business advice | Jul 7, 2020 |
How can I be friends with my clients while preserving our business relationship?

Dear Sean,

I work on long-term projects, collaborating closely with clients for two to three years or more. In that time, we tend to grow very close—like, best-friends-level close. I love forging these relationships with clients turned friends, but sometimes it makes talking about money and charging for my services uncomfortable. I know all designers approach that professional distance with clients differently. How can I stay close with my new friends and keep working for them friction-free?

Friends With Benefits

Dear Friends,

Friendships are intimate relationships based on mutual trust and understanding, of course, but they are also based on forgiveness, tolerance and acceptance of the person across from you. Simply, the best relationships are based on real dialogue and abiding respect.

While there are elements of such kinship in professional relationships, authentic dialogue and acceptance do not really exist. Take it to an extreme: No matter how much your client enjoys your company, if you make mistake after mistake, that wind up costing them thousands of dollars, you might remain their friend—but their designer, not so much. Your clients might forgive one blunder, but a dozen?

The point is that you must be the professional in the room—the guide who is there to allow open conversation only to the point that you are ready to express your opinion. After the design is complete, there really is not a conversation anymore as much as a directed communication to move toward completion. Yes, your process is much more drawn-out relative to other designers with shorter-term projects, but the logic is the same—idea to design, design to production, production to reveal. These transitions have to be as clean and permanent as possible to ensure that your project goes as intended. Notice how much communication is guided versus actual, agenda-free dialogue.

The one sure way to blow the foregoing to smithereens is to turn friendship into a discount. There are only two reasons you should ever discount your fee. The first is the promise of more actual work at the time of contracting. If a client wants you to do more than one project, that volume is valuable to you. However, the next project must not be just a hope, but an actual promise, ideally in writing. The second instance is when the client is a repeat client with whom you’re familiar. Being able to speak shorthand is its own valuable reward, as it should make the process go that much faster. You can (and should) share in that value with your client. However—and this is an important caveat—if the client does not offer you any such efficiencies and requires tremendous hand-holding no matter how often you work together, all bets are off, and if anything, you need to be paid more.

Leave friends-and-family discounts to the amateurs of the world. If you say yes to a client, they deserve your very best. The client can be your dearest friend or not your personal cup of tea—it does not matter; this is your show, not theirs, and the expectations remain the same. And because it is your show, it is also your responsibility to set out your outrageous promises and the demands needed to fulfill those promises. That responsibility is never your client’s, and the second you discount for friendship, you abdicate that responsibility. Truly, the only loser in that situation is you.

I will share a fun story that will hopefully land my advice. New York–based designer Vicente Wolf and event designer Preston Bailey are close friends who have spoken with each other every day for more than 40 years. While I was working with both of them, Preston had Vicente redo his apartment in New York. Preston received a 10 percent discount because the two of them spoke daily about all things design. That was it. At the end of the project, there was $2.37 owed for postage and a miscellaneous expense I do not recall. Vicente’s practice is to do a final accounting for all clients to close out the project, so his firm sent Preston the bill. When asked if it was a joke, Vicente’s business manager said simply, “Business is business, no matter the client.” Preston paid the bill without incident, and on they went with their friendship unabated. Separating church and state preserved both.

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How can I be friends with my clients while preserving our business relationship?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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