Is the client always right?

When you’re shopping for a new outfit and shriek “I love it!” the salesclerk in the Dress Department will process your credit card with a smile, even though the dress makes you look like a sequin-spangled sausage. The customer is always right. 

But what about the client? Not in my experience. And I see it as an integral part of my job to tell them that – in a kind, supportive way – when necessary.

I am more than a salesclerk in the Word Department. I want my clients to show themselves in their best light, whether they’re giving a speech or publishing something under their byline. Unfortunately, sometimes that means I have to disagree, or correct, or – here’s the right word: Advise.

I learned that lesson early on in my career as a speechwriter. I sat in the executive’s inner sanctum with my team, listening to the client speak the words I had written. (It’s always a thrill.) When the client got to the end of the speech he looked at me and said, “What? Do you get paid by the word?” (Of course not!) He said, “There’s too many words in here.” And he proceeded to read the opening paragraphs again, taking out the verbs. Obviously, it made no sense. Equally obviously, the speaker had no idea he was making no sense. But how do you teach a grown man about grammar? I took the speech back from him: “I’ll fix it for you.” The speech he ultimately delivered had shorter sentences and fewer adjectives. But every sentence had a verb. The client is not always right.

One day, another client called to give me an assignment. He wanted to write a piece about something that had generated bad press for him, to explain why the critics had been wrong and he had been right. The event had happened years earlier and been forgotten by just about everyone…except my client. The assignment would have generated a nice fee for me, but I couldn’t see any upside for him. I told him I thought he was making a mistake and I wouldn’t help him do it. It hurt – I could have used the money at the time. Even when the client isn’t right, I need to be.

So when clients hire me, they get my advice as well as my words. They may not always make what I think is the right choice – in the end, it’s their decision. But I’ll always do my best to steer them away from the sequins.

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