There are difficult clients and then there are those who are downright rude. We asked six designers—Sasha Bikoff, Maryline Damour, Brian Patrick Flynn, Drew McGukin, Denise Morrison and Britt Zunino—how they handle ornery clients (and avoid similar types in the future).
Get them in line
“First things first: I constantly remind my team to set egos aside, because we are service providers. Sometimes you have clients who push you around. As with most bullies, I find responding kindly and affirmatively gets them in line once they realize you’re not a pushover. After a team member recently hung up the phone nearly in tears, I immediately picked up and dialed the client back. I calmly and politely said, ‘Mr. Client—this is the thing. If you’re trying to get someone to show up early at your home or stay late working on your project, then screaming “WTF!” through the phone is working against you. This is demotivating and will create the exact opposite result that you’re hoping to achieve.’ He apologized and grumbled something about artists being too sensitive. I replied, ‘Exactly. That’s why we shop all day and you have a beautiful home. Now pipe down and get back to [work] because I’m sending out a huge invoice.’ We left the call laughing.
“Money keeps people honest. I find the biggest ‘problem clients’ are the ones who want it all, run you in circles, but then don’t want to pay the full cost. It’s like clockwork—the ones who pay efficiently are also decisive and projects soar forward. The others are inevitable and excruciating when you don’t catch them soon enough. We have lots of safeguards to sniff out the cheapskates. One good tip is a 10 percent security deposit taken up front and refunded at the end of the project. Sometimes this can be a $50,000 to $100,000 deposit. You know you have a problem if a big-shot client is waving around a million-dollar budget but melts down over a $100,000 refundable deposit upfront.” —Drew McGukin, Drew McGukin Interiors, New York
Respond quickly and gently
“This happens less to me than to my staff, but whenever I hear that a client is being rude or demanding, I schedule a call with the client and talk through the concerns and expectations for our services. I always deal with tense situations quickly and gently and try to make it a two-way conversation so that no one feels attacked. For the most part, there usually ends up being an aspect of the situation I am not totally clear on and we are able to work through it by discussing it. I find that great clients tend to have great friends and not-so-great clients tend to have not-so-great friends.” —Denise Morrison, Denise Morrison Interiors, Newport Beach, California
Meet on their turf
“We try to weed potential problems out in the very beginning. Meeting with clients in their own home or office is a critical first step. Do they introduce you to the doorman, their nanny, or housekeeper? Or are they dismissive and rude to those who play a supporting role in their life? If so, that’s a big red flag. Our job is to be incredibly perceptive. Even if your client is on their best behavior with you initially, if you get a whiff of entitlement it will eventually impact you. Whether you become a direct target or they are rude to your contractors or vendors, it almost always causes disruption or delays due to lost morale on the job.” —Britt Zunino, Studio DB, New York
Remind them They’re responsible too
“We had a client for whom we were redesigning a floor plan as part of our design work. This meant removing walls and creating new ones, which always creates a lot of drywall dust. We explained to the client that he would need to remove everything from the surfaces of tables, counters, etc. When we arrived on our first day, there were clothes and paperwork everywhere. We covered everything because we didn't feel comfortable going through his personal items. We took the opportunity to remind him exactly what our services included and what his responsibilities to the process were.” —Maryline Damour, Damour Drake, New York
Keep on keeping on
“I always remember [Michelle Obama’s famous motto], ‘When they go low, we go high.’ I am in a client-based business, so I will never lose my cool or talk back. Most of the time I do not even acknowledge the rudeness and just keep on trucking. I don’t have the time or energy to deal with people’s tempers—I would rather spend my time decorating! You learn as you go. I have made mistakes and taken on clients when I saw the red flags just because I really wanted the job. This biggest way to avoid a bad client is to be super-transparent with them from the beginning and see how they react.” —Sasha Bikoff, Sasha Bikoff Interior Design, New York
See Their True colors
“The one time I had a problematic client, I learned the importance of having the most thorough contract ever. Every possible detail goes into my contract now. My main system for weeding out potentially unfit clients is to meet them in their home and see how they communicate with other people, and then meet them in public and do the same. Sometimes, a potential client will show their true colors when they’re talking to a stranger who works in the service industry. Since we work in the service industry, it’s wise to imagine that we’ll also be spoken to that same way. That’s been my system, and it’s worked so far!” —Brian Patrick Flynn, Flynnside Out Productions, Atlanta