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Very practical tips on how to deal with nasty clients: case study no. 1.

I recently listened to a podcast where the hosts offered some strategies for severing ties with toxic clients and declining red-flag prospective clients. I want to add to the conversation by sharing detailed experiences of my own, which I think are considerably more challenging. In this post—case study number one—I share my correspondence with a client verbatim so you know you're reading exactly the exchange that took place. Of course, no one is identified directly or indirectly except for myself and no personal or sensitive information is revealed. Extended quotes are only my own and I have de-identified the client and their child and even changed singular pronouns to plural pronouns to hide the gender of the client and their child. I think we're good. The purpose of this series of posts isn't to chastise clients, as tempting as it is, but to share how I deal with toxic clients in the hope that you can learn something from it that will help you in your context. It's a long one because I've included our correspondence but (I think!) it's worth taking the time to read through.

A parent changed their child's enrolment from 30 minutes to an hour weekly in the second or third week of our minimum 10-week term of enrolment. Then the parent emailed me that they were ceasing lessons in week five or six. The first thing I always do, and advocate that every teacher does, is ask if there's something we can do to keep them. Assuming that we want to keep the student, we want to know why they're quitting and ask them to stay without sounding desperate. Briefly, here are some examples I use that you can use:

Is there anything I can do to help before I formalise everything? Is there anything I can do to make it easier for [student] to continue learning with us?

Here is what I actually said to the parent:

I’m sorry to hear that, especially after extending the lesson time. Is there something we can do to help before I cancel everything? Do be aware that enrolment is maintained until the end of the term.

I think many parents would decline the help because it's just easier, so I remind them that they still have to pay for the whole term as we don't allow for mid-term withdrawals; this might cause them to reconsider withdrawing, which, in turn, avoids any arguments about having to pay "for nothing". It also allows us to closely examine what's going on in the lessons and make some adjustments that may result in the student staying enrolled well beyond the term from which they were going to withdraw—we've had this happen several times.

So, the parent said they would check with their child, "but it's largely to do with other activities", which I took to mean that their child was over-committed. In the next correspondence I received, the parent brought to my attention that another payment was charged to their account for what they understood to be for the subsequent term and they requested a refund.

This was the first sign of trouble ahead: the parent didn't pay attention to the fact that I said enrolment is maintained for the remainder of the term (they think the payment was for the subsequent term), and they never actually confirmed that they would withdraw. Moreover, our terms and conditions state that a cancellation form is required to formalise withdrawal which they never submitted. So how do you respond? I certainly don't want to escalate things, so I state the facts professionally:

Yes, that’s right; as the term is not over, further payment is required as per our monthly payment schedule ( Our last correspondence also indicates that you were going to confirm cancellation after speaking with your child, but I haven’t had a response yet.

But that's not all. It turned out that there was actually an amount outstanding for the lessons the student had had so far even after their most recent payment (the one the parent was objecting to). The parent was behind in their payments because when they increased the weekly lesson length, the payment for that month had already been taken (direct debit), so we wouldn't receive the fee for the additional time until the next month (after they decided to withdraw). I outlined the math and sent the parent copies of their payment history.

Things started to heat up. The parent then informed me that their child didn't enjoy the longer lessons, which was why they were withdrawing (I thought it was "largely to do with other activities"). They did acknowledge that it's not our fault, "but a factor." Sure. The parent went on to say that it is "actually ridiculous" that we would charge for the whole term and they were "not interested in paying out the rest of the term"; well, it's not a matter of interest but obligation because it's explicitly stated in the enrolment agreement. The parent demanded that I "adjust my approach" and take into account that they were initially enrolled for 30-minute weekly lessons.

We can deduce that the parent has no idea what the actual terms and conditions of enrolment are and how our calendar and payment policies work. I know this not only because it's apparent in their response, but because it was actually their partner who completed the enrolment process and is the account holder, i.e. the person responsible for the enrolment (and we charge the partner's credit card).

