business advice | Jul 21, 2020 |
Is it ever OK to say ‘I don’t know’ to a client?

Dear Sean,

I launched my own firm this year after working for another designer behind the scenes for five years—and while I learned so much there about design, procurement and billing, there is so much about client management that I don’t know, because my role was never client-facing. I’m muddling my way through it via trial and error, but here’s my latest conundrum: How do I say, “I don’t know” to a client without totally losing face?

Don’t Know It All

Dear Don’t Know It All,

Many congratulations on launching your firm, especially given our current circumstances. I find it incredible that you have the sense of a solid business foundation, but are realizing so soon the human element required for you to be a guide for your clients. Knowing how to drive the car is not the same as driving—good for you for recognizing the difference and reach out for advice!

Before I answer your question, it is important to really, truly understand the two main factors that create the ethos of client management. First, what are your outrageous promise(s) and your outrageous demand(s)? Blue Bottle Coffee promises the very best cup of coffee for those who know and love coffee—but to get it, you have to wait twice as long and pay twice as much as at Starbucks. Promising that you are the best at, say, rooms with blue wallpaper, is never good enough. You must have those business elements (i.e., demands) that give you permission to create the blue room as you would create it.

Next, with your outrageous promise(s) and demand(s) in hand, you must be responsible for the three Ws in every single interaction you (or your staff) have with your clients: Where were you? Where are you? Where are you going? The journey you take with your clients is yours to define and reinforce; being committed to discussing the journey in every single interaction is the practice that gives you permission to fulfill your outrageous promise and outrageous demand. Something like, “It was great to visit the paint store with you last week; we now have it narrowed down to three shades of blue that will complement the wallpaper we have selected. Next week, we will show you two options to choose from.” Where were you? The paint store. Where are you? You have three shades of blue selected. Where are you going? Next week, we meet for you to decide. Rinse and repeat until you finish with the project.

Now, on to your specific question: There is a baseline of knowledge as a designer that you must have, and I am assuming you have it. How else could you feel competent calling yourself a professional? So, what we are talking about is likely an ephemeral and/or out-of-expertise call—for example, you might know paint and color, but not the actual painting techniques. In that context, it is entirely appropriate for you to say that you do not know, but you will find out. We live in a “gotcha” culture, and it has to stop. Making mistakes or not knowing an answer are not signs of weakness; they are a realization that there is work and learning yet to be done.

Your question reminds me of the time I was sitting in Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy class in law school. A smart-alecky student asked her what a particular section of the law said, and she replied that she did not know. The student asked why she did not have it memorized. Her answer was: “Why should I, when I can just look it up? Seems like a waste of time to me.” She then proceeded to take out her well-annotated copy of the law and read aloud the section of the statute to the class—all of which was followed by an intense dissertation on its meaning and import to the issue at hand. Amen, Elizabeth. The goal is not to be the encyclopedia, but rather to know how to actually use and understand it.

If you have a specific sense of your process and why it works for your outrageous promise(s) and demand(s), and are committed to discussing the three Ws, then when a question comes up that you cannot answer, you can contextualize your response, go learn, and return with an answer—all without fundamentally jeopardizing trust. The point is that it is never the falling down (or not knowing) that matters, it is the coming back. Rather than seeing “I do not know” as a badge of shame, acknowledge the beauty of the opportunity to get better. Teach your clients that lesson early and often, let that confident transparency be what defines you as a professional, and the rest will take care of itself.


Is it ever OK to say ‘I don’t know’ to a client?Sean Low is the 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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