A few months ago, I landed what I thought were amazing clients—nice people with a beautiful home and realistic budget. They sailed through our intake process with nary a red flag and signed our contract. Now, we’re presenting to them room by room, and without fail, they are enthusiastic about the work but hesitant to execute all of it. It’s not that they want us to make revisions, it’s that they love it but are waffling on moving forward. They’ve also expressed some doubt that we’ll “get to” the full scope of work, which makes me think they plan to scale back the project.
I’ve missed the mark on presentations in the past, so I know what that feels like, but I’m truly not getting “I don’t like this” vibes from these clients. They also haven’t mentioned financial concerns, so I’m not sure what to make of their hesitation. Technically, they are contractually obligated to move forward with procurement for the scope of work outlined or compensate my firm with an established cancellation fee, but I’d much rather finish the project than shake my contract at them and walk away. What do I do next?
Coping With Cold Feet
“We are so excited to be upgrading our lives with a brand-new design. Just thinking about the possibilities makes us so happy. We know you will help us create a magical space.”
What do you and most designers think when you read this? For many, the response is, These clients are going to be awesome. You think they totally get what you are about. You think they implicitly trust you.
What you absolutely should be thinking is that they are terrified—of getting it wrong, of having to live in a space that really is not them, that you might not get it right. And telling them not to be scared is the surest way to make them stay scared. The way most designers tell clients not to be scared is by saying, “Trust me.”
There has to be an element of “trust me” somewhere in your presentation process, or you would not be in your current situation. How about acknowledging their fear by letting them know they are right: It might not work out, and there is no guarantee that your designs will give them the transformative experience they seek. But you are confident in your work and decisions, and your talent, wisdom and experience tells you that all is as it should be. In other words: “You have let us earn your trust so far, and while this is a bigger leap, we would like to continue earning it.”
I am happy to know that your contract protects you and that it is in their best interest to finish with your firm. I also agree that enforcing it and quitting is the very last resort. Instead, try to find out why they are not confident in their decisions. Have you given the idea that there might be more out there to see? That their budget is not as it should be, which implies that you’ve had to compromise? Basically, look for anything that would call into question the entire value of the endeavor.
The ultimate mistake is to bring the client closer to the Monet painting in order to convince them of the painting’s beauty. Instead, you must help them step back. This means working with them to understand the impact their decisions will have on their lives and what it will mean for them. You live in subjective value, but I suspect you have tried to convince your clients of objective value—some version of, “Look at what you get for $1,000.” It’s time to undo the effort.
You might think that your clients are investing in your firm and materials and labor, but they really are not. They are investing in themselves, with the hope of a better life. Might sound woo-woo, but it is a fundamental truth to design. Somewhere along the way, they lost this thread. You need to bring them back there so that they can let go of what was and allow you to take them into what will be. Do that by giving them confidence that their decisions are the right ones for them and them alone. Remind them of what they felt when they first saw your presentation, what they imagined for themselves. Then ask to make it real for them. The rest will hopefully take care of itself.
No matter what, you cannot force anyone to leap—it has to be their choice. The leap is scary, sure, but staying stuck is scarier still. Good luck.
Homepage photo: © Jacob Lund/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.