Most of us have had an experience or two with a clingy client. Usually, the stalkers are male and the victims are female. Not this time. This week’s horror story perfectly illustrates why maintaining professional distance from your clients is so vitally important. Generally, professionals that become “friends” with their customers often have to deal with those customers requesting free services performed at home or begging discounts…not getting stalked for months. So, you’re unlikely to ever have this happen to you, but the moral lesson is an important one that all professionals should learn.
Clients are not friends. They are clients. Maintain an appropriate professional distance.
My name is Jessica, and I was “single-white-femaled” by a client.
In 2008, I was a new stylist working my first job in a suburb outside of Chicago. Everything was awesome; the place was busy, I loved my clients and coworkers, and the salon owner was fun, laid back, and supportive.
During a night out with a few of my coworkers, I met a woman named Leah. She approached me and said she loved my hair, so I told her what I did for a living and gave her my card. We hit it off and spent most of the evening talking. I left the bar that night, excited to have gained a new client.
Leah called the next morning and made an appointment for that afternoon. She told me she wanted my cut, color, and style exactly. I didn’t think anything of it. My color and cut were both very popular in my area at the time.
During the service, she asked me a bunch of personal questions, but none struck me as odd or creepy. She asked where I was from, who I was dating, what he did for a living, and what area I lived in. I just thought she was being friendly. After the appointment she left me a great tip and promised she would see me again soon. She said she was very happy to have met me and couldn’t wait until we could hang out again.
The next week, I saw Leah’s name on my book for a conditioning treatment and style. Her second appointment went a lot like her first, but she shared more information about herself. She was single, just moved to the area, and was having a hard time making friends. I felt bad for her. She asked if I was busy that evening and if I would come out with her to dinner and then to this bar near the mall. I had no plans, so I gave her my cell phone number and agreed to meet her there later.
My boss heard us making plans and pulled me aside after she left. She said, “Be careful. Some people will try to become friends with you just to take advantage of what you can offer them. Before long, she’ll be asking you to do her hair for free.” I assured her I would never let that happen and went about my day, looking forward to my night out with my new friend.
That evening, I left work a little late. My boss has us leave our phones in our lockers in the back room so we’re not distracted by them. When I booted mine up at the end of the day, I saw that Leah had bombarded me with texts.
“I’m looking forward to tonight!”
“What are you doing?”
“You’re probably busy.”
“Text me when you get a chance!”
“I’m on my way!”
“Did you leave yet?”
“I’m almost there!”
“I’m here now, where are you?”
“I’m going to get us a table, I’m sure you’ll be here soon.”
“I’m ordering drinks! Hope you like margaritas!”
“I’m starting to worry now.”
“I just called the salon and they said you’re still working? Wtf?”
“Did you forget we have plans?”
“Are you standing me up?”
“Should I come pick you up?”
“Why aren’t you answering my texts or calls?”
“Are you avoiding me?”
“If you didn’t want to come out you could have just told me.”
I didn’t have time to check all of the messages, so I just scrolled through and replied “BRT,” as I ran out the door.
When I arrived at the restaurant, Leah confronted me. “Why are you late?” she snapped. I apologized and told her my last client ran me behind. She made passive aggressive, self-pitying comments over the course of dinner. No amount of apologizing could get her to move on and she was pissing me off. At this point, I checked my phone and read the all of the texts she sent me.
I realized the girl sitting across from me wasn’t stable. I definitely didn’t want to go to the bar with her afterwards.
“I’m exhausted and not feeling well,” I said. Her face seemed to crumple, but then it lit up again. “Okay! I’ll go with you!” she said, beaming.
“No, that’s alright. I’m just going to go to bed. I’ll see you later,” I grabbed my purse and slid out of the booth.
“Are you sure? We can have a slumber party!” she said. “Come on, I’ll follow you.”
“No, seriously. I just need to rest.” I couldn’t believe how insistent she was.
“Fine,” she snapped. “Whatever.” We walked to the parking lot in silence. When we arrived at our cars, she smiled, waved, and said, “Talk to you tomorrow! Hope you feel better!” Her volatile mood shifts were alarming, to say the least. We left the restaurant and drove out separate ways…or so I thought.
The next morning, I found a present on my doorstep, wrapped in pink wrapping paper with white polka dots, tied with a yellow ribbon. A card in a yellow envelope sat under the bow. I pulled it open and read it.
“So glad to have a true friend like you in my life. Hope you get well soon! Love, Leah. XOXO”
Inside the box was a tin of baked stuff—cookies, brownies, a giant muffin, and a few packages of flavored gourmet coffee.
How does she know where I live? I thought. Did she follow me home last night?
I sent her a thank you text. She immediately blew my phone up.
“When can we hang out again?”
“I feel like we connect really well!”
“Do you want me to bring you soup or something?”
When I didn’t respond, Leah started chain calling. I turned my phone off.
Fifteen minutes later, someone knocked on my door.
“Jess! Are you okay? I can’t reach you and I’m worried!” she called.
