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Dealing with Clients From Hell

“It’s going to cost too much to have those cabinets painted, so I want to just take them out.” The client was telling me was she would rather pay to have the custom oak cabinets in her new home ripped out, the wall repaired and painted, and then she wanted me to buy a new storage piece to put in their place. Really? Of course this was after she had changed her mind 3 times about how this room would be used.

Clients like this are typical, and EVERY designer has to deal with them. While coaching designers around the world, and during my own 20+ years as a designer, I’ve heard my share of “clients from hell” stories.

There is one universal fact of being a designer. You must deal with homeowners, who complain; change their mind over and over again, renege on the agreed upon budget, and bring their nosy neighbor to your final presentation at the last minute, because “her house is so beautiful and she knows my taste”.

So what should you do? How do you overcome every objection and is it OK to fire a client when you’ve just had enough?

I was recently reading an article from Deepak Chopra (who always offers sage advice) about How to Handle Difficult People, and I realized that as interior designers, we work with difficult people on a daily basis. I’d like to share a bit of his wisdom and offer some of my own go-to solutions for tackling these tricky situations.

His basic premise is based on asking yourself three questions.

1. Can I change the situation?

2. Do I have to put up with it instead?

3. Should I just walk away?

That’s fantastic advice for dealing with life in general if you think about it, but how specifically can we use this technique to strengthen our design business? I have a few ideas.

First, if you approached every design client with the idea that you would change them or their taste, then you would be in a constant state of battle. Deepak gives us a few examples of when this tactic might be successful like when you have a personal connection with the person or when you’ve earned their respect.

This is exactly why I put so much emphasis on your first house call, and why I’ve even designed a system that I follow each and every time I meet with a new client. Connection is critical at this point in the game, and the best way to earn a client’s respect, is to act like the professional that they’re expecting.

He also suggests that you discreetly test the waters to see if their open to change, and look for signals. I always tell designers that this first house call is just about information gathering. What I mean is, I’m going to get to know them and their project, and see if we will be a good fit for both of us. While I believe that everyone would love a beautifully designed home, not everyone is ready to work with a designer.

You need to take an honest look at yourself and your personality before you answer question #2. If you’re the type to just put up with massive indecision and micro-managing, then you will quickly become your clients’ new doormat. If any of these unhealthy responses sound like you, then you have some deeper issues to work on:

Do you keep quiet and let them have their way EVERYTIME because it’s not worth fighting over? Do you complain behind their backs or subtly signal your disapproval? Do you have symptoms of stress (knots in the stomach, insomnia, anxiety) but you decide to grin and bear it? Worst of all, do you know that you want out of the situation, but you keep convincing yourself that you have to stick it out?

A better way to deal with option #2 is to approach the situation and your client as rationally as possible. Don’t get into emotional drama with them, and keep your dignity. Understand that it’s really insecurity that lies beneath the surface of their difficult behavior and by clarifying the facts a bit more you might help them to see your side.

With the tricky client that I mentioned earlier, I gently explained the process to remove the existing cabinets, and then I pointed out that it would be much less expensive to simply paint them and utilize their massive storage capabilities over buying a new piece of furniture. She hadn’t really thought it all through and yes, now that I had explained it to her, my suggestion seemed like the better solution.

Of course there will be those stubborn clients, who contrary to logic and practicality, want what they want. If you chose to walk away from every difficult client, well then, you won’t be doing much designing at all.

If you want to avoid this outcome, then establish yourself and your system professionally, right from the start. Set your expectations for the project and let them know how you work. You’ll earn their respect and project a sense of confidence that’s critical to a harmonious designer/client relationship.

Now I don’t believe you should stay with a client who verbally abuses you (it happens more than you’d realize), or blatantly takes advantage of your time. Only you know how much is too much. If this is the case, and you have maturely tried to set things straight to no avail, then by all means, you should sever ties.

This can get tricky when you’re in the middle of a remodel or you have orders waiting to be delivered. I’m not suggesting that you walk away and pay for anything out of your own pocket. If this is the case, then you’ll have to find a fellow designer with a more compatible personality to finish the job, and then politely explain it to your client. If you don’t, you could be facing this arrogant client in court rather than over a cup of coffee. You can also try to collect your remaining design fees, but most often the peace of mind you’ll gain by leaving this stressful situation is far more valuable.

Even though I’ve knowingly chosen a career that will inevitably involve conflict, I know it’s made me a more compassionate person. Each project that I’ve worked on has taught me something about human nature; like how to compromise graciously, or to empathize when someone’s afraid to make a decision, and that deep down, we are all a little uncomfortable with change. At the end of the day, I love being an Interior Designer and everything that comes with the job.

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