Help! My Client Has Gone Off the Rails: What Would Lu Do?
On one of my What Would Lu Do episodes, I read an email that many of us can relate to.
It was about a client situation that has simply devolved. But the question is…whose fault is it when a client goes off the rails?
We can’t control our clients, but we can control the way we set up expectations.
This designer asked to remain anonymous—however, I can assure you that the designer looks established and has a beautiful, high-end portfolio. In other words, from the outside looking in you would think this designer had all the answers.
I point this out because it goes to show that we are all human. Even the most seasoned, most successful designers, can fall into struggles in their business.
And, just like we each have a superpower, we also all have blind spots—mistakes we repeat that cost us time, money, and respect. We have to find those patterns and eliminate them for ourselves.
Let’s dissect the email this designer sent me.
Scope Creep and Too Many Emails
I need help managing a client who has gone off the rails… I recently signed a new client who lives a block away from me. She found me on a very small FB group in which we’re both members. The scope included light construction work and furnishings. (We are a full-service firm so we handle design plus management.) We jumped right into securing a general contractor and millworker, as I felt that was the best tactic given trades are super busy right now.
My first concern is already popping up here. I hope that this designer didn’t mean she jumped right in without her established process just because this person is a neighbor. Sticking to our processes is vital, even if we’re working with friends, family, or loose acquaintances. Of course, we all know that tough client situations come up even with the right formal agreements and processes in place, so let’s keep working through the email.
There was a ton of back and forth, lots of scope creep, lots of calls and emails, conference calls, etc. After seeing what their project would actually cost, they hesitated…then we held more calls and emails, more conference calls.”
My thoughts here are… Where is the reframing? Where is the leadership? As the designer, you are in charge of your projects. You should never shy away from being the leader or looking like you are in charge.
Think about the New York Yankees. Say the head coach gets called into the GM’s office and the GM asks him what’s going on with the team. Imagine the coach says, “Well, the guys come to practice late, don’t run drills when I ask them, and always ask when practice is going to be over.”
Or a third-grade teacher is talking to her principal saying, “The kids won’t raise their hands, don’t turn in their homework, and jump in and out of their seats.”
When you’re in charge, and you’re setting the expectations, you’re responsible for the way situations are handled. You set the rules, you lead the example, and you get your team organized.
When a client is emailing you too much or keeping things unorganized, you have to put a pause on the situation. You have to have a team huddle.
Refer back to your contract and say, “Here’s what you signed on for. If we’re going to go beyond this, it’s going to cost extra.”
Make sure to be clear on how often you will communicate. Tell the client you’ll have a weekly recap email, and anything between should be an emergency situation.
A Lack of Clear Communication
“Then I get an email from the husband saying that they’d like to move forward with my millworker… and 20 mins later, I see the wife posting on the same FB group asking if anyone “has recommendations for great millworkers?”
I found it very odd she would rather get random information online instead of just asking the professional they had hired…and does she not think I’ll see this? My original millworker then backed out after getting a bad feeling from them (there’s no engagement or questions, they don’t listen, just react).”
I think once again this comes back to the way you manage the project. Were you perfectly clear that you are solely in charge of hiring the people? My gut is that she wouldn’t be asking on a forum where you could see it if that wasn’t clear, and she definitely wouldn’t do it if she saw it as inappropriate.
That makes me wonder if she was clear on the expectation. Maybe it was addressed in the contract…but how often do we read contracts thoroughly? Most people don’t.
When you saw the post, did you call to ask nicely for an explanation? You are perfectly within your rights to ask.
“With all this back and forth securing trades, we BLEW through their retainer (we were working on concept renderings throughout this timeframe) and they FREAKED out after receiving their first invoice. So much time had been used on securing trades and bringing in contractors to review their project. I had to explain that yes, we bill for all time on the job, which includes management.”
This part brings up a couple of questions in my mind. The first is, what amount of time are we talking about here when you say you blew through the retainer? It sounds like you were doing a lot of work, meaning over a period of time longer than a week.
When that happens, we have to make sure we are updating our clients as we go. I have heard many designers, like Laura Umansky, Sandra Funk, and Sara Brennan, have all mentioned sending in a weekly update email that covers what they did, what they need, and what’s coming up.
They can’t be surprised if you haven’t surprised them. The key is communication.
We all know a project can end up requiring more time than we expected. It happens. Nicole Heymer of Curio Electro is such a terrific and exact example of this situation.
Both my companies, LN Inc. and Window Works, have Nicole Heymer on permanent retainer for a set number of hours, appropriate to each company’s needs.
Sometimes we’re under hours, sometimes we’re a few over here and there. For the most part, as long as the hours are in the normal range, we all just go on. However, when we are ramping up for LuAnn Live, or when we’re adding extra classes to LuAnn University, I’ll get a call from Nicole.
“Hey, LuAnn, I know you asked me to do a bunch of things lately, but I just want you to know that the workload looks like we could be above hours this month. Should we put the brakes on anything?”
She comes to me and says, here’s what we agreed on, but you, the client, are pushing the envelope. Are you wanting to do that or did you not realize it?
