business advice | Apr 30, 2019 |
Clients’ demands don’t align with my process. How can I find a way to work with them?

Dear Sean,

I am very good at protecting my boundaries (i.e., no weekend meetings, texting, or a hundred revisions on my design ideas), but my clients are increasingly challenging me to do things differently than I have done in the past. For instance, many of my clients do not want a project done at one time. Instead, they want to go room by room. Others want me to travel with them to provide ideas and advice instead of shopping for them. I love what I do, and I want to be open to new needs from clients—but how do I decide whether to take on clients with these types of requests?

By Popular Demand

Dear Popular Demand,

As the world moves ever faster and we are seeing the interior design industry literally evolve underneath our feet, all designers have to be open to new ways of working with clients. The question is, How do you decide if the new request can work for you and your business?

It would be very easy for me to say that you have to have your process set in stone, do things as you do them, and forsake the clients who want something different. And in an ideal world, that would be fantastic! But in order to adapt and evolve for what is coming, consider three concepts: improv, a Slinky, and saying yes on your terms.

First, improvisation. When clients ask me all the time what they should invest in (aside from me, of course!), my answer often surprises them. They’re mulling big spends on a new website, or PR, or a social media guru—but without hesitation, I tell them to take an improv course at their local theater or college that has at least six sessions. Why? The rules of improv are quite extensive; they set the stage for being truly present, with the goal of taking things where they are meant to go without having any sense of the destination or how to get there. (If you know anything about improv, you know that the magic words are Yes, and ...)

For designers today, being wide open to new ways of getting to where you want to go with your client requires that you listen with different ears. Improv teaches you how to listen and be present, but it also teaches you how to create the proper setting for that interaction to happen most effectively. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but learning the rules of the game frees you to go wherever you want creatively.

With improvisational skills in hand, you can then focus on the Slinky. Think about it: The Slinky—the toy we all had as a kid and now routinely step on as parents—looks radically different when it is stretched out or bent going down the stairs versus when it is all coiled up, but it’s still the same toy. This is your business process and, to me, the very definition of flexibility: You can do things very differently from one client to the next so long as you never clip a rib of the Slinky (i.e., break the toy). Like improv, rules are ever-present—perhaps you start with color, then move to fabrics, then to floor plan—but can be adjusted as needed to fit the client in front of you. It is up to you to decide if the change is breaking a rib of the Slinky or not. If it is, say no; if the Slinky is broken, you no longer have a business process that works for you—and therefore no longer have a business. But if all ribs are intact, then proceed to my next thought.

Improv teaches you that once you say no, the act is over; there is no place to go after no. In the context of your design business, it is the client who gets to decide whether or not you are the right designer for them—but once they do, clients do not get to decide on your willingness to be a chameleon. You have to be willing to say, “I have thought about what you are asking of me and my firm, and even though it isn’t how we usually work, here is how we would consider taking on your project.” That’s the yes—but on your terms. Set out how exactly it is to go, twisting the Slinky every which way to Sunday without ever breaking a rib. If the client demands that you break the rib of your Slinky, it is they, not you, who will be saying no and walking away. If they agree to your version of yes, then the rest is up to you and your design team to make it work.

I hate compromise when it means that everyone loses. Instead, focus on fulfilling different promises while retaining your core beliefs and integrity as a designer. We need to erase the “box” if we are to truly adapt to our ever-changing design universe, so give yourself permission to be outrageous considering what a new vision might look like.

You can go miles further with “yes on your terms” than no. But if this seems too out there for you, take the improv class. I am fairly certain you will feel differently about what I am talking about here when you are done.


After a 30-year career, do I still need to belong to a professional association?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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