business advice | Sep 11, 2018 |
My clients are out-shopping me!

Dear Sean,

After my presentation, my clients proceed to take all of my item selections and shop them. They then show me either where they can get the pieces for less or provide me with similar items that, they claim, are “just like” what I showed them. As if that were not infuriating enough, these are the items that cause me the biggest grief when it comes to installation, since, most often, they are just wrong or of inferior quality, which I have to fix. How do I prevent my clients from out-shopping me? How do I tell them that they are on their own if they do?


Dear Out-shopped:

I feel for you. The digital marketplace has turned every client, seemingly, into a savvy shopper. But you can tackle this problem by omitting the prices.

Hear me out: The solution is to present to clients that they are not paying for item selection but, rather, the overall vision. I’d even go so far as to say that line-item prices are irrelevant to the conversation—presuming you have met a client’s overall budget. Of course, you have to specify what you are including in the design—but by not including item prices, you go a long way to stop the shopping. Instead, clients will have to focus on whether or not the design does what you both want it to.

It’s a more serious issue when clients offer substitutes that are not related to price. In that case, they are revising your design and marginalizing your vision. Allowing this to happen wholly diminishes your role as designer and puts you in the place of having to acquiesce to a working environment you may not enjoy.

If this line is not already in your contract, it needs to be: “No substitutions permitted once overall design is approved. If an item is not acceptable to client, designer, in her sole discretion, may choose to provide an alternative to said item or terminate this agreement with no further obligation to client.” Sounds harsh, but you are the designer and you have to have control of your work.

For installing items not of your choosing, let clients know that you will be charging a premium percentage to manage these items. Why? Because you will likely have to do more to make sure these items work with your design and to ensure quality. Without line item pricing and having the knowledge that forcing these items’ inclusion in your design will render your services more expensive, clients will likely think twice before they second-guess—or try to comparison shop—your design selections.

It boils down to changing the conversation. You are not a stylist—you are designer. Your role is to create transformative environments within an agreed-upon budget. Once you meet that goal, your job is done. By stressing the value of your work and enforcing this pricing structure, you will likely stop line-item conversations and enjoy the freedom to produce your projects on your terms.


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 EAL COLUMN, 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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