I’m in the midst of a project for one of my highest-budget clients ever. The project will be showstopping—if the pieces I specified ever show up. Already I’ve had to be the bearer of bad news so many times: casegood delays, terrible responsiveness for upholstered goods, and now a drapery technician who measured for stationary panels instead of functioning windows on either side of the master bed.
Yesterday, my client sent me this email:
“I am extremely unhappy and frustrated with all of these developments. I feel like at every step of this process, you have come back with later dates and a higher price tag than originally requested. Now the people that you selected to perform the labor have messed up, and again you are asking us to wait longer and pay even more—about one-fifth of the total drapery budget to fix it. I’m not sure what my options are, but I feel like we need to express that this project is not going smoothly from our perspective and I am growing weary of these bad news emails.”
How should I respond? And how can I make sure I never get stuck like this again?
Dear Smooth Operator,
A little tough love to start: You broke your promise to your client. You promised that your chosen production partners (I am not a fan of the word vendor) would be able to produce their part of your design on time and on budget, but they did not. You promised a certain budget, but did not deliver. We have to start there so that you can accept responsibility for the bad news. The question is what to do after that.
First and foremost, are your production partners willing to step forward and cure the ills they have caused? If not, why not? (And if not, then never again.)
However, before completely vilifying your production partners, I wonder whether they were the right production partners to begin with. You needed certainty, professionalism and a certain level of quality that you did not get—but it is not clear from what you wrote whether or not you actually paid for it. Price connotes expectation and risk assumption. If the production partners you have chosen to force risk of performance onto you, then presumably their price is lower than those that absorb that risk as part of their work product. These issues may be expected or accepted by your usual clients, but for this highest-budget project, it just will not fly.
At present, you also may not have the staff to manage these production partners to the extent they need to be managed for a project of this magnitude. Unexplained delays, terrible responsiveness and a really bad measuring mistake tells me that your team has not been as involved or aggressive as you needed them to be. Again, that doesn’t work when working at this level.
Your answer to your client must be to first own your responsibility for poor production-partner performance and then to let them know what you are going to do to properly manage your partners for the duration of the project to improve the clients’ experience with your design business. It is too late to switch production partners now, but who on your team will be handling production-partner management on this project, and what kind of communication flow can the client expect going forward? If this means hiring a freelance project manager, then so be it. This is not about the money. You need to be better for this client if they and those like them are who you hope to attract as clients in the future.
Different levels of luxury demand different considerations, and price will be reflected accordingly. If this project is the level to which you aspire as both a designer and a business, you may need to reassess how you run your business, and what matters most when it comes to production partners, and make a change. (Hint: The answer is anything other than price.)
There is, of course, a chance that you took all of these precautions—and were just thrice colossally unlucky. If that is your truth, be willing to chalk it up to being an outlier. Everyone gets it wrong at some point. Then circle back with your clients to assure them that there will be no more bad news—and do not let there be any. Your client chose you for a reason: They believe in you and your work. It is now up to you to reward their faith as only you and your design can.
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? Shoot us an email—and don’t worry, we will keep your details anonymous.