business advice | Sep 11, 2018 |
Am I indebted to my clients?

Dear Sean,
I recently had a great client—she was pleased with the finished project, and I loved working with her throughout the entire process. But there's trouble brewing in paradise now, post-project. This client referred me to a friend of hers. I met with him, and my gut tells me that he is absolutely not the right client for me. He balked at my early suggestions and requirements, but still wants to hire me. This has happened in the past, and I always give in, because I feel indebted to the first great client who refers me. What should I do?


Dear Indebted,

The answer to your dilemma is to acknowledge that you are at risk of displeasing your “great” client no matter what you do. When you look at it from that perspective, the choice is clear: do not work with her friend.

It’s clear from your assessment that your client’s friend will not respect your process. The only way to deliver on your promise to transform his space is by getting him to care about and respect your work. Case in point: Based on what Nestle paid for Blue Bottle Coffee last Summer, a Blue Bottle Coffee customer is worth three to four times what a Starbucks customer is. And yet Blue Bottle Coffee customers wait, on average, twice as long and pay twice as much for their coffee as does a Starbucks customer. Blue Bottle’s outrageous promise to provide the very best cup of coffee to its customers is paired with an outrageous demand: wait twice as long and pay twice as much. It is only because these customers care about getting the very best cup of coffee that they’re willing to wait, and to pay. Is this potential new client willing to adhere to the demands you’ll make of him?

If you do the work of expressing your promise and demands to the client’s friend—which it sounds like you’ve done already—and it lands like a lead balloon, you know it is not going to be a successful relationship. Proceeding down this road can never work because at the very point you need trust and confidence in your ability to transform his home, that trust will not be there and you will be thwarted. At that point, the friend will complain about your inability to serve him and the downward cycle of distrust for both the friend and your great client will begin and continue until trust with both your great client and her friend is jeopardized, if not completely destroyed.

Instead, find an appropriate designer for her friend. Go out of your way to do it. Then, when your great client asks why you could not help, you can directly explain (i.e., do not embellish or, worse, lie) why it is not a good fit, why your great client is, in fact, great and her friend is not. The disappointment of you not being to help her friend will, hopefully, be replaced with the value you offer specifically to her and not to her friend.


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 EAL, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Shoot us an email—and don’t worry, we will keep your details anonymous.

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