business advice | May 26, 2020 |
The pandemic has turned my top clients into nightmares. How do I reset our dynamic?

Dear Sean,

Sheltering in place has transformed my once-chill clients into needy, demanding monsters. They text and call incessantly, expecting an immediate response—and often an immediate solution to their problems. I’ve tried to explain that we are full steam ahead and working hard on their projects, but that the reality is that many of our vendors have been shut down and timelines have had to adjust accordingly. I’ve even offered to find replacement items that might be more readily available where possible. None of this placates them.

These are wonderful people I’ve been grateful to work with for years. I’ve tried to be understanding and recognize that this pandemic is making us all a little nuts—that we’re all searching for things we can control these days, and that our homes feel more essential than ever. But at this point, it’s maddening. How do I reestablish boundaries and mutual respect?

Searching for Sanity

Dear Searching,

The one thing we can count on today is the certainty of uncertainty. The coronavirus pandemic has pushed all of us to the proverbial edge, and the emotions involved in each and every interaction take their own toll. This past weekend was Memorial Day, where we usually take a moment to invite summer in and remember our fallen heroes. For some, celebrations went on without thought of the coronavirus; other events were more muted, if not canceled altogether. Of course, we can all try to be safe and respectful, but no one really knows what that means exactly.

In this tenuous climate, along come your clients with their projects in midstream, not knowing if or when they will get to enjoy the fruits of their journey with you. It is, of course, important that you set boundaries of what behavior you will and will not accept, and what is and is not possible with respect to their project. However, what you must first do is take a moment to allow the situation to be what it is: emotional, irrational, exhausting, terrifying, depleting, depressing, simultaneously hopeless and hopeful.

This is stillness, which has nothing to do with doing nothing. It means being present to what is right in front of you. The more still you can be, the more resilient and convicted you will become. You are not there yet. Here is why: You say you are full steam ahead but your production partners have thrown things into disarray and the idea of replacing items is fraught with its own uncertainty. That is gobbledygook. Working hard on what? You’re clearly not full steam ahead, since you cannot be. Sitting in the driver’s seat when the car is out of gas does not mean you are driving.

Instead, why not practice knowing the fear and panic your clients are clearly feeling (as we all are)? Rather than responding with “Don’t worry,” try “Here is where we are.” How about you come up with reporting what matters to you and therefore your clients? It can be timelines for delivery, possible alternatives and ultimate delivery dates. You can prepare the report, put it online and let your clients know exactly when and how often you will be updating it (e.g., every Tuesday and Friday at 9 a.m.), then have a standing call to go over the report as you see fit. And why not start the interaction with some sort of mantra: “Glad to be here,” à la Blue Angels, or simply “Here we are, now let’s talk about the next thing.” The idea is to reframe the dialogue from “Don’t worry, we got this”—which you most certainly do not—to “We are going to figure this out the best we can, together.”

The point of your new dynamic with your clients is to simultaneously be human and own your own humanity. The former is to have your client feel the people within your organization working on their behalf; the latter requires humility, courage, empathy and faith. From there, you will be able to hold the tension with and for your clients. You will then be able to work toward an answer rather than be expected to have one when none exists. Give up the delusion that you are capable of resolving their very human reaction to tragedy. Instead, find purpose in stillness and allow your clients to let go of an uncertain future in their own time.


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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