trade tales | Jan 18, 2019 |
The secret to fixing a strained client/designer relationship

When it comes to her interior design business, Pamela Harvey sticks to the “four P’s” of business etiquette: Be professional, positive and polite, and persevere. But as any designer can attest, not all clients are a breeze to work with. Dealing with a client who’s interested in out-shopping the product assortment or undercutting your selections is frustrating—not to mention those who rebuff the pricing once the project is complete. Before considering whether it’s time to fire a client, take the advice of Harvey and interior designer Annie Elliott on how to best deal with trying personalities.

Pamela Harvey
Pamela HarveyCourtesy of Pamela Harvey Interior Design

“Managing close professional relationships when you are working in someone’s private home is perhaps the most difficult part of a designer's job, especially in larger-scale projects that take more than a year to complete. I always find the first step in a successful relationship is good communication—understanding the client’s expectations and communicating your process.

“If a client suddenly becomes difficult, as we recently experienced with a long-term, repeat client who out of the blue started sending negative emails, I’d suggest meeting with him or her to get to the bottom of the issue. In the case of our difficult client, there were other things going on in the person’s life that had nothing to do with design. But to relieve any tension between my team and the client, I opted to be the only one who communicated with the client, ‘staying the course,’ while incorporating my ‘four P’s’ of business. Soon after, the client apologized, even thanking my team and me for staying on the project.” —Pamela Harvey is the owner of Pamela Harvey Interior Design in Washington, D.C., St. Petersburg, Florida, and northern Virginia.

Annie Elliott
Annie ElliottCourtesy of Annie Elliott

“I hate to admit it, but if I’m finding a client difficult, chances are I haven’t communicated something effectively. If they’re dragging their feet on approving merchandise, for example, maybe I haven’t made it clear that unless we place orders by a certain date, we’ll miss the installation deadline.

“If a client keeps questioning your recommendations, my advice is to hold firm. In the past, if a client said, ‘Well, you found this sofa, but can we use this one instead?’ I’d tie myself in knots trying to accommodate them. Today, I’m comfortable explaining why my original recommendation is the best option for our design plan—the scale works, the style is consistent, the quality is top-notch, etc. And you know what? They usually get it!

“When all else fails, try humor. The designer/client relationship is a close one; a little ribbing can lighten the mood and make your clients—even the most difficult ones—chuckle.” —Annie Elliott is the owner of Bossy Color Interior Design Services in Washington, D.C.

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