business advice | Jan 7, 2020 |
One client is bad-mouthing me to another. How do I make a clean break?

Dear Sean,

I’ve been an interior designer for over 18 years and have come across many situations and challenges in this line of work, but none like the one I’m currently facing. I’m hoping you can shed some light on how to manage this. Bear with me as I try to paint the picture for you.

I took on a new client last year and designed and renovated the first floor of her historic home, which ended up being featured on a house tour and was published both locally and nationally. It was the first time this client had used an interior designer, so I spent quite a bit of time up front educating her on the process, setting expectations and helping her determine her budget, and it paid off. We had a wonderful collaboration and she frequently expressed how thrilled she was with the process and end result. We stayed in contact and she eventually became part of the same social circle I spend time in. She just hired me to redesign her second floor and I’m currently working on the design schematics for the presentation I will do for her next week. For the sake of clarity, I will call this person Client A.

Several months ago, I was hired by a couple in our mutual social circle who needed help downsizing to a condo, designing around new and existing furniture and a large art collection. I interfaced mostly with one partner in the couple, whom I’ll call Client B. I normally would not have taken on this type of project as the budget was very small, but agreed because these were friends. As they say, no good deed goes unpunished.

In the beginning, everything seemed to be going well. Client B was thrilled with the floor plan and overall design, and loved the items I sourced and bought. To implement the design, I brought in electricians, painters, a handyman, a closet organizer, a picture hanger and a seamstress. I managed and coordinated almost all the tradespeople, who did their jobs in a timely and professional manner. However, Client B seemed to have an issue and negative comment about each one, regardless of how well they did their respective jobs; many of the comments were petty and had more to do with someone’s appearance or the volume of their voice, rather than with the quality of their work. I did my best to redirect Client B’s focus toward how well and quickly the trades performed.

I was concerned about Client B’s bad-mouthing, but the biggest red flag was when she began asking a lot of personal questions about Client A—wanting to know about her budget, temperament and romantic relationship. I, of course, told Client B that I keep all clients’ personal information confidential, including her own, and considered that an important value to uphold in my business. She seemed angry that I would not indulge her need for gossip, and I left our interaction that day feeling very uncomfortable, but said that I would be back in touch regarding next steps for her project after the holidays.

Fast-forward to this past week, when I was sitting next to Client B at a social dinner. We exchanged some small talk, and then she said to me, and I quote: “Oh, I ran into [Client A] a few days ago and she said that you were driving her crazy.” I was confused, as I had not yet started working on the new project with Client A, so I asked Client B what she meant. She mumbled something about me making Client A wait, and then said, “I told her you were doing that on purpose to drive her crazy.” Shocked, I asked what she believed I was doing on purpose. It seemed like she was accusing me of acting unprofessionally with Client A, but was not clear about how. Client B never really answered my question, so I calmly told her that I had always had good communication and an excellent working relationship with Client A, and I was looking forward to the new project. Client B just laughed, turned away and proceeded to talk to the rest of the table about other topics.

I left that evening completely shaken and concerned about what Client B was saying about me, not only to Client A, but to the rest of her social circle. My business is almost all referral-based, and I’m worried Client B will tarnish my reputation, affect my future business, and most importantly, infect my upcoming project with Client A.

I’m inclined to terminate my relationship with Client B and want to make sure I preserve the strong relationship I had heretofore with Client A, but I’m extremely concerned that Client B will continue to try to make unsubstantiated negative comments about me to Client A, which will affect the project as well as our relationship. I’m at a loss as to how to handle this, and would greatly appreciate any direction you can give me.

Seeking the High Road

Dear High Road,

I have discussed what happens when referrals go bad. Though Client A may not have referred Client B, the fact that they travel in the same social circle means that the premise is the same here: Your core client is your client, and you must not assume that the characteristics that make her wonderful will translate to her friend.

However, there is another layer that is important to address. Toxicity abounds, and if you are affected, you must act accordingly. My advice is rather straightforward: You must fire Client B and contact Client A to reaffirm why your relationship exists as it does. What you must never do is play telephone and ask Client A why she is frustrated (i.e., “going crazy”) with your delay, or to explain why she should not be frustrated with you. The whole point about toxic people (as Client B most certainly is) is that their agenda is to spread their toxicity like a virus. To quote the movie WarGames, “The only winning move is not to play.”

Your work is inherently idiosyncratic, and you rely on your process and partners to ensure the best result. If this means you calendar projects to give you and your team time to do your work, then those who care will wait. Your promise is simple: “I only take on what I can and you will absolutely receive the level of attention and care your project deserves.” Presuming that this level of work is enough for you financially and creatively, no one has the right to judge.

Another thing that is important to remember here: Context is everything. Having to wait can indeed be frustrating and drive someone crazy—but that frustration does not necessarily have the negative connotation that you are jeopardizing the relationship. Quite the contrary, in fact!

Integrity happens when it is hard. When you are not very busy, giving Client A your undivided attention is relatively easy. Now that you have more work, reminding Client A that every project you undertake is paramount means she does not get to skip the line. Of course she does not like it, but respect is not about that—it is about professionalism. In the end, your reputation is your choice: Either all clients are equally valuable to you, or they are not. If another client occupies your time, it is their time, end of story. Client A can wait, just like all your other clients whose projects you cannot undertake at the moment.

As for referrals and the power of Client B to effectively trash your reputation, consider the source. No doubt, having clients speak well of you is nice—and when they speak ill of you, it is not so nice. However, this is not high school and nice really has nothing to do with it. You want to be seen as a professional whose integrity is unshakeable. Use the opportunity Client B is providing to reiterate why and how you do what you do. As with all things, you are not for everyone; nor are your partners. Shun the non-believers, since they will never appreciate the idiosyncrasies that make you, your art and your design business one-of-a-kind.

But professionalism does not mean you have to absorb toxicity, which gives power to those who are unworthy of judgment. Live your own truth without apology. Wading in the mud to get to the shore only makes you dirty. Instead, go the other way.

Which brings me to the crux of my advice: Your work as a designer is to be judged by everyone—clients, partners, colleagues, even employees. In fact, it is to be judged deeply, to the point that your vulnerability will ultimately determine your success. The caveat, though, is that your willingness to be judged is your choice. Might I suggest that how and why you do what you do is unassailable, and that the only element worthy of judgment is whether or not you create a design that is transformative—that you “get it right.” The rest is simply what is necessary for you to deliver on your promise to only do your best.

If you live and work with your proverbial gloves up all the time, worrying about all of the awful thoughts that Client B can put out there, you will never give yourself permission to be truly vulnerable. Sadly, having a defense at the ready is self-limiting and robs us all of the grace and depth of feeling what you wish to create for your client. Great work demands that you communicate that you will be hurt if you are rejected. Clients must earn the right to access this creative vulnerability, and Client B most definitely has not. Explain this to Client A, as she most certainly has, and the rest will take care of itself.


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.

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