Borderline Threatening Client - How to Defuse?
March 22, 2014 6:03 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend, Emily, and I work together occasionally on creative freelance projects. A few years ago, when we were first starting this side business, we did a project for my girlfriend's old family friend, Robert. Robert is now aggressively requesting professional, unpaid help from us in what seems to be an escalating manner. How can we calm this whole situation down?

Overall, Robert's project went fairly well, and Robert was very happy in the end. During the project, Robert did set off a few red flags for me - was very aggressive on the phone, was verbally volatile when presented with things he didn't like, etc. When the project completed, Emily and I took Robert out to dinner as a thank you. When Robert arrived, he was already visibly drunk. Emily and I did the best we could to corral him, but the owner of the restaurant eventually asked us to leave due to Robert's drunkenness. We were very embarrassed. We took Robert home and the next day expressed our concern to him by phone. He waved it off.

We hadn't heard from Robert for a few years years until last month when he began sending texts to Emily requesting help with the old project. Emily did the best she could via text to help, but Robert's requests were moving targets and he was becoming more and more annoyed via text ("Why aren't you helping me? Let me come to your house and sit down with you and you can help me in person...")

Emily mentioned that she would not be able to do more to help without being paid at her hourly rate. This did not please Robert ("I'm a friend, where is your loyalty?") So eventually, I scheduled a call with Robert to do my best to walk him through the problems he was having. I thought I provided some good, patient help during our hour long phone conversation.

But last week, Robert got in touch with Emily saying how unhelpful I had been during our conversation. At this point, Emily and I decided to go no-contact. However, the texts and emails are continuing from him and the last one asks for our address and exact business name. I'm now concerned, my mind goes to him trying to damage our reputation via social media or the Better Business Bureau or something. We've never dealt with anything like this, our other clients are so grateful and complimentary of our work.

Since he's a family friend, he's also sending multiple texts and emails to Emily's brother and sister - even her 2 cousins - about us, asking them to ask us to help him. Emily and I are both very low-key, low-drama people and we just want to do what's best to defuse the situation, as well as what's best for our business.

So what is the solution? I thought going no-contact would lead to him just forgetting about us. But now that he's asked for our business information, I'm worried and wondering if we should meet him in person somewhere and walk through the problems he's been having. I do believe that with an in-person meeting and maybe an hour of time, we could solve most of the issues he's been having with the project. What say you all, what should we do?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not a business owner and I don't know what kind of work this is, but it seems like it'd be a bad idea to reward Robert's bad behavior by meeting with him and hearing him out further. As a business, I believe that you have the right to refuse service to anyone, but that doesn't even matter as he's not inclined to pay you and so isn't even a customer.

I'd text him back and say, "Robert, we love to help friends, but we have to give actual paying customers a priority, also you've acted poorly with us in the past which makes us less inclined to help you. If you'd like, we can refer some other folks in the industry that may be able to help, but we kindly ask for no further contact regarding this project otherwise."

If he does attempt to damage your business' reputation, it should be pretty hard to prove that he actually did business with you since he DIDN'T as he wasn't a paying client. Social media works both ways, and I'd assume the BBB has some sort of fact-checking in place, as well.

Edit: argh, looks like maybe he did pay you for that work in the beginning - the point mostly still stands, though. On social media, you'll have an opportunity to respond, and again the BBB should be able to weed out an unsubstantiated complaint.
posted by destructive cactus at 6:18 PM on March 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

This reminds me of a drunk, blustery client I fired. I wonder if you might be more afraid of blowback than you need to be. Maybe he'll just disappear into a bottle rather than attacking you on Yelp. I would not let him bully you into giving him attention.
posted by steinsaltz at 6:19 PM on March 22, 2014

Since he's an old family friend, whose friend is he, exactly? A friend of Emily's parents, perhaps? Maybe reach out to those people, and ask them to communicate to Robert that you are no longer interested in working with him.

Beyond that, do nothing. If you contact him now, meet with him and/or give him any help, you've taught him that all he needs to do to get your attention/help is to pester you X amount of times.

One disgruntled customer isn't going to harm your business --- if he actually does make official complaints you can respond via those same channels, or by social media. But for now stop giving this guy your energy.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:35 PM on March 22, 2014 [11 favorites]

Look, you're too busy. That's all you need to say. You're too busy.

