Askholes & accountability

It’s kind of a running joke among service providers – everyone’s had that client, the one who pays you, wants to keep working with you, even seems to like you on a personal level, but for whatever reason, adamantly refuses to get their shit together.

They’re slow in acting on your advice (if they ever do indeed act on it at all) and sometimes they appear to be actively sabotaging the project’s progress. People far smarter than I have talked about self-sabotaging behavior and I won’t pretend I have anything new or insightful to add to the conversation around “Why do people behave this way?”, but I do think there’s an interesting opportunity for a side conversation.

What is our duty, as business owners, when we have clients behave this way?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I’ve had my fair share of clients who are looking for a magic bullet solution – they want to find the system. You know, the one that will make it so that they don’t have to do any work and everything always happens perfectly, automagically, without any work from them. (But, of course, without actually handing control off to someone else, ’cause that’d just be weird, yo.) They rotate through tools (Basecamp and TeamWorkPM and Dropbox and Google Docs, oh my!), not realizing that the broken component is the fact that they can’t ever seem to get around to doing their part of the process.

I also thought about this recently when I went to a trial krav maga class at a local gym. After the trial class, I talked to Jessica, the manager, about their membership program. Having never actually checked out a gym before, I didn’t know what was normal, so I was surprised to find out that they only had a monthly payment plan. The way it works, she explained to me, is that you pay a flat monthly fee and can go to unlimited classes (not just krav maga, but also yoga, Brazilian jiu jitsu, crossfit conditioning for fighters, and muay thai).

I asked if there was any kind of a per-class rate, and she explained that no, they didn’t have a per-class option, and that there was a specific reason for that. See, for people to get the kind of results from the classes that the gym owners wanted them to get (enough training to be able to actually defend themselves & have the moves in their muscle memory), members need to go more than once a week or every other week, which is what tends to happen when people pay per class.

It was really interesting to me as a business owner & service provider to note my reactions as a potential client/customer. Going in to the sample lesson, I had been very resistant to the idea of paying a monthly fee.  Because of my no-car sitch & where the gym is located, they’re not really easy to get to for me, and I’m a busy person anyways (in between work, attempting to have a social life, and keeping up on my Netflix & Hulu queues). I had figured I’d be happy as a clam to pay per class. Then I could go to two classes a week and that would be about as much as I could handle and that, my friends, was that. 

But, I had also done my research and knew that this was really the only gym in Austin I wanted to go to for these classes. I’m going to krav maga classes because I want to be able to legitimately kick someone’s ass and get away safely if I have to (& because I wind up having creepy encounters probably every other time I go out, which is a whole ‘nother blog post), not because I want to get a cardio workout. Their credentials were really important to me – as much as I had decided I didn’t want to do a monthly membership option, I had also decided that I wanted to continue taking classes there (barring the possibility of my trial class being epically awful, which it wasn’t at all – they made the whole process as un-intimidating as possible for a total noob like me).

I thought really hard about it, and looked at the schedule that Jessica gave me, and my average week/social commitments. And decided that, you know what? I think it’s actually feasible for me to make it to three or four classes a week after all. 

They structured their membership plan to get a specific level of accountability and a specific level of commitment out of their clients. The very fact that they structured their membership that way made me, a potential client*, totally willing to up my internal game + level of commitment.** Does it turn some people off? I’m sure it does. But we all know that an uncommitted client or customer can be a massive pain in the ass, and this weeds out those folks right at the start.

Back to us, as business owners, & askholes. 

The way I see it, we have two options:

#1: Totally detach yourself from what your clients do after they walk away from you.

I call this the “I wash my hands of it!” option. I don’t know why, it just makes me think of someone getting off a phone call and saying “I wash my hands of it!” while dramatically flailing their hands around in the air. Probably because that’s something I’d do. Or might have actually done. Ahem. Anyways.

#2: Do everything you can to ensure that you’re holding your clients accountable and working with committed people.

Including firing those clients who consistently don’t follow through. I read an anecdote in The Referral Engine (an excellent book, by the way, and the original spark of inspiration for this post, though I might be botching some of the details of this story) where he talks about a consultant he knew who consistently had issues with clients not doing the homework that was assigned to them.

John’s suggestion? Fire those clients. “You can’t expect clients to take their work with you seriously if you don’t take it seriously enough to hold them accountable.” That sentiment has stuck with me for a reason – it really resonates. I want to work with committed people. I want to work with people who are not only ready but willing to take action. I want to work with people who want to work with me, specifically because they know I don’t fuck around & when I’m on a project, things get done.

I think taking either of these roads 110% of the time could lead to frustration.

