Who is Right? The Customer or the Writer?

Customer Service
I live by the “customer is always right” philosophy. I may not always agree with my clients but they’re the ones paying me to do the job their way. There are times when I might offer a suggestion if I feel they’re going in the wrong direction, but I always defer to them. It’s that paycheck thing.

I saw an online conversation today with two freelancers arguing over whether or not the customer is always right. The first freelancer felt the same way I do, that the person who is paying has final say in the decision. The second freelancer feels that the writer is the expert. The client is hiring the freelancer for his creativity and expertise and the writer should have final say.

While I do get that we’re being hired for our expertise, I don’t think it’s up to us to insist the clients do things our way. It’s one thing for me to offer advice to one of my freelance writing or social media clients, quite another thing to have a creativity hissy fit because my client doesn’t want to do his project MY way. I’ll suggest and guide, but I’m being paid to write the best representation of the client’s business or brand. This isn’t necessarily my voice. I get that and it’s not a hit to my ego to write in my client’s voice. It’s also not a hit to my ego if the client wants to do things HIS way.

What says you, FWJ community. Who makes the ultimate decision on how a project should go, the client or the writer?


  1. says

    I agree that the customer has the final say. My contracts always include two revisions just in case those things come up, but it never compromises my talent to write in another’s voice or tone; to the contrary-it requires talent to do. I want the best ‘you’ represented in the best light or I haven’t done my job. Difficult customers do exist, and that’s when a contract protects your time investment. It will still get done the way my customer wants it done, but my time can then be compensated for. A good, long interview with a notebook is the only way to start any writing project.

  2. says

    I have to agree with you, the client is the ultimate decision maker. AS writers, we can all get a little protective over our work, but the client is the one paying. Why risk a good paying client by arguing over the fine points? You may not agree with the changes, but if you argue too much, you may find yourself without clients! Besides, as long as it’s a job where you don’t have a byline then who cares?

  3. says

    I go with the Golden Rule. In the case of clients, it means, “He (or she) who has the gold makes the rules.” I can offer up suggestions or ask questions, but my job is to give my clients what they want. Period.

  4. Phil says


    The customer is the final decision maker…but there are times you will want to educate the customer that they are not right. I’ve done company newsletters with president messages — written by the president himself — that had all kinds of poor grammar. I made changes, but he changed it back to the way it was. I had to persuade him about some changes that needed to be made (didn’t win all of these mini-battles).

    I’ve had a couple of other times when I was given an article to investigate and discovered that the publication’s expected outcome was flawed. For example, at a newspaper, an editor asked me to write an article about the utility’s budget plan, basically telling me to point out all the flaws. The flaw was that the editor couldn’t keep track of his bills, got hit with a large one at the end of the plan (he had made significant energy-consuming investments in his property, like a heated pool). The editor changed what I wrote, was called on the carpet by the utility and was fired. I wasn’t called on the carpet because I had the original and the pr guy at the utility, who I had known for a few years, knew I wouldn’t do that type of hatchet job.

    That brings up another point to consider. If the customer wants you to do something libelous or illegal, he’s wrong.

  5. says

    In my case it depends. If the client asks me to compromise my reputation, they’re fired. I’ll find a new client.

    In the long term, I consider my results more important than the momentary whim of a client who may not understand how software development works (software and writing are similar to me, both about solving problems).

    The famous copywriter Gary Halbert was always very choosy to take work only from clients who defer to his expertise. I want to be earn that kind of reputation!

    • says

      In my case it depends. If the client asks me to compromise my reputation, they’re fired. I’ll find a new client.

      Exactly! At no point should any writer feel they must put aside their own ethical practices to please a client. No client is worth risking my reputation for.

  6. Steven says

    If you don’t like what you’ve written, then I’d say just change the credit to your name. Make up a pseudonym if it’s that big of a deal. I would say it’s to your credit if you write something you don’t like that makes the client happy. But, maybe it’s damaging to your pride or even reputation to have your name next to the ‘garbage’ you just wrote.

    • says

      If you don’t feel comfortable writing something, you probably shouldn’t. There is nothing wrong with turning down a job due to ethical or personal concerns.

  7. says

    Hi Deb, I believe the customer still has the final say; it’s their project so probably they knew what they are doing. They have their reasons, yet I think collaboration is a good practice that a client and a worker should do. I guess everybody is aiming for the better so ideas should be kept flowing from both parties. Well, it depends how open the client is for suggestions and opinions. But, writer’s expertise should not be ignored, they have been in that field for quite a while, so their thoughts should be valued. However, to avoid any finger pointing at you at the end, it will be better to share your ideas and follow what the client’s plan.

  8. says

    wow – I expected an argument here (or at least a disagreement!).

    I’m with all of you. I usually recommend a particular tone or style, but if the customer overrides that, of course, it’s his nickel.

    If the style of a piece (the “voice”) is not yet determined, I’ll often include three “samples” (paragraphs) in various different voices as part of the package. Generally speaking, the client will pick the most conservative option.

