business advice | Apr 18, 2023 |
I can’t trust my staff to troubleshoot. How do I help them take charge?

Dear Sean,

I feel like I have a great handle on my firm’s creative process—my clients love our design vision for their homes and generally do not change their minds often. Where I am struggling is with my staff, and with project production. Inevitably, something happens—either an item comes in wrong or broken, or becomes unavailable after we’ve gotten the client’s approval. That’s part of the process, but my staff does not handle it well. They do not know how to talk our clients through these issues, and I am always having to jump in to smooth over some very ruffled feathers. It is so draining, and it is only getting worse. Is there anything I can do, or should I resign myself to being the one to make it all OK? It is my name on the door, after all!

Crisis Communications

Dear Crisis Communications,

Let’s say you are exhausted after a long day and want to order takeout rather than make dinner. Imagine that there are two restaurants that deliver the exact same quality of food, for the same price, arriving at exactly the same time. The only difference is that the first restaurant takes your order and then shows up without any further communication with you. The second calls or texts when the food is ready, when it is leaving the restaurant and when it is about to arrive.

Which restaurant cares more? It depends on who you ask. Some people do not want to be bothered with extra communication—they just want the food to show up on time and be delicious. However, based on your question, it seems like you fall firmly in the other camp. Communication matters to you and makes you feel seen and heard. The food from the second restaurant probably tastes better to you because of what you perceive to be a higher level of care.

This example represents your solution. You are focused on the mountaintop (the end result) when you should be focused on the journey (the process of getting there). To some people, talking about nonevents is vitally important to the process—for example, sharing the update that the custom dresser is coming along as planned, even though nothing has changed since you first ordered it for your client.

My advice is to reframe project production (the procurement, delivery and installation) as entertainment and engagement rather than mere data delivery. Teach your staff to do the same. And here’s a crazy idea: Provide a financial incentive for every piece of positive feedback a client or vendor offers about your team. Reward the idea that you are in the business of writing novels, not providing pretty pictures. The journey matters because it creates the desired end result for you and your design. Making clients feel seen and heard on a continual basis is the key to your success—far more than whether they will love your work in the end (which, of course, they will).

Empathy and relationships drive you and your firm, yet you have thus far focused exclusively on getting the job done. I’m sure your team members are wonderful at executing the tasks set in front of them. But engaging clients in constant communication, even for noninformation like the fact that a sofa’s been ordered and is on schedule? Not so much. Back to the restaurant example: Communicating the process of delivery is, in some respects, sharing noninformation. The only real metric is whether the food shows up when it is supposed to and has the expected quality. Yet communicating such noninformation is how you will demonstrate your empathy and relationship with your client. It will set a new precedent of overcommunication, which provides the foundation for sharing real information and making troubleshooting decisions when they arise—conversations that will be the norm, not outliers.

So my ultimate advice: Ask your team (and yourself) not if the client knows about such and such, but rather, if what you will share with them will entertain and engage them as you move ever closer to the mountaintop. Yes, the struggle is always worth the climb.

Homepage image: ©Pixel-Shot/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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