and I particularly want your parking spot because you’re driving an Audi A4 and if there’s anything I hate, it’s people who drive Audi A4s… you still shouldn’t fly off the handle at me. You should still keep your cool.
This is because keeping your cool is good. And you seem like the kind of person who does good things regardless of the evil and malicious intentions of the people stealing your parking space.
It is the same with training clients.
It doesn’t matter how over the top their behavior is. Don’t change your emotional standards because you’ve decided that your client is evil.
Approach both situations with as much cautious optimism as you can muster, and try not to get all wacky about it if you happen to hate them.
Let’s get to the templates.
How to Train A Misbehaving Client, the template
As we did yesterday, we’ll do the basic template and then three examples.
[Salutation. Go with your usual. Don't be stern. You're not firing them.]
[Introduction. Say something nice. Don't get stiff. You're not firing them.]
[Lay the scene. Lead with something brief, but good. You're NOT firing them. Say what's happening. Use words like "I notice". At this point you are probably assassinating their character, and they're going to feel embarrassed at best or defensive at worst. Lots of softening phrases.]
[Say how it makes you feel. Hit their empathy buttons. Get them out of defending themselves or collapsing in shame and thinking about what circumstances their actions cause.]
[Say what you need. Imply a threat, but don't make it outright. "I want to continue working with you and to do that, I need X. Use "and" not "but". If you feel inclined to offer anything to them, do so here.]
[Close with a positive. YOU'RE NOT FIRING THEM.]
[Finish with the same formality you usually use. Casual creates safety here. I use "xx ND".]
Sample # 1 – Can you please pay your damn bills already?
Hope you and the kids are doing well. (Also, thanks for sending your completed worksheets – and great job! I’ve got another email about those coming.)
I wanted to steal a little time today to talk to you about something that’s been on my mind. I’ve looked back over our history and I’ve noticed that every time we’ve sent you an invoice, we’ve had to follow up at least twice to get it settled. It seems like we have to spend a lot of time getting a hold of you to get these invoices taken care of, and I know neither of us wants to spend any more time on administration than we absolutely have to.
If I can speak frankly, this is starting to stress me out, and it’s taking some of the joy out of our sessions for me. I’m starting to dread sending your invoice out every month because it feels like it’s always going to be a struggle. I know it doesn’t have to be that way, and I wanted to bring it to you instead of just sitting around getting more and more stressed.
I love working with you and I really hope we can continue working together for a long time. To do that with enthusiasm, I’m going to need to know that your invoices will be paid in the timeframe we originally agreed upon. (Within 10 days of receipt.) [If applicable: If you're having trouble financially, I'm more than happy to cut our sessions down while you get back on your feet or talk to you about finding other arrangements.]
I so appreciate your time looking into this for me, and I’m really looking forward to speaking with you on Thursday.
Sample # 2 – Can you please start taking action already?
It was great talking to you yesterday – awesome news about the shed!
I wanted to send you a quick note before we meet again about something that’s been weighing on me a bit. I’m so pleased that you’ve come to me for your accountability needs – obviously, I think having an accountability coach is a critical factor for success today. (I’ve got one myself!) I’m noticing, though, that it seems like you’re having a lot of trouble following through on the assignments we agree upon during our weekly sessions. It seems that it’s turning into a bit of a pattern that we make a plan, modify it because life will get in the way, and then even the modified version gets delayed.
I know that as a physiotherapist, it’s so important to you that your clients follow through on the plans you make for them. It’s no fun working hard to help someone succeed and then have to watch them not make the progress they could be making. I want to work hard to help you reach your goals, and it’s becoming disheartening for me to see the assignments we agree upon fall by the wayside.
I very much enjoy working with you – you’re one of the funniest people I know, and our sessions are always a pleasure. To keep working with you, I’m going to need us to work out a plan to make sure that what we decide on gets actioned. Perhaps we need to start breaking down progress by day, or work on building more structure? I’m sure we can figure something out together when we meet again. So if you could put some thought into this before our session next week, I’d be really grateful.
Thanks so much in advance for giving some of your time to this. If you need clarification or you want to set up a quick call (no charge) between now and next week to brainstorm some ideas, I’d be all over that.
Have a great week!
Sample # 3 – Can you please stop calling me in the middle of Game of Thrones?
Hope you’re doing well and that the elliptical wasn’t too cruel this morning.
I know you’re swamped and have lots to talk about, so I wanted to send you an email instead of talking about this during one of our regular appointments. I’m getting a little troubled, and I’d love some help from you. I’ve noticed that in the last two weeks, you’ve called my cell phone five times during the evening hours. I was and am happy to provide my cell phone number to clients for situations of emergency. It’s starting to feel like these aren’t emergencies, though, and that we’re stretching outside the bounds of what we initially agreed upon.
I’ve made a commitment to my husband that evenings are for our family. He has been far more understanding with me than I had any right to expect over the last ten years I’ve been building this practice, and he understands that clients often have needs after the office closes. But talking to you about non-urgent issues is making it difficult for me to keep my commitments to my family, and I’m starting to feel a lot of stress around the issue.
I really enjoy our work together, and I’m so impressed with the progress you’ve made. I want to keep working with you for as long as you find me a positive addition to your life and to do that, I’m going to need to restrict our after-hours calls to emergencies and urgent situations only. I understand that a lot of this has been my responsibility – I do love solving problems, even at night, so it’s really hard for me to say no to a challenge, regardless of the hour. From now on, though, we’re going to need to limit after-hours calls to what we originally agreed on.
I really appreciate your commitment to our work together, and I thank you in advance for taking this to heart. I’ve got another email coming in a few hours with your task list or this week, so keep an eye out for that, ok?
Love to Pedro…
So there you go. Slash and hack at will. Next up, we’re taking an email question and talking about how to tell your friends, colleagues, roommates, pets, houseplants, woodland creatures and associated freebie seekers that your stuff costs money. Basically, how to tell your intimates that they’re going to have to pay.