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.

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