At this point, it's clear that the parent has become increasingly agitated. I have two choices: let it go or dig my heels in. You guessed it; I dug my heels in. Importantly, I maintained a very matter-of-fact and professional but firm approach. Here is what I said:

I understand you’re not happy about the situation; however, our terms and conditions—to which all 300+ current enrolments acknowledge they read and agree to—apply. Your email leads me to suspect that you may not be familiar with our terms, and the enrolment process appears to have been completed by [you partner]. I’ll briefly describe the relevant elements for your benefit.

Before you read on, I want to highlight a couple of things. Firstly, I acknowledged that the parent is upset without being apologetic. Secondly, I reminded the parent that the terms to which they agreed apply to everyone. Granted, I was a little cheeky saying, "all 300+ current enrolments"; it was my way of making the point that "everybody else gets it, so who do you think the problem is here?" Then, I could've said, "You obviously don't know our terms", but I softened it a little, only suggesting that the parent may not be familiar them. Being ever so helpful, I went on to explain the relevant terms for the parent's benefit.

All enrolments are by the term (as opposed to by the lesson). As such, everyone is obligated to pay out the entirety of each term, irrespective of the frequency of payment. Monthly payments are simply instalments, not pay-as-you-go payments or pre-paid for a month at a time. This is the first line of text on the payment information section on the monthly payments page (linked to the pricing page and in the original enrolment form). We don’t charge for sessions; we charge for terms.

Notice that I not only explained the terms but I pointed out where these specific terms are found to highlight that there was ample opportunity for parent to be aware of them both before and after enrolling. I go on to explain how our terms cover scenarios like that which is in question without needing to mention them explicitly.

You changed the enrolment of your own volition (and at your request) to one-hour lessons, so the minimum commitment became one-hour lessons for the remainder of the term. We don’t allow for “downgrades” midterm as it is still a cancellation of an agreed enrolment (and the enrolment occupies more than one place). Regarding termination of enrolment, our terms explicitly state that payment obligations for the remainder of the term remain in place irrespective of attendance. I hope that clarifies our position for you. Again, I understand you’re not happy with this outcome. However, every account holder ticks that box of acknowledgement, and we are very transparent, even offering a consumer-friendly version of the terms and conditions in addition to the “legalese” version which is readily available on the website and linked to in the original enrolment email and the enrolment form itself. Can I suggest your child attends the last two lessons to get the most out of it and if they really don't want to stay for an hour, they can cut it short if you like—everyone is free to leave whenever they like within their booked time.

There's a big nugget for you: end on a positive suggestion. How can we make it work? Not only does it communicate that their child is still welcome here (I'd hate to see the parent!), it actually says, how can we make the most of it...because you're not getting your money back.

The parent responded, "Steve, please" and "cut me some slack", then dropped the subtle threat: they reiterated their demands "and I'll leave it at that."

I responded:

I’ve stated our position as they [sic] align with our terms and conditions of enrolment, to which everybody acknowledges and agrees upon enrolment.

It's absurd to think that you could increase the enrolment to whatever you like and then cut it back at any point during the minimum commitment period. Not even Netflix allows you to do that. You can go back to the standard-definition subscription, but your high-definition subscription will run to the end of the current billing period, i.e. Netflix's minimum "enrolment period" irrespective of whether you watch it. We don't allow mid-term withdrawals, so we're not going to allow "downgrading" from an hour to half an hour weekly because this would contradict our reasoning for not allowing withdrawals mid-term—our policies have to be consistent.

I reiterated my previous point to the parent but it still didn't work. They then demanded to see the section in our terms and conditions regarding changing enrolment during the course of a term and where they committed to the change for the remainder of the term. They asked if I "really believe" that after just two lessons which the child apparently didn't enjoy "at all" they should be charged for the whole term. They asked me to be "clear and specific" and asked why I think I have the "right" to do this without allowing for a trial period. The parent made their demands expectantly: "before I take further action" and suggested that they would "check with the authorities."

I responded:

I don’t respond to threats, [name]. I already explained the terms. You’re free to check whatever it is you feel you need with “the authorities”. You’re also changing your story as it suits: the reason you first gave was “largely due to other activities.” And you extended the lessons in the first place because your child was happy.

