business advice | May 2, 2023 |
My clients are fuming over damaged product, but it’s not my fault. Help!

Dear Sean,

It’s no secret that more products are coming in incorrect or damaged these days. I’ve tried to adjust my team structure to address these issues—we’ve even hired a project manager to monitor our orders and troubleshoot the procurement and delivery process. What I’m struggling with the most is managing the clients themselves.

I’m very honest during the onboarding process—I think it’s important to be frank about what could go wrong, and I explain the range of solutions my team will be able to offer. I am also upfront in acknowledging that no matter what we do, some damages may delay a project’s timeline. But clients still tend to be incredulous when these issues come up, despite the advance warning about their inevitability. If the issue has anything to do with Covid or supply chain challenges, they get even more upset, insisting that those factors should no longer matter.

Is there a better way to manage client expectations around product damages and delays? I thought I was doing the right thing by offering a reality check without being too doom-and-gloom, but it doesn’t feel like it’s working. What am I doing wrong?

Anger Management

Dear Anger Management,

Imagine trying to explain Einstein’s theory of relativity to me while wearing Groucho glasses with the big nose and fake mustache. No matter how clear your communication, or how profound your understanding of the concept, I probably would not be able to focus on your message. The glasses would distract me and make me question your identity—a serious physicist and teacher, or just someone who likes to poke fun at serious physicists and teachers while being serious?

If a product comes damaged or is late due to Covid or supply chain issues, the real question is: What is your relationship to that product? Your identity here matters. If you are a retailer, of course you are responsible for fixing the issue at your own expense. However, if you are a procurement agent only, you cannot bear the risk of delivery and you therefore need to be paid to solve the issue no matter the cause. The fact that this line is blurry for you is at the root of the problem.

I have no doubt that you are charging your clients a markup as part of your compensation. Perhaps there are other fees too—hourly, flat or otherwise. But nowhere in any part of your business is an explanation of what that markup represents. Given its size (I’m assuming it’s a significant part of your revenue), it is hard for anyone to understand what your markup represents, or that it is what is necessary to produce your design. In other words, there must appear to be more to it than just production (even if there is not).

Without this framework to help clients clearly understand your role and its value, you’re left with a client who thinks you’re a retailer, when you are actually an agent earning commission without risk of delivery. If you were a retailer, it would be your responsibility and liability to get it all right. As an agent, it is not. What’s more, you are likely absorbing all of the pain for the delay, save some small hourly compensation or other project management fees. Yes, you are literally paying for that client to be unhappy.

The way to manage expectations going forward is straightforward: Define your role as agent. Lose the Groucho glasses and quit pretending to be a retailer when you are not. Start with the term “markup.” Unless you are retailing, call it a “commission” and explain what that means. Not only does it mean that you are not responsible for the quality of product or delivery, you are also not responsible for what it takes to fix it, other than in the role of agent.

A final point. Hard truths no matter how well-delivered can be upsetting. When a potential project that you covet does not come your way, I presume you would be rightfully disappointed. That response probably would not change your potential client’s mind. Bad news is bad news, and clients are entitled to their frustration and your empathy. What they are not entitled to is your integrity or your wallet. Do not ever confuse the two. The struggle is always worth the climb if your purpose and intention are defined every step of the way. Or you can rely on old tropes and pricing techniques that are long past their shelf life. Your choice.

Homepage image: Generated by Midjourney


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.

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