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Very practical tips on how to deal with nasty clients: case study no. 2.

If you read the first case study explored in my post of the same title, you'll know there was more to come! The first case study detailed in gruesome detail how I essentially dug my heels in and stood by our policies despite the nasty client threatening to post a bad review and submit a complaint to the regulatory bodies. In the end, the client didn't get their way, I got paid in full, and they haven't yet posted a bad review or made a complaint. In the present case study I also share in gruesome detail an issue I had with another nasty client, but this time, I compromised. As per the first case study, no one is identified directly or indirectly except for myself and no personal or sensitive information is revealed. 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 nasty clients in the hope that you can learn something from it that will help you in your context.

Three weeks after the deadline for withdrawing enrolment for the subsequent term (10- week period), a parent notified me that they wanted to cancel their child's guitar lessons "effective immediately" as they had moved out of the area. You know where this is going. The parent sent the email by replying to a reminder I sent out, and you know what the first reminder in the email was? You guessed it: the deadline. It was so obvious I had to share it with you:

Here is my reply to the parent:

Thanks for the update. As you can see in the reminder below, the census date for withdrawal from this term has long passed. The cancellation process is outlined in the terms and conditions of the [sic] enrolment to which everybody acknowledges they read and agree. As your payment obligations remain for the term, would your child like to continue having lessons online as an alternative? Otherwise, the outstanding amount of $358.56 will be charged. Let me know if we can organise to have the lessons online (at the same time).

There are a couple of things to highlight in this response. Firstly, starting with "thanks for the update" is a softer way to get started than just jumping into "As you can see". Secondly, I pointed the parent to the reminder that they evidently received. This shows the parent that we went beyond what was required (giving a reminder) and that it is indeed their own fault for missing the deadline (by three weeks). Thirdly, I mentioned the cancellation process is something the parent should be aware of because they ticked a box confirming that they are. Fourthly, I said in no uncertain terms that the parent will have to pay. Finally(!), I offered a solution. I know they won't travel to the studio so I suggested their child takes the remaining lessons online—it's better than nothing.

The parent didn't waste any time:

I will take the matter to the financial / retail ombudsman, just because you put something in a ts and cs fine print document doesn’t mean it’s legal or correct or binding. I will also post poor reviews as you charged us the same amount even though many days were public holidays and no lesson was provided. I will also post poor reviews as you charged us the same amount even though many days were public holidays and no lesson was provided. As I said cancel effective immediately.

Nasty person. Let's get a few things straight. Firstly, our terms and conditions do in fact constitute the substance of a binding contract and we have ensured our contracts meet regulations. The parent entered the contract when they checked the box to confirm that they have read and agree to the terms and conditions. The regulatory body in Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), specifically states that this is a legitimate means of executing a contract. Secondly, the parent never paid for any lessons that we didn't deliver—period.

I responded:

You are most welcome to take the matter further. I believe it is the ACCC that you need to contact. I would encourage you to first familiarise yourself with the basic principles of contract law and what is in fact a contract and what constitutes a fair contract. A few points: No one has ever been charged for lessons that would fall on public holidays or lessons that we cannot provide for any reason. You have not been charged for any lessons that we have not provided. The minimum enrolment period is a whole term – you cannot enrol for part of a term unless it is your first term. The minimum enrolment period applies irrespective of whether your pay monthly or quarterly. Enrolment is continuous from term to term. If you need to withdraw, you have to do so in writing or with the cancellation form. There are census dates for withdrawal which, despite having no obligation, we send reminders about leading up to them (you even replied to an email that has the census date reminder, it’s actually the first point). All of the above is outlined in the terms and conditions of enrolment to which you acknowledged that you read and agreed. And as is common practise for the Academy, we respond publicly to all reviews.

I find it rather amusing that in both case studies, the parent made threats about making a complaint to the regulatory bodies and neither of them even knew what that body is. My tone remained matter-of-fact and simply stated the facts.

The parent ignored all of this and instead started banging their drum about being charged for a lesson that fell on a public holiday. The parent then starts quoting information from the ACCC website (they could have at least thanked me for pointing them to the information!). They kindly highlighted information about false and misleading business practises and unconscionable conduct that includes charging for services not delivered. The parent sent me screenshots of our policy stating that lessons are not conducted on public holiday and lists the payments they made each month. The funny thing is, in the same screenshot, you can see the explanation of what the census date is (last date for withdrawal without further payment) but the parent seems to have forgotten about the withdrawal issue for now! The parent also made the claim that we changed the terms and conditions of enrolment without their agreement. I address this in my response.