My language has changed a little at this point to something perhaps a little less professional, but it's still calm, matter-of-fact, and not inflammatory—at the very least, I think it's clear who is getting worked up. The parent then responded with a sarcastic, "Great business you have there", confirmed their intentions telling me they will be "forwarding this all to the consumer ombudsman and lodging a formal complaint" and that they feel the ombudsman will agree with him, "and perhaps people who read reviews [sic] too."

Yeah, still not going to work on me. I responded:

It is great, thanks! Just be aware we respond publicly to reviews and will gladly cooperate with the ACCC. Before you do, reread 1.1, 2.1 and 2.2 [sic] You changed the enrolment, it applies to the remainder of the term because changing it to half an hour weekly would be cancelling the one-hour lesson enrolment. You seem to be clinging to the word “downgrade” but as the inverted commas suggest, I used it [sic] to make the point clear, not in reference to an actual word we use. I don’t know how else to communicate it: If you changed one-hour lessons to half-lessons, you are cancelling that enrolment as defined by the current enrolment details by cancelling half an hour weekly. I have nothing else to say to you and won’t communicate any further.

I said I wouldn't communicate any further, and after that, I didn't. If you ever say to someone you won't continue communicating with them, under no circumstances should you ever give into the temptation. The parent responds nonetheless "noting" that their child didn't enjoy the lessons and that was the reason they stopped and that the "option" to change their mind and go back to the 30-minute weekly lesson wasn't offered to them. Well, that was not the reason the parent first gave us for their child stopping and we don't offer the option to return to the lower enrolment during the minimum enrolment period, because...we don't offer the option to return to the lower enrolment during the minimum enrolment period. The parent then actually admits, "I should have interrogated my child about what they did not like about the new lessons and passed on the negative feedback in full at the time." Or you could have just read the damn contract in the first place. The parent keeps banging their drum, asking for the specific terms and conditions, demanding a refund, pointing out that they weren't offered a trial, etc. I already pointed the parent to the exact clauses that address all of their concerns.

But, now the longer lessons were just trials? Not something we do or offered to do and not something the parent asked for. When the parent changed the enrolment, I sent an email confirmation and outlined the new fees and the dates on which they would be charged. No one ever said anything about a "trial". And given that the payment for the month was to be paid in arrears due to the timing of the monthly payments and the change of enrolment, the parent had four weeks to effectively "trial". In short, they had plenty of opportunities to discuss issues before payment was actually made.

I resisted the temptation to respond because I said I would not continue communicating with them. Then, the final monthly payment was charged to the parent's account as scheduled. They emailed again. "To whom it may concern" made me laugh. The parent claims that "Despite having no authority nor contract in place to direct debit my credit card on July 3, as detailed and explained amply below, my account has erroneously been charged an amount of $175.87" and they demanded a refund. Notably, this amount is in addition to the original amount they wanted refunded. This charge was the last. The funny thing is, the parent did in fact enter a contractual agreement with not only us for the enrolment, but with the direct debit company to whom they gave explicit authority to charge their account on our behalf. The parent obviously doesn't actually read anything they sign.

I didn't respond, I didn't give a refund. I tried to shut it down early on but the parent wouldn't let it go, and obviously I wasn't going to either but I didn't respond any further after I said I wouldn't. What else is there to say? What's the point? The parent is grasping at straws, introducing new arguments—it's going nowhere. In case study number two, I'll share how I did let it go with one client, at least in part. Actually, I shouldn't say "let it go", I offered a compromise and they accepted.

A comment on the threat of bad reviews and formal complaints to governing bodies. You may recall the parent said: "I'll be forwarding this all to the consumer ombudsman and lodging a formal complaint [...] and I'd say the ombudsman will agree, and perhaps people who read reviews will too." It's taken some experience and practice to develop the required nerves but this means absolutely nothing to me. Firstly, I welcome the governing body's input as we want to ensure we are compliant, but I've studied the information they publish and have done everything I can to ensure we are indeed compliant with contract law in particular. Secondly, who cares? Let's say they do find something that's not entirely compliant, what are they going to do? In Australia, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, they can't "act on your behalf or provide you with legal advice on your rights and obligations under the law; make formal decisions on whether a person or business had breached the law as only the courts can do this; regulate or set the prices for goods or services such as groceries or fuel; or provide dispute resolution services between consumers and businesses."