It has been years since he's dealt with you and he's not entitled to not pay you even though you're "friends".

You don't give him additional information and you don't sit down and talk to him, because you really don't have time.

This a project that finished years ago. It really ceases to be your problem now unless he's prepared to pay you to open it up again, which he's clearly not prepared to do.

Personally, from what he's said and how he's said it, it sounds like he specifically wants to see Emily for whatever reason he may have.
posted by heyjude at 6:35 PM on March 22, 2014 [12 favorites]

You don't need to go no contact, you need to let him know your voluntary work for him is done (destructive cactus has a good one) and then go no contact. And then you need to send an email to Emily's brother and sister and two 2 cousins. A very brief email based in apology to them. Something like "I understand you've been hearing from Robert. I am so sorry if this contact has been harassing or stressful in any way. We have made it clear to him that we are no longer in a position to donate unpaid time to his project as vounteers and offered to refer him elsewhere. Please interact with him as you see fit, and we are sorry our kindness of X years ago has lead to this for all of you."
posted by DarlingBri at 6:45 PM on March 22, 2014 [24 favorites]

Well, from my read it sounds like he paid them years ago (they took him out for a thank you dinner) and that he in a sense helped out then by using their services when they were just getting started. So he now wants free help on this project ad infinitum and probably wrongly feels like he's earned it. He hasn't.

But thus far your response has been kind of wafflingly helpful, and inconsistent reward is the worst in terms of actually encouraging behavior extinction. So no more we'll help - no you need to pay - oh all right we'll help - now we're mysteriously hard to reach.

I'd respond one more time telling him that you're not going to be able to help him out again. If you feel compelled to provide a reason, I'd tell him that it's become clear that all of you are having a harder time than you had anticipated keeping your friendship out of this business relationship and that you've realized you don't want to continue mixing them together (and then perhaps provide a list of competitors whose services he could use).

This reason also forestalls him eventually grudgingly offering to pay, as I would avoid taking him on again even as a paying client.
posted by vegartanipla at 7:42 PM on March 22, 2014 [4 favorites]

A guy who can't even sit and eat in a restaurant with you without getting you all thrown out is unlikely to do any damage to anybody's reputation but his own.

You have no professional obligations to this guy unless he's got a contract that says you have. You've got no personal obligations to him either unless you want him for a friend (spoiler: you don't). It sounds like he's a crank who will waste as much of your time as you'll provide him with. Stop providing it.

And yes, please don't take him on as a paying client.
posted by Sing Or Swim at 7:48 PM on March 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Personally, from what he's said and how he's said it, it sounds like he specifically wants to see Emily for whatever reason he may have.

I think heyjude hit the nail on the head here. It might not be about the project at all--the fact that he's insisting on Emily's help, specifically, makes me think that he's either a) interested in her in a way that's not totally kosher or b) he thinks she's easier to boss around/feels entitled to her time because she's female and younger. And both of those are good reasons to avoid somebody! This dude sounds really unpleasant and is obviously pinging your radar for good reasons.
No contact usually takes a while to take effect, about 6 weeks, I think. So you might have to deal with his texts/emails for a while. The Gift of Fear has a section on dealing with overly persistent people in a business context, which might be helpful.
posted by Nibbly Fang at 7:54 PM on March 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

One volatile person's complaints does not your reputation ruin. People have a way of reading between the lines when it comes to these sorts of things, and his neediness and irrationality will show through. Reasonable people don't expect 100% glowing reviews of any business, especially from self-selecting sources (people happy with a business or service are far less likely to go out of their way to write about it online than people unhappy with same). I'd avoid further contact (for the reasons other posters mention) and try not to worry too much about a ding on your reputation until it actually appears (and maybe not even so much then, either).
posted by axiom at 7:55 PM on March 22, 2014

I think one email, from Emily, saying "Robert we are too busy to undertake a new project for you, best of luck" is all he gets. He sounds like a stressor and a time suck.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:55 PM on March 22, 2014

maybe it's because I've had experience with being stalked in the past, but he sounds a little scary. He almost sounds like he has a crush on Emily actually.

