We’ve all dealt with toxic clients. You know who I’m talking about: those seemingly normal people who come to you for help and then once you start working together, they are a complete disaster. I’ve had more than my share (I could probably write a book), and for me, it all came down to relaxed boundaries and wanting to really help people, even if they really couldn’t be helped. Most of the time I’ve had to fire them, and other times I just had to push through and finish up the contract.
It’s just not practical, though, to fire every client who causes you grief, especially if the problem is your own lack of assertiveness or an unwillingness to protect your boundaries. Sometimes you want to say “no”, while other times you want to say “go”, but what you end up doing is putting up with it.
In my opinion, the best thing you can do is create systems for dealing with toxic clients so when the situation arises, you have a clear step-by-step procedure to follow instead of dealing with it emotionally. Once you have a system, you or your assistant can jump into action.
Here are some ways to help you take control and create the outcomes you want when dealing with negative or toxic clients.
Tame the Time Suckers
I’m sure we’ve all dealt with this client before. She willingly pays full price for your service but then expects an exclusive on your time. She calls, emails, wants your advice on stuff outside of your area of expertise and expects you to fit in unscheduled calls or sessions whenever she feels like it. She won’t use your online scheduler to book a call (even though she expects people to use hers), oh, and can we have a Zoom call at 7am?
If a client is causing you to lose money by zapping time you aren’t offering and cutting into your personal life, it’s time to either renegotiate your arrangement and set new boundaries, charge more money, or cut her loose.
Set Your Zero-Tolerance Boundaries
Decide before you ever get a toxic client what you will absolutely not put up with, and be sure your clients know this at the contract stage. For example, you will not endure being shouted at by a client or chasing down unpaid invoices.
Whatever it is, put it in your contract. Include what happens for missed appointments, late payments, and even over-communication. Set your policy, put it in writing, and stick to it.
Don’t Waste Good Energy on Toxic Clients
When you suffer from a toxic client, they can easily become a source of focus and frustration. You attract what you focus on, so if you’re obsessing about negativity, you will lose all of your vibrancy and power, and in turn, your service will suffer.
Focus on more of what you want, and the types of clients you want to attract.
Look for the Payoff and Challenge It
There’s a theory in practical psychology that states if you put up with a bad situation indefinitely, there has to be some sort of payoff in the relationship for you. So the next time you find yourself suffering long-term with a toxic client, ask yourself “what’s my payoff for putting up with this?”
Is it financial security? Is it a source of pride or anxiety? Is it that you don’t have to face other things if you’re constantly focused on that client?
Only you know the answer.
Once you’ve asked yourself the question and determined your own personal payoff, challenge it! Are you really so helpless? Is this really the only client you will ever get Are you really making as much money as you think you are when you factor in all of that unscheduled overtime?
When you can clearly identify your payoff and see the real consequences, it rapidly becomes much easier to cut that client loose.
Don’t Be a Toxic Service Provider
Let’s say you’re a coach (because most of my clients are). If a client is having a problem with you, ask yourself if it’s possible that you are, in fact, a toxic coach. Dean Middlebrook of Canon Europe LTD gives a chilling list of eighteen symptoms of toxic coaching.
If you have even one of these symptoms, it may be a sign that your “toxic” client is not entirely to blame. Being the coach, you will need to correct the weak area right away.
Practice Diligent Self-Care
It would be fantasy to think that no negative or draining clients exist. They do. Protect yourself from negativity by practicing diligent self-care, so that you are emotionally, spiritually, and physically well-fortified against it. Eat healthy foods, exercise and meditate daily. Take time for your own personal growth and relaxation. Live your life with gratitude. Give back to your community, and get lots of sleep.
These positive habits create well-being and boost your energy so that you’re better able to meet negativity without letting it burn you out.
Never Let Your Explanation Descend into Justification
As far as explanations for a refusal go, it’s fine to say things like “what you’re asking me to provide is outside my area of expertise”. That sort of explanation is short, sweet, relevant, and logical. Don’t feel like you need to justify or excuse your decisions.
If a client challenges an absolute statement like the one above, simply repeat it, and keep doing so until they fully understand your point. However, if you find yourself repeating it often, you may need to let this one go.
When You Terminate or Graduate a Client, Suggest What To Do Next
A huge part of the anger or hurt that can come from a client who has been terminated is the feeling that they’ve been “dumped”.
If you offer next steps they can take, what you’ve actually done is turn it from a dumping to a graduation. This is much easier on the client’s pride, and in some cases, their emotions. When done correctly, they will leave you with a sense of hope.
