business advice | Jul 6, 2018 |
My client wants her money back—what now?

Dear Sean:

My client hired me to redo her living spaces and dining area. Even though she approved (and paid) for everything beforehand, she now hates everything I have done. She wants me to take everything back and return the entire fee. I have never had this happen to me before—usually it is an item or two, if anything—and do not know what to do.

Signed, Shell-Shocked

Dear Shell-Shocked:

No doubt, this is a mess. I’m assuming you, like most designers, received a sign-off on the purchase order, initialing the item and its corresponding spec sheet. You do this so that you know you will get paid for the item. Shockingly, not many designers get a sign-off on floor plan, color scheme or overall design, the way they do for the product list. Designers tend to verify the product but not the room scheme. It sounds like this is where you may have gone wrong.

Clearly, you cannot afford take back all of your work and repay your client. Not only is this an ineffective way to deal with the problem, it would be tantamount to you admitting that you got it all wrong. Your ability to sign and retain other clients—past, present and future—would be in serious jeopardy. Alternatively, telling your client to live with your work as is would anger her further. Furious clients have a megaphone today like no other time in history and you do not want her venom tainting your entire business. The path has to be in the middle and has to be an offer of what you are willing to do, along with a firm boundary as to what you are not.

When you establish that this was a miscommunication, demonstrate that you are working on improving your communication methodology, and acknowledge your willingness to improve your vision to make your client happy, you have touched on all three aspects of great client management: humility, integrity, and flexibility without compromise. The flip side of these are hubris, nontransparency and rigidity, all of which are driven by ego and will inevitably lead to a showdown you cannot afford to have with anyone, let alone your client.

You are permitted (and even required) to draw a boundary for yourself and your design business of how far you will go to fix this problem. Ego is not living up to the boundary (on either side), and if this is where you find yourself, ask what will make your design a better statement of your original vision.

Focus on the one or two elements that are the biggest source of the disconnect and look to replace or improve these elements to bring you closer to the original vision you both agreed upon. Consider: “I appreciate that the dining room reads cold and sterile to you as opposed to the modern and sleek look we were going for. Changing the chandelier will go a long way toward fixing that for you. I would like for you to truly enjoy my design and am willing to replace the chandelier at my expense.” Engaging in this effort lets your client feel heard and validated, and at the same time, doesn’t dismiss the value of your work.

Meeting in the middle gives you an opportunity to reaffirm your vision and the purpose of your work.


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 monthly Business Advice column for EAL, he answers designers’ most pressing business questions. Have a dilemma? Shoot us an email—and don’t worry, we will keep your details anonymous.

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