business advice | Feb 22, 2022 |
Is it just me, or is everyone getting ruder?

Dear Sean,

Maybe it is just the winter weather and all things COVID that are making everyone grumpy, but I am increasingly concerned by a growing lack of civility from my clients and production partners alike. Ghosting, outrageous demands and surliness seem to be the order of the day. It is entirely counterproductive, and I want to know if there is anything I can do to keep things moving forward effectively?

Miss Manners

Dear Miss Manners,

I’m so sorry to hear that you’ve been hit with ill-tempered clients and vendors. I think your instincts are right: As with all things, clarity and integrity will rule the day. But this moment is fraught with disconnects—perhaps most notably, clients do not understand (or appreciate) the difficulty supply chain issues present, let alone increased costs associated with almost everything. Couple that with the stresses of navigating the demands on production partners to deliver for designers and clients alike and you have a recipe for some very short fuses.

I have said it so many times, but it’s more true than ever: Intention of purpose and commitment to diligence will yield honest and candid communication. Much more important, living to the specifics of purpose and process is required of you and your team, every day and in every communication. The three Ws are your solace—the ability to say where you were, where you are and where you are going throughout the course of a project—is the very definition of control, and a pillar of clarity for all involved.

It is about conducting a project with dignity and respect, and it begins with you and your firm.

For far too long, designers have been asked to compromise in the name of finishing a project, getting published, or any manner of things other than just doing the work. It needs to be left behind—and to leave it behind, let the bad reactions you’re facing be as they will, so long as there is no ulterior motive or agenda. Do great work because you can and know what it will take to do just that.

Then, forgive yourself your previous failings, even with a current client. If a pet continues to misbehave, it does not mean that you must accept the behavior going forward. Integrity matters because it is hard. No matter how friendly you might be, you are nobody’s friend. You are to fulfill your role as someone capable of transformation and deeply affecting the lives of those you seek to serve.

The design business, as with all creative businesses, is different from other kinds of business ventures. There is no guarantee of success—only the manifestation of an idea, a vision of what could be. If there were certainty, there would only be a product, not the creation of what has never been. It does not matter that you and your firm have been down the path hundreds of times; you have never been down the path with this client, on this project. As such, you get paid because it might not work, and when it does, it is a revelation.

Your process demands uncertainty, the edge of discomfort and the resolution of distrust. When we are exposed—as we have all been in these times—now is your opportunity to double down on the why and how of what you do. Own your purpose and let the rest fall away.

Last, please be intolerant of those who refuse civility and dignity. Compromise is the ultimate cop-out if it justifies abuse of the soul of your work. You are the only designer in the room and that can never be forsaken.

Rough times lie ahead, but if you know where your feet are and where they are headed, others will follow. Be tolerant of fools at your own peril—no matter the size of the project, or its accompanying bank account. It will not be easy to own your voice without compromise, but it is what is required today. We can all hope civility will return when things return to “normal,” whatever that may look like, but your demands of dignity, respect and candor will carry the day in the meantime.

Homepage image: ©Michalz86/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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