business advice | Aug 14, 2018 |
My clients are too slow. How can I speed up their decision-making?

I know we're in the midst of the dog days of summer, but it seems like every client of mine is moving like molasses! Its taking certain clients weeks to respond to simple email requests—and forget about making larger, more expensive decisions. What can I do to prevent delays in client communication and encourage a faster response?

The Tortoise and the Hare

Dear Hare,
You can have the most well-written contract in the world with strict penalties for not adhering to your timelines for projects, but the real question is: Will you enforce them? Make no mistake, delays that you did not cause cost you money. Such delays require more than just extending time to complete the project; delays also disrupt the flow that you have developed as a designer.

In talking about this topic with interior designers, including Gulf Coast–based Cheryl Kees Clendenon of In Detail Interiors, who initially drew this issue to my attention, it’s clear this is a huge problem. Designers do not hear from a client, so they just move on to other projects, and then have to reboot when the client in question does finally respond.

The answer is never easy, as you wish to be respectful of clients’ lives but also value your business and your time. I would suggest using three levels for decisions: Let’s call them green, yellow and red.

My clients are too slow. How can I speed up their decision-making?Red decisions (fixtures and other hard goods come to mind) are mission critical. You need to be willing to walk away in the event of such a delay.

Green decisions are those that require input but are not critical to the project’s progress, such as accessories or ancillary items in less-important spaces. For these, you might suggest a deadline by which you will need decisions to be made. If that date is not reached, then there can be a decision-making window. If the client does not make that window, the decision will be made for her.

Yellow decisions are those that require attention but will not materially delay a project, like longer-lead decorative items. Again, a window can be established for a decision to be made with the specific understanding that if the deadline is not met and delays are caused in ultimate installation, a set day rate will be implemented for each day of delay.

Red decisions (fixtures and other hard goods come to mind) are mission critical and should be laid out in as draconian terms as possible. If decisions are not made on these items, drastic measures should be agreed to, in advance. Such measures can include termination, as well as exponentially increased fees. Most likely, you have not been given the funds to purchase these items yet—or will not be responsible for purchasing them—so forcing the decision will not work. You need to be willing to walk away in the event of such a delay.

A client may choose to not respect your process and your time. But if, at the outset, you lay out the degrees of pain you will endure at their hand, you will be in a far better position to enforce your process than if you were to treat all delays equally.

No matter what, this issue is about communication and respect. The boundaries you set will determine your own sanity and the success of the project, even in the dog days of summer.


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

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