business advice | Apr 28, 2020 |
My clients expect me to be at their job site. What should I do?

Dear Sean,

I’m an interior designer in a state where construction is still going. We’ve closed our office and our team is all working remotely, but because the tradesmen working on some of our new-build projects are still on-site, one of our clients fully expects us to be there too. I personally don’t feel comfortable with this—and I can’t imagine asking my team to head to a job site either—but the client is insistent that collaboration via video calls is unsatisfactory. Our pipeline of new leads has slowed considerably in the past month, so I need to protect the work I have. What should I do?

Safety First

Dear Safety,

Let’s geek out here for a few minutes on law and economics. (A global pandemic is an intellectual fantasy scenario for both of these disciplines.)

In his 1960 paper “The Problem of Social Cost,” British economist Roald Coase wrote about the right of one actor to inflict an externality on another (i.e., when interacting with them or their agent might cause you harm that they do not necessarily have to pay for). Today, Coase would say that the coronavirus is a situation in which only the government can be the arbiter of the right course of action; in his view, the market would not be able to internalize any actor’s cause of externality (i.e., what you should have to pay to interact with someone to compensate for their risk in that interaction).

On the legal side, there is a concept called the “thin skull plaintiff” in tort law that says you have to take people as they are. For example, if you are walking down the street and bump into someone and cause them to fall—although 99.9 percent of people would come to no significant harm, if the one that you bumped into had a thin skull and therefore incurred massive injury or death, then you are liable for that damage.

What do these concepts mean for you? You are the thin skull plaintiff here, which means that your client cannot efficiently internalize the externality she is causing by having you appear at the job site. In other words, you must explain the cost of showing up in person in a material way. What you don’t have to do is put yourself or your staff in harm’s way to satisfy your client.

To start, I would tell your client that if you and your team are to show up on-site, she must pay for all of the PPE required (a moral and ethical dilemma in its own right, given current shortages) and safety training on how to use it effectively. You should also convey that there will be an increased cost for each in-person visit due to the risk of infection (regardless of protocol) and reduced access to transportation.

If your client chooses not to pay for PPE or you cannot bring yourself to ask, then you’re in a situation where they are getting less than they bargained for. After all, they originally hired you to supervise the work. You cannot ignore that reality because of the coronavirus. One answer to that dilemma could be the following: You offer to pay for (virtual) training in the use of increased technology at the site—tools like better lighting and 360-degree video cameras to dramatically improve the quality of information and images you are getting. (My guess is that you know photographers that can help you with the training; we are talking about $1,500 in equipment costs, if that.) Of course, your client may still say that your presence is the only acceptable option—and so be it. That will be their choice, and you need to be able to walk away if they are forcing you to go where you are not comfortable.

The decisions we’re facing now aren’t easy for anyone—you, your employees or your client. The point is to honor the reality of the situation and act accordingly to reach the best, though imperfect, result for everyone. Who knows—if your client does accept the improved technology route, you might be able to have a deeper conversation about the design by reviewing the video or images instead of having to react on the fly on-site.

More than ever, we are confronted with the need to find new ways to solve problems; it will require you to suspend judgment as you lay out acceptable boundaries moving forward. No matter what, martyrdom is not sustainable—nor is shoulda-woulda-coulda. No one gets to tell you what you would, could or should do as an artist and creative business owner, pandemic or not.


Sean LowSean 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.

Homepage photo: Shutterstock.com

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