Anyway, I wouldn't engage with him anymore as others have said, BUT if he continues to escalate in anyway you should shoot an email to him making it clear that neither of you want to have any more contact with him. This way if he ignores the request and becomes more aggressive you have it in writing that you wanted him to stay away and you'll be able to get a restraining order if necessary.
posted by manderin at 3:56 AM on March 23, 2014

I agree with the single email telling Robert 'sorry, but we're too busy to help you with your project', but make it a professional email, not a personal one --- sign it YourBusinessName, not Emily. (And don't write 'we're too busy to help you right now'; that just leaves the door open, saying Emily/your business will be available for later contact.) Then go the full no-contact.

And no, do not give Robert the additional information he's demanding.
posted by easily confused at 6:20 AM on March 23, 2014

no, don't sign it yourbusinessname, that's some of the information he's asking for! don't call him, don't email him, don't anything him, keep up the no contact. save all of his abusive emails for your court case if he doesn't go away. if he shows up in person, kick him out and tell him not to come back, and if he shows up again, restraining order.
posted by bruce at 9:16 AM on March 23, 2014

Do not meet with him or give him any further help for free! Do not give him any personal information or your business name.

One final message, to make things clear:
"Robert, Project was completed and paid for X years ago. We do not owe you any further help in this matter. Please do not contact us again." And, if you are so inclined: "If you would like to engage us at our normal hourly rate (paid in advance) we can set up a meeting to resolve your issues with Project. However, please remember we are running a business and cannot afford to offer our time and services for free."

Personally, I don't think I'd want to work with this guy at all even if he pays, but if you really do want to smooth things over and resolve the issue, add that last part on. But please don't help him for free, and don't give him any information. Meet him in a coffee shop, and make sure he pays in advance. You really don't owe him anything.

Either way, send a clear, professional message expressly telling him that you will not work for free, and that if he doesn't want to hire you (if you give him that option) he should not contact you again. If he continues harassing you after that, consider filing a complaint with the police. He may be a "family friend," but he is not your friend, and not acting like it. His behavior is inappropriate and should not be tolerated or rewarded.
posted by catatethebird at 10:37 AM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

And yes, save his correspondence in case you need the evidence. And I say send that message because going no contact requires you to inform him you are going no contact. Just fading away leaves to door open for him to keep bothering you. You need to make it clear that you do not want to hear from him, or set your terms for your interactions with him. Make your boundaries clear in explicit words, and then enforce them.
posted by catatethebird at 10:52 AM on March 23, 2014

This guy sounds like major trouble in the making.

You both need to contact family and friends and tell them to cool it with the info they are giving this guy because he is behaving in a harassing and threatening manner.

Follow catatethebird's advice up to the strikeout:

Do not meet with him or give him any further help for free! Do not give him any personal information or your business name.

One final message, to make things clear:
"Robert, Project was completed and paid for X years ago. We do not owe you any further help in this matter. Please do not contact us again." And, if you are so inclined: "If you would like to engage us at our normal hourly rate (paid in advance) we can set up a meeting to resolve your issues with Project. However, please remember we are running a business and cannot afford to offer our time and services for free."

Don't work with him again, or you're going to encourage him to badger you whenever he feels like it again. Keep evidence if possible. Don't engage any more with this weirdo. If he continues to harass or threaten you, file a police report.
posted by BlueHorse at 3:50 PM on March 23, 2014

I'd like to second Nibbly Fang's recommendation of Gavin de Becker's "The Gift of Fear." Coincidentally, I was re-reading it this weekend and Chapter 8, "Persistence, Persistence ( Dealing with people who refuse to let go)" sounds like it would be uncomfortably familiar to you. Don't feed your particular "Tommy"'s escalation. It sounds like you and your girlfriend have been more than reasonable and Robert has not been at all reasonable, so I'm not sure that reasoning with him (or, for that matter, attempting to meet his demands) will bring you the results you seek. After all, you've been trying both and things have only gotten worse.

Even if you don't decide to read the rest of the book, that one chapter is less than 25 pages. Check it out. The strategies and examples are very interesting.
posted by spelunkingplato at 8:48 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older Looking for a walkable Philadelphia suburb with .....   |   Family reunion too expensive - should we go or not... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.