Thirdly, there's the threat of the public review. You'll notice that I mentioned we publicly respond to reviews. This might be enough to deter a client from writing something and indeed it seems to be case in for me every time. (Every time? You may wonder how often we have issues. Maybe one major issue per year, keeping in mind we serve 300 families a week. We have maybe two or three issues a year that have the potential to become big, but we manage them quickly and successfully, i.e. the client concedes...and nearly every single time, the issues arise as a consequence of the client not paying attention to the terms and conditions or not reading emails). Nonetheless, I have a statement prepared for the occasion that one does post a nasty review (and you're welcome to copy it):

As you insist on publicly airing your grievances, which are a consequence of your own errors and misunderstanding, we will respond in kind and repeat for the benefit of all that which we have already stated to you. ...

*Drops the mic*

I'd actually love to replace "errors and misunderstanding" with "ignorance and illiteracy" and "we will respond in kind" with "allow us to post a public review of you" but that's probably going too far—definitely too far. Just remember, how you respond to a bad review can say more than the bad review itself. Although, unlike my preferred alternatives, my prepared response is not argumentative, emotional, or childish, but certainly strong. I haven't had to respond to a negative review thus far because, I believe, the statement that we respond publicly to reviews and the fact that a review can't be posted anonymously is a strong enough deterrent. Personally, I think businesses shouldn't make generic statements apologising for the inconvenience and asking them to reach out if they wish to discuss further. I don't think they should apologise when they haven't done anything wrong and instead stand up for themselves. And if you need to, you can request to have reviews that are not factual removed. Should someone use a bogus account to hide their identity, you could always respond with: "We have no record of someone with your name, perhaps you've confused us with another business" and report it. I'm not sure how successful reporting is... So what can we learn from this experience? Here's a list of recommendations; some are things I did, some are things I didn't do. What you don't do that matters, too!

  • Maintain professionalism.

  • State the facts.

  • Don't say you're sorry if you're not.

  • Acknowledge the other party's frustration.

  • Offer a solution that doesn't contradict anything.

  • Stand your ground but be sure you're right! (A paper trail is indispensable).

  • The goal is to put an end to the argument as quickly and amicably as possible.

  • Don't say "unfortunately" because it might suggest you wish it was otherwise.

  • Don't be argumentative. Don't take the bait. State your argument, stick to it, repeat it without getting into details: "As I said...[summary]." Ignore the straw-grasping.

  • Don't be afraid of bad reviews. Remind the client that you respond publicly to reviews and report any reviews based on false information. How you respond to bad reviews can say more than the bad review itself.

Write a draft then walk away. I never respond immediately. Write what you really want to say in no uncertain terms, then cool down, come back to it the following day, edit it and send it. I've written several large paragraphs addressing every point a client raised then reduced the whole thing down to two sentences. I'll show you how in case study number three. I also like to use a lot of passive language as this removes the personal element. For example, instead of saying "you have to pay", I said, "payment is required." However, in my last response to the client in the present case, you might say I got a little more personal.

So that's what you can learn from this experience, but what have I learned from this experience? We have to reflect even when we know we didn't do anything "wrong". We have to ask what we could have done better. I haven't learned anything new per se, but with this experience I got a little better at managing it. What I have done since all this is update our terms and conditions of enrolment. Despite that our terms already covered the circumstances in question (changing and cancelling enrolment mid-term), I've added one simple line to explicitly address this issue: "When the Enrolment is varied, the new Enrolment Details supersede those of any and all previous agreements." Conflicts like the one discussed in this post are unfortunately why our terms and conditions have become quite long. I always aim to be concise, but I won't leave anything out for the sake of brevity. Our terms and conditions haven't really changed at all over the years but I've added a lot of wording for the sake of clarity. It's better to spell out that which is implied or covered by existing wording than to rely on the common sense and literacy skills of the reader.

I hope this helps.

Steven Armstrong is a multi-award-winning former lecturer of musicology with postgraduate qualifications in educational leadership. He is the founder and director of Advantage Music Academya music school of over 300 students in Western Australia widely recognised for its professional approach to pedagogy.

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