Last month in Part 1 of this series, we discussed deliberate methods to avoid bad clients. This month’s installment naturally progresses to the equally as critical topic of maintaining good ones. Picking up where we left off… You have met, discussed the project and budget, and you are getting a good vibe from your prospective client. You are excited about the opportunity to work with them and their vision. They have realistic expectations. They have an ample budget to work with in order to meet their desires and achieve great design. Consequently, you have qualified them to be a “good client”. Now you just need to ensure that they stay good clients, and you may be surprised to hear that this is completely your responsibility.
One thing that can happen after you have qualified a prospective client as “good” is allowing him or her (or they, as the case may be) to turn into a bad one. It can happen slowly, so it is essential that you understand ways in which to prevent this from happening. The transformation occurs when a) you don’t have a contract, b) you don’t institute the contract, c) you allow your clients to negotiate with you after you have started the project, and d) when you don’t set boundaries with your clients.
Let us first talk about the supreme importance of a contract. For some designers, it is an uncomfortable subject that they would prefer to not bother with. Contracts are dry, boring, and full of unfamiliar, rather daunting legal jargon. However, if you are working in today’s business and legal climate without a detailed contract, then you really need to get with it. The contract protects both you and the client, and it sets the foundation for and outlines the structure of the project.
The contract is the most effective tool that you can use to spell out all of the uncomfortable and necessary aspects of the collaboration like payment schedules, fees and markups, any terms and conditions, and the distinct responsibilities of both parties. It also helps to reinforce your client’s understanding of their role, such as timely approvals, prompt payments, access to the project site, etc.
One thing to keep in mind is that clients want a contract. A contract legitimizes your business and elevates you to the professional level. The budgets we are working with are large, and our clients are savvy. They are typically business owners, professionals, consultants, executives or officers of various types. They understand how business is done.
A contract will not scare off your client. In fact, it will do just the opposite – it will impress upon them that you know what you are doing. With no contract, you set the stage for ongoing discussions and negotiations, not to mention all sorts of serious liabilities. Don’t give that power to any client. It is a recipe for disaster.
Enforce & Reinforce
Once you have both signed the contract, use it! Think about it. You now have a legal document to back you up. Call on your contract in uncomfortable situations, should they arise.
Deliver everything (and more) you promised you would. Abide by the processes set forth in the contract. Maintain consistency. Your clients will quickly understand they are working with a professional who does what they say they will do.
Your clients will behave better and respect you more. They will be less likely to test you or “call you out” on something when you run the project in the manner you set forth in the contract. If you stray or change something up mid-project, be prepared for your client to do the same.
Stick To Your Guns
Now you are mid-project with a signed contract, and you are leading the project by example. After an afternoon of shopping, your client is in love with a particular sofa. They later receive a quote from you, and they feel that since it’s pretty pricey, you might take less markup. You agree – just this once – because you feel it would be nice to give them that little perk, and even with a lower markup, you will still make a little money. Bad idea. Don’t do it.
The first time your client tests you (on anything), don’t give in. Many people see no harm in asking, so they try it merely to see what will happen. If you give in once, then they now know that if they just ask, they just might receive. You have given a good client the green light to negotiate with you for the remainder of the project.
This is a case where you must do two things: 1) fall back on your contract (after all, they did already feel your markup was fair and they agreed to it by signing the contract), and 2) stick to your guns. You can politely restate your markup is x-percent and that you would be happy to source another sofa with a price that seems more reasonable to them.
Near the end of a project is the time to give your great client a few perks. Throw something in with your complements – a set of throw pillows for that sofa or a beautiful accessory that they have had their eye on. Show them appreciation with a gift of thanks in proper proportion to their budget. I feel there should always be something you gave to the client in full. This builds client relations and also reminds them of you when they use or see that item. Express gratitude and make your client happy without involving discounts or adjustments to the contract mid-project. You will simply open the floodgate.
Stay Within The Lines
Boundaries. Some of us don’t even have a handle on these in our personal lives. Maybe we’re the “yes” friend. We may take on too much, make ourselves too available, emotionally involve ourselves too much, or share too much. With your clients, it is crucial that you set boundaries with your personal life and with your time.
You are not in competition with your clients, and you are not best friends with your clients, either. If they talk about their fabulous weekend, be there to hear it and express interest, but don’t compete with them by then giving them even better details of yours. If they talk about their kids, don’t brag about yours. If they talk about their second house in Telluride, don’t mention yours in Aspen.
If clients try to draw you in to their personal drama, try to curtail conversations that are too personal. Give short, but polite responses, then never ask about it again or mention it to anyone else. If you get caught up in a good client’s personal life, start to expect propositions of taking sides (especially if the clients are married or living together), wasted time in communications that have nothing to do with the project, and business meetings laced with personal drama.
Be friendly, but not best friends. If a real friendship is formed from working together, pursue it only after the project is completed.
Time boundaries are also essential. Do not answer calls before or past your stated business hours. Do not respond to emails before or past your business hours. If you tell your client that they must schedule appointments, but you drop everything when they “swing by” unannounced, this sets an ugly precedent.
A great client can quickly become very high-maintenance if they realize you are on call for them. Give your communications structure and order. If you respond to an email late at night, clients will then expect to get an overnight response all the time. This is sometimes really hard when you run your own practice since you are always working, but it is essential. If you email late at night, set the delivery date for first thing in the morning. Don’t let a good client manage your time for you.
The Bottom Line
You, as the interior designer, have control over the designer-client relationship, but you must claim it and hold on to it. It is not about manipulation – it is about professionalism. In the briefest of summaries: Be the professional with whom you would want to do business. Master this, and you will set yourself up for a very successful career.