business advice | Oct 19, 2021 |
How do I politely turn down work from past clients?

Dear Sean,

I’ve been overwhelmed with new clients in recent months—work that is challenging me in great ways and allowing me to push myself to my creative limits. I love my new clients, and I’m so excited about what the future holds. However, a few of my past clients have reached out and want to work together again. I value those relationships, but the scope of work they want (projects I would have been so grateful for even six months ago) no longer thrills me—and, frankly, I don’t need the work. How do I navigate my relationships with clients I feel like I’ve outgrown creatively or budget-wise?


Dear Overwhelmed,

The answer to your dilemma lies in (a) sunk costs and (b) the only two promises you and your design business make to your clients.

Let’s discuss sunk costs first. The concept is traditionally thought of in strictly business terms. Generally, anything that has already been invested that no longer has value needs to be ignored when considering moving forward. If the amount invested was $100, the amount to complete the project is $5, the potential revenue is $10, and you would like to make 20 percent, then you would be willing to pay $3. You would spend $5, sell for $10 and make $2. Unless any part of the $100 has direct value to the project (it does not here), then that money is irrelevant.

That’s easy enough when you think about sunk cost in strictly financial terms. However, the concept equally applies to the goodwill generated by past projects with past clients. What got you here will not get you there. If your designs and business have evolved beyond your past clients, then feeling obligated to them—no matter how nicely they speak of you or how fond your collaborative memories—is falling victim to the sunken cost fallacy (following through just because you have already invested time, effort or money, even if the current costs outweigh the benefits). Think of it this way: You are no longer the best fit for your past clients, as you do not care to the level you once did. Helping them today would be an exercise in ego and would be fraught with risk. Simply, there are other designers who care far more than you about your old clients and their smaller projects. Your business is no longer built for them. So, when push comes to shove, you will make mistakes that the other designer would not. Accommodation serves no one.

Which leads me to the two promises you and your design business make to your clients: One, you will only do your best work (not your best work under the circumstances); and two, you will stake your entire reputation on every project you take (i.e., if it were the last design you ever did, you would be happy to be known for that design). In your situation, there is virtually no chance you can keep either of those promises. You will definitely not earn the amount of money necessary to justify the project, and the jobs are not of the size and stature for you to get excited about. If you can move past yourself, you can recognize that truly caring for those who got you here means letting them go if they no longer have work that can fuel both of you.

I suggest you either refer your past clients on or, better yet, let them know that you will be outsourcing their project to an up-and-coming designer you would be willing to consult with (not more than twice). The entire point is to let your past clients know you are no longer built to serve them. Doing this will also confirm to those clients who have acknowledged the stage you most desire to play on that it is them you care about most. Self-reflection and awareness is a gift to all involved. Your design business is no different.

Homepage photo: ©Roman Motizov/Adobe Stock


Sean Low is 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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