business advice | Nov 16, 2021 |
My clients are anxious about my much-needed holiday vacation. How do I calm their nerves?

Dear Sean,

With the holidays coming up, I am feeling exhausted and am hoping to take some much-needed time off. However, whenever I even hint to clients that I intend to take a vacation for most of December, I am met with panic and sometimes even anger. I do not want to let anyone down, but I really need a break. How can I accomplish that without totally alienating my clients?

Burned Out

Dear Burned Out,

There is no question that the overwhelming stress of COVID and its effects, supply chain issues, and the deep desire for home to be a safe haven has created a new (and, I dare say, permanent) shift in the client-designer relationship. The purpose and meaning of your work has exploded, as has the inherent difficulty in manifesting your work. Clients want more, and you must be able to deliver.

All of that said, you are a human being and rest matters. (Think of it this way: You would not leave your computers in the rain and expect them to run well.) What is between your ears is the single-biggest asset your firm has, bar none—which makes letting it run into the ground a fool’s errand. Your clients will be much better served if you do take time away, during which you will not only recharge but find inspiration and perhaps even renewed hope, if given a chance to rest.

So how to deal with clients who are worried that your absence will disrupt their project? This may not be the advice you wish to hear, but allow them their worry. Of course, map out the plan for them—let them know where you are with their project and the upcoming schedule. In other words, lay out your promises—how and when you intend to keep them—and let that be enough.

What you should not do is tell clients that you will be available if anything comes up during your time off. You cannot and will not. Rest is rest, and if all that you are doing is changing scenery, you will not find the rejuvenation you seek. When you are gone, be gone.

There is another overarching lesson here. Presuming you have employees or independent contractors, I would question how you set up your business so that you’re the final backstop no matter what. The idea that only you are able to ultimately solve any problem is an exercise in ego. You should have support staff around you because they are the best at what they do, not just because of their talent but because of their frequency of activity. The notion that you would answer a question better suited to another member of your team is something I would ask you to reconsider.

The only part of your business that cannot be levered (meaning that you alone have to undertake it) should be the initial phase of design, where ideas are generated and the vision comes into focus. This stage is where all trust is built and is the bedrock of your relationship with your client. If you have a project that is about to start, but the initial phase cannot be completed before your time away, do not start. Other than projects at this stage, you should be able to either assign the work or say it will wait until you are back.

Nobody will remember a delay when the work is remarkable. On the other hand, everyone will crucify you for doing less than your best. You can pretend that self-sacrifice is a symbol of dedication and desire. The thing about martyrs is that in the end, they’re all dead. The idea that you aim to satisfy everyone is a nonstarter. Someone will be disappointed. Let that be. The real question is whom you ultimately cannot disappoint. If you intend to move forward, know that that person is and will always be you. Enjoy your well-earned time away.

Homepage photo: © Aanbetta/Adobe Stock

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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.

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