Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

Why You Should Never "Fire" a Client

In a recent blog post, Kate Nasser takes issue with a phrase that has become commonplace in business discussions: “Fire the customer.” (Who uses it? Harvard Business Review does. Also Bloomberg Businessweek. And Yale Business School.)

Writes Nasser:

This threatening phrase:

  • Diminishes our integrity instead of building trust
  • Undermines our caring purpose rather than succeeding through care
  • Broadcasts selfishness and greed vs. radiating greatness
  • Declares customer service to be a power struggle instead of a partnership
  • Makes all customers who read it more defensive instead of cooperative
  • Teaches a new generation of customer service professionals a skewed view
  • Projects a tug-of-war mindset rather than a winning collaboration

Recommending avoiding terms like “fire your customer” is good advice. But why do we talk like this? It’s more than just frustration with difficult clients, or those who are a little slow to catch on to our brilliant ideas, or ones that keep demanding better service and lower prices.

The “fire the customer!” mindset is a symptom of contempt for clients. The term “contempt” might sound shocking. We love our clients, don’t we? They pay the bills. They refer us to others. They are the vehicle by which our work is put to use. Yet this dismissive attitude toward clients is surprisingly pervasive. If you listen carefully, you will hear it from others, and perhaps even, on occasion, from yourself. Do you find yourself thinking any of the following?

  • Clients aren’t as smart as we are.
  • Clients don’t know what they want.
  • Clients can’t make decisions.
  • Or, if you happen to lose an opportunity: “It would’ve been agony to work with them anyway.”

Like many stories we tell ourselves and others, these statements say more about us than about our clients. When you are having difficulties managing your clients, you need to look inside and see what you can do to adapt to them. After all, if you can’t work with them, they’ll pay someone who can. Here are some tips for preventing “contempt for client” syndrome:

  1. Respect your client’s expertise. Your client is not an expert in your field. If she were, she wouldn’t need to hire you. But she has gotten to a decision making position in her own business.  Acknowledge that to yourself and treat her with the respect she deserves.
  2. Explain yourself in the client’s own language. If a client is paying you for your work, don’t make her learn all your terminology. She doesn’t have the time or patience for that. Avoid jargon, acronyms, obscure brand names. Use analogies and examples from her frame of reference. (Note: this doesn’t mean “dumb it down.”)
  3. Build an understanding of the client’s business. Items (1) and (2) above are easier if you have some background on the industry, the company’s products and its business issues. Be curious! Do some research and ask questions. Your client will appreciate it, and your dialogue will likely generate more creative solutions.
  4. Be authentic. Don’t fawn over your clients when you meet with them, yet disparage them behind their backs. Treat them well at all times. If you can’t generate respect and enthusiasm for a client relationship, you need to change the relationship, or, perhaps, rethink your own career path.
  5. Provide a point of view when you provide options. We sometimes think we are doing the client a service when we outline many different options for solving a problem. More is not better. In fact, more options make her choice more difficult (see more on the “paradox of choice”). Lay out only a few of the best options (and perhaps an intriguing outlier or two), and offer your point of view, with humility – “If I were in your shoes, I’d probably go with option C, but you are the expert.”

If you apply this advice, you will find that clients are smarter, more decisive and more interesting than you thought they were. Your client relationships will be stronger, and you’ll have more renewals and referrals.

Yet you may find that, even after all this, you are unable to work with a certain client. In that case, by all means find a way to gracefully bring your engagement to an end.

Just don’t fire them, OK?

How about you?

How do you get to know your clients?

John Caddell

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John Caddell is the author of “The Mistake Bank” and contributed to the most recent 99u book. His latest project is 3-Minute Journal. John also organizes the New Tech Meetup of Central PA. You can reach him at mistakebank.com or @jmcaddell on Twitter.  
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