When Good Clients Go Bad - Christine Kane

"Often the real issue is not about what we've attracted. The real issue is why we won't let go."“As a leader, you are always going to get a combination of two things: What you create and what you allow.”   – Dr. Henry Cloud

One of my pals is dealing with an abusive client.  It didn’t begin that way. But over the course of a year, there have been verbal attacks, degrading emails and even outbursts at my client’s team.

After a recent rampage, my friend is panicked. She’s wondering how she could attract anyone so horrible into her business and what she can do to transform this energy and create a more positive environment.

Now, I’m a big fan of clear communication, correcting mistakes, and apologizing in situations when you’ve messed up. If something has gone wrong, own it. That’s the first place to start.

Beyond that, your job is to recognize that, as the leader of your business, your confidence and energy are high-value resources. As such, they must be protected at all costs.

Here are three starting points to help you move as quickly as possible to create a renewed sense of confidence and energy if you are dealing with an abusive client or team member:

1 – You’re a leader, not a superhero

It’s oh-so tempting to think that because you’re a “conscious” business owner, or because you are purpose-driven and heart-centered that you now have to slog through every negative situation in your life in order to figure out how you “attracted it” or how you might “heal from it.”

This is Superhero Thinking.

We’re certain that we could transform any situation if we could only use our powers of thought in the perfect and right ways.  We’re sure that we can get to the bottom of this other person’s issues if we can only find the best communication tools.

This is rarely the case. Often, it just makes us stay with the wrong clients or employees just to prove that we are able to leap tall negativity in a single bound.

It will benefit you, your children, your spouse, your dog, your friends and the entire planet if you get over this as quickly as possible.

Many years ago, I spent a full year talking with business coaches and reading management books trying to change myself so that I could “transform” an abusive employee. At first, she was a star in my office. But as time wore on, she lashed out when she didn’t like the decisions I was making about my career. It was painful. And I tried hard to make it work because, after all, I knew about all of these great spiritual principles.

Finally, I did the wisest and most compassionate thing I could do.

I fired her.

We may think we have super powers and that if we could just get healthy enough then we can transform a negative situation — but sometimes the best answer is to take off the cape and mask and simply end the situation.

2 – Lack mentality will always keep you stuck.

Often, the real issue is not about what we’ve attracted.

The real issue is why we won’t let it go. The real issue is that we’re scared. We think we need this client, this employee, this partner, this job, this gig.

We think these external things are the source. The source of our money. The source of our joy. The source of our productivity. So, we become attached to them.

That’s when things get wonky.

We convince ourselves it’s about changing our thoughts and working with the negativity we’ve attracted. But really, it’s about addressing our lack mindset and our misguided attachment to something outside of us.

Every single time I’ve let go of something negative that I was holding onto out of fear… my work was transformed by my bold choice to believe that better things were on the way.

They always are.

3 – Letting go is a decision. Make decisions quickly and move on.

When I started water-skiing, I’d make it up on the skis, barely get my balance and then instantly lurch forward. Body-slam. Face-first onto the lake.

Then, in spite of all the water-skiing wisdom anyone had ever offered, I’d hold onto the handle for dear life as the boat dragged me several hundred feet across the lake on my stomach.

Now, the problem was not that I attracted bad experiences as I learned to water ski.

The problem wasn’t that the boat was mean to me, or that the lake was evil, forcing me to swallow much of its contents.

The problem was that I wouldn’t let go of the handle.

It’s the same thing in your business.

Sometimes you have to stop asking how you could possibly attract this and recognize that you’re the one holding onto it.

Share with me please…   Have you ever had an abusive client?  Or have you ever made a bad hire? How did you let go???


  • Raychell Penns

    Great article!! My purpose of opening my business was for my children and to give quality care to other children. For years I tolerated abusive parents because of the bond I had established with their children. I no longer allow disrespectful parents or children. We are in this together.

  • patijo

    Hi Chrstine,

    Your water skiing example . . . brought back memories . . . and I will use it when I find myself holding on. Thank you so much. p

  • Jenni Brown

    This article is SO right. After launching our business, our very first client was just like what you described — had a nasty streak that bordered on abusive behavior. Untangling from her gave us tons of anxiety, and even costs us a quite a bit in unpaid invoices, but our mantra throughout that time was to “believe in a world of abundance;” that there are LOTS of happy, healthy clients who want to work with us, and we didn’t need to hold onto this one just because she was our first or our major source of income.

    We learned a lot from her; both about what we wanted to change for our next client relationships, but also about ourselves.

    Great advice Christine! These are great reminders!

  • Anna Ladd

    Christine, wonderful article. I went through exactly this with a toxic employer, who would literally lay in wait to find some way to humiliate or discredit me to my staff or peers for something she’d given me no indication she was unhappy about. Or share information about me with others in my presence that she hadn’t shared with me. I took it for a year. Mainly for reason 1, but the second reason was a factor too. In the end, I am grateful, because it gave me the courage and determination to do what I needed to do – resign and start my own business. Resigning felt like breathing after nearly suffocating to death. And I’ve never been happier or felt more free or more empowered! Letting go was the best decision I ever made!

  • Cheryl McCullough

    I am a small photography business on the outskirts of Atlanta. I have loved following you and todays post was perfect.

    I might be “small” but I am a mighty busy photographer. I do about 4-6 sessions a week which seems to be a lot in my area and compared to some of my other photog friends. My time is valuable. So we take deposits to hold the date and time when someone books a session with very clear non-refundable or transferable policy.

    Today I get an email from a new client that booked in May for July. Who already moved her session twice, the 2nd time to August, and she now tells me she cant do her date in Aug that is two weekends away and she wants her money back.

