Prickly Predicament: The “Dog Ate My Homework” Client

You know the one. He seems like a great client – playful, punctual, open to new perspectives. Just one snag: he consistently fails to complete assignments he helped co-design. Now what?

“Well,” you say to yourself, “I could fire him. But this is the only hitch in our alliance. Maybe it’ll work itself out.” Sound familiar?

Not so fast – there’s a more co-active approach to this. After all, if you want your client to walk his talk, you’ll have to walk yours.

Putting Responsibility Where It Belongs

It’s time to put the onus where it belongs – on the client. The next time a client neglects to follow through, ask:

  1. “What got in the way?”*
  2. “On a scale of 1 – 10, how important is it for you to complete this assignment?”
  3. “How would you like to forward the assignment now?”
  4. “What needs to be in place in order to successfully complete the assignment?”

Be prepared to redesign the terms of the assignment.

“How close you hold his feet to the fire” depends on what level of accountability you’ve designed with the client. If that client had said, for example, that he had his homework “totally covered,” you could explore how his choices aligned with this commitment.

If, however, the two of you had agreed on more “hands-on” accountability support, it might be helpful to divide accountability for his assignments into smaller chunks. For example, he could break an assignment into individual action steps and inform you of his progress when each is complete. Or he could send you a daily summary of his progress by email or voicemail (whether you respond to each message depends on what you’ve designed, of course).

One Last Tip: Don’t Lose Another Week

However you and your client choose to reconfigure the assignment, invite him to inform you immediately of any obstacles preventing progress, instead of waiting until the next session. This way, you’ll be able to nip the issue in the bud; meanwhile, the client has a pre-planned strategy to prevent another “lost week.”

Occasionally missing an assignment doesn’t necessarily mean a total loss. However, having a specific “safety net” in place can mean the difference between timely insight and an unnecessarily long learning-arc. Perhaps most importantly, if you’ve discussed how to handle this situation in advance, it’s clear to the client that the choice is always theirs.

So, when you’re tempted to get discouraged by a client who claims to have a house full of famished pooches, remember that yours is a designed alliance. Not only do you get to name counterproductive patterns as they emerge, but you have every right to renegotiate how you will best work together going forward. The result is an improved coach-client partnership and a client who’s accelerating toward his goals – a success by anyone’s definition!

*For most clients, there’s a big difference between “What got in the way?” and “What happened?” The first invites an exploration of obstacles, while the second frequently draws “story” or defensiveness.

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