Hold On To Your Joy
Don’t let negative nellies suck the joy out of your day. If you’ve had a particularly draining client call, take 15 minutes to recharge. Think of the things you are grateful for, things that make your life worthwhile and think of your best clients. Think of who or what brightens your days, be thankful, and repeat your favorite affirmations.
Last but not least, smile while you’re doing this, even if you don’t feel like it. Smiling is a great mood booster.
Use Totem Objects
Another way to keep anger or stress at bay is to have something within your field of vision that reminds you of wonderful things or brings you joy in itself. A vase of fresh flowers, a photo of your kids laughing, a favorite quote, or even a beautiful painting.
Looking at this while you’re dealing with difficult clients can be a strong visual cue that helps you quickly rebalance.
Remeber to Breathe
Your breathing affects your body and your mind in both positive and negative ways. Breathe slowly and deeply, relaxing each muscle group from the head down before engaging with chronically stressful clients. Remember to breathe slowly and deeply during the call.
You’ll not only dial back your own stress, it will help calm your client too.
When to KEEP a Toxic Client
Of course, you shouldn’t keep a client who is truly abusive or bullying, but there are times when you may decide to keep a negative or difficult client, and that’s okay.
For example, if you’re a life coach and are used to dealing with mindset problems like confidence or faulty thinking. But your big criteria for keeping a tricky client should be: is she making progress?
If the answer is yes, then you may want to persevere, and that’s okay. Sometimes this type of client can turn out to be the most rewarding and successful of all.
Ask For Payment in Full in Advance
Toxic clients will almost always dispute this, and that’s a BIG red flag. Don’t give in. You may even want to raise your price more and discuss the scope and time commitment.
But what do you do if a toxic client does pay and then acts like she owns you?
The same as you would with any other toxic client: set her straight about your boundaries and make sure your contract and terms state them clearly.
Negotiate On Your Home Turf
When you have to set a difficult client straight or turn down a toxic one, do it on your home turf, the place where you feel most relaxed and powerful.
That goes for your online turf as well. If you’re most comfortable having difficult conversations face-to-face, do it via Zoom. (Seeing your expression can often reassure an upset client). If you’re more comfortable with your mobile in the garden, then sit in the garden and phone them.
Having that conversation where you feel most comfortable will help with negotiations in most cases.
Just Say “No”
Sometimes even the best clients will put us on the spot. The natural instinct is to be obliging. In addition to putting yourself out if you agree to their request, will it affect other people? Will it affect your income? (Example: A client wants to go on hiatus but wants you to “hold” her spot for six months.)
If it’s not viable, say so, clearly and up-front.
Beware of Clients Who Tell You They Are “Easy to Work With”
Most clients wouldn’t even think of this. If you get a prospective client on a discovery call who volunteers that information, make sure she qualifies it. WHY is she easy to work with? (The only acceptable answer should be, “Because I do the work and don’t cancel appointments”.)
If she can’t instantly supply you with a valid answer, be very wary. It usually means she knows she is not.
Find Out the Real Problem
Just as procrastination is often a symptom of something that can easily be dealt with, (for example, you haven’t given a contractor clear guidelines for a project and she feels at sea), so too can chronic appointment-canceling be a symptom, rather than a sign of client abusiveness.
Find out what the problem is and be prepared to state whether or not you can help her overcome it if it’s within your purview.
Set Your Client Early Exit Strategy in Place
You probably are well aware of your client’s ‘life cycle’ within your business sphere, but do you have an exit strategy in place for clients you have to let go early?
For example, if a client is constantly having trouble paying, or complains that the pace is too fast, suggest she might be happier with your self-serve course, or in your drip-release-content-based membership group.
Having the right early-exit strategy can help terminated relationships end on a positive note
Beware of Serial Clients
There’s a simple way to make sure you don’t end up with this type of client, the one who runs through coaches like this month’s ice cream flavor.
After, “Have you worked with a coach before?”, if the answer is ‘yes’, follow up with, “How many coaches have you worked with, and how did that go for you?”
If you are met with a bombardment of complaints about each one, run for the hills. It’s a sure sign she’ll be impossible to coach
Take a Vacation
Even the happiest service providers burn out, if they work with multiple clients week in, week out. Book yourself a vacation. Your clients will get along fine without you.
If you’re really worried, do what doctors do and appoint a “locum”. This is another service provider who will fill in for you if the vacation is a long one. Just make sure you have her sign a non-compete agreement before.
Get Your Own Coach
Make sure you talk out client problems with your own coach. A trouble shared is a trouble divided. Providing it’s within her scope to advise you on client communication, you can pick up invaluable tips and support.
Everything boils down to maintaining your own self-respect and joy. Invest time in learning the most effective ways to deal with, or avoid, toxic clients. It will be time well-spent.
*This article first appeared on my other website, EntreLeverage.com