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Branding & Marketing

Why You Should Never “Fire” a Client

Clients are the vehicle by which our work is put to use. So why do some of us view them with contempt?

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?

More Posts by John Caddell

Comments (35)
  • sluggita

    No. Some clients are horrible people, and they need to be jettisoned as quickly, gently and professionally as possible. It absolutely does NOT mean I have contempt for all or even some of my clients. Each case is different, and I don’t believe you can make sweeping generalizations like never to “fire” a client.

    I just “fired” one who totally sandbagged me, then nastily verbally dressed me down, disparaging my skills. I spent a great deal of time and patience defining a working method, understanding her needs and goals, sourcing materials for the job, etc. What it came down to is she was actually competing with me, and could not sit back and let me do the job I was hired to do.

    It’s her mental problem, not mine. Goodbye! I think it’s fine to “fire” them, it’s just semantics, why call it anything else?

  • David Martinez

    I like to beef up my ‘bad client radar’ so I can avoid these catastrophes all together. When I hire clients I tell them: “I will treat your finances as if they were my own (and I do), I will judiciously spend your resources where they will give you the most business leverage.” I even tell them “it’s my job to make you look good and bring you the greatest ROI” – so trust me.


    “You are hiring a partner who is opinionated and strong. If that’s a relationship you are not ready for, you will need a different kind of provider or service.”

    The term ‘firing’ is irrelevant if you don’t have the bad matches in the first place. Sometimes it’s not avoidable and you miss the marks. In that case I agree, ‘parting ways’ is far better phrase than the word ‘firing’.

  • David Martinez

    Extremely well stated!

  • Eric Portelance

    Quick… someone come up with another 10 euphemisms for “firing” that may please the author better in the situation where one needs to “gracefully bring your engagement to an end”

  • Melanie Spring

    Do we have the same client? I believe I fired that one too.

  • jmcaddell

    Thanks for commenting. A euphemism is a softer replacement word for what we really feel.

    I’m not particularly interested in a nicer word for “firing.” I’m more interested in the stories we tell ourselves. If we tell ourselves we fired a client, it may make us feel better about ourselves, because good people only fire people who deserve it, right?

    It doesn’t do much, however, to tell us what went wrong or how we can avoid repeating the situation in the future. That only comes from examining ourselves and deciding what we can do differently the next time. That’s harder to do if we demean or dismiss the other party.

  • Paul Jarvis

    As someone who’s fired clients, I disagree. Sometimes it’s best for *both* parties if a project is terminated. Call it what you want, sometimes it’s not worth working with another person/company and the relationship has to be terminated.

  • Justin Reynolds

    I agree that it’s not helpful to use language such as ‘firing a client’, but it is a simple matter of self respect to reserve the right to part company with a client if it becomes clear that they have limited interest in the success of a project. And to do so without feeling guilty about it. If one cares about the quality of one’s work, then sometimes that is the only sensible option. Don’t always assume that clients necessarily want their projects to succeed.

  • John J. Locke

    I like to believe that I have a great deal of empathy for client needs and viewpoints. I even wrote an article very similar to this one. However, there are times when you and a client are not a good fit for each other. With luck, you will avoid taking these clients in the first place. If you find yourself in a no-win situation, sometimes you need to bow out as gracefully as you can. We pick our clients, and we should not let it be the other way around.

  • 5tm

    I disagree… unfortunately some people (clients) are assholes.
    Fire them and let them find a matching asshole to work with.
    Better for you to invest the extra time with clients who deserve it.

  • realworlddesigner

    Sorry, I have to respectfully disagree as well. Sometimes a client is more trouble than they are worth, and can take time away from clients who: appreciate your skills, are easy to work with, don’t try to get everything for cheap (or free) and pay on time. My advice: fire away, and treat the good clients like the gold that they are.

  • Daniel Fein seems appropriate reference material.

  • jc46202

    And I can engage in all the necessary self-examination you rightly point out as helpful and still use the phrase “I fired the client.” One line alone does not the complete story tell despite your protestations to the contrary.

  • Kennett Kwok

    Agreed. A client that needs to be fired is a client that needs to be fired. Period. There’s no “benefit” to keeping a client that puts me under the weather. I’d rather have my sanity and health than a bit of money.

  • Floss

    I feel like many of these commenters are missing the point. The article is not discussing semantics. “Firing” is merely an incendiary word used to signify that the service also has power in a business/customer relationship. I think that the article is looking at what lies behind the need for this kind of language, highlighting the necessity of examining what propagates a bad business relationship. We should be looking at what creates a situation that makes us go to the extreme of firing a client. A situation that is in no one’s best interests. We all work with people that are hard to understand, with disparate ways of working and thinking, this does not mean we should avoid them. I hope never to get into a situation where I need to “fire a client.” We need mechanisms that help us relate to them. The suggestions put forth are good. The point is not that we shouldn’t dispel a business exchange that is not working, the point is, what can we do to ensure that we are never in such a situation to begin with. I agree, “fire the client” is an inappropriate phrase. It has an inherent arrogance that would negate any mechanisms we could put in place to try and prevent a situation that is best avoided. It says “I know best” when we should be asking “what do you know, that i do not?”

