Sent by Jonathan Stark on May 20th, 2018
(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:
You didn’t say you were considering firing the client over their lack of organization, but just in case you are thinking about it: this is a very common problem... the next client will probably do the same thing.
My personal fire/don’t fire decision in a case like this would be the stress level. Some clients who do this understand that they’re being a little unreasonable and are cool with you doing your best to accommodate them, even if you have to say no from time to time.
Others become complete ALLCAPS screaming assholes when you fail to immediately respond to their daily fire drills. This is unacceptable at any price they should be politely but firmly fired.
If you take too much of a hard line with them, they’ll probably start looking for someone to replace you so they can work the way they believe their culture demands. If you don’t want to work with them any more, fire them politely and with empathy.
If you DO want to keep working with them, be sensitive to how hard you push back on their “bad behavior” or they’ll eventually fire you for being “difficult to work with” which is a crappy way to end the relationship.
Be careful about selling to your own wallet. From your description, it sounds like this client has a lot of money to play with and is more concerned about things other than cutting costs and fiscal responsibility - stuff like capturing opportunities, R&D, “failing fast”, etc...
What if instead of being appalled by what you consider to be wasteful or inefficient practices, you scale up to meet their demands? So when they ask for something random, you could say: “Sure, we can put two bodies on this for you starting next week. It’ll be $8k per week per dev. Shall I call them?”
Or if you don’t want to add bodies, you connect them with a body shop that can crank out small stuff on spec.
At some future point where pressure is at a minimum (e.g., a post mortem after a big project goes live), you might politely explore the reasoning for their behavior. Something like, “Hey, while we’re talking about it... remember when [disorganized wasteful thing] happened? Did that bother you guys or was it no big deal?”
If they say “yes”, then ask, “would you like us to help you not do that in the future?” and if they say “no”, then ask: “can you help me understand why it didn’t bother you?” Either way you’ll be better off.
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.
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!