How do I tell a client that I don't want to work with them
January 10, 2012 8:31 AM   Subscribe

I work as a full time private tutor at a university. Occasionally I meet with a student who is rude (i.e. interrupts me constantly) or seems unwilling to put any effort into learning. In both cases, I don't feel like we're a good fit for each other. How can I politely tell them that I don't want to work with them as their tutor in the future? Possible complication: most of my students are from the same network of friends. Meaning that I will often be meeting with one or several friends of the person I want to stop meeting with.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'm wondering what your initial screening process is like. Perhaps you want to restructure your intake process so that you can have an initial/exploratory meeting with each potential client first before accepting them as a client.

I also think you may need to lay out the ground rules of your tutoring arrangement at the outset - ie, "sessions are characterized by an atmosphere of mutual respect, I expect clients to listen, work in good faith, avoid interrupting, complete assignments, etc...."

That doesn't help you with your present problem, but at least it might prevent future ones. One problem I see is that you probably get a lot word-of-mouth recommendations from existing clients, and that's how you end up in the friend network.

AS for your present problem, I guess you could say "It seems to me that these sessions are unproductive, so I propose we put them on hold until you have more interest in working with me." But it sounds like they just don't know what your standards are and have the expectation that since they're paying for the service, they're the boss. YOu need to change that expectation somehow and let them know you are a professional agreeing to assist them but that you are in charge of the instructional relationship.
posted by Miko at 8:37 AM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

You ask them, do they really want to be here? If they say No, then you tell them that they really don't have to work with you and they can leave if they like. If they say Yes, then you continue by telling them that in order to work with you they will need to behave in an appropriate manner - specifying, of course, what that consists of in this context.

Mainly, you make sure that if they leave, they do it because they have themselves realised that it's not working for them.
posted by emilyw at 8:40 AM on January 10, 2012 [10 favorites]

"I don't feel like we are a good fit, and I think you'll get more out of working with someone else. Here is a list of other tutors that you may feel more comfortable with because this will be the last time we meet."

You are providing a service, and for the most part these students see you as a service provider. I doubt that the student's friends are going to flip out over their buddy meeting with some other tutor. Just make sure not to directly accuse the kid of being an ass.
posted by Blisterlips at 8:43 AM on January 10, 2012

If you are employed by the university, then this question is better addressed to your management.
posted by Ardiril at 8:44 AM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

That's true - I assumed by "private tutor" it meant that you were a private industry, but I see that it could also just mean "one-on-one." If there's some way to clarify the employment arrangement that would be helpful.
posted by Miko at 8:51 AM on January 10, 2012

Ever watch Mad Men? At one point, Don Draper asks his boss exactly why Pete Campbell, who is an enormous, whiny jackass, has a job. The boss responds that he's got connections to wealthy business families which are worth far more to the company than his salary and the headaches he causes, combined.

Similarly, I was recently involved in defending a lawsuit where the plaintiff rejected our $10k offer of settlement, went to trial, and got nothing. Why didn't the plaintiff's lawyer advise him to settle? Or work harder at bringing that about? Because the plaintiff had most of his actual damages paid by his company, so he wasn't really hurting for the money, and the company itself was a major source of referrals for the firm. Thus the plaintiff was willing to take a long shot at a windfall, and the plaintiff's lawyer had an incentive to let him do that, lest he run the risk of losing future referrals.

I don't know if this is your sort of situation. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But something to consider is that sometimes you just have take a client or a job which is an absolute dog, because it's necessary to maintain a wider relationship. Most people aren't in situations where they never have to do things like this. You are, at least, getting paid, which is something.
posted by valkyryn at 8:51 AM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not in your industry, I work with clients and have fired the ones that I think are not a good fit for whatever reason.

A few ideas for you on the assumption that you are truly independent and not paid through the university:

• Do you have a webpage-- but your rules upfront or an agreement upfront. If I were in your shoes, I would have a web page that students have to read and sign before the first appointment. It could have wording like "mutual respect" or 24 hours notice for cancelling, etc.

• What is your network of other tutors like? What will they work with/not work with? Find this out so if it is not working out, you can hand out the business card or immediately recommend someone else.

• Fill up your schedule. If I have clients that I don't want to work with, I tell them that I am too busy or have no free blocks for them over the next few weeks/months. They find someone else.

posted by Wolfster at 9:15 AM on January 10, 2012

I found something similar when I was a tutor. Good students come in once and get help with the problem that they're having and you don't see them again. Poorer students were the steady paycheck.

You just do your best to muddle through.

Imagine if they fail, you might get them next year. Shudder
posted by notned at 9:17 AM on January 10, 2012 [1 favorite]

Turn it around on them and say, "What do you want to get out of this session?" Convince them that they need to have an objective and if they're not meeting it, they're wasting their own time. You get paid regardless, right?

The person's objective may truly be to say they've been to the tutoring session. You can still get through the session somehow and maybe trick them into learning something. If you relax about their being rude it may just seem funny.
posted by BibiRose at 9:37 AM on January 10, 2012

Have you considered discussing your challenges with the student? I'd almost be inclined to have a very frank and honest conversation on why you feel it isn't working out to both of your best interests. Although, administrative guidelines may prevent you from doing that...if there's nothing holding you back, why not put it up to the student on whether they want succeed with you on the time spent tutoring? You can make it more of a mutual agreement that way...
posted by samsara at 9:38 AM on January 10, 2012

I used to tutor at a community college, and I remember getting all sorts too. Some students were incredibly pleasant and even fun to work with and other students' sessions always seemed to devolve into a power struggle in which the student was trying to get me to write their essay for them, and I was trying to telepathically suggest to them that they get the hell out and never come back.