Thanks for sharing your research. I’ll address your points and leave it at that. As per terms and conditions of enrolment, which you acknowledged you read and to which you agreed by checking the agreement checkbox and thus entered a contract as stipulated by contract law (a part of the ACCC guidelines you left out in your previous email), you must give notice before the relevant census date. Our terms and conditions clearly state that the minimum period of enrolment is one term and that enrolment is automatically renewed from term to term (hence the need for census dates). Indeed, we can change our terms and conditions without your written consent, however, when there are changes, everyone is notified. There haven’t been changes in a few years now so you haven’t been notified of any changes. Moreover, any new terms and conditions don’t apply until the next term so that you can withdraw if you don’t agree to the changes without any penalty. There have been changes to the transaction fees and our tuition fees which we have announced every time and provided the opportunity for anyone to withdraw before they apply. The link to our terms and conditions was in the enrolment email and in two places on the enrolment form itself: at the top in the description and at the bottom next to the agreement checkbox. There are no secrets or “fine print”; it’s all publicly available, in the student portal (no log in required) in normal font size, completely transparent, and not lengthy. In fact, we send reminders approaching every census date each term and it was to one of those that you replied requesting the cancellation; notably, the reminder of the census date was the first point in that email. If only you gave that the same attention you’re giving our terms and conditions now. I don’t understand where you get the idea that you paid for lessons that we did not provide. Each 10-week term is $515 (plus transaction fees charged by the debit service). Each term is 10 weeks long. If you look at our term dates as shown in the student portal, and add up the Mondays, you will see that there have been 10 in every term. In the interest of putting the matter to bed, how about we keep the July payment, and we waive the rest? Alternatively, I can leave it for you to pursue with the ACCC. We welcome their input as compliance is always a priority for us. If they feel you’ve been wronged, of course, we’ll comply.

I have to admit, I was a little rude with my comment pointing out that the parent was cherry-picking information from the ACCC website and my suggestion "if only" the parent gave the same attention they are giving our terms and conditions now to the email reminder about the census date. Hashtag no regrets. Hey, I'm not perfect. But am I wrong?! It's hilarious how much attention nasty clients suddenly start paying to the fine print when something doesn't go their way only to discover the issue is a consequence of their own ignorance and illiteracy. Other than those comments, I think I kept it rather professional, restating the facts, then politely telling the parent to get lost. I encouraged them to take it up with the ACCC knowing it will be a dead-end because the parent is just plain wrong and we have all the evidence to prove it. I think stating that we welcome any regulatory body's input shows that we aren't hiding anything and aren't trying to rip anyone off.

As I mentioned, in this case I offered a compromise and the reason for it was that I simply couldn't be bothered. In hindsight, sometimes I wish I didn't compromise and made the parent pay out the whole term, but that's coming only from feelings of spite and that's not good for personal and business growth—I just want to punish the parent for being so damn ignorant and rude. Charged for lessons we didn't teach?? Someone give this person a calculator. So anyway, I got a third of what we should have. But importantly, in offering the compromise, I basically said "take it or leave it", i.e. take the offer or I take it all; I made the point that if the parent declines, then it will be up to them to pursue the (non-existent) legal avenues.

The parent accepted the compromise and I haven't yet received a negative review. Just because they get their way, at least in part, it doesn't guarantee that you won't get the negative review. I shared in the first case study my prepared statement for a negative review. Here it is again, but in this case, I actually wrote the entire response I would give the parent in a draft email. I've added the ending to it for your benefit.

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. ... It is self-evident (and now evident to all) that despite acknowledging that you read and agreed to the terms and conditions of enrolment, which were linked to in two places on your enrolment form and remain easily accessible, your ill-informed complaints are a result of not having paid attention to the content of those terms and conditions and the content of our regular correspondence that remind our clients of the very aspect that you are taking issue with.

So what can we learn from this experience? In addition to those recommendations I made in the first case study, I want to highlight the importance of airtight policies and covering your own behind. There's no way I would be as stubborn as I am with these nasty clients if I didn't have clear policies and procedures in place. For example, the link to our terms and conditions are linked to in two places on the enrolment form itself and in the welcome email that contains the link to the enrolment form (that's three opportunities in your face before enrolling!). Our terms and conditions are very specific; there are no ambiguities of meaning. We clearly define enrolment, what it entitles a student to, how the different payments options work, how our teaching periods and census dates work, how we update our terms and conditions, and so on. Then we even send damn reminders throughout the course of students' enrolment!

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. Just like in the first case study, 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 enrolment options to allow a shorter commitment for adult students (yes, the student in this case study was actually an adult and their parent was the account holder). The option is month-to-month with a two-weeks' notice period for cancellation and a very flexible rescheduling policy. Of course, there is a premium on this enrolment option. I anticipate that no one will opt for this enrolment arrangement (which is what I want).

I hope you learned something from this. Let me know.

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 Academy—a music school of over 300 students in Western Australia widely recognised for its professional approach to pedagogy.

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