I have a wishy-washy client and I’m at my wits’ end. When I present something, they love it. Three days later, I get a text that they’re not sure and they’d like to see more options. When I pull more options, they pick one, then change their mind frequently in the following days. Sometimes they land on one product eventually—but other times they ask for more options yet again! If it happened once, I could live with it—but this has become a trend for every single room we approach. How do I put a stop to this before I go mad?
Stuck on the Fence
Dear Stuck on the Fence,
Before I offer my thoughts, a few assumptions: First, you are a presenter, meaning you show your client your design (for the entire project or one phase at a time) in the hopes that they will sign off. Second, this project is typical of your work in size, scope and budget, and you are an established designer with a good reputation.
Given these conditions, I would guess that your business is literally competing with you, and creating the very wishy-washy client that stands before you, no less. Perhaps you charge hourly for design work, a nominal fee for your creative vision (with most of your profits earned via commissions on purchases), or even a flat fee—what you are not doing is setting up a mechanism that defines the value of your presentation. By that, I mean you have not established the transition from idea to design in your business.
When you are in the idea stage, your client has a voice (i.e.: “I like purple sofas but not blue ones”). But once you reach the design stage, they do not—they only get to say yes or no and pay you money. If I could impart on you (and all designers, for that matter) one axiom, it would be this:
DESIGN = DECISION = MONEY
However you get to design is up to you as a designer, but get there you must. You are experiencing the hard truth that if the transition from idea to design is messy, designers are in a world of pain.
The reason the idea/design transition is so important is that time is your single biggest risk as a designer. If you do not have a mechanism to control time (i.e.: “Here is your design—yes or no? Yes means we keep going and no means we stop”), you risk losing control. This goes back to your business model, and making sure that you are truly getting paid for the value of creation. If you are charging hourly for design, you are literally telling your client to be wishy-washy—the more wishy-washy they are, the more time it will take and the more money you will earn. If your cost to design is nominal relative to your fees on the entire project, you are also literally telling your client that design does not matter—or at the very least, that it isn’t the most important thing they have hired you to do. If getting you to pull other options makes rational economic sense, why wouldn’t they ask you to show them more?
You might flex your designer muscle and say that most of your clients love what you show them and that this client is the outlier. You could chalk it up to a bad fit and go on without changing. But trust me: This client isn’t the only outlier, and this isn’t a problem that’s going to go away. Your business model matters—and if it is not aligned with the truth of your design process, you are in a heap of trouble.
The truth is that you care about your opinion—and that’s a good thing. For presenters like you, showing more options is, by definition, moving down a preference chart. Will you really be happy having your fourth, fifth or tenth choices in your client’s space?
Of course, it’s too late to go back and rearrange your contract for this client; sadly, they will not enjoy the benefit of your new business model, which will truly value your creative work. But there’s still time to show this client what you care so deeply about. If you believe in the options you have shown, defend them and then be willing to walk away. Integrity is being capable of doing the hard thing. No, you do not want to fire your client—but it is your art, your vision, and your client needs to know that you will walk rather than endure substandard work. Your client will likely come back to the idea that they are paying you to do your best work, and that their indecision is jeopardizing that ability. They will then get out of your way. If that can happen, the rest will take care of itself.
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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