If I checked in with every person who’s every bought any of my planners and asked if they were still using them, I’m sure there would be a fair amount of them who bought them and then didn’t use them – and I can accept that. If you pay for something that doesn’t involve my time + energy (after the up-front creation process), I find it much easier to be detached from what happens afterwards. I don’t really know if there is a healthy way (meaning: one that doesn’t involve obsessiveness on the part of the provider) to involve accountability in things like that.

But when someone is working with me (taking up my time and energy), and not holding up their end of things, it feels like they’re actively wasting my time & energy, even if I’m still getting paid. And I imagine this is at the crux of why a lot of service providers find this situation so frustrating – not just the ego side of things (“They aren’t doing what I said? How dare they?!”) – but the fact that in the end, I’m not doing what I do just to make a buck, I’m doing it for the high I get when I see a project finished and the satisfaction that comes from knowing there’s more awesomeness out in the world as a direct result of work I put in.

I know that I can’t control what people do and I’m okay with that. (Well, I’m working on being okay with that. Give it time!) I know that attaching myself this much to the actions of my clients is going to lead to frustration sometimes. But I simply don’t find the alternative acceptable. 

What about you? I think this is a really juicy topic ripe for discussion and I’d love to hear your input. How do you deal with accountability when it comes to your clients? Do you think that as ethical business owners we owe it to our clients to hold them accountable, or are you okay being more detached? Should business owners as a whole hold their clients & customers more accountable than they do?  

*A very stubborn potential client who is normally pretty averse to changing her mind, in point of fact.

**Total transparency note: I haven’t signed up yet, mostly because my new tattoo has spent the last two weeks healing & I figured there was no point in signing up if I couldn’t actually attend classes for tattoo-related-reasons. But I have every intention of doing so ASAP.

Hat tip to Nick Armstrong for, if not coining the term “askhole”, introducing me to it.


  1. Did you get a note from your tattooist? LOL. I heart this post for so many reasons, Michelle. And YES you’re right that service professionals seem to deal with a LOT of flakiness when it comes to clients “doing their homework.” It’s exactly why I came up with “Prosperity’s Kitchen.” And I’m hoping that playing for keeps in a public way will be at least part of the magic that keeps folks moving forward. But regardless, this is an issue we need to deal with proactively everywhere. Thanks for bringing it up!


    • I think it’s great that you’re actively coming up with ways to combat it, Tea! Good on you for running such an awesome + innovative project like Prosperity’s Kitchen 🙂 And thanks – glad you liked the post!


  2. Yes – yes, a thousand times yes.

    Clients who don’t do their own work (or worse: expect you to scope creep and handle it yourself) are so bad for business, it’s not even funny. They kill productivity, creativity, and worse still: leave you feeling inadequate and decidedly unawesome.

    Never, ever worth it. Even if they occasionally pay you well.


  3. Love this juicy topic, Michelle! An open discussion on this (askhole) dilemma is definitely in order.

    After working with John Q. Public for about four decades now …

    I’m really big on cutting your losses and moving on. The rumor that life is short and stress causes stomach ulcers is TRUE. In my way of thinking (based on the number of times I’ve been around the working-with-people block), it’s best to pull the weeds out of your garden so you have something beautiful to enjoy and admire. 🙂

    I think I’d set up some big fat ugly “consequences” right out of the gate for clients (just in case they’re folks who don’t take action). Let them know if “this” doesn’t happen by such and such a time, then “this” WILL happen.

    I sometimes struggle with being assertive but I keep reminding myself it’s a whole lot better than stomach ulcers.


  4. I’m the Donald Trump of coaches. If someone becomes a frustration rather than a joy to work with, I just let them go.

    The way I see it, is my time is SO VALUABLE, and SO PRECIOUS that I simply refuse to waste it being frustrated and annoyed. And I’m pretty hard to annoy. I’ve got high empathy. So when somebody bumps up against the Critical PITA alarm, I know I’ve been more than generous.

    First they get The Talk (the one about time being precious, and how I need to see the same commitment I give them) and then if the situation doesn’t resolve I send a nice email about how I’m sorry coaching isn’t a priority for them and I hope that when it is they’ll look me up again.

    It works great! In fact, I’ve had *new* clients ask me whether they have enough time to work with me– apparently word’s gotten out I’m a hard-ass. 🙂


  5. Like you, Michelle, I only want to work with people who are committed, not with people who require nagging or babysitting. I’ve found that worrying about other people’s responsibilities in addition to my own is hugely draining for me, so I’ve been working on ways to share the accountability out more evenly.

    I think it’s hard to turn down business. But at the same time, I’m not sure our sanity is worth sticking it out!


