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How Interior Designers Can Manage Difficult Client Situations With Strong Leadership

Interior design may be a creative field, but ultimately, it is a profession based on client service. For every project you work on, your client is essentially your business partner. While your goal as an interior designer is to create artfully composed spaces, you have to find a way to execute your vision while working with client partners who often have no design training, experience, or practical knowledge of how the process works. Making things even more complicated, your partners, who are the financial backers of your projects, often experience anxiety and frustration over spending money without clear expectations. As an interior designer, you are exposed to your clients’ most vulnerable emotional states, personal matters, and financial situations. To do your job successfully, you need to be a strong leader and manage the process from beginning to end with tact, diplomacy, and an unwavering pleasant demeanor. 


Choose The Right Clients 

Part of avoiding difficult situations as an interior designer is choosing to work with clients who are a good fit for your brand. Your target clients are those that want to work with you to achieve your signature aesthetic for their project. If the outcome you envision for a project is materially different than the outcome your client is expecting, the project will be doomed before it begins. 


On the same note, in order to protect the integrity of your brand, you seek to work with people who align to your core values. This applies to your clients as much as it does to your vendors and employees. Choose to work with clients who are respectful, rational, and who show the qualities that you outline as important to your company's core values. 


In order to determine if a prospective client is the right fit for you, interview them before formalizing your working relationship. Create a design exercise that helps you determine their aesthetic, for example, presenting them with three mood boards reflecting different styles. If they veer towards traditional while you only want to design modern spaces, they are not a good fit for your business. Likewise, monitor how they behave during the initial courtship phase of the working relationship. Does your prospective client come to meeting(s) on time? Do they communicate with you in a respectful manner? If the clients are a team, or even a couple, do they get along well during your meetings? 


Often, interior designers are hasty in onboarding clients before assessing potential red flags, especially in the early phase of establishing a design business. However, difficult clients can ultimately be your undoing, so it’s much better to turn away business than it is to bring troublesome partners into the fold. At best, a difficult client relationship will drain you emotionally and monopolize your time, compromising your ability to succeed in your other projects. At worst, it can lead to reputation damage if an unhappy client spreads negative stories about your business, or it could result in legal repercussions. if you do not execute to your clients’ expectations. 


Put It In Writing: The Importance of the Client Agreement 

Once you have determined a prospective client is a good match for your business, draw up a client agreement that outlines your process, budget, and project timeline in as much detail as possible. By establishing the process from the beginning, you not only reduce your clients’ anxiety by giving them knowledge, but you establish your authority and instill confidence in your clients by being a leader. Expect that your clients will change their minds a few times throughout a project, so set up a way to deal with changes ahead of time. Offer them multiple schemes during the design phase, give them a window of time to change their minds about something without penalty, and then have a plan to cover your finances if they change their minds when you’ve already paid for something. Put all of these stipulations into the client agreement.


Once the document is drafted, have an in-person meeting with your client(s) to go over every last detail of the agreement in plain terms that they can understand. Let your clients know exactly how the process will work, what the timeline looks like, and what the penalties are for deviating from the agreed upon terms. Make sure the agreement includes a mechanism for ending your working relationship mid-project, should the client fail to meet their stipulated obligations. This will cover you from a liability perspective and encourage your clients to respect the agreement. 


Once you and your client(s) have signed the agreement, immediately schedule the future meetings as described in the agreement. As the interior designer, lead the project by controlling the calendar. Send email invitations for meetings, confirm them the day before, and enforce your stated penalties for last minute cancellations, for example, a consulting fee for time that you can add to their next invoice. The key is to never waiver from the client agreement. You have to be kind, but firm. Once you start making exceptions, it's a slippery slope. Run a tight ship and your clients will respect you for it. They will also be delighted when their project is finished on time and on budget because they adhered to your process. 


Discretion, Diplomacy, and Tact

While the key to success as an interior designer is to take control of your client relationships, you must do so with a pleasant and gentle demeanor. Be tactful and choose your words very carefully to avoid offending your client or hitting an unexpected emotional nerve. You will be exposed to your clients’ most personal, intimate life situations. Adapt an attitude of compassion and a policy of unwavering discretion. If there is one rule to live by as an interior designer, it’s to never repeat the personal business of your clients.


Also, be diplomatic when dealing with clients, particularly with couples, families, and other types of partners. They have to work out their differences amongst themselves. You can try to appease all parties on the client side and offer solutions that represent a compromise, but at the end of the day, you cannot take sides. By sticking to the timeline and process outlined in the client agreement, you will gently force them to come to an agreement.


Lastly, stay out of the fray. Sometimes a client will become emotional over something having to do with the project, or something entirely unrelated. It’s 100% okay to be a shoulder to cry on or a sympathetic listener, but that’s where it ends. You are an information receiver and comforter, not an advice giver. Do not give personal advice, and do not criticize anyone in the scenario, even if you are trying to comfort. 


As an interior designer, facing a difficult client situation is bound to happen at some point in your career. It’s the nature of any business based on providing a service to others, especially when large sums of money and cherished sanctuaries of personal space are involved. By choosing to work with clients who admire your aesthetic and align to your core values, you will greatly reduce your exposure to potentially problematic scenarios. Once you have decided that a client is a good fit for your business, set expectations from the get-go with a robust client agreement that you draft in conjunction with your trusted lawyer. As hard as it can be at times, stay strong, follow through on your policies, and be a leader. This can be especially daunting as a less experienced interior designer or new business owner. If this applies to you, read our manual on how to start an interior design business for more invaluable advice on how to avoid common mistakes and be a strong, successful interior design business owner. 

Margot LaScala
Margot LaScala
Margot is a writer and interior designer based in the NYC area. She is passionate about keeping up with the latest architecture and design news to not only stay informed, but inspired.

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