I’m lucky to work with fantastic clients – but we’ve all had those clients that weren’t so great, right? If you’re in business (any business for that matter) you’ve had to work with those challenging people that we all love to talk about, but don’t like having to deal with. Even the nicest people can become stressful and more demanding during the design process. After all, they’re spending a lot of money, and it’s for something very personal and important to them – their homes.
But I want to throw something out there for you to think about: Maybe you’re enabling their behavior. Now before you roll your eyes or tell me I’m wrong, give me a minute to show you 10 ways that you just might be giving your clients permission to be difficult. And these tips don’t just apply to design clients. No matter what business you’re in, these ideas can help you make your relationship with your clients better than ever!
1. You aren’t setting boundaries. If your client starts calling, texting, or emailing you at all hours of the day and night, what do you do? I’m not talking about an emergency situation, but just general questions. If you answer those calls and texts, you’re saying that working at this hour is right for you. We want to provide the very best customer service experience to our clients, but not at the expense of our personal lives. Remember that you’re a professional, and what professional (doctor, lawyer, teacher) responds at 11pm on a Saturday unless it is truly a life-threatening emergency? You should have something in your “welcome packet” that spells out exactly when you will be available to the client and then address this verbally with the client in the very first meeting after they have signed the contract. That way you’re setting the expectations from day one. And the first few times they contact you after hours, you have a few options. You can respond with a “Thanks, I’ll get back to you with an answer tomorrow/Monday.” That will help set the tone and will train the client that you don’t work 24/7. But you also run the risk of offending them and making them feel stupid for texting you. I think it also works well to not answer the text after hours and then respond with an email or text first thing the following morning, then you can answer their question or set a meeting time for finding a solution to their problem. If the client continues to text, call, and email after hours, you can sit down with the client and explain that you love working with her, but that you need time with your family, too. But again, I think if you set boundaries personally and you aren’t checking your texts and emails after hours, then it will take care of itself. Either way, set those boundaries and stick to them. If you give in, you’re giving people permission to contribute to your lack of balance.
2. You’re acting like a friend. Let me explain that – it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be friendly, but you aren’t friends with your clients. At least not at first. Yes, there are a few clients that become my close personal friends, but they aren’t all that way. And the ones that are my dearest personal friends are great at respecting our personal/professional boundaries. I think it’s important to remember that these amazing people are your customers first and foremost and you are their service provider. You don’t need to get so close with them that they are oversharing about their personal lives, and you shouldn’t be doing that, either. You can get into embarrassing situations that way. And you can also start blurring lines with boundaries, or bending your rules. For example, you might start thinking that you want to “help them” or give them a “deal” by not charging for all of your hours. Or on the flip side, you might start relaxing your standards or customer service because they are your “friends” and that isn’t appropriate either. They paid you for a professional service and that’s exactly what they should get, including deadlines that are met and you keeping your word. This is business and you are in it to make money and they are engaging you to get their money’s worth. Remember that. And if your client happens to actually be a friend of yours, try to separate the two relationships in your mind as you work with them.
3. Your contract isn’t clear. Everything that could be an issue should be spelled out ahead of time. How many revisions will you allow to the design? Exactly when will you get paid? Do they owe you a commission or fee if they shop for their own products? Anything that could be an issue in the future should be addressed in the contract. And you should go over it line by line with them before you both sign. I know this is a pain, but it will save you from the major challenges and disagreements in the future.
4. You aren’t disciplined. So you have the contract, and everything is all spelled out. But did you let something slide because you didn’t want to confront your client with an issue? Or did you let your own processes drop because you got behind? Did you miss a deadline, or three? You have to be so disciplined in this business and you have to stick to your guns (and your deadlines). It isn’t fun or easy, but it’s part of being a business owner or at least a successful business owner.
5. You didn’t own your mistakes. We ALL make mistakes, it’s just the nature of the business. But it’s how you deal with those mistakes that makes or breaks your company. Communication is absolutely a must here – you need to admit to the mistake immediately, and offer an action plan to make it right. This is hard, but it is critical. And if you have to buy that sofa that came in the wrong size, so be it. Because the way you deal with mistakes is going to decide if your client is reasonable, AND how they are going to talk about you in the future…to other prospective clients! It’s that important, so always make it right.
6. You’re not communicating effectively. How do you communicate with your clients? It’s so important to constantly keep your client updated on the progress of their project and what you’re doing to keep everything rolling. You should have a scheduled weekly update via email, and then regular phone calls, too. Clients just want to know that you’re doing everything you can to make their project a success. If you don’t tell them how things are going, they’re going to think you aren’t working enough or that you have dropped the ball in some way, or that you have taken all their money and you are using it to vacation and drink fruity cocktails on a beach somewhere! Not communicating with your clients is going to add a lot of stress to your relationship and there is enough stress in this process already, but some of it is totally avoidable if you communicate consistently and clearly.
7. You’re texting with your client. Speaking of communication, be careful about texting with your clients. You want a record of any decisions that are made, any explanations, and any issues – and it’s hard to have that with a text. If your client is addicted to texting (or you are), great. But be sure you regularly (as in after every session of texting and at least at the end of every week) send a wrap-up email that reviews any decisions or conversations made by text. That way, you can put that email in your client folder and save it for any future issues that may come up. If you don’t have that record, it’s just a she-said/she-said problem that will make you both insane. I also take pictures of texts if there is ever a time that clients approve things or send important information by text so I have a copy of it for future reference. I email those images of the texts to myself and put them in the client file as well. And this isn’t just to protect myself. It’s to protect the client, too. There have been times that I agreed to something by text and then remembered it differently. Having images of our text exchanges actually held me accountable.
8. You didn’t really listen. We’ve gone over this before, but sometimes we listen to our clients (sort of), and sometimes we really hear them. Did the client tell you what her budget was, but you thought “she’s definitely got more money than that”? You didn’t listen. Did he tell you that he has four dogs and then you presented a stunning silk sofa? You didn’t listen. The key to having a satisfied customer is in listening and delivering on what you heard.
9. You got angry. Yes, clients can make us all mad, but we have to be the person in control in any confrontation with our clients. They are already stressed and uptight about spending money and allowing someone else to have control in their homes. So they probably aren’t going to react the way they normally would in any stressful situation that comes up. You have to be the calm, cool, and collected person, even when you want to scream. So do whatever you have to do to stay calm – count to 10, step outside for a second, think about fluffy kittens. If you get angry, it will only escalate the situation and that isn’t going to help the craziness at all.
10. You took it personally. So the client didn’t like your selections, or she said that your subcontractor didn’t finish the cabinets correctly. That’s business, not a personal attack on you. Yes, you sweated for hours over the selections and you love every single one, and maybe the subcontractor is your favorite cousin. But the client isn’t saying you’re an idiot by pointing out a problem or saying they want something different. It’s just the nature of this business, not a judgment on you as a person. The less you take things personally, the more you’ll be able to guide your client to the right thing.
So what do you think? Are there ways that you can help avoid the crazy in your projects or help your clients be less challenging? What do you do to control the stress and issues that come with running our businesses? Let me know in the comments section below!