    The only real exception to the rule is when I’m doing grants or similarly technical projects. The requirements are set by a third party, and the tone is pre-determined to a certain degree… and I will tell clients that their usual “markety” approach won’t fly.


  9. says

    It depends on what the customer wants. If it’s something illegal or unethical, the customer is wrong. If you want serial commas and they don’t, then they’re right.

  10. Phil says

    An addendum to my comment above: A client just asked for someone to write a piece faulting the FTC for its recent ruling on bloggers and endorsements. In the transparency question, How Transparent is Too Transparent?, I mentioned I was happy to see this ruling….Though my client will likely find someone else to write the article, in this instance, I think the customer is wrong.

    • says

      Regarding the recent FTC ruling, bloggers have always been subject to FTC regulation. The new change is only in the guide which explains the law, the law itself hasn’t actually changed. Documentation regarding advertising and endorsements online have been available on the FTC website for years, though the examples provided in the guides were outdated.

  11. says

    I’m in agreement for the most part. It is their money. I’ll give them some feedback and let them know why I want to change something. But if they still want it there way, so be it.

    But as a few other people said, I think there is a line to draw. If anything is illegal or immoral or even if it goes against your own beliefs, I wouldn’t do it.

  12. says

    I happen to think it’s ideal when you can work with your client to find the best solution to their problem. Sometimes it’s your way, sometimes it’s theirs but most often the solution is found somewhere in the middle.

    If a client asks me to do something unethical or illegal, they need to find another freelancer

  13. says

    I agree with what most everyone is saying. The customer is right unless they want you to write something illegal or unethical.

    I’m a freelance writer and an attorney, so especially when I’m writing about something law related, I need to feel that I am giving legally correct information that would not mislead anyone.

    • says

      Jodee, A couple of years ago some pictures of a major but very young star posing in her underwear surfaced around the blogosphere. I was maintaining a gossip blog for a client and wanted nothing to do with that story. The star was only 14 or 15 and I wasn’t going to post those pictures or even encourage others to visit the pictures. My client insisted on it. I told him he had to make a choice then. He didn’t fire me, but posted the pictures himself. I stopped working for him soon after that.

  14. says

    I’ve been on the other side of the table. During my nine years in software publishing, I bought various kinds of writing under “work for hire” rules. I always set the objectives, but valued the writer’s suggestions for reaching them. However, since it was the company’s name on the document, not the writer’s, the document had to be consistent with our desired image, meet our expectations, and comply with our editorial standards.

  15. says

    While to some degree I think the client has a say in how things turn out since they are the ones paying the fee, I also have to agree with Dave’s assessment of the situation as well. There comes a point with some clients who think they know better than you do how something needs to be done, and that is not always the case. You are hiring me because I am a professional…because I can do the job that you yourself cannot. Since I am a professional, you should trust my opinion and my work, because I didn’t get to where I am today without being qualified and working my way up the ladder.

    In my previous job I met with a client one time who wanted me to do some work on her home, but every time I had a meeting with her she had gone on the Internet and Googled the information, so when I’d come into a meeting with the reasons why something needed to be done a certain way she would have 10 websites that offered a different way to do things, and why wasn’t I doing it this way instead? I finally told her that I was unable to work with her because she was not letting me do my job. If you hire me to work for you, I expect at the very least a measure of professional respect. Yes, you have the right to request a revision or two (dependent upon the contract), but you do not retain the right to tell me how to do my job.

    For example, you don’t go into your dentist’s office and tell him how to pull your tooth. Why? Because he’s the dentist. He has credentials on the wall. You pay him and put your faith in him because he is qualified. You don’t question him. The same thing applies for writing. I am a qualified professional and I don’t need a client looking over my shoulder the entire time.

    Having spent a significant amount of time in Europe over the past 10 years or so, I can say one thing that I have learned which I appreciate more and more is that over here there is no such thing as “the customer is always right”. Americans tend to rely far too much on that old adage, to the point that it has become skewed past its original intention. These days, everyone is so paranoid of being sued or not getting paid that they are overly-paranoid about deferring to the customer. I am not. I prefer the European approach, which is the common sense approach. You are a customer, but just because you are a customer does not mean you are automatically correct just because you are paying money for something. If you were qualified to do the job you would have done so in the first place. You aren’t. You hired a professional. Let them do the job you hired them to do.

    • says

      Wow. That’s exactly the issue I’ve been grappling with the last two days and my exact feelings. You have a style manual and can speak English, maybe you even passed English in college. Does that make you a professional editor? No. Does that make you as good of an editor as I am. No. I have a degree and almost 20 years of experience. I have aptitude and passion. I read style manuals…for fun. I don’t question your professional judgment (how you wrote the program, how you did your experiments, how you built/engineered the system). I don’t consider myself qualified in your field. Why do you feel qualified in mine? Grrr.

  16. Tania Mara says

    I always leave the final say to the client.

    I do try to offer advice, but it depends on the client. Some are clearly lost and will be grateful if you help them. Others are know-it-all types and I don’t waste my time arguing with them.

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