May 19, 2018

Fire Drill Clients

(Editor’s note: this message was originally entitled “Spaz Clients”, which I quickly learned was a very offensive term outside of the U.S. I apologized for my blunder in the following message and revised this message to use the term "fire drill" instead. —J)

One of my coaching students is struggling with what I call a “fire drill client”.

A fire drill client is a client who you like on a personal level, but does a poor job of planning and managing their business. They are terrible at prioritizing, everything is an emergency, and their organizational culture is totally reactive.

They’re the kind of client who never says “no” to one of their customers.

They’re the kind of client who will forget to tell you about a big demo until the night before.

They’re the kind of client who will send you a huge and unexpected request, and then close the email with:

“Can you have it to me by end of day? Thanks!”

Here is what I told my student about handling his fire drill client:

Lovable fire drill clients

In a case where I have a fire drill client who I really like, my modus operandi is to respond to request like this with options.

Client: “Can you [fire drill request]?”

Me: “Sure! But it’d mean [consequences]. Would you like me to proceed?”

...and I’d adjust consequences up and down based on how much I want to mitigate the behavior. I’d also temper my message with empathy based on how close we are.

Don’t install a fire alarm

There’s subtle nuance that I want to call out, though:

It’s probably a bad idea to set up a “break glass in case of emergency” policy in advance for handling fire drill requests.

If you set an arrangement in advance of fire drill requests - e.g., “fire drill requests on the weekend will be handled like so and for $X” - then you’ll increase your revenue but you won’t discourage the behavior.

If you want to discourage the behavior, you need to hit them with the options on the fly. Doing so will create friction by giving them something that they have to consider - and perhaps get approved - in the fire drill moment.

If you provide them with a fire alarm option that they can consider and get approved in advance, it’ll just become the new normal. Which might be fine with you but it won’t thwart the behavior.

Fire drill clients often don’t care about the money that much. Fast forward six months and you will have worked every weekend. Sure, you’ll have gotten paid “fire drill” overtime money for it... but responding to fire drills is probably not the lifestyle you want.


If you want to help your fire drill client grow out of their bad behavior in a polite and accommodating way, force them to make a decision (or get an approval) on “emergencies” on a case by case basis.

It’s not really your job to change your client’s culture, but encouraging moves in the right direction will deepen a good relationship.

And if it works, it’ll make things better for everyone - e.g., you, your employees, your buyer, their employees, and their customers.



P.S. Hey, can you do me a favor? If you’ve ever recommended me to someone, can you go back and find the exact language you used, and then forward it to me? (anonymized, of course)

I only ask because I’m preparing to revise my website and I’m curious what language people actually use to describe me and my work to their friends.

Thanks in advance!