When I started out as a freelance interior designer, I wish there had been an older, wiser mentor to help me identify which prospects would become good clients. Unfortunately, none of the classes I took in interior design prepared me to evaluate potential clients. The temptation was to accept everyone rather than waiting for a worthwhile prospect, whom I probably wouldn’t have recognized anyway.
Now, after working with people for 20-plus years, I’ve learned
that potentially bad clients exhibit one of several kinds of behavior.
THE BIG PROMISER
A popular ploy used by undesirable prospects is to offer you the
promise of lots of future business and referrals in exchange for
a big initial discount. They frequently say, “If I like the
way this turns out, I’ve got lots more for you to do.”
When I was young and inexperienced, this seemed like a wonderful
opportunity. I imagined all the additional jobs and new business
I would have. In reality, clients like this usually don’t come
back again or send other people to you. They go from designer to
designer using the same story about future business and multiple
referrals to get the big initial discount.
So much for the fantasy I had of early retirement on a yacht in
the South Pacific.
THE FAMOUS PERSON
A similar type is the “famous person.” This is someone
who tries to dazzle you with his position, income or possessions
and believes he’s doing you a favor allowing you into his world.
This client feels entitled to monopolize you 24/7 regardless of
what this does to your schedule. In his mind, adding his name to
your reference list offers you so much acclaim it’s not necessary
to give you adequate compensation. Down the road, there is a good
possibility he won’t even remember your name.
THE NO DECISION MAKER
A red flag should go up when a client insists that you make all
the decisions. After showing her some wonderfully suitable samples,
she refuses to make a selection, usually saying, “You choose.
You’re the decorator.”
An inexperienced designer might find this very flattering, thinking
her talent and creativity have finally been recognized and validated.
In truth, this buyer wants you to accept all the responsibility
for making selections so she can blame you exclusively if the end
result doesn’t meet her expectations.
You can recognize this client initially by the fact that she is
critical of every designer or vendor she worked with previously.
While listening to this laundry list of complaints, a new designer
fantasizes that she will be the one who gets it right and earns
the customer’s undying loyalty. More than likely, you will
end up on the same list as all the other business people she has
This type of buyer has a fail-safe program: She can reject everyone’s
work saying she never chose it—and possibly not pay the bill.
Some people are embarrassed to say “No” regardless of
the need for closure. This client will tell you she needs to discuss
your ideas with her husband, mother or best friend. Endless numbers
of samples get checked out and brought back, but none is ever quite
right. Hopefully, you will not make multiple trips to this client’s
Starting out, it may seem like you and the customer are really in
sync, working hard toward moving this job along. The client is actually
waiting for you to become exhausted and voluntarily walk away. She
doesn’t want to hurt your feelings by saying outright that
she can’t afford it, doesn’t like it, or wasn’t really
serious to begin with.
THE PROJECT JUMPER
Similar to the client who doesn’t want to make a decision is
the one who jumps from one project to another before anything is
finalized. You’re working on draperies for the living room
when she suddenly switches to kitchen wallpaper.
As soon as you start to pin down something—the budget, color
scheme