Five years ago when I was just starting to teach online then I had no idea that as an online teacherpreneur and a freelancer I could potentially be in charge of choosing the people with whom I enjoyed working.
I got the freedom aspect down pretty quickly, and was organized enough to complete projects even in the absence of a boss (incidentally, my productivity had gone up tremendously as I was no longer required to do incessant paperwork and attend 3-hour meetings that arrived nowhere).
My only client selection filter at that point was the student has to be able to afford me. Everything else was irrelevant. As long as they could pay what I asked, I was a happy camper.
However, after about 6 months I realized that the “money filter” did not guarantee that I would enjoy working with that specific student. I mean, why wasn’t money a good enough incentive for me to enjoy tutoring this particular client? After all, I was being paid about 5-7 times the amount that I had been paid at College!
Why did I still force myself to work with this student anyway? It would take me a few years to realize that I didn’t have to be a martyr after all. Oh well.Today’s post is about good and bad clients. It’s about my mistakes that I wouldn’t want you to make. So let’s look at the definitions of a bad and good client and decide who you can choose the ideal customer every time.
What is a bad client?
I’ve had my share of those… They may have different names, different personality traits and different studying habits (or the absence of those) that may put you off.
When I worked at a College I used to teach a number of them because there was this requirement, the pressure to make money for the school, to do well at my year-end performance review, to educate them, as my former Dean would say.
And so I had students from all over the place, some knew very little English and weren’t generally apt to study Linguistics, and I had the pressure of making them into simultaneous translators or language teachers for some small school at a remote village.
Needless to say that when I began teaching on my own, my main goal was to never ever again teach the students that I didn’t like.
While I stayed true to my word and never again taught anybody who wasn’t motivated enough, something in my teacherpreneurial philosophy was still painting me into the corner from where I had no escape. The main cause of my dissatisfaction with some students began surfacing when I realized that I:
a) wanted to have the best and promptest customer service compared to my competition (it wasn’t too difficult in an Eastern European country where customer service is just beginning to take its form and shape);
b) believed that if a student wasn’t learning (or rather willing to learn) it was my fault;
c) was convinced that the client is always right.
The quest for an #ideal #client. Weed out the wrong fit clients to make room for the right ones. Click To Tweet
So, what’s so lacking in this teacherpreneurial philosophy?
a) the so-called “best customer service” pretty much meant to me that I had to break my back over the wishes of my client. They couldn’t pay for so many lessons a month? Well, no problem – pay for just a few at a time. Still expensive? Here’s a great discount for you.
Don’t like this assignment? Here’s another one – try it out. Well, this obliging spirit soon turned against me and I quickly realized that the people that were most demanding would never be satisfied.
b) if a student is not willing to learn (or follow my recommendations exactly) it’s usually their problem. They may think they know best and as a result begin doubting my instructions.
I remember there was a time where I strongly recommended that one of my students should focus more on writing to solidify her Grammar and develop more self-correcting skills. Her response was, “I really don’t need any writing. My writing is fine as it is.”
c) I no longer believe that the client is always right, but at a certain point I felt that a few students learned to use my then misguided philosophy to their advantage.
“If I’m always right then I know better how I should be taught. Then I can tell you whether or not I need to learn how to write. Then I can say that you didn’t teach me and hence I don’t know this material, etc.”
In the 5 years of my online teaching I’ve taught about 100 students in the 1:1 setting, and among them there were 4 that had made a year or two of my teaching career pretty miserable.
But as it stands, I am very thankful for that experience because I know now how to define a good student.
Want to charge more as an online language teacher? I walk you through the complex process in this mini-course:
What is a good client?
When we are at the beginning stages of our online venture we tend to think that if we don’t take this or that student, if for some reason we’ll say “no” to them, we’ll lose a lot of money and/or our reputation.
I can tell you now that getting rid of a bad student as quickly as possible is a great gain for you because it means no stress, no wasted time, and no unnecessary long-term martyrdom.
So one of the things that I would have done differently had I gone back in time is define what a good and a bad client mean for me, and then just choose the ones that were my perfect fit.
I believe that if we only work with those who energize and empower us, we’ll be more effective, more productive and we’ll get better referrals from these happy customers. Based on the “bad client” experience I’ve come up with 5 essential qualities of my ideal customer, and here they are:
- My ideal client is the one who pays my price without any questions or complaints.
- My ideal client is the one who trusts me to do my job right and never questions my teaching style and/or methods.
- My ideal client is the one who rarely misses classes (for no reason), is punctual and always ready with his/her assignments.
- My ideal client is respectful, disciplined, and highly motivated to succeed.
- My ideal client asks good questions, has a positive attitude to life and learning, and even becomes my friend without being overly familiar.
In my first two or three years of working online I only had the #1 item in the list above to define my ideal client. Hence I basically worked with everybody and sometimes came across a few ungrateful students who made me insane. This year I decided to change my attitude completely and follow my ideal client checklist.
By “ideal” I don’t mean it’s someone with no drawbacks. “Ideal” in this case is the right fit, someone who gets the best results while working with you.
5 practical steps to select an ideal client and let go of a “bad apple.”
OK, so let’s say you’ve written your ideal-client list and you’re ready to set up your own filtering mechanism to protect yourself from the clients that are not the right fit for you.
When you do your initial consultation or a free trial, it is not always easy to assess whether or not the student “will apply him/herself,” so you need a solid plan in place if you want to switch to working only with your ideal clients. I’m going to share 5 steps on how this can be achieved.
