business advice | Nov 12, 2019 |
My client’s nightmare son is back with another project. How do I say no?

Dear Sean,

I have a lovely client that I’ve worked with for several projects. Several years ago, I also did a project for her son—and it was an awful experience from start to finish. When the project was over, I swore never to work with him again … though mostly I was just crossing my fingers that he’d never ask. But my client recently mentioned that her son and his wife have purchased a new vacation home and will likely be calling me soon. I didn’t know what to say. How do I get out of it without hurting my relationship with a client I adore?

Painted Into a Corner

Dear Painted Into a Corner,

Your client is your client—not your client’s son, friend, colleague, or really anyone else other than your client. You might think shared DNA means two people will be simpatico, but as anyone with a sibling will likely tell you, that just is not so. In order for you to transform a client’s life, they have to value what you do, and there must be an agreement that what matters to you matters to them, and vice-versa. Yet most designers persist in situations like these without asking the fundamental question: Are we a good fit?

Unfortunately, you have already learned this lesson—and painfully, no less. If the irascible client were not a beloved client’s son, you probably would not have taken on the work, and even if you had, you likely would not have finished the project. I absolutely understand the pressure you feel to “do right by your client” and fear that if you do not accommodate her son, you will lose her. But think of it this way, instead: If you take him on again, you will absolutely be hurting your relationship with her. Resentment runs deep, and boundaries are blurry. When this project goes south (and it will), human nature is such that you will blame your client—and she will blame you.

Ironically, the best way to avoid this situation is to say yes, but on your terms. To do so, you must first identify and acknowledge that one thing that matters most to you as a designer—what drives your outrageous promise and your outrageous demand. (I wrote about the importance of your process and “yes on your terms” thinking back in April, and my point still stands: You have to be willing to say, “I have thought about what you are asking of me and my firm, and even though it isn’t how we usually work, here is how we would consider taking on your project.”) Once you’ve identified the fundamental foundation of how your firm works, you can easily, gracefully sidestep anyone that does not value this path.

Too often we try to assuage the nonbelievers instead of actively dismissing them. I am certain you are guilty of this practice—and it is what has put you in this bind with your client. What you need to do is shift your thinking: The problem at hand is really about perspective, not the personal.

What I mean by that is, you can’t teach your client’s son to value what you do. On some level, people care about what they care about and do not care about what they do not care about—it’s a hardwired part of who they are. Think of it this way: Warren Buffett, one of the richest men in the world, could own any home he likes and drive any car on the planet—yet he has lived in the same house in Omaha for the past 60 years and drives a Cadillac. Convincing him to live in a $10 million home or drive a Bentley is not going to happen; similarly, your client’s son will never care about what you do as you need him to.

So to solve your dilemma, talk to your client about what you love most about the work you do for her—and more specifically, how she gives you the opportunity to do your best work. For instance, you might say that she makes effective decisions and trusts the process, which enables you to fulfill the promises you make (about what the room is going to feel like, for example, or what it will cost). Then explain that, despite how important it is for your success as a designer, you completely understand that other designers may not need the same things you do to accomplish their work. From there, you are in a position to help her understand that her son does not value what you do—and that is OK. You did not build your business for him; you built it for her.

What’s important is that you know what your client’s son needs—and then acknowledge that what he needs is something you cannot provide, because you don’t work that way. Instead, offer to help him find another designer. (After all, what is awful for you may be right up someone else’s alley.) If you own that you can work only with those who care in the same way that you do, it is easy to acknowledge the mismatch—and as a result, discover the match. If this is impossible after everything that’s happened, you may certainly simply say, “We are not a fit.”

Clarity of purpose and conviction of your own integrity forgives all those who do not live there and transforms the lives of those that do. Explain this to your client and the rest will take care of itself.


After a 30-year career, do I still need to belong to a professional association?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.

Homepage photo: Shutterstock.com

Want to stay informed? Sign up for our newsletter, which recaps the week’s stories, and get in-depth industry news and analysis each quarter by subscribing to our print magazine. Join BOH Insider for discounts, workshops and access to special events such as the Future of Home conference.