Stubborn clients

When clients don’t listen: How to maintain momentum and protect boundaries

It has taken me almost a year to revisit this story.

A client was referred to me by an old friend. That setup rarely works. And intuition told me that this woman—who complained right away that she had run through several other consultants who claimed they could not help her—was a bad fit.

I tried to get out of it, but she insisted that she wanted to work with me, so I drafted up a rock-solid agreement with a detailed scope and a fixed price. The goal was to solve this problem: What kind of consulting professional do I want to be, and how do I package and sell that?

When it comes to consulting with individuals, I keep things fairly organic at first, initially focused around building trust and learning the person’s communication style. She had had some bad experiences, so I wanted her to feel comfortable. Nonetheless, I also showed up each time with a light agenda, activities, time frame (an hour), and homework. 

Right away, we had boundary issues.

Most calls ran two hours, sometimes longer. She would monologue for an hour some days, then ask, “What do you think about that?” which is not at all what she hired me to do.

In the interim between calls, she consulted with friends who had “known her forever” and would fire her off in some unplanned direction. She would show up to the call with an agenda of her own, sometimes pitching new career directions, other times revisiting academic coursework or former positions she had held. 

She truly was lost, and I truly thought I could help her.

Usually by the end of each call, I could wrangle the discussion and point it in the right direction, assigning homework to keep her on task, but by the next call, she was off-topic and off the rails once again.

This wasn’t ADHD; this was insecurity.

She couldn’t move without asking five or six people to validate what the other five or six people were saying, and then the inertia caused by her inability to make a decision would cause her crippling frustration.

Again, I adjusted and tried to manage her expectations, work through the roadblocks, and keep her on track.

But she just wouldn’t listen or follow our plan. Trust issues, control issues, whatever you want to call it—it was exhausting.

(The saga continues after the advice below.)

Client boundaries bullying

How do you protect your boundaries and professional integrity with this type of client?

Handling a consulting client who ignores strategic advice, crosses boundaries, and undermines work by seeking input from others can be incredibly challenging.

Here are some steps you can take to address this situation:

1. Reiterate your expertise and value.

Emphasize your experience, track record, and the results you have achieved for other clients. Remind them that your recommendations are based on industry knowledge, best practices, and data-driven insights.

2. Address the boundary violations.

Clearly communicate to the client that seeking input from friends undermines the consulting process and the value of your expertise. Reinforce the importance of maintaining a professional relationship and adhering to the agreed-upon boundaries.

3. Highlight the risks and consequences.

Clearly articulate the risks and potential consequences of seeking input from non-experts. Explain how outside advice can compromise the integrity and effectiveness of the consulting engagement

4. Educate on the consulting process.

Educate the client about the consulting process, including the importance of a systematic and strategic approach. Explain how decisions should be based on thorough analysis, objective data, and the specific expertise you bring to the table. Emphasize the value of a holistic and well-informed perspective.

6. Offer alternatives and compromise.

If the client insists on seeking input from others, offer a compromise. Suggest involving a mutually agreed-upon expert or a neutral third party who can provide an unbiased perspective. This way, you can ensure that the input received is from a qualified source and aligns with the project’s goals.

7. Evaluate the client relationship.

Continuously assess whether the client’s behavior and actions align with your professional standards and values. If the client consistently undermines your work and compromises the consulting process, consider the impact on your reputation, well-being, and the quality of work you can deliver.

8. Consider terminating the engagement.

If the client’s behavior persistently undermines your work and professionalism, while compromising the project’s outcomes, consider terminating the engagement. Prioritize your professional integrity and the quality of work you deliver.

End toxic client relationships

In the end…

After several months, this client and I had long surpassed the number of hours I’d intended to spend with her, the conversations had gotten deeply personal (think: more therapy than strategy), and I lost the ability to strike a balance between supporting her emotional needs and moving her forward. Even reminding her of our shared goals elicited something akin to “yeah but” or “yeah yeah yeah.”

Sadly, I had resigned myself to: If this is how she wants to use our time—and especially since her reviews of our sessions were GLOWING—then I will allow things to progress another few meetings.

In other words, I sacrificed my professional boundaries—because she was a friend of a friend, but also because she was her own worst enemy and I truly wanted to help her break that cycle. Never again!

While recognizing that she needed help, she was incapable of recognizing that she had hired me for a specific kind of help.

Then, after gushing over video chat and email about how unbelievably life-altering our work together had been for her, she entered a call in a very different mood. She demeaned the work she had previously admired, breaking down emotionally and reiterating that she didn’t know who or where she was.

I was deeply offended; anger was brewing and my voice started to shake. But I swallowed and locked into being stoic.

“I’m surprised to hear you say that as the last few times we’ve spoken, you’ve been overwhelmingly positive about these sessions.”

I firmly yet gently declined her assessment, re-stated the truth (how much she had gotten from the sessions), and reminded her that she had chosen to distract her attention in many other ways, which causes lack of focus for this kind of work. She agreed.

We spoke for nearly two hours again, then closed the call.

Then came the emails…

  • Email 1: She apologized.
  • Email 2: I empathized. Everything would be fine, I said, and restated our goals.
  • Email 3: She accused me of not delivering and said she wanted her money back.
  • Email 4: I refused, restating the value she recognized in our service and in my copious time. I politely ended the contract, declining to take the final payment, as a sign of good will (but also to be rid of her), and wished her well.
  • Email 5: She apologized again, then tried to coerce me into working with her again. 
  • Email 6: I more firmly and succinctly closed the correspondence.
  • Email 7: She tried to incite an argument, to which I declined to respond.
  • Email 8: She reappeared several months later to start work together again.
  • Email 9: I declined and wished her well.
  • Email 10: She tried to accuse me again of not delivering, asking for her money back.
  • Email 11: I reiterated the terms in which I ended our contract (not taking final payment) and terminated communication with her firmly and politely—and indefinitely.

Just look at all the TIME she sucked!

This is a very rare relationship for me; I’m fortunate to have some of the most reasonable, accessible clients, who understand what they are hiring us to do. 

Trust your gut—don’t take the client if it just doesn’t feel right. And if you do, protect yourself!

Management consultant and brand strategist for small teams. Fan of dark tea, thick books, peace, and unity.

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