#1: Before a student signs up for a package, let them know that you will work with them for one month to see whether or not you can have a “long-term relationship.” Let them know during your trial lesson or consultation that you work best with students that are … (then list some of the qualities from your ideal-customer list).
Let them know that you would love to invest one month into them, but if they don’t apply themselves, you may not be their best fit.
#2: If you already have a student that you realize is not right for you, find a way to transfer them to another teacher. Unless this client is absolutely unbearable, he/she might work well with somebody who has different expectations than you.
When I realized I had to move on from this one particular client who wasn’t applying herself I said to her, “I think I’ve done everything I could to help you, and it may be a good time for you to continue working with somebody else.”
#3: Increase your rates. This is a simple solution that will discourage your less-than-ideal clients from continuing working with you. The problem will solve itself because those who value what you have to offer will pay your price without any reservations. Here’s more on how to raise your fees organically.
#4: Develop your policies and procedures regarding complaints. To protect yourself from “bad apples” have your contract in place where you request people to submit any unsubstantiated criticism in writing. Usually the people that love complaining enjoy talking about all the things that should be done “right.”
Try not to get into this ongoing discussion in your class but rather refer this student to the policies and procedures and request them to write an email to you with a detailed list of all the things they would like for you to do to make their life easier.
After you receive the email respond to them by saying that unfortunately you can’t live up to their expectations and they will have to look for somebody else. End of story. I mean it.
#5: Be firm and do not try to please everyone because you can’t do that. There’re lots of people out there who will be your perfect fit. By getting stuck working with somebody who is less-than-ideal for you you will miss out on an opportunity to help somebody who will truly value you and will gladly refer you.
Being a critical thinker starts with resisting the urge to be a pleaser. ~ Margeret Hefferman, Willful Blindness. Click To Tweet
In conclusion I’d like to share this article by a successful web-designer Kathy Pines where she shares her own experience making a decision to work with her ideal clients to the point of turning down a $10k deal with the client that would make her miserable.
I hope you’ve found this post helpful! Thank you for your comments and I will greatly appreciate if you find a way to share this information with your friends or colleagues!
The post was updated in March, 2021.
This is a very nice article of your experiences that you had in your journey of teaching..I like your all the points for bad clients but I am little disagree with your statement that your ideal client is one who pays your price without question because sometimes money matters:)..
Satish, thank you for your comment! These are just my criteria, and I have the right to have them and express them. It doesn’t mean that the person who can’t pay me what I ask him/her to pay is “bad” per se, but they are not my type, not ideal for me. “Bad” here doesn’t mean that they are gangsters or evil creatures, it’s not the issue of “morals”. I probably should change that, but the word “bad” actually has a lot of meanings. Somebody who is not “my ideal type” may be somebody else’s ideal type – that’s normal. I only list what’s important for me, not what’s important for everybody (or should be important for everybody). But teachers do have to have an idea who they work with best, otherwise they will be unsatisfied, and having an unsatisfied teacher is the worst thing any client/student can have. Finally, to expand on what you said about “money matters.” I agree and disagree. Money matters on the things that don’t matter. For instance, if I want to buy a light bulb in my house and light bulbs are not important to me, I’m going to look for the cheapest one. But if I saw a doctor who told me that I’m going to get blind if I continue using these cheap light bulbs then suddenly light bulbs are going to matter to me, and I won’t mind paying 10 times the amount for some light bulb (i.e. the money won’t matter anymore). If smart phones don’t matter to you, you’ll pay $30 for a phone that just works. If it matters that you have all your life saved in a phone then you’ll be willing to pay $300 for a phone that will store all your data. To continue my point and get more personal: I buy organic meat which costs 5-7 times more than the meat at Walmart. I pay this money even though it’s expensive for me because it’s important that I eat healthy meat and because I know what can happen if my meat is stuffed with hormones (of course, I can be a vegetarian, but that’s another story). I can continue this list forever. When it matters to a student that they work with me, they will pay me what I ask (i.e. money won’t matter). When they just want something cheap (i.e. money does matter), they go on iTalki and find a more affordable teacher just because at this point English doesn’t matter as much to them. The same thing can change its value based on our preferences and our priorities.
Congrats on another fabulous article, Lena. I’m really glad to see your list of the ideal client – it’s important to know these guys are going to respect you. One thing I’d add would be that it is really valuable to invest time in writing your terms & conditions and making each new learner aware of them. They are your guidelines and their mere presence gives you an important level of professionalism.
Awesome write up…..I am following your wonderful thoughts….so glad to have found someone so honest in view and professional too!
Keep it up and look forward to many more updates from you,
Cheers have a blissful day!
Anita, thanks for your feedback! I really appreciate it.
Hi Lena. I enjoyed reading this post. I smiled when you suggested that people submit any unsubstantiated criticism in writing. I had a similar issue with a student. Although my situation was different because the student was through a school (not my direct client) and we were in a face-to-face group class, I still think your suggestion is a very good one. The student in my case continued to complain and complain and simply ruined the class for everyone else. Thanks for sharing your experience!
Maria, in my experience it worked like magic. The person realized that they had to stop and actually start working (which wasn’t what she wanted), and writing wasn’t going to happen either because most of their complaints were too generic or emotional, not anything of substance. In the end I stopped teaching her, and she was the one to lose on an opportunity to learn.