business advice | Mar 7, 2023 |
My big-spending client got cold feet. Is it unethical to hold them to the contract?

Dear Sean,

I signed a client who talked a big game about their budget and agreed to a project with a significant scope of work. Now they’ve got cold feet—not about me or my design work, but about spending that much cash in an uncertain economy. I get the sense that their investments took a hit in the recent market shift, and they’re not feeling as confident as they once were. I totally get it, but I’m also disappointed—I think the project will suffer if they’re not willing to execute it fully, and technically, their budget is clearly defined in our contract, but I also can’t in good conscience recommend that they go all out when their family’s finances aren’t rock solid. How should I respond?

Second Thoughts

Dear Second Thoughts,

I have three major points for you: First, the commitment to design a home with your guidance is a long-term investment. Second, you do what you do with what you need to do it. And third, no one needs what you do, and fear is irrational.

I understand that being affected by the market and losing value on investments is scary for your clients. That said, they are adults who made a decision about their home investment separate and apart from their market investments. The choice to make the home investment is a personal one, in that it is wholly unnecessary, except in the case of rebuilding after a destructive event (which I am sure is not the case here). An ugly-but-functional kitchen and dining room need not be changed—the only reason you exist in this context is because of the hope of change, and no market fluctuation will affect that.

The real question is whether your clients feel worthy of the investment they are about to make in themselves now that it is a larger portion of their assets than it was in the past six months. Instead of looking in their wallets, how about addressing the value of both the long-term change they seek and of what you are intending to provide? Those desires and your joint vision still exist and need to be honored for there to be any hope of success.

Beer budgets with champagne dreams do not work. You are in the value-maximization business, not the value-engineering business. If you believe you can cheapen your design to meet a production budget below what you need, you are, in fact, playing another designer’s game, and they are better at it than you. That does not honor you or, more importantly, your client. You built your business and your art to do what you most love to do. When you step outside of your lane without fully committing to the new lane, you belie all that you have built in your lane. Instead, leave more for less to others, and focus on the value you provide with the production budget you need to do what you do.

Last, you must know that the fear you feel today is illusory and wholly irrational. I am guessing your clients are of means and that those means are still substantial, market shift or not. So their feeling impoverished is momentary and likely not an accurate reflection of reality. If it is an accurate reality, you might ask yourself why they chose to embark on the project in the first place. But let’s assume the monies exist for you to create the transformation your clients seek. It is up to you to be the proverbial calm in the storm, to know that what you offer is far beyond the physical and lies in the power of change.

Yes, I am advising you to double down. Let go of the notion that your clients are going broke and respect the responsibility of sanctuary placed upon you. It is a fool’s errand to apply rational judgment to irrational emotion. What you offer a client is more than worth the price in the face of fear. Live there.

Homepage image: ©Lightfield Studios/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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