    I tell her that I am sorry for her situation and remind her of my policy and send her the link where she read it and paid for her deposit originally.

    So she turns ugly and is on a facebook campaign against me. Where I feel like I bent my own rules twice trying to accommodate her, and this time there is no way I will fill that valuable weekend time spot she has taken and I am not only out the income but being trashed.

    I got all worked up like this would affect my business and somehow I needed to make her happy. When the truth is who would want to work with someone who doesn’t think rules apply to her, who is rude and self centered.

    Thank you for redirecting my energy because the truth is … I don’t need her business.

  • Karen Lynn

    Boy, did this hit home. A few years ago, I served on a committee for an organization with someone whose abusive behavior mystified me. When I picked up the stuff she had signed up for but opted not to do, she targeted me. She was verbally abusive, sent harassing emails, and lied about things that either directly or indirectly put me in a bad light in some way.

    Some time later, after someone I knew met her and told me about a couple of enormous whopping lies she told, thinking this person wouldn’t learn the truth, I realized that her behaviors matched the list of behaviors of psychopaths. (Oh, joy.)

    The next time I received a harassing email from her ( a year and a half ago), I told her never to contact me again. She hasn’t. But at an event we both attended last spring, she sent her partner over to intimidate me. Geez!

    So… sometimes it’s not only not you… it’s that the person is genuinely very, very sick in a way that you can not affect or improve or change, no matter what you do. And yes, definitely let go of the handle! (Great analogy.) I’d only add, watch out for the crazy partners, too.

    Thank you, Christine!

  • Alle L’Eveille

    Love the post. I think as entrepreneur it can be scary to let go and easy to get stuck in the lack mentality (“I NEED every client.”). It’s taken a long time to be able to Nancy Reagan it (“just say no”). It is very freeing. I have a mental image that works for me: if the passage way is clogged with the wrong client, the right one can’t find their way in. That’s very motivating for me. Thanks for a GREAT post!

  • Stacey Pruim

    OMG Christine…. That last one was such a vivid graphic for me. I know I will use it the VERY next time I’m in a situation that seems harsh and unending… Just let go.

    I have a note up on my wall right now.
    “If you don’t want to be dragged across the lake…. let go of the handle.”

    Wisdom beyond my friend… thank you for giving such clear actionable advice 😉

  • Pamela Pappas

    Christine, you have nailed this one for sure. Important gradations might be noted in the context in which such a person enters your life.

    In coaching (or as an employer) for instance, these characteristics would certainly point to letting go or cutting loose. In medicine (including Psychiatry and other mental health professions), such an individual might show up in one’s practice — and truly have a personality disorder needing treatment. Of course, the person has to agree that there’s a problem within, AND be willing for that treatment. These people often present in an “ideal patient or client” mode, suggesting that after all these others they’ve tried, they’re sure that only you can help them. This “only you” approach can feel seductively good . . . how delightful it is to be recognized as the wondrous healer/coach/magician you are. 🙂 And then soon, the other (just as present and potent) part of the person’s dynamics shows up, as it HAS to.

    For me, I’m very cautious when somebody enters the door (or phone!) with “only you can help me,” etc. I LOVE your analogy with holding onto the water-skiing handle! I bet we’ve drunk equally large portions of lake or sound water. 🙂 Thanks again for your spot-on article.

  • Karen Pierce

    Christine, you are so right. Recently I found myself with just this type of client. Seemed ideal. Kept appointments, paid me, did the work. Then within 4 sessions the criticisms, blaming, and opposition started. I decided my life didn’t need this kind of stress that was keeping me up at night worrying what she would do next. At 5th appointment I used her query about whether I “was any good or not” to say to her I thought we weren’t a “good fit”. It was only a 20 min. conversation, so I told her I wasn’t going to charge her for today’s visit (so worth cutting her loose!). I encouraged her to keep looking for the right person, and wished her well.
    Here’s the kicker for me. I’ll have to say there were red flags. Red flags I didn’t normally ignore. She’d worked with “several other therapists” who “just couldn’t get [her]”. AND
    I thought I needed the client. The cape and mask was donned, and honeymoon began. Boy! When I cut her loose it felt like the biggest freedom I’d gained in a while. I won’t ignore my gut any longer and the red flags it sends me. Thanks for the reminder!

    • Christine Kane

      Yes Karen! I find that there are always SIGNS. And I also find that it’s easy to ignore them. The great thing is: you will NEVER ignore them again! 🙂

  • Cindy Morus

    Great article, Christine!

    Fire Early and Often! is my motto after going through several employee and client situations like this.

  • Jan Wlodarski

    Super great article Christine! I ended up with a client that was not so much abusive in terms of words but more so in deeds and expectations. She expected IMMEDIATE last-minute turnaround on BIG projects. She would email at all hours of the night and expect a reply. She would CALL at all hours of the night and actually expect me to pick up! I would come into the office in the morning to voicemails and emails yelling at me for not being there WHEN SHE NEEDED ME. The work was what I wanted and the money was good (wonder why?) although she was so erratic I didn’t really know if I was going to be paid. After a few weeks, I just thought “this is crazy!” and I couldn’t do it anymore, physically or emotionally, and I fired her. Her behavior was about her and what she had set up for herself that was trickling down to me. I don’t take that anymore – it’s not how I want to live and work. Taught me a good lesson.

    • Christine Kane

      Jan – okay i already replied once – but for some reason, it went away.

      anyway – i’m betting that, since you work with so many entrepreneurs, you will have to really initiate some of the “rules of communication” and teach people how to treat you. Of course, fire the assholes 🙂 – but also lead the others so that they understand that not everything is instant, here, now, and all the time. (Entrepreneurs can be a bit, um, demanding in that way!)