Rule #11: You Can’t Please Everyone

Last week, I had the honor of speaking at Pressnomics 3. I closed the day on Thursday and gave my 10 rules for managing client expectations. After I explained the 10 rules, the infamous Chris Lema joined me on stage and we did some role playing to show how to put the rules to work. There was a reception immediately following my session and several people told me that they got something out of my talk.

I was so thrilled to hear other people’s client experiences that were similar to my own. There was no shortage of sharing and this is why I attend conferences like Pressnomics. I truly value the opinions of others and I am always open to learning from the experiences of my peers. However, some of the most interesting opportunities to learn from others come from those who disagree with me the most.

Enter Sean Tierney

Sean Tierney was the third speaker of the day. I listened to his presentation and enjoyed it. It was unfortunate that he ran short on time – I wanted to hear the rest. Sean also took notes during other presentations, which you can find here. As you can see, Sean didn’t care much for my presentation:

Steve Zehngut
10 rules for managing client expectations
  1. client is always right even when they’re wrong <-  (could not disagree more – fire these clients and be honest)
  2. don’t use email, use skype
  3. don’t react. write the email while you’re pissed off and then delete (have done this before)
  4. ——stopping here— this advice is horrible. speaker encouraging consultants to take shit from clients. awful.
this talk hurt my head…. cannot endorse any of this consulting advice. the logic that “your clients are paying you therefore they are right” is simply insane.
During my session, he tweeted twice. Apparently, I touched a nerve…

My Explanation

I carefully chose my words for Rule #1. “The client is always right (even when they’re wrong.)” I am fully aware that words like “always” can be polarizing. Good. That is by design.

This slide appeared on the screen behind me as I read it to the audience. Then, I asked for a show of hands: who agrees with this rule? About 5% of the room raised their hand. This caught me by surprise, and my good friend Jon Brown commented later that I was noticeably taken aback by this.

I went on to explain my reasoning. This rule is about changing your frame of reference. If you think of your clients as wrong or dumb or lesser than you then your communication them will always seem insincere, no matter what words are coming out of your mouth. If you tell yourself that your clients are right, your attitude will shift for the better.

A recurring problem I’ve seen in my 20 years in this industry stems from this notion: “My client hired me for my technical expertise.” When a client makes a request that doesn’t make technical sense, I find that technologists focus solely on the request itself.

I recommend that my peers shift their thinking and ask questions to understand the business reason behind the request. The client is making the request for a reason, and that reason is always right for their business. While it is true that my clients hire me for my technical expertise, they understand their business better than I ever will. By recognizing this, we become better partners.

Sean believes I encouraged my peers to take shit from clients. This could not be further from the truth. I am not a doormat, and I would never advise anyone to roll over. But I do feel that it is my job to find a way to make my client right. Always. And I can do this while still maintaining a relationship that is fair to me and to my team.

An Invitation to Discuss

I surround myself with people who are not afraid to speak their mind. (Hey, I hang around with the likes of Chris Lema, Karim Marucchi and Rebecca Gill.) While Sean and I might not see eye-to-eye on this, he is entitled to his opinion.

Do you disagree with me? Would you be willing to join me on a Google hangout? Let’s record it and post it for the benefit of our community. Post a comment here if you and let’s make it happen.


  1. Michelle Schulp on February 3, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    I think the important distinction here is how people are thinking of the word “right.” When you say “The client is always right” you are NOT saying “The client’s IDEAS are always right” or “The client can make you do whatever they want.” What you are saying is “A client is not lesser than you, stupider than you, or innately wrong just because they don’t have the same expertise as you.”

    The client knows their business and they feel their pain points, even if they don’t know how to articulate the exact perfect solution to their pain points. That’s why they hired you! Not because you’re better than them, but because you can understand and translate those very real pain points into the solutions they need. And it’s easier to do that by not automatically being dismissive by assuming that they’re just “wrong.”

    Polarizing words, yes, easy to misinterpret, but I think this is really the message behind your talk (after having heard it twice!)

  2. strebel on February 3, 2015 at 7:13 pm

    Who invited that guy? Wow what a…

    Oh wait.

    You guys place nice now.

  3. Sean Tierney on February 3, 2015 at 10:57 pm

    First let me say kudos for supporting the WP community and doing talks like this to share your experience with others in the pursuit of elevating everyone’s game. I recently moved to Newport Beach and attended the OC WordPress meetup hosted in your office. It’s great that you do extra curricular stuff to help level up others. That being said, let me reiterate my position and reaffirm my criticism of your advice:

    There’s a difference between choosing “polarizing” words to engage an audience and issuing blatantly detrimental advice. You said numerous times during your talk that “the client is feeding my family therefore he/she is right.” I said it then and will say it again here: if a client proves to be an a$$hole, FIRE that client and move on. It’s incumbent upon us as business owners to ensure we are never so beholden to one client that we end up finding ourselves in a situation where we have to compromise our own ideals in order to “keep food on the table.” Hey, I realize if it really comes down to it, do what you need to do for your family, but my point is you should architect your business in such a way that allows you to prize yourself, dispense with problem clients early and move on to greener pastures rather than “trying to make the client right.” Honor your own value.

    I’m 100% pro the “empathize with the client first” and “seek to discern what they truly need from the need they’re articulating” advice. I’ve run both consulting as well as product businesses and am intimately familiar with the tightrope walk involved in doing effective consulting. I just cannot endorse your statement that “they are paying you therefore they are right.” Extrapolate that advice to lobbyists / mob bosses / anyone-making-a-bribe and you can see the issue…

    I call them like I see them and I reserve the right to change my opinion if presented with compelling evidence to the contrary but at this point I remain unswayed on this topic. Other nuggets from your talk were spot on: write that angry email and then delete it and sleep on it. I’ve done that before- great hack for being able to vent while ensuring a strategic response… cheers

    • zengy on February 4, 2015 at 4:33 pm


      I said during my session that I have fired clients in the past. If a client is treating you with disrespect, you should absolutely move on. Some clients are just not the right fit. Those are edge cases.

      I think you are focused on the behavior and not the request. In no way am I condoning disrespectful behavior. I won’t stand for being treated disrespectfully and I certainly won’t continue to work with clients who act that way.

      Client requests and client behavior are 2 different things. If you choose to work with a client, My advice to my peers is to begin listening to their clients with a different ear. There is an attitude that has run rampant in our industry where developers treat clients as if they are stupid. When this occurs, our industry gets tarnished and we all get a bad rap. This has to change.

  4. Ben Fox on February 4, 2015 at 10:35 am

    Publically evicerating a fellow speaker and member of the community like Sean did is unacceptable. Explanations and reasons can go on for days and it still won’t make it right. Calling someone out is one thing but openly being insulting is a request to never be invited to speak or participate in a WordPress event again.

    You’ve dealt with it like the stand-up guy you are Steve, unfortunalty I am not as filtered. I also happen to agree with both yours and Michelle’s points 100%.

  5. Priscilla Christian on February 5, 2015 at 8:59 pm

    Bottom line, attitude is everything. When dealing with clients or colleagues.

    Some people get that—some don’t. I have never been to a Pressnomics but I have heard Steve speak on this topic often. Do I wholeheartedly agree? Absolutely. Do I always agree with my client? No, but so grateful to have a leader in our community who helps to remind me about what is important and keep my attitude in check. Any of us can more easily fire a client than find opportunities to grow as a person. As a business person if/when I do fire a client I won’t be reporting it in a public setting either. I’m going to strive for growth. Its good for me, my family and my business. As always, thanks Steve!

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