I have two clients right now that are obsessed with second-guessing decisions and changing their minds. As the person trying to move the project forward, it’s infuriating. At the same time, I bill for my time and my clients are more than happy to compensate me for the extra work they are creating—so, while their behavior is annoying, I am getting paid. (And the clients are otherwise nice!) My question is this: How do I balance how unfulfilled these projects make me feel with the steady paycheck they provide?
Dear Compensation Conundrum,
Here is the easy explanation for your pain: You are doing it to yourself. Or, more specifically, your business and the way it runs is doing it to you. Your clients are simply acting in a way that is consistent with the story your business is telling them.
If you charge by the hour, you are absolutely telling your clients that you want to spend more time with them, and therefore expect and even court them to change their minds and second-guess decisions. Why? Because there is a minimal price for them to change their minds.
Let’s do a little math. Say you charge $250 per hour. It takes you 30 hours to come up with your original design, which they absolutely love (until they do not). It then takes five hours for you to come up with alternates once they decide that they want to reconsider, and three more hours for you to do it yet again. That nets out to $7,500 for the big design, plus $2,000 for changes. See where I am going? It gets cheaper and cheaper for your clients to keep you working. If you are good at delivering value, which I am sure you are, then the $7,500 has been spent and received, so the only thing clients are looking at is the additional cost for changes, which is very inexpensive for them. For you, though, the changes are a distraction—they are slowing you down and causing creative pain because you cannot manifest your creation the way you intend.
You have a choice: Live within the constraints that the industry has placed on you and your design business, or walk your own path. I am assuming that you charge the same rate for your time regardless of the work you are doing. In fact, never in almost a decade of consulting have I seen a designer with different hourly rates depending on the work they are doing and the timing of that work. But why is that? Many employees get overtime or holiday pay when they have to work longer than expected (or agreed upon), or at premium times.
Would it be so absurd to tell your clients that your hourly rates for base design work are $250 per hour, but any revisions after the final presentation of ideas will be at $600 per hour, with a minimum of $3,600? If you go that route, you would be charging a premium for work you do not want to do, but are willing to do.
Back to math. If you had the agreement I noted above, those same revisions would have cost your client $4,800 instead of $2,000. Now, your client would really have to think about whether they wanted to reconsider decisions. In this case, you are still willing to revise designs; but now, there is a real (and appropriate) price for changing their minds.
If you repeatedly find yourself in the same difficult situation, look in the mirror first. Great clients are made, not born. It is up to your business and the way it runs to support the way you wish to create your art. Free yourself from the limitations of how you’ve been operating, and accommodate no one. If you need more effective, permanent decisions from clients, communicate that not just through a request but with a consequence. Get what you need to do your best work without compromise. Make that your promise to your clients, your staff and yourself, and the rest will take care of itself. Or, you can live in accommodation, eroding your core until you are left entirely unfulfilled as you are now. The choice is yours.
Sean Low is the the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.
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