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Careers Clinic: How do I deal with a tricky acting client?

John Byrne. Photo: Catherine Usher

I’ve always enjoyed teaching alongside acting, so I felt being an acting coach would be a good day job. I believe I am a good actor and have had some success, but I also know acting and teaching are different.

I took a course in coaching, which was expensive: I wanted to offer my clients the quality I myself would expect. I set up a website and (with permission from my flatmates who are usually out during the day) made the living room into a teaching space.

Word of mouth has brought in some nice clients, but I have one who constantly turns up late, cancels at the last minute or sometimes doesn’t call at all. She now says she can’t pay for her next block of lessons but ‘will when she gets work’. The implication is that if I was a better coach that would be happening. I wish I had never taken her on, but she is quite a big personality, active on social media and I worry about my reputation if she turns against me.

JOHN BYRNE’S ADVICE As a customer, it is always wise to check out the experience and reputation of potential coaches. It’s less easy for coaches to spot difficult clients in advance. Most of us learn as we go, usually thanks to clients like this one.

I understand it seems like good economics to offer classes in your home, but for all kinds of reasons ranging from security to insurance, I would advise you to check out more public and neutral venues – at least until you develop a bit more experience and confidence dealing with difficult people. Failing that, investigate Skype, Zoom or other virtual options. Just like when you are at the start of an acting career, lack of confidence at the beginning of your coaching career could lead you into over-promising and even contributing to your own exploitation.

Having put time and effort into learning to coach, you need to respect that time and energy, so that others will, too. Most of my coaching colleagues would agree that the majority of clients try hard, have reasonable expectations and behave decently. Unfortunately, there are always people who don’t, which is why it is important to create terms and conditions and get potential clients to agree to them in writing.

One upside of the new GDPR legislation that recently took effect is that you can easily find lots of information and templates showing how to set up agreements effectively and within the law. It is also important for you to be clear about the service you are offering.

You are an acting coach, not a therapist or a charity. Your client is a professional actor. As such, it is their responsibility to be on time and pay for the services you provide. It is not part of your responsibility to guarantee that ‘they get parts, so they can pay you’. That’s not something any coach could promise – whether they are a beginner or Stanislavski.

It sounds as though your reputation is already good with most of your clients, so don’t let one rogue client intimidate you. I certainly wouldn’t offer further coaching until the client pays what they owe (and probably not then either). Communicate this clearly and politely but firmly before they show up at your door for another session. Check with tutors from your coaching course for their advice too.

This should normally do the trick, but if any threats or abuse ensue, log them with the police (and the service provider if online). Outstanding fees can be pursued via the small claims court, or simply written off as a lesson for the future, which I hope will be full of success and more reasonable customers.

Contact careers adviser John Byrne at dearjohn@thestage.co.uk [1] or @dearjohnbyrne [2]