Last week I received an email with the subject line “SOS”. It was from a former consulting client who’s dealing with a very controlling client and needed a quick session to talk it out and find solutions. I scheduled a call with her for a few days later because I could hear in her email that this was an urgent situation.
On the day of the call I hopped on zoom expecting to see her smiling face. Instead, this designer (let’s call her Jane) looked drained and exhausted.
Jane is a very experienced designer (12 years in a busy residential market) and in our previous zoom calls it was always very clear to me that she’s not a pushover and doesn’t have issues with communication.
She ran through the series of ways in which this very manipulative client was battling to take control. Here are just a few of the complaints. Do any of these sound familiar?
- he tried to negotiate her fees before the contract was signed.
- he asked for several contract amendments before signing.
- he came to the onboarding meeting with samples of materials he had already chosen.
- he was was trying to open trade accounts at plumbing supply and tile manufacturers.
- he didn’t show up for design meetings but after his wife approved the design he would call Jane to veto anything that was too expensive.
This is a red flag client who will prioritize money over the design. They need to control the budget and that comes before anything else.
Most of us who have been designers for more than a minute have experienced some or all of this and IT IS EXHAUSTING.
Her experience started to feel like a drain on her enthusiasm. It’s hard to bounce back when red flags are all you see.
This is far from the only red flag client. I’ve listed 5 of my most dreaded but you can probably think of another few you’ve encountered.
🚩RED FLAG CLIENT 1: THE BOSS.
These are the clients who are in power positions at work. Sometimes they’re so conditioned to being in charge that they can’t let go of control.
I’ve had lots of clients who managed hundreds of employees and a few who managed thousands. They’re not going to be comfortable relinquishing control in any area of life.
There are almost always red flags from the beginning with this type of client. They aren’t being deceptive about who they are. They announce their dominance immediately.
These clients will not easily relinquish control. They can be terrifying to someone who’s been raised to be a people pleaser.
STEP ONE is instilling confidence in them. You have to earn their respect if you want them to back off. It starts with your business and your processes.
From day one you need to introduce your processes as air tight and non-negotiable. Explain your policies, payment schedules, meeting schedules and outline your workflow. Make it clear that you’re capable of handling the project and can be trusted to lead.
STEP TWO is to address bad behaviour (cancelled meeting, refusing to pay for additional revisions, etc) immediately. And always bring it back to policies. It’s harder to argue when it’s a business policy.
🚩RED FLAG CLIENT 2: THE PAINFULLY INDECISIVE.
This seems benign but it’s actually one of the most difficult clients. These are the biggest time wasters in your business. I told a story in this post about a former client who asked a waiter for his opinion on my design!
And it didn’t stop there. She also asked her mom, a few neighbours, her daughter and several friends.
You may not become aware of this indecision until after the concept or first design presentation. There’s not usually anything major to trigger the indecision before that time.
And that’s why it’s so frustrating – we can’t see it coming!
Have a contract that is crystal clear when it comes to additional hours above your flat fee. There is never enough time built into your flat fee for an indecisive client. You’ll need to be able to bill hourly for the additional time because there will be A LOT OF IT.
You’ll also need to have a timeline that includes a stop date. If you anticipate the project taking 3-4 months make sure you put it in writing. Always build in a buffer but your contract should expire at some point so that there’s a sense of urgency.
🚩 RED FLAG CLIENT 3: THE DREAMER.
This one is easier to deal with because you’re aware of it from the beginning. The dreamer is unrealistic about what it takes to make a design come to life.
“I would like this completed by Dec 1.” (said on Oct 30)
“Our budget is $50k and here’s our (immense) wish list.”
They may also not understand the importance of clarifying the vision as part of the process. They may say things like:
“I’ll know it when I see it.”
“It’s not so much a design style as a feeling.”
You’ll need to have some important discussions very early to clarify the design process.
That will involve gently letting this client know that design isn’t intuition based. There are timelines, price points and processes that need to be followed.
Be sure you’re having these conversations pre-onboarding. If you can see that they’re not buying into what you’re saying, walk away.
Some clients are going to bring more pain and difficulty than they’re worth.
🚩 RED FLAG CLIENT 4: THE INTERFERER.
This client is often overly involved in every aspect of the design. They demand a lot of your time because they “just have a quick question”. They often want to “discuss a thought I had”.
If given access they’ll call you, text you and email you daily.
They will be on the job site speaking to everyone and trying to understand every aspect of what’s happening day by day.
They are eager and enthusiastic about everything but can interfere and slow down progress.
For example, I had an interfering client who spend a lot of time with the tile setter asking him to lay out different patterns even though he had been given approved patterns. The home was over 5000 sq.ft. so that was a lot of tile and a tremendous amount of time.
This interfering behaviour needs to be discussed immediately or it won’t stop. Sit down with your client and address all the issues you’re experiencing. Don’t let it simmer because when we do we end up being accusatory in our delivery.
Discuss timelines and processes very early in the process.
I provided my clients with a meeting schedule at the onboarding meeting. It helps them to understand when they’ll see you again.
I also sent a weekly email that included what work had been completed, what would happen the following week and any issues we’ve encountered.
With those in place, let your client know that unless it’s an emergency questions they should wait until your next meeting.
🚩 RED FLAG CLIENT 5: THE SHOPPER.
These clients love to spend evenings online scouring furniture stores, lighting retailers and quartz manufacturer websites.
They will text you endless amounts of product information which can look like a stream of consciousness.
They often ask for your product information, vendor information and even contact information.
They’ll ask you to shop sales and search online for better pricing. If you don’t, they’ll remove the item from their wish list and shop it on their own.
Have a conversation immediately when this begins. Point out that you need to be able to do your job without additional product information coming at you. Explain that it’s confusing to the overall process.
It’s ok to tell a client it’s not your job to bargain hunt but rather you’re creating a design based on their input.
Be sure that your contract is airtight. What does it say about sourcing? If it doesn’t currently say anything you’ll want to edit to add a clause, ie “we source only from our preferred vendor list because we have the utmost trust in the quality of their products. We also know that if an issue arises these vendors will work with us towards a resolution.”
Always go through your entire contract with new clients so that you know they’ve seen clauses like this.
Can you see how being prepared in your business, particularly your onboarding phase is so important to your success? I hope this helps give you some clarity on your own red flag client.
If you need some additional documentation to support your operations, visit the template shop.
Thanks for reading. I appreciate you and your time.