In April, as the pandemic put a lot of my projects on hold, I accepted a job to keep revenue coming in. The project is smaller than what we usually take (only a few rooms) and I didn’t love the client, but I needed to keep my firm’s pipeline full. Now business is booming and we don’t need the work—and to be honest, my gut was right: I don’t like this client. I thought we could rush through the process and get them off our books, but they seem to be enjoying working through their project very slowly and deliberately. I’ve tried to express my frustration that they are dragging their feet, but they are enthusiastic about the work we’re doing together and want to proceed at their own pace. At this point, I’d rather fire them so my team can focus on more lucrative projects with clients we like—is that wrong?
Dear Greener Pastures,
Here is the short business answer: Of course you should fire the client to make room for more lucrative work. By lucrative, I am sure you mean financially profitable and of size and stature befitting your portfolio. Now that it looks like you will not need the “wrong” client with the “wrong” project, better to kick them to the proverbial curb than have them be the ballast to your balloon.
Except integrity matters. While you might be able to get away with the above, it does not mean you should. By your account, this client never hid who they were. They told you their project was small and were upfront about the fact that they were going to make decisions slowly and deliberately. All of which you said yes to in order to allay your fear at the thought of losing your business with so many projects on hold. Make no mistake: You had choices. You just did not like them. You could have furloughed your team, renegotiated (or terminated) as many expenses as you could, taken advantage of all available capital resources from the government (federal, state and local), or even dipped into your own savings. You did not—and even if you did, you used the power of the wrong client to not go as far as you could have.
So how about you give this client their due? They were the right client when you wanted them to be. You could have had the hard conversation and told them straight-out that this is not the kind of work that you and your firm usually undertake—that, should work return, they would have a firm end date after which your fees would quadruple. Anything to silo this outlier of a project. But you did not. You just said yes and took their money.
My answer, then, is that you need to finish the project. However, you must also set parameters as to what finishing looks like. You may absolutely give a recap on what has transpired, where exactly you are in the project and what is necessary to finish. This is not a conversation—it is a statement upon which you are laying out what yes on your terms looks like.
Keep in mind that if you flip the keys to a Ferrari to just about any 16-year-old, they are going to be enthusiastic. Your client’s enthusiasm about your work is a non-starter—they are getting a Ferrari for the price of a Hyundai (no disrespect to Hyundai). You have every right to remind them that you are, in fact, a Ferrari, which requires a certain sophistication to appreciate all that the car can do.
Please note: I am not advising you to just do the job, I am only telling you to act with integrity. Have the hard talk and describe what is necessary for you to do your best work. These clients will, of course, not react well. Driving a Ferrari for the cost of a Hyundai tends to skew one’s worldview. Who cares? While you do need to endure the pain necessary to finish on your terms, you absolutely do not need to do so for a second longer on theirs.
Last, what is most important about your predicament is that you can only do your best work for those that care the most. These clients most certainly do not, and though the pain is self-inflicted, let only the lesson endure. Integrity is all you have. Finish the work on your terms. If that does not work for the client, then it will be their decision to say no, not yours. You can slake hunger with the wrong client all the while sealing your fate to starvation. You were never meant to undertake this work, and you now understand the enormous cost of saying yes at all costs.
No one ever said that any part of being a creative business owner was easy. Your art can only carry the day if the story it tells resonates to you most of all. From now forward, always start there.
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.