  6. What I have found no matter what the business is, is that clients who ask for exceptions or different rules, or whatever turn out to be the worst clients of all.. so I look for that upfront before we even start.

    I also agree with Nick (above) who said those are the clients who drain our best energies and that is truly not worth it.. I am always loving AND clear… you’re not doing anyone any favors by not keeping the bar where it belongs..

    It feels good to stretch ourselves…that’s why people pay good money for experts.. if it’s not happening,and it’s becoming a struggle something needs to happen.

    Great post, discussion.. reminder.



  7. Askhole–lol. that’s genius! I agree 100%—the ask hole syndrome is rampant. I love how you said it’s best not to go too far in either direction. Ultimately it’s up to the individual to get it together but people like you can prod them along, within reason. Thanks for bringing this subject to light!


  8. Michelle – love this post.

    I find it incredibly hard to be detached from my clients outcomes. In part I think this is because I can see so clearly just how awesome they are, and the work that they want to bring to the world is, I can see an audience waiting just for them. I can see where little tweaks in their processes and mindsets could save them time and energy and bring them more money.

    I feel like you: “I’m not doing what I do just to make a buck, I’m doing it for the high I get when I see a project finished and the satisfaction that comes from knowing there’s more awesomeness out in the world as a direct result of work I put in.”

    I’m a very self motivated person, but I know that I also thrive in environments where there’s a high level of accountability built in, like the Morning Whip and Hustle. I’ve found that’s what I’m looking for in 2013 as I consider what programs/coaching to take.

    That’s also one reason I structured The PDF Workshop with a lot of accountability and deadlines and assignments. For the participants that show up and do the work and use that level of accountability to their advantage the results are awesome. I believe that those folks would get great results on their own, too. But with accountability and feedback they progress so quickly. And that’s wonderful.


  9. I love the idea about firing a client. I actually had a client fire me. After not doing the homework time after time (we had worked together 3 years) it appeared she was stuck and I tried everything under the sun to help her shift to no avail. I was getting frustrated and impatient. And then she got upset when I reminded her she was still living in the past and she fired me. It was one of the biggest reliefs of my life, although not without a bruised ego. In hindsight, I realize that if I had been able to stand up and call her out I would have been the one firing her, but because I was willing to put up with her complacency it ended up backfiring on me. Thanks for the reminder that when I make my clients accountability it’s better all the way around!


  10. Love the post! I can relate to the situation with the gym, I’ve signed up for a monthly fee for a year with a complicated process to opt out. It’s not located near either my work place nor home, somewhere in between, it costs a lot and at the same time it makes me attend it at least 3 times per week.

    Regarding non-committing clients, I’m about to fire one. it was fun to work with him in the begging but after 3 weeks of saying “I haven’t done what we’ve agreed I need to be doing…” I think there is no point in continuing our collaboration.
    I’ve personally signed for the coaching program for a year which incorporates the element of accountability and it appeals to me, more important I’m committed to my success and I’m looking for clients with a similar commitment.


  11. Ah yeah, I think we’ve all got one like this. I had a client who wanted to work with me, didn’t make it on time for the first session, then told me she had to pass, and when I offered to reschedule – which I normally don’t for no-shows or late cancellation – she somehow fired me. Meaning she never responded to anything.
    So I am not going to run after them either, either they want to commit and do the freaking work or they don’t, and I’m no kindergarten.


  12. Interesting post. I’ve had that happen in the past, I remember one client who tested me repeatedly by showing up late, cancelling at the last minute. Once I got clear, really clear with myself about resenting her behaviour, I was able to be clear with HER. It took some time and patience on my part. And she made amazing progress!

    I think my work is different from that of a consultant or life coach, in that I CANNOT be attached to outcome. I work intuitively with people to resolve emotional issues and “limiting” beliefs. When I’m attached to outcome, the sessions simply do not flow. In order to have great results, I have to get myself out of the way.


  13. Yes, this is brilliant! The balance of holding clients accountable and at the same time not stepping into a ‘nanny’ role has been a dance I’ve flip-flopped in and out of.

    One of my holistic health care teachers taught us that our clients are like the plants on the kitchen window sill. You care for them by watering, nipping off the dead flowers, feeding and encouraging growth. A weekly tending is great, but leave them on the windowsill the rest of the time. I’ve used this so often teaching others…care, but don’t overcare, ‘cos you’ll kill them.

    Balance is the key. Thanks


  14. Oh, yes — the fitness field has its share of askholes and I think your gym created a really strong way to handle them. It’s especially impressive that you had the self-awareness to take a look at what this did for you/to you. Excellent, thought provoking, and funny all at the same time. 🙂 (Love the dramatic “hand washing”!!)


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