business advice | Nov 15, 2022 |
I cleared my decks for my biggest client ever—then they went AWOL. Can I reignite the momentum?

Dear Sean,

About a year ago, I was hired to renovate a glorious but dated home—my largest project to date. In fact, when I looked up the property, I had to double-check that I had the correct address. The plan is to completely gut the home, removing the 1980s details and implementing a modern aesthetic. I have worked vigorously with the architect via Zoom, with the exception of one day where I met him on-site. Together, we developed a plan and reviewed ongoing concepts, and then virtually presented our 3D drawings to the very busy out-of-state client.

We have all gotten along great, even amid legitimate stops and starts along the way. While developing the concept, I have acquired many material samples but have yet to finalize anything, as we are still confirming the entire plan. The client paid me regularly and on time, which I sincerely appreciate.

Then, over the summer, the communication basically ceased, except for emailed updates about the client being on vacation. I skipped last month’s billing, having notified the client in advance that I was restructuring the payment schedule to accommodate the time lapse. I felt it was the honorable thing to do, especially since we have developed a solid and trusting relationship. About a month ago, the client expressed that they would soon be ready to finalize selections—but I am not sure this is realistic, as the structural plans are still in process.

I’m concerned that the project timeline has become unclear, and I cannot bill when there has not been anything concrete required of me for about four months. I’m also concerned about taking on other large projects that could potentially interfere with this one, which I had planned to make my top priority when it gets rolling at full speed. How do I handle a stalled project that is destined to be a gem—and one that I anticipate being very proud of? There is no evidence that the client is going away, but the momentum has faded. Is there a way to gracefully keep it going?

Waiting Game

Dear Waiting Game,

Yours is a wonderful case for asking the question: What is the value of what you do? Is it time? Effort or desire? Or is it commitment, integrity and the willingness to devote what is necessary to do your best work?

If you take out a mortgage, you are supposed to pay it on time. You do not get extra points for doing what you are supposed to do. Neither does your client. They, too, are supposed to pay you on time. I find it interesting that you appreciate that your client pays their bills, as it implies that you expect them not to—and that you decided it’s honorable not to bill for time lost when the client does not respond to any request to move the project forward. What?

You have equated value with time, despite the pain that is obviously being caused. Yes, this is a very significant project that you wish to be fully present for, but right now, that project is not happening. As you say, other meaningful projects get pushed aside given what you know will happen when this project comes alive.

In my view, you have given complete control of your business to this client. I suggest that you reevaluate your priorities and suppositions. The axiom that time is money is sacrosanct—and yet you believe it does not apply to your client because of the “gem” their project represents. That’s hooey. Your client owes you the respect to pay you what you deserve for your commitment to the project. If you had caused the delay, then I can understand your desire to accommodate. However, it is clear you did not, and your accommodation is indicative of your all-consuming desire to be part of this project.

Whether you want to see it or not, the power dynamic here is ugly. Your client is moving entirely at their pace, and you are paying for it every step of the way. Before you find yourself bankrupt, might I suggest you reinstate a (very) healthy monthly fee that will be due regardless of any specific work to be completed, which will be paid until the project is done. By way of calculation, look at the highest amount of work you completed on the project in any given month as a percentage of your firm’s projected revenue and add 10 percent. So if you hope to make, say, $720,000 per year in revenue (that’s $60,000 per month), and this client represents 30 percent at the project’s peak, then you would charge 40 percent, or $25,000 per month, until the project is completed. That number is fair given the size and scope of what you are doing.

I am sure you are thinking, “Sean, that is crazy. They will never pay it, especially if there is nothing concrete happening.” To which I say, There is something happening—you not being able to work for anyone else of significance. If you are unwilling to go there, then you must instead express that you may not be available if and when the project comes alive again. And since we both know you will not go there, how about you go with that monthly fee?

Everything you wrote supports your desire as an artist to complete your vision. However, you are sacrificing your business every step of the way. It is simply unsustainable, and you have to recognize that you must protect your business’s integrity first and foremost. Until you are willing to do that, the pain you have felt thus far is likely only the beginning. Being a professional means acting like one. If you are not willing to honor your need to move a project forward in a timely manner, and to be paid for doing so, you disrespect everyone, and your business most of all.

There may be no evidence that your client is walking away, but thus far, there is no evidence that you will either. They are causing you and your business pain, and you are letting them. Time for you to make it stop one way or another.

Homepage image: ©Lazy_Bear/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.

Want to stay informed? Sign up for our newsletter, which recaps the week’s stories, and get in-depth industry news and analysis each quarter by subscribing to our print magazine. Join BOH Insider for discounts, workshops and access to special events such as the Future of Home conference.