business advice | Dec 26, 2019 |
My demanding client wants me to work on vacation. How do I set boundaries?

Dear Sean,

I have been working on a terrific new construction project for the past 18 months. One of my area’s best architects referred me for the job, and we have been doing our best to handle a client who is difficult, to say the least. To keep things going, we have established a weekly Zoom call where we go over everything—in excruciating detail. I am a stickler for time and have tried my best to keep us on track, but things are constantly getting pushed. I have been frustrated by the fact that I find myself having to do the architect’s decision-making job more often than not. Now, I am being asked to participate in the weekly call while on my annual two-week end-of-year vacation (that all parties have known about all year). I very much value the project, but am feeling increasingly out of control. What do I do?

Holiday Headaches

Dear Holiday Headaches,

As for the first question about having to push architectural decisions along, let me offer a parable. If, say, you are the parent who insists on having your children eat “real” food before any kind of dessert, and your partner is determined to be the favorite by letting the kids eat whatever they want (i.e., some form of sugar) whenever they want, you are going to be the bad guy. In addition to being the bad guy, you are also going to be triangulated against your partner as not being on your kids' side. And yet you know better and stand your ground despite the opposition. No one is going to give you a hug for making them eat vegetables, but you know it is about doing the right thing and sticking to it.

The architect is giving far too much power to your client, so you are going to be the bad guy here. Remember, all you sell is time, and there are delays because professionals are allowing the client to control the process. You simply need to stick to your knitting and know that you are the proverbial grown-up in the room. You might also pull the architect or their boss aside and let them know that just doing what the client wants is actually unprofessional. If they are paid to express an opinion (and they are), then being indifferent to the choice is both cowardly and unproductive. It also makes you look boorish when you express yours.

I am fully aware that you might get bitten by the client and architect because you stand for the integrity of your process. Some things just have to be worth fighting for, and this is just such a thing.

Related to this power struggle is the idea that you should make yourself available to the project when everyone knew you were not going to be. Yes, technology makes your participation possible regardless of where you are in the world. That is so not the point. You are not available.

This is where I want to point out how intention and intuition can be completely off. Most designers would think the following: “If I make myself available when my client knows I am not, she will know how committed I am to the project and will really respect me when I ask her to make decisions (and write checks) when I need her to.” Here is what actually happens: The client does nothing of the sort—and instead doubles down on the frustrating cycle of refusing to make decisions and slowing the project down even further.

Back to the parable. If your kids throw a massive tantrum because you refuse to let them have candy canes until they eat some vegetables and you ultimately relent, then you have taught them to throw ever-louder tantrums to get what they want. The same goes here. If the client insists on your being available when you are not and raises the volume (through threats, guilting or both) and you acquiesce, the client knows you will break your process for them. Of course, this is made triply worse if the architect with no backbone acquiesces first. And if you are willing to break your process, you do not have one. Period.

Difficult situations force us to shore up our integrity, and often being the professional in the room is thankless. You might be asked off the project and that is certainly your client’s right. Then again, you can know that your voice matters. Making sure you have permission to express yourself to ensure the best chance of the project’s success is foundational. Not only can you not participate in the call while you are away, but you must not. Rest and restoration is necessary and just as critical to your work as diligence. Professionals understand context and nuance; amateurs say the client is always right. When your kids grow up healthy and strong because of your unwillingness to indulge in, well, indulgence, that will be your reward. When the finished project is remarkable, let that be enough.


After a 30-year career, do I still need to belong to a professional association?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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