Every designer has had one. Or maybe even many. The client that keeps you up at night. The client that fills up your message machine with complaints about your unreasonable design fee, the unacceptable way in which the plumber left fingerprints on their counter, the sofa cushion that isn’t as firm as the one in the showroom… It’s the Bad Client. And they are out there. The question is: Do you know how to avoid them”
Stay On Target
One of the best ways I avoid bad clients is by sticking to my target market and resisting the temptation to try to appeal to a broader audience by offering cheaper or "value" packaged services. I get into trouble when I try to help someone who doesn’t understand – or, really, value – my fees and the expertise that accompanies them. (This has happened with a friend of a friend.) They try to nickel and dime everything to death, questioning every charge and billable hour as they do not accept why the design process is the way it is.
It takes hours to estimate and draw up a contract, not to mention the additional time it takes for the initial appointment to meet the client and evaluate the project. When I do this for a client who actually should not be a client, I end up wasting precious time because they didn’t actually realize for what they would be paying. Now, I do not try to appeal to "non-targets," which is an overall method that helps streamline my time, marketing plan, and, ultimately, client base.
Don’t Go Low
The next important filter occurs when a prospective client tries to negotiate down my professional fee. I never recommend a professional to reduce their fee in order to "get" the client or project. When they ask you to work for less, it means that they do not value what you bring to the project. Or, perhaps, they want what you can provide, but they essentially don’t actually value paying for it. This attitude is a telling indicator.
Rather than reduce fees, a designer can lower the cost of the project by value engineering the budget, having the client reduce their project scope, splitting the project into phases, or working out a payment plan to accommodate everyone involved. If a client feels that they are paying you too much, then they need to find someone else whom they feel is more reasonable (and subsequently pay for that designer’s level of service, talent and experience).
Also, if a design professional agrees to reduce their rate, it sets an undesirable precedent that could affect your business for some time to come as that client will always expect it in the future and then tell their friends. These friends will then expect the same as well, and they turn into non-quality referrals.
The client will also most likely expect you to provide them other perks throughout the project such as… complimentary hours for activities they didn’t feel were necessary for you to perform, tasks that they feel it took you too long to do, reduced markups, etc. And if they are exceedingly demanding, they could expect you to bend on a myriad of other issues like returns and refunds. All in all, asking you to work for less should be one big caution sign.
Observe & Assess
There are other indicators I look for, as well. I ask about their expectations for craftsmanship. Red flags go up when they indicate that they absolutely demand total and complete perfection, as this is unrealistic. Although excellent craftsmanship is a worthy and legitimate goal, we and every artisan and contractor are only human, so mistakes – as small as they may be – will inevitably happen and need to be handled in the normal course of the design process.
I also ask about their expectations for communications throughout the entire length of the project. Alarm bells should go off if they always expect immediate responses from you or your office, especially outside of business hours. We all have the same 24 hours in a day, and instantaneous responses are often simply impossible to provide.
During the initial meeting, take care to gather lifestyle clues: their car, their clothing, the appearance of the exterior and interior of their current home, collections of art and antiques, as well as other recognizable objects and brands.
I know multi-millionaires who drive very modest cars and live in modest homes. I also know people without millions who drive flashy cars and scrape by in a prestigious zip code. Both cases say something about the client. The former probably truly appreciates value in itself, and the latter may desire status over actual value. These are important character indicators, not only for determining how or if to work with them, but to get an idea for the kinds of products with which they will want to fill their homes.
If there are very few clues that I can observe, as is the case of an empty house or a new construction project, I ask about their preferences in brands and what quality means to them. Answers to filtering questions along these lines tell me about their existing expectations about "luxury" and "quality," as the perception of these attributes tends to change according to income level and socio-economic status. I then match their expectations and character traits to their proposed budget to see if there is a “disconnect” – i.e., if they want more than their budget will allow.
Clients who want "the best of everything" for a very minimal budget are not used to actually paying for the best things, since they obviously don’t understand how much "the best" things cost. Good clients know that if they want "the best" (or particular brands and materials), then they will have to pay for it, and their proposed budgets automatically reflect that.
I also ask prospective clients to describe spaces they admire. When they say that they loved something on TLC’s Trading Spaces, as opposed to a hotel where stayed in Spain (or something along those lines), they are really telling me where they are developing their tastes and what they consider good design. Those answers indicate to me a great deal about what their expectations will be.
Trust your gut. If you are getting a bad or uneasy feeling, recognize and accept it. Try to separate it from the anxious excitement of a new project and look at that prospective client objectively. There is no rule saying you must take every project that comes your way. Sometimes it is best to pass on certain clients as it opens doors for better ones to come your way. It is a difficult lesson to learn, but it is normal, and it will happen throughout your career.
In the event that a client doesn’t fit, it’s nice to know a few other people in the industry so that you can provide a referral. Just because someone is a "bad" client for you, doesn’t mean that they won’t be a great prospect for a home stager or a decorator that comes in to rework what a client already has. Their fees are mild in comparison to a professional interior designer or an established and well-known decorator, and their work is probably more in alignment with what the client can actually get for their budget.
If you normally concentrate on bigger projects and a potential client only wants two window treatments, then pass the work along to your workroom or a new designer. They will thank you for it. If you feel a project may be too big or specialized for you to take on by yourself, then recognize that too. If a project is out of your scope of service, then it is not right for you – i.e., they are not the client for you, and you should pass.
If you are concerned about how to "let someone down" or tell them that you essentially don’t want to work with them or their project, then all you have to say is that you don’t have the time in your schedule right now, you wish them the best and you would be happy to provide a referral. It works out for both parties in the end.
More To Come
Stay tuned. Next month we’ll be discussing contracts, boundaries, and other things that can keep a good client from turning into a bad experience.