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Keep or Cut: How to Create Good Client Relationships, and When to End Them

As an interior designer, difficult clients can drag you down. For one, referrals are a large driver of new business in this industry, and what your clients say about you will be a defining factor in your professional reputation. Plus, when you’re dealing with a difficult client, projects tend to get behind schedule. This can interfere with your ability to take on additional work that you may enjoy more, bring you new clients, and add to your profit margin. Client relationships gone sour are a drain in your resources, both business and personal. 

Here’s how to develop and maintain good client relationships.

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Understanding Client Expectations

It’s important to know that client expectations may not always be rooted in reality. Many have preconceived notions from what they’ve seen in home improvement and interior design-focused tv shows, as well as design apps and other web-based design services. Together, these experiences have created an often-skewed cultural context that influences how non-designers think of your profession. It also means they have stronger opinions about what they want and expect.

“With clients becoming more tech savvy, they have access to a lot of the same information that designers do,” says Kimberly Anderson, CID, NCIDQ, ASID of Solutions-65. “Pinterest, for example, allows anybody to create a vision board of what they want a space to look like and as right at anybody’s fingertips, for free. What clients do not realize is that the execution of making that vision come to life is where the challenge lies and the only way to make that vision a reality in the most seamless and less stressful way, is to hire a professional interior designer to execute that design.”

Every good client relationship begins with clear communication on your part and a strong mutual agreement before the project even begins.

How to Create Good Client Relationships 

  • Define your value and set your terms before a project begins: Before agreeing to work with a client, create a presentation that demonstrates your unique service offering – including the full scope of your capabilities and visual indications of the types of budgets you generally work with. If you are a luxury designer working with customized or uniquely sourced pieces, make that clear. These steps will help your client accept your pricing, which may be more expensive than the web-based services they are aware of. Use this consultation to discuss your pricing and agree on an overall budget for the project.
  • Provide renderings or hand illustrations of your designs: Clients expect visual representations when you are presenting design ideas. Television and online design services make 3-D renderings look like a snap to produce, although professionals understand there is more to it than TV would have you believe. Prepare to provide these in some form, with outsourcing being an available option.
  • Communicate frequently: Communicate with your clients regularly throughout the process. “Being attentive to the clients desires but also giving your professional opinion throughout the process will help create that dynamic relationship and build trust between you and the client,” Kimberly says. Explain your reasoning behind every decision you make and let them know why each deadline is important.

How to Recognize When It’s Not a Good Fit

As you go through the process of establishing a contract and a relationship, these are the signs to look for to know if it will not be a good client-designer relationship:

  • Come to an agreement before beginning a project: Use your design consultation to hash out everything upfront. After listening to your presentation and seeing the visual evidence of your work, the right client will not challenge your worth. They may ask questions to better understand some of the finer points, but if you are on different pages about pricing, do not proceed past the first meeting.
  • Read their personalities: Also, if working with partners, access their dynamic: You may meet a client or clients who are thrilled with your portfolio and have no argument about pricing or budget. Yet, there is something leaving you feeling unsettled about the idea of working with them. Our instincts often indicate how comfortable we are around another person or persons. Your potential client may have characteristics that put you on edge, or the interactions between partners suggest a difficult relationship. You don’t have to be best friends with every client, but you need to feel comfortable in their presence in order to have a successful working relationship.  

How To Cut Ties with a Problem Client

Try as you may to avoid it, you will likely encounter a problem client at some point in your career. If you need to terminate a client relationship you before the project is completed, this is how you should approach it:

  • Cover your legal bases: Your client contract must include a clause allowing early termination of a project, and you should be able to end a project at any time at your discretion. You should also structure your pricing so that you are paid for your work as it’s ongoing, also to be stipulated in the contract.
  • Keep records: It's a great idea to write a short description of every client interaction you have when you are logging it. Use these notes to indicate things that strike you as potential signs of trouble. While a good contract will protect you legally, showing a record of evidence that led you to terminate your client agreement can only fortify your legal standing, should there ever be need.
  • Be diplomatic: Breakups often come with emotions. Your clients may be very angry or hurt at your decision to end the relationship mid-project. You may also be experiencing anger or other unpleasant feelings that have led you to this point. While you can be honest in your explanation of why you cannot continue, maintain your composure and kindness and avoid making unnecessary declarations or accusations. Being professional means being diplomatic.

Every client relationship will take effort on your part to become successful. Cultivating productive working relationships requires you have clear communication, an organized and systemic approach to running your operation, and a diplomatic demeanor. Choosing clients who are receptive to your way of doing business is the second half of the equation to forming good and lasting relationships. It’s never easy to turn away business, especially if you are in the beginning stages of establishing your business, but think of each client as an investment. A bad investment can do a lot of damage and divert your resources away from the good investments that will help your business grow. 



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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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