“I have a stomach flu,” I called back. “I don’t want to give it to you!”
“I’ll risk it,” she said, “Let me in and I’ll take care of you today!”
“No thanks, Leah. It’s really bad and there’s no reason for both of us to be sick. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Well, okay. Call me later and let me know if I can bring you anything!”
As much as she freaked me out, I pitied her. Sure, she was creepy, but maybe she was just really lonely and didn’t know any better? I thought maybe I would give her a chance.
When I turned my phone on later that afternoon, I had seven voicemails and 55 text messages—all from Leah. Reading through them, I could see her go through ups and downs.
“How are you feeling?”
“Thinking of you.”
“Did you like the cookies?”
“Call me back.”
“I feel like you’re ignoring me.”
“Do you not want to be friends?”
“What did I do wrong?”
“Seriously, I don’t know why you aren’t answering my calls.”
“I hope you’re okay.”
“Should I come over?”
“Jess, wtf? I’ve called you and you’re not calling me back. You’re not being a good friend to me right now.”
The texts continued like that. She would go from seeming concerned about my health to suspicious about whether or not I was ignoring her to angry that I wasn’t responding to her to being grateful for my friendship and back again.
Any pity I felt for her evaporated. I had to cut communication.
That turned out to be much harder than I anticipated.
The next day, she called the salon constantly, texted me, and filled my voicemail inbox. She showed up twice during the day while I was with clients. My boss and coworkers expressed concern but downplayed it, telling them she was just needy. After work, I called her back and said I was very busy and didn’t have time to hang out with her constantly. I told her to quit calling the salon and showing up because she was getting me in trouble.
She called the salon the next morning and made another appointment for later that afternoon. She arrived wearing the same outfit I wore out to dinner with her, right down to my handbag and shoes. “Do you like it?” she said. “I loved your outfit so much I went to that store you told me about and bought one for myself! Now we look like twins!” I was dumbfounded. During her appointment, I kept silent while she chatted away and tried to coerce me into going out with her that night. My boyfriend was out of town on business, but I lied and told her I had plans with him. After she left, I told the front desk not to book her with me anymore.
That night, she began texting me repeatedly again, pressing me to hang out with her. Again, I told her my boyfriend was in town. Five minutes later, she was knocking at the door.
“Jessica, I know your boyfriend isn’t here. I called his office earlier and they said he’s at a conference. Let me in.”
“Leah, you need to leave,” I said.
“Why? I just want to hang out!”
“Well, I don’t. I need space. You’re nice, but you’re trying to dominate my time and it’s getting excessive.”
“I don’t understand!” she whined, “I’m just trying to be your friend!”
“Go home!” I yelled. “If you don’t leave, I’m calling the cops.”
Leah went into a rage. She banged on the door and tried furiously to turn the handle. I called the police.
The officers issued her a “do not trespass” order. Basically, the order served as a warning. She couldn’t cross onto my property again. If she did, I could press charges for criminal trespass. I thought for sure that would be the end of it.
The next afternoon, my boss pulled me into the office and told me that a woman had been calling all day asking to speak with me but refusing to leave her name. She suspected Leah was the caller. She urged me to be careful and suggested that I file a restraining order. “It’ll pass,” I said. “She’ll find someone else to latch onto, I’m sure.”
That evening, I worked until closing. The receptionist and I walked out together at 8pm. We had just stepped off the curb when she stopped and grabbed my arm. “Jessica, look,” she whispered. Leah’s car was parked next to mine. She was waiting inside. “We need to call the police, that bitch is crazy,” my coworker said. I followed her back into the salon and she called the police. Leah left after a few minutes, but I recorded her on my phone. When the officers arrived, I filed a report and told them everything. The police weren’t taking it seriously. “Ma’am, we really can’t do anything because she hasn’t done anything illegal. Can’t you just ignore her?”
Up until 2011, we didn’t have legislative protections against stalkers in Illinois. I felt helpless.
For the next month, Leah called, texted, left voicemails, and would show up outside the salon. She even called my boyfriend’s office and begged him to talk to me on her behalf. He told her never to call again. She sent letters and packages. She tried to “friend” me and my coworkers on Facebook and even went so far as to make fake profiles.
I changed my cell number. My coworkers started walking me to my car every day and making sure she wasn’t in the lot when I arrived. I terminated the lease on my rental and moved in with my boyfriend because I didn’t feel safe being home alone. Any time I heard a noise outside, I would panic. My fear of this unstable woman was dominating my life. I even considered leaving my salon and finding a new job, even though I loved where I worked.
Finally, it stopped. One day, she just disappeared from my life entirely. I’m not sure what happened to her or where she went, but it has taken me nearly a year to recover. Even now, I get anxious whenever I see a white Prius.
The ordeal taught me an important lesson about maintaining professional distance from my clients. When I read Tina’s post, How to Build a Book: Three Big Lies You’ve Been Told, I had to tell her my story. I fell victim to Lie #2 and believed that in order to be successful, I had to treat every client like family.
I certainly know better now.