“Was I just bullied by this client, or did I imagine it?” Part A: What drives clients to behave like bullies?

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By M.A.Sachpazian

In an era when bullying (at schools and in the workplace) is largely and openly discussed and no tollerance is shown for bullying of any kind, it is rather odd that professional bullying (by clients / customers to service providers/suppliers) is hesitantly discussed in hushed tones. This probably happens because it is awkward (and franly quite embarrasing) for business owners and professionals to admit that they feel put down and how powerless they feel when they come up again the barrier of irrationally offensive behaviour and, in cases, blind anger. Since no FLS can afford to ‘’kick out’’ all misbehaving parents (or their children from that matter), we need to study what causes these behaviours, what feeds bullies and makes them thrive. In the November issues and the second part of this article, we will explore what schools and their managers can do to deal with and hopefully discourage such unprofessional behaviours.

“Was it really bullying or did I imagine it?’’

An additional reason why such cases of bullying are not discussed is that we are in constant terror of being characterised as hypersensitive people, who cannot distinguish between assertiveness and bullying. 

To put matters in some perspective, bullying clients tend to turn discussions into blazing rows (Goulston 2013). Their general behaviour is hostile and rude, seeking to insult so that they can start an argument (which might vent a lot of pent up anxiety and anger). Such clients tend to use several offensive adjectives quite lightheartedly, while also lacing their discourse with a variety of threats, usually very public. They are not simply happy to torture their victim now, but they also call into play social media and word of mouth to ensure that they will ruin the reputation of this school, leave no clients and influence (they mean bully) everyone they know to following them away from this ‘’unworthy establishment we call FLS!’’. The content of the message conveyed invariably affects the body language and facial expression of the bully which are both suitably menacing. For this reason, bullies rarely respect the vital space of the other person. They need to finger point, shout on one’s face and even spit a little, though this may not occur these days due to masks and COVID-19 measures. These clients are in their own universe. They have come to school to express their anger and get something back for it, on their own terms.

It is hard to confuse assertiveness with bullying. Assertive clients, though cold and aloof, are professionally distant and polite. They tend to reason and consider the explanations offered, while they state what they need in order to continue being our clients. There are no emotional outbursts, no forceful behaviours, simply well-stated arguments, which might help us to learn some bits about our company which we may not have noticed. Assertive complaing clients offer us a rare insight into what needs changing in our company, they do not insult or create problems nor do they threat or become physical.  

What might be the reasons behind such instances of bullying?

This is a really important issue which we need to address per school, per case but there are some general ideas we can discuss. 

Conflict usually arises when agreements are not honoured. Therefore, we need to prepare for toxic and difficult clients who are ready to misread what we tell them so as to handle our communication accordingly. For example, the usual marketing quote ‘’underpromise and overdeliver’’ is usually reversed at dire times when we are really desperate for registrations to take place. In such cases, we tend to promise and nod to whatever the client asks. Then once it is clear that most of what we have promised cannot be delivered, we go back to the clients to tell them that what we presented (and they perceived) as a cluster of reasons why they prefered our school, has now vanished. This is bound to cause frustration to the clients, some of whom may let their bargaining power go to their head (Searcy 2013) and handle their frustration in an entirely wrong way. This needs to be stressed twice and very loudly: No matter what has happened or not happened, nothing justifies such behaviour on the part of the clients. 

What do bullying clients really want? 

Searcy (2013) states a variety of reasons that lead clients to bully business owners / suppliers, which he calls ‘’motivations’’.   Behind all of them is the need of the client to have their power seriously considered. Searcy breaks this down into several subcategories. He identifies compliance as the first motive, when the client does not really want anything changed but he wants to see that the company takes him/her seriously.  The second motive is consideration, in which the client needs ‘’a win’’, in other words s/he needs to be given something back for what they have not been given or they lost,  but in this case they are prepared to negotiate. Accommodation is harder to deal with, as the clients want their needs accommodated with no flexibility on their part. Domination follows when clients want to ‘hurt’ the business in order to make a point especially, when they feel that somehow the business did not honour their agreements, so they have the right to behave in this way. Finally, there are many cases in which such instances are simply a disguise for the clients’ wish to leave. Termination is usually the way that such heated, unprofessional conflicts are resolved since the client has also been embarrassed by his/her behaviour.



Human behaviour is a maze and what drives our reactions and our choices is hard to pinpoint. When it comes to professional relationships there are certain behaviours that cannot be exhibited or forgiven. In our very public era, when almost all our choices are driven and affected by social media, it is easy to fall victim of such threats. Staying calm and trying to identify motives behind behaviours might be the way to difuse this complex situation. More about what can be done in the November issues.

Until then, a great school year to all!


Goulston, M.,(2013) How to deal with a toxic client. [Online ] [Viewed on 14.09.20] Available from: https://hbr.org/2013/04/how-to-deal-with-a-toxic-client
Searcy, T., (2013 ) 5 Ways To Deal With a Bullying Client. [Online] [Viewed on 14.09.20] Available from: https://www.inc.com/tom-searcy/5-ways-of-dealing-with-buyer-bullies.html
Weiss, A., (n.d) Stop being bullied by customers. [Online] [Viewed on 14.09.20] Available from:https://www.lanweiss.com/resources/hot-tips/stop-being-bullied-by-customers/


Maria Sachpazian BA education / RSA dip/tefl (hons)  is the Academic and Managing Director of Input on Education a company which provides academic, business support and consultancy to Foreign Language Schools. Maria is also a part-time lecturer at CITY College, the International Faculty of the University of Sheffield and an EFL teacher at the Straight Up Markoyannopoulou schools. During summer Maria works as academic manager for International House London Young Learners Centre in Edinburgh. Since March 2016 she is also the Chairperson (currently interim controller) of TESOL Macedonia-Thrace, Northern Greece.     This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.