One of the mistakes most of us designers make at some point in our career is losing control of our project. There was one project for me that became the turning point in how I managed my business. It was a nightmare and many years later I still cringe when I think about it.
It was a 6,000 square foot new build. Although these clients had worked with a decorator previously they had never undertaken a project of this scale. There were so many red flags but the biggest one was that the husband was going to be the GC even though he had no experience in construction. Next was that the wife was a very indecisive and insecure decision maker and I knew that going in. I underestimated how much extra time she would require.
It wasn’t long before these people were disrespecting my business and taking advantage at every opportunity. It was an endless stream of questions coming at me every hour of every day. Decisions couldn’t be made (she actually asked a waiter for his opinion on something!) It was a horrible experience that ended with us not speaking. The blessing was that I reorganized my business so that I would never again have to deal with this kind of nonsense.
The first thing I did was create a list of what went wrong. After having worked with other designers for almost 3 years now I see the same things come up over and over. Here are the top 5 things that will indicate you’re headed towards trouble with your clients.
5 Things That Indicate Trouble is Brewing With Your Project
1/ You Ignore Warning Signs
If you’ve ever had a nightmare client you likely can look back and realize that you saw the warning signs but chose to ignore them. We all need to learn to trust our gut and realize that when something doesn’t seem right, we should pause. The right answer might be more communication but sometimes the right answer is to pass on the project.
2/ Clients Refuse to Discuss a Budget
My nightmare clients insisted that they had no budget and they would buy what they loved. I pushed but not hard enough and eventually we started without a budget. This meant I had to source way more than necessary because as you know, for every item there are low, mid and high priced options. Without a budget you’re always unsure of where to go.
3/ Clients Are Asking For Advice From Too Many People
This is a sign of an insecure client but it definitely impacts our projects. How on earth does a waiter get an opinion of your house design? These clients are high maintenance and will always take more time away from your other projects.
4/ You’re Getting Endless Emails, Texts and Phone Calls
It seems obvious that this is inappropriate, particularly when it’s outside of office hours but some clients don’t seem to understand that you’re not on call 24/7. Not only is this annoying to deal with but messages delivered in various ways can leave you without an easy way to check on replies. For instance, if your client is texting, emailing and calling you’ll spend too much time trying to track down an answer you’ve forgotten. Was it an email or a text? Did they say that in a call? Where did I write down the answer? You can see how this will send you running in circles in no time.
5/ Clients Are Shopping and Looking for Deals
Clients that are trying to be “helpful” will also be wasting your time as you run from store to store or website to website following up on the deal they found. This is a definite warning sign that you’re losing control of your project.
HOW YOU CAN PREVENT CLIENTS FROM TAKING CONTROL OF YOUR PROJECT
1/ Have a Great Contract
A great contract is a necessity for both your client and yourself. When you make the effort to create this you’re outlining and prioritizing what’s important to you in your business.
You don’t need a 50-page document but be sure that you have covered the important aspects of how you run your business. Here a few clauses that will help you:
Timelines – this is important so that you don’t end up being on call for clients that can’t make decisions or create roadblocks to the project’s progress.
Project Outline – you need to articulate clearly exactly what work will be done during each phase.
Purchases – if you purchase items on behalf of your client make sure you include this. Be clear that you use your own sources and will not be price shopping.
Revision Requests – this is where most designers lose money. Without a guideline a client can make endless revision requests. Instead, allow x number of revisions and then charge hourly for additional rounds.
Contract Termination – what will constitute a breach of contract? What is required to terminate the contract by either party? All of these terms need to be considered.
If you don’t have a contract, you can purchase one here.
2/ Create Your Standard Operating Procedures.
Your SOP’s outline for yourself, your staff and your clients exactly how you operate your business. Just as with the contract, creating these means you have a clear understanding of issues that affect your business and your project. You can create a short document outlining your SOP’s and present it to your clients at your first meeting.
Here are a few important SOP’s to consider:
Hours of Communication – If your office hours are M-F, 9-5 then be clear. Create an SOP and make sure your client becomes aware of it during your first meeting.
Methods of Communication – If you don’t want to communicate via text, be clear. Once you explain that this is not effective for keeping track of conversations most clients will happily oblige you.
Weekly Touch Point – I recommend sending a weekly email to each client letting them know what’s been accomplished as well as what’s upcoming for the next week. When clients know they’ll receive this email they’ll be less likely to contact you with questions throughout the week.
3/ Create Outstanding Systems
The best way to stay in control of your project is by having a system that flows throughout each project. When you’ve designed this you’re able to articulate to clients exactly what comes next, how often they’ll hear from you, etc. This stops the endless barrage of phone calls and emails.
Your systems include your templates but also best practices for each stage. While every project is different your process should be the same. Take time to establish your processes and you’ll create a seamless experience for your clients.
Look at my process for covering meetings during the Design Development Phase. “There will be 2 meetings for presentation and revision requests. These meetings will be scheduled in advance and will take place in my office. All decision makers are required to attend. Changes to the meeting schedule must be made 2 days prior to the date.”
Often it’s when a client is left not knowing what’s next that they start to become frustrated. It’s your job to reassure them that you’re in control, things are happening that don’t require their input and you’ll update them shortly. This is usually the cause of most designer/client breakdowns but great systems and processes can eliminate that breakdown.
A lot of the issues that occur with clients are the result of a breakdown in communication. The easiest way to stay in control of your project and keep your client feeling confident in you is via great communication. As soon as you suspect your client is unhappy, have a dialogue. Most issues can be resolved and your client will feel confident that you’re a problem solver.
I hope this helps you understand what’s missing from your project management toolbox to create a better structure for your projects and your clients.
If you need templates to create a more structured business, check out the template shop.