  • Kait

    I’m afraid I disagree too – I don’t see the phrase as an indication of contempt at all. I interpret the choice of the term ‘fire’ as more of a reminder that we do have some power in the client/designer relationship.

    It’s entirely reasonable to decide that enough is enough when dealing with a client who takes far more than they give, and it’s a little bit touchy feely for anyone to suggest that all bad client relationships can be worked out somehow. Kind of like saying all bad romantic relationships can be worked out. Sometimes, they just can’t, and ending them benefits both parties.

  • jmcaddell

    This is a fascinating conversation, and I appreciate everyone sharing their experiences and opinions. “Floss” very accurately summarized where I was coming from in the piece.

    Clearly, working with a difficult client takes a toll. I’ve been there with you – for example the client who aimed an abusive, profanity-laced tirade at me before stating flatly that he wouldn’t pay the bill for the service we’d done and he’d formally accepted. I was shaking with anger after the meeting.

    Those situations can teach us a lot about ourselves and how we work. And they are so expensive emotionally that we should learn as much as we can from them. That is difficult to do if we retain our anger and hurt. Sooner or later, it’s to our own benefit to “unload the guns,” look at the situation from a distance, and decide what we can take from it.

    In my case, I learned a bunch of lessons from that client experience – not the least of which was not to work with him again.

  • John Daugherty

    I would have to agree with some of the postings that certain clients do deserve to be fired. They suck energy and resources and especially morale. I’d like to see an article here about why some clients DO need to be fired.

  • Jeanette Glass

    I think that the use of a power word, like “fire”, is a pendulum reaction to professionals feeling for years (decades?) like they had to keep and work with people who they and their staff found to be distasteful/abusive/otherwise unwanted. I know in my profession it is very common to keep working with people who treat you (and worse) your staff badly.

    I started using “let go”, or “terminated my relationship”, but ended up using “fired” when talking to other people in my profession about it because they then went away and actually THOUGHT about the idea that we are the professionals we are the ones who are offering a service that they want. We are not powerless, we are equal participants in the relationship, and just as much as a client can fire us, we can ‘terminate our relationship’ with them.

  • Brendan

    Even if the blame lies with you and not the client, if you can’t understand your client’s needs or make them happy, it’s in the best interests of both of you to part ways. And when the client who just hates you inexplicably fails to dump you first, it’s time get tough.

  • Douglas Bowker

    This all sounds very nice if in fact all companies played nice, but I think it’s pretty clean many do not. When so many corporations feel perfectly OK paying below living wages, or polluting the natural environment, often to the health detriment of many citizens inside and out, who exactly is the problem here?

    I nearly went out of business last year by working nine of twelves months for a client who quite clearly had plenty of contempt for me. Not my work, that they loved getting more and more of. But despite a very well-written contract they consistently changed parameters and the details of the project and over those nine months it added up to nearly a 40% un-billable series of costs. The interesting thing is, they have a division in Germany I’ve worked with and it was great. They were happy, I got paid for my work and everything was above-board the entire time.

    The local division clearly has some sort of internal culture that measures success as completely disconnected to freelancer or vendor success. There IS no “partnership” in their view. I don’t see it as “firing” them because I completed my work, but like a bad dating relationship, I sure am not going to be calling them back, nor agreeing to anything new with them ever again.

  • j casablanca

    it reminds me of Howard Roark

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  • Amy Hoy

    Nope… firing clients is good for everyone.

    Even assuming the client is blameless and the freelancer/consultant is an asshole (incapable of empathy, as you seem to imply!), who wins if they don’t fire the client?

    The consultant’s not doing anyone any favors by continuing to work with a person they hold in contempt. There is no way on earth that a person can be professional enough to not let that color their performance.

    The client in this scenario wins if they get “fired.”

    The contractor who is mature, in the case of a firing, wins, too. Working with bad clients can make life nearly intolerable. Not only do you have the endure them, you have to endure the changes in self-image that naturally follow refusing to protect yourself. “If I don’t protect myself from these people… if I allow them to do this to me for money… what does that make me?”

    Yes, sometimes as a consultant, you can create a bad situation all by yourself. But often you do not. You’re a consultant, not a therapist. When you find yourself working with a ticking emotional timebomb, what else can you do but limit the blast radius?

    Understand their business? Sure. I can understand your business fully and still think you’re a jerk for calling my work “kindergarten crap” (actual quote!) or trying to drop surprises on me couched in language like “Can you confirm that [huge brand new feature we never mentioned before but now we want it tomorrow and are trying to make it sound like it’s your oversight] will be ready?” (actual phrase that huge digital agencies I’ve worked with have used).

    What expertise should one respect in this circumstance? How would using their own language help in these scenarios? Or what of the client who went missing for 3 months allegedly on a surprise “chorus” trip? (Jail, I’m guessing.) Even though he kept paying his bills, I fired him. I fired them all. It was wonderful and I felt so much better and no doubt they found somebody who could better put up with their BS. (Then I quit consulting forever, which was the best move!)

    FYI I’ve never used the phrase “I’m firing you” when I’ve fired a client, I’ve simply said, “I’m sorry, we can’t continue together on this project” or “No, sorry, not available” in the case of a potential new project.

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