business advice | Sep 15, 2020 |
My client’s irrational demands could ruin a multiyear project right before it’s done

Dear Sean,

I need some advice for dealing with a difficult client. For background, I worked with her on her last home, and we’ve been working together again for the past several years on a custom new build. Though in many ways a great client, she tends to get caught up in every little detail without seeing the big picture. So for this project, I made sure we went to showrooms together—she has seen and approved every last thing in person. Yet as we near completion, there have been constant meltdowns. Here’s the latest: In an email last week, she let me know that she no longer likes the custom sofa we designed and wants to see how the showroom can “make it right.”

She saw the exact sofa in person last year—sat on it, loved it and approved it. She then approved the proposal from the vendor, as well as the upholstery vendor. She received exactly what she approved and now she doesn’t like it. It’s not rational to expect someone else to foot the bill for changing her mind—and yet she followed up the next day to see whether the vendor would replace her sofa with a different model, which she now prefers.

I thought we did everything right to avoid exactly what is happening now, but it seems it wasn’t enough. I’ve even shown her photos of her sitting in the model to remind her that she loved this piece at the showroom, but it’s no use—she’s demanding a replacement at no additional cost.

Several designer friends have urged me to sever ties, but I’ve put many years into this project and want to see it through to the end—it is going to be beautiful. That said, my team and I are exhausted from constantly waiting for the next conflict. I want to move forward, but I feel like if we do, she needs to understand how she affects everyone who is working so hard to please her. We have to set boundaries. How would you approach this conversation?

Drained by Demands

Dear Drained,

For designers, sunk costs are as much about emotion as money, labor and materials. A metaphor that helps illustrate this point: If you’ve already invested $100 in the house and will spend another $50 to finish it, but the house will only be worth $75 when you are done, should you finish the house? Some will say no—that’s a $175 investment for something that will only be worth $75. Wrong thinking. The value of spending $100 to get to the place where you only have to spend $50 more is $0. The only thing that matters is moving forward, meaning investing $50 to get $75. So, of course, you should finish. The ethos of sunk cost being what got you here does not matter when you think about what will get you there.

Another more esoteric example: If you are deciding whether to jump out of a plane for the 16th time, how important is it that you remember what it was like to jump out for the first time, the sixth, the eighth? Not nearly as important as what it felt like when you jumped the 15th time. You have to be where you are.

Now apply the above to your situation. There is no value in all that has come before, and it has no bearing on how things will turn out in the end. Your client is misbehaving badly, showing tremendous disrespect to you, your staff and your production partners. She is acting as a child being told that she actually has to eat what she ordered at the restaurant despite the fact that she saw something more appetizing come out in the interim. Life does not work that way. Respect is honoring the decision made. By your own account, she knew exactly what she bought. She owns it, end of story. And as much as we all want to believe in the power of our work, there is nothing stopping any client from tossing everything you have done the second after you leave. (To understand my point, just have a quick read of the story of Graham Sutherland’s portrait of Winston Churchill, which Churchill loathed so much that his wife later burned it.)

Putting it all together: Your decision to value sunk costs got you here as much as your client’s disrespect did. You are far beyond the place of any reasonable negotiation, and your client will never let you finish as you intend, unless you very clearly lay out what will be necessary for you to finish as intended. This means no conversation or consideration of all that has come before—simply a statement of, “We are here now, and this is what it will take for us to get to the end.” Her response must be either yes or no: Yes means you will finish the project on the terms you prescribed; no means you are done.

The idea that you will work it out and your client will love the project in the end shouldn’t be what guides you here. Your client’s emotional response to your terms to finish will not be well received. After all, Veruca Salt would never thank her father for limits—why would you expect your client to? The question is the integrity and sanctity of your art, your employees, your partners and yourself, not the appreciation of an ungrateful client. Your job is to be the professional in the room and operate from respect of the process you designed to do your very best work. Either you get permission to do that or you do not. Ignore sunk costs and do what is right for all involved.


My client’s irrational demands could ruin a multiyear project right before it’s doneSean 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.

Homepage photo: Shutterstock

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