It’s about open communication and giving me as the client the chance to make a change or keep going. I’m never surprised. I know where I stand. And I’m always in the driver’s seat.
My question to this designer in the email is that, if you did neither of the above (give weekly updates or called to let them know things were going way over), did you work beyond your retained hours without a new agreement?
Any adult that uses your services knows they have to pay for them. Our job as service providers is to let them know that they are ordering more than they have paid for.
Let’s say you go to a pizza joint with 20 bucks in your pocket and ask for a plain pie. The counter guy smiles and says, “Sure thing.” A few moments later, he brings your pizza, some garlic knots, a tossed salad, and a Philly cheesesteak. He says, “That’ll be 40 bucks.”
Obviously, you’re going to protest. You didn’t want to spend that much. You’re going to argue with him.
But he comes back and says, “You saw me cooking all of it. You saw me put it in the box for you. You should have told me you didn’t want all the other stuff.”
You just ordered a plain pie. The other stuff is on him.
When your client agrees to a certain retainer, you don’t go over unless you ask them. It’s not what they ordered. You need to ask if they want more before you do more.
The Client Backtracking
“They “did not realize” we were full-service (it’s all over my website, socials, on-boarding, proposals, contract, etc). They tell me they would now just like me to focus on design, and they will handle finding a GC, a millworker, and all project management. They now do not want to use a receiver because it’s “not that much stuff”…it’s multiple rooms’ worth of furnishings.
At this point, we had not yet presented our design plan but it was scheduled that next week, which I kept telling them over and over. They were very very anxious and the energy had shifted to frustration with me.
Fast forward a week later, we present our designs and within a few hours, she has created a BRAND new Pinterest board (she doesn’t know I can see this) on her own page with actual specs and reference images from our shared board, plus all these new specs I’d never seen.
When following up to discuss our designs and to schedule a design meeting, they disappeared for a week. Once I got them on the phone, they proceed to tell me they’d now like me to only places orders, including new items they have sourced. No more designing, but they’d still like to take advantage of the partial trade discounts I’m offering.
They have booked their super to do the GC work, and are still having a hard time finding a millworker. Everyone is booked solid, and this is a smaller job for a millworker.
I want to say “I told you!” but of course this is my inside voice. Not being able to find a millworker on their own has added to their frustration.
I have in my contract that if the scope decreases by 25% or more, I have the right to end the project. This is the second time in a row in which a client, having an adequate budget, once seeing actual costs, becomes unhinged and descales the project to one I would never have accepted in the first place.
Furthermore, they become frustrated with my team, and it no
longer becomes a professional and enjoyable interaction.
How would you handle this client given they’ve gone AWOL? How would you go about telling them this project is no longer the right fit as per our contract, and how would you suggest avoiding clients like this in the future?”
I would politely re-state to them the obvious—they have actually already fired you. This is what they need to understand, and they will, when you explain it to them.
Your services are to design, procure, project-manage, install, and furnish a complete project. You are not a procurement firm; you are an interior design firm. If they no longer want design and project management, they have just quit you.
My advice is to let them go. There’s too much water under the bridge here. If you do want to get it back on track and are seasoned enough to have a straightforward conversation (without the emotion), and you want to keep working with them, then go for it.
But that means you will have to have a direct conversation that outlines your part in them going off the rails.
You’ll need to own where and how you should have reframed things, ending with you painting the picture of all the value they get by you doing the full service—the conversations with the trades, the mistakes that are already in your rearview mirror from having X years experience that you are there specifically to help them avoid.
If you can truly paint that picture and end with, “so if this is the service you want, I would love to begin again, start on a new foot and together we will communicate and respect each other and we will create a beautiful result. However, if you are satisfied with your Pinterest boards, with the trades you have found and you want to do all of that, this is where we will part ways.”
If they come back and say, “We still want you to order everything” your response should be, “I realize that, but that is not one of my services. We only procure items for our design clients, we don’t just order things.”
End the conversation there. Don’t entertain any more back-and-forth or hemming and hawing if they complain or try to convince you.
“So you see Mr. and Mrs. Client—I think we have come to the end of our road. We entered into a contract for full-service design and if you now only want purchasing I will draw up a short dissolution agreement to keep things clear between us.”
The end. End on the high road.
Are You Attracting or Allowing Bad Client Behavior?
I seem to be attracting this same behavior. I need to tread lightly with this one given they live a block away from me, she’s obviously active on social media, and I’m new to the area.
You are not attracting behavior—you are allowing behavior. And you are not holding yourself or your clients accountable for the agreements you make together.
Moving forward, it’s time to get clear on what you do and how you do it. Have a finite system to execute what you do so that you are always on top of your deadlines, your deliverables, and your invoicing.
At the first sign of a wrong turn, course-correct, nicely and gently. You see, clients will take wrong turns because they don’t know the way—but you do.
Think of it this way….say you’re having trouble getting your kid to go to bed. He’s begging for one more show, one more game, one more book. Inside you’re thinking, “Just go to sleep!” But you always do one more of something.
Did you attract a kid with this behavior or did you teach and allow your kid to get around your rules?
This is the same thing in your business. Your business, your rules—don’t let them get broken, and you’ll all be better off.