I found that it's sometimes good to do a check-in with students, even ones I'd worked with before. I'd say something like, "okay, we've worked together a few times, what do you feel like you still need the most help with?" or "what are you expecting to get out of this session?" Questions like that can help to focus expectations for you both.

Sometimes it's nice to hear from students who seem impossible (like the ones who interrupt you) that they feel like they are actually being helped. People work differently, and the students you feel like you have the most frustrating sessions with might actually be the ones who appreciate you the most. (They must like you at least a little if they keep coming back to you and telling their friends about you.)

Ask the ones you feel like aren't learning if they feel like they're learning anything or if they have something in mind they actually would like to learn. If they say they don't want to learn anything, you can tell them they're free to leave. I highly doubt any will. Make them come up with something. I was always pleasantly surprised, especially with difficult students, that if I showed them I expected more from them, they almost always rose to those expectations.

If they're interrupting, it's okay to calmly tell them, "I can't work like this. You have to let me finish my thoughts." (Maybe smile while you say it, less, "Kid, I'm about to punch you." and more, "This academic debate is getting pleasantly out of hand.") You might have to say it a few times before they get the picture, but most of them should come around.

And yeah, you might have some that you never like working with. Don't let it spoil your experience. I thought I would absolutely loathe tutoring, but it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling jobs I've ever had. Focus on what you like about it, and let the bad experiences go.
posted by alittlecloser at 9:42 AM on January 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

It's obviously very different if you can refuse to take their business in the future. If so, just do your best to deal, remind yourself that you get pair either way, and use a combination of "I think this person might be a better fit for you" and simply being slow to respond/hard to schedule in the future.

If you have to deal with them then you need to learn to cope. The interruptors are hard for me, but I'd just try to remind yourself that these folks are probably walking in the door already somewhat frustrated, either with the material or themselves or both. In my experience people feel like a failure when they "have to resort to" tutoring. Perhaps your clients are different.

But they are already on edge so have some patience; when they seem to be doing it counter-productively, say so. "Listen, I do this all day. So trust me to only tell you as much as I know you can understand and let me get it all out at once. I promise I'll answer every question you have once I'm done explaining and I think you'll get it better if you let me say it all together."

The ones who seem uncommitted... man, I can relate to them. I have been a horrible student in my life at times. They may not realize how bad their habits and methods are. Again, they might be scared and putting on a front for you or ashamed just how bad they need you. If they seem like they're not putting into it what they need to in order to be successful, say so. I've appreciated it in my life when instructors told me "listen, if you're not doing XYZ or you can't do this in under 30 seconds then you're not going to be able to get a passing grade."

If none of that works and you can't "fire" them... then just remind yourself that you get paid either way. I've had to do that in my career when projects I slaved on for months got thrown away and never used. What are you going to do? Sometimes acceptance is all you can hope for.
posted by phearlez at 10:07 AM on January 10, 2012

Sounds like you might want to implement a No Asshole Rule for your tutoring business. Or at least run the Asshole Client from Hell Exam on your difficult clients; it might help you get some perspective.
posted by mskyle at 11:32 AM on January 10, 2012

Oh, or you could charge an "asshole tax" - higher rates for difficult students.
posted by mskyle at 11:32 AM on January 10, 2012

If you work through the university, you need to talk to them about this. I was a tutor, and we were given a fair amount of leeway with students with whom we had issues or felt we could not help. Asking them leading questions, as mentioned above, helped, but I did have a student or two that I could not refer on (they basically just wanted someone to do the work for them, not help) and I simply, politely, let them know that their expectations did not match the spirit and efforts of the Tutoring Center and that they should seek private tutoring on their own. When I tutored on my own, I did the same thing.

I've never had a student's friends or classmates really give a damn about this. Asking them whether they really want to pay (either through their tuition or their own/parent's money) to talk about their friend's experience or their own pretty much nipped any conversation headed that way in the bud, but most students simply wanted to be assisted. If they didn't, it was the same deal - refer on.
posted by sm1tten at 5:08 PM on January 10, 2012

I wonder if you could make the interrupting issue a part of the tutoring itself. Something like,

"One thing I'm noticing is that I'm not getting to finish speaking, which means you're missing important parts of what you're paying me for. This probably gets in the way in class and study group, too. Let's work on listening skills as part of today's session."

Then provide some specific techniques to make listening work better. I think some interrupters feel like if they DON'T SHARE THIS THOUGHT RIGHT ***NOW*** I'LL FORGET IT AND THEN I'LL NEVER GET TO MAKE MY POINT! so introducing a piece of notepaper for jotting down the Important Point may be one way to help interrupters feel more able to wait until the other person's finished.

Feel free to point out that one effect of interrupting is that the interruptee feels disrespected. This is not likely to go over well with professors and TAs. Learning to overcome this tendency is going to help the student have better interactions with other people in the academic world as well.
posted by kristi at 7:36 PM on January 10, 2012

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