On Words I Would NOT Use

At a recent Firm of the Future Symposium with the THRIVEal Network in Greenville, SC, Ron Baker and I were asked about some of our word preferences. On the spur of the moment we developed this quick list of words we believe should be avoided by professional knowledge firms.

Staff – This makes us think of a type of infection. We prefer team member, colleague, associate, or people as alternatives.

Client – In ancient Rome, the lawyers of the day functioned as public servants and were not paid for their work. Instead, they were appointed to their duties in working with their clients. The relationship was not one of equal status and implied a sense of duty and obligation to serve the great unwashed. The word still has this connotation in the context of social workers and their clients. We prefer the term customer which is an Anglo-Saxon word derived from the fact that it was the custom of certain people to frequent a particular place of business.

Value billing – Nothing will set a VeraSagi (our made up and officially adopted name for someone from VeraSage) off into a tirade faster than calling the pricing practices we espouse value billing. A bill is produced in arrears whereas a price is agreed to upfront. This term is linked with professionals when the do write-ups to a time calculated bill. We believe this practice to be more akin to mail fraud. The preferred terms are value pricing, pricing on purpose, or pricing with purpose. When discussing price with a customer we suggest the term fixed price or open (meaning transparent) price.

Fee – This word has a negative connotation as it is associated with governmental and penalty type incursions. We suggest the use of the more neutral word price.

Hours – We believe the only place time spent should matter is in prison. We would ban all use of the word hour and suggest a $5 fine whenever it is used. There is no acceptable substitute.

Training – Horses and dogs are trained, humans are educated. Training implies a bullwhip lashing sounds in the background. Also, do you want your 16-year-old daughter to get sex training or sex education.

Service – We believe most professional firms do not provide services. They provide access to and/or transfer of knowledge, results, objectives, and occasionally goals.

Did we miss any of you favorites? If so, please leave a comment with the term to be avoided and your suggested alternatives.



  1. Hi Ed.

    Just on the subject of the word “price”, which in the mind of many customers (what about ‘buyers’?) still evokes a negative connotation.

    It’s hard to get your head around, but perhaps try use alternate words like “investment”, down-payment becomes initial investment.

    Going further: contract becomes an agreement, to sign becomes to authorise/approve, the deal becomes an “opportunity”.

    One of the things I learnt when I did sales training many many years ago.

  2. Good post; language matters!

    I am in enthusiastic agreement with barring the words “Fee”, “Training” and “Value Billing”.

    “Client” doesn’t really bother me; I don’t think it has a negative connotation, unless you happen to be a Roman history buff. I think most would prefer to be considered a “client”, which implies a more professional/prestigious relationship, than a “customer”, which could be anyone walking off the street into a McDonald’s.

    I see your point on “Staff”, but this one also doesn’t really bother me; it seems fairly innocuous in other contexts (e.g., “Are our staffing levels adequate?” “How are we going to staff this new project?”) Sure, we could come up with alternate wording in these examples, but “staff” doesn’t seem nearly so bad in those contexts.

    I also see your point on “Service”, but again it doesn’t bother me as much.

    I don’t think you can do away with “Hours.” Even in your quest to abolish the *billable* hour, doesn’t your philosophy still allow for resource planning up front? If so, how can that not contemplate the hours that something will take? (Perhaps we should table that discussion for now 🙂

    Here are a couple to add:

    “Realization” – hard to imagine an alternative, as the whole concept is so ridiculous: put an hourly rate on a piece of paper and then measure what is actually invoiced and collected as a percentage??? You can put anything you want on a piece of paper, that doesn’t mean it has any relationship to what the market will bear! Even IF a firm insists on hourly billing, what does Realization tell you, especially in isolation? Even IF a firm bills hourly, isn’t 50% realization for someone that is working on client matters 100% of the time equivalent mathematically to 100% realization for someone that is working on client matters 50% of the time? (see also “Utilization” below). Yes, the whole concept is flawed, but again just pointing out that even IF you subscribe to this outdated hourly model, realization makes no sense in isolation. I guess the only suitable alternative would be Profitability or perhaps Margin.

    “Utilization” – good for machine hours or manufacturing volume but not for knowledge workers!

    Jim Caruso

  3. How about the word “busy” as in “busy season” or when asked “how’s business” one replies “I am real busy.” I hate the word “busy!” You might as well say “leave me alone I do not want any new business.”

  4. Richard – Definitely agree, especially because I run an outsourcing and consulting practice that does not conform to the typical CPA-firm seasonality. Yet outsiders and even those within the firm assume that I *must* be “busy” from January to April! Fact is, I may or may not end up with a particularly heavy workload during that time, but I am just as likely to be swamped any other time during the year!

    Jim Caruso

  5. Funny story, so to speak, I did a speech at a Kiwanis Club on April 11 to about 100 people about the work that my Foundation is doing, and at least 7 people after the speech commented to the effect “I can’t believe a CPA could do a speech on April 11 when it is “busy” season. I can’t even reach my CPA right now.” But it is our profession who promulgates this stereotype, and many wear it like some sort of badge of honor.

  6. Matthew Tol says:


    The use of the word “price” is, I have found and as Ed points out, very neutral and enables the customer to take it in more readily.

    The use of anything else – fee, bill, account, charge etc all take on different connotations and will change their perception of the discussion regarding results and outcomes.

    Richard, agree with the “busy” comment. It is simply stupid to say to potential customers that you’re busy – they will perceive it as “too busy”. We tend to use the words:

    “steady but always looking to work with other terrific people whom we can develop a great relationship with – just like we have with you”.

  7. Jim C, yes, we still use hours in regard to duration. If it will take a consultant 3 days to design a custom report, for example, then those 3 days will be reflected on the project’s issues list. It impacts the time line of the project but not the price.

    Jim W, customers love the idea of a knowledge transfer agreement (KTA). It’s a great way to have the conversation about how a PKF sells knowledge and not services. And it is a big time differentiator.

    One of our customers recently told me the story about explaining to one of their vendors that the vendor needed to give them a KTA. Of course, the vendor asked what that was. The customer e-mailed a copy of our KTA to them and said “this is how it’s done”.

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