business advice | Jun 13, 2023 |
Is it bad business to turn down past clients who want design refreshes?

Dear Sean,

I am blessed to have been in business for a long time and have several remarkable clients with whom I have done multiple projects. Maybe it is the state of the world—or maybe it’s just that I am getting older!—but each of these clients has been asking me to take on smaller and smaller projects. One even asked me to redo a powder room. I feel so conflicted. Yes, I designed the whole house five years ago, and I do not want to alienate my clients, but it is also such a small project, which is not really what I do. Advice?

Stuck in the Past

Dear Stuck in the Past,

It is so tempting to believe you are all things to your clients. Being there has meant always being there no matter what—perhaps this has even worked for you in the past and led to bigger projects down the line. But part of you has to know that this strategy will not work for you anymore. There are three reasons for that.

First, doing these small projects likely breaks one of your two fundamental promises to your clients: You do only your best work—work that you will stake your entire reputation on. The reason these promises are so important is that if they are not in place, you risk blurring the very business you are in. Joe’s used car dealership and Mercedes both sell cars, but nobody really believes they are in the same business. If your work is to create transformational change for your clients on a grand scale, redoing a powder room won’t cut it.

The second reason not to accept these small jobs is that by doing so, you risk alienating those clients who are, in fact, paying you for transformational change. While I appreciate what The Expert offers as a design platform, I am always curious as to what clients think when their designer offers their expertise by the hour (even if at a very high rate) to people on the internet while their true patrons are paying and committing as they are.

Please do not play into the sunk-cost fallacy: The past is the past and you owe nothing to it. Great work begets great work, and if this small project cannot be that for you, then it is not yours to undertake—especially not if the only reason you’re doing so is to avoid upsetting a former client.

Third, and most important: You do not care about these small projects. And even if you did, you do not care the way some other designer will. If you are running a multibillion-dollar hedge fund and you come across an investment in which you can quintuple your money in three years but you can only invest $1 million, you will pass; it is too small to make a difference, and you are not built for those kinds of investments. Your design business is the same.

If you undertake large projects that offer a scale of change and impact worthy of your talent, wisdom and experience, doing a project that does not offer that to you or your client simply cannot work. Other designers who are built for this smaller project—whether they are up and coming or if this is the work they most love (or both)—deserve this project.

There is no threat to your business by allowing another designer to do what you do not. Quite the opposite, actually. Yes, the project might come off without a hitch, but if something goes wrong and you do not respond appropriately, then good luck keeping your client. Why do I predict that will happen? Because when forced to choose between those clients who honor who you are today and those relying on yesterday’s success, you will choose today’s patron, not yesterday’s—at least if you wish to stay in business.

Your work cannot be about not disappointing anyone. It has to be about choosing who you will never disappoint. That begins and ends with you and those who see you and your design business in its brightest light. What got you here will most certainly not get you there, and there is not yesterday. Accommodation is about ego, not integrity. Let your best clients pay the most and get the most from you and your firm, not the other way around.

Homepage image: ©Chaosamran Studio/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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