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The 3 Stages of a Difficult Client

Let’s look at the 3 stages the typical difficult client goes through, and if not handled at the first stage, it’s only going to be progressively harder to curb that behavior in the next stages. 

STAGE ONE   Pushing Boundaries 

We’ve probably all experienced clients, and even potential clients, in this stage. Whether they’re trying to convince you to book them beyond your normal work hours, telling you to dig deeper than you’re comfortable with or more than you know your body can safely handle, or even the dreaded inappropriate comments or “jokes”; these are just a few of the ways clients can try to push your boundaries. At this stage, it’s very important to make your boundaries clear and DO NOT cross them. I’m not one to say your boundaries can never sway; there’s individual situations in which we sometimes should let our boundaries move a bit. But when someone is purposefully pushing a boundary of yours, you have every right to stick to your guns. And really, not only do you have the right, but in my opinion, you sincerely neeeeeeeed to stick to your guns. Allowing clients, or potential clients, to push your boundaries and decide for you what you will and will not do, is only asking for more trouble down the road. 

If not stopped here at stage one, it’s likely going to move on into… 

STAGE TWO   Taking Advantage 

Since you’ve already let them get away with pushing you beyond what you were comfortable with, matters will probably only get worse. Whether that push was seemingly small and insignificant, like giving them an extra 10 minutes of work without charging, or something far more concerning, like inappropriate topics of discussion; once you’ve let this behavior happen, it’s likely that they’ll enter into this second stage where they begin to take advantage of that pushed boundary. Did you book them according to their schedule and compromise your own? Now they may take advantage, because you did it once, surely you can do it again. They promise to be loyal or refer people or whatever so you may think it’s worth it. But do you really want clients who are going to take advantage of you? Do you really want to keep allowing them to push you over and over again until you’ve compromised your own integrity and now you feel obligated no matter what your boundaries are supposed to be. If a client has gotten to this point, you absolutely have to stop allowing the behavior. You train clients how to treat you, and if you allow them to take advantage, they will continue to do so. 

If you don’t curb it by stage two, here comes… 

STAGE THREE   Entitlement 

Now that they see they can get whatever they want, they’ll feel entitled to it. They’ll assume that they can request anything and get it. I’ve known one therapist who allowed a client to slowly push to the point that eventually her one hour session ran for 3 hours when you included that she ordered pizza and just hung out in the treatment room dumping all her stress on the poor therapist before the massage would ever even start. While the behavior should have been nipped much earlier, even if you’ve let it get that bad, you can handle it; although it will take you being considerably more firm and probably cutting ties completely. 

People can start at any stage, but if a potential new client is already in stage three, it’s going to be pretty obvious. They’re going to demand you accommodate them exactly how they need. It will immediately feel like an assault on your boundaries. Those are usually easier to handle. You can just say no, deal with whatever passive aggressive insult they want to throw at you, and move on. But the more subtle ones, who start at stage one and slowly work their way through…those are actually much more difficult to handle because they may not seem so obvious. You may not even realize your boundaries are really being pushed – you’re just trying to be nice, right?   

This is why it’s so important to set boundaries all by yourself early on, so you don’t feel so blindsided if someone makes a request that pushes you a bit. You’ve set that boundary and made a promise to yourself to keep it, so it’s easier to say no to those minor requests that can eventually become much bigger, more damaging requests down the road. 

Then again, there are those clients you just don’t like for some reason. Sometimes they just drain your energy. Sometimes their personality isn’t a good fit. Whatever it is that makes you not like to work with them, you don’t have to justify it. Simply send them to another therapist. You can be honest and say you’re not meshing and that you think they would do better with this particular therapist down the road, or you can be more passive about it and stop having appointments available for them. Whatever the case, you have to respect yourself and remember to build the clientele that you want, that makes you happy, that adds to the amazing business you’re building, and doesn’t detract from it. 

Remember, this is your business and you have to build something you love. If you’re dreading going into work every time you see a particular client’s name on the schedule, you probably need to show them the door. 

Hey there! I'm a massage therapist, educator, writer, and business pro helping massage therapists around the world build successful businesses. My goal is to give you everything you need to start, run, and grow a profitable massage practice that supports a life you love, all without the headaches I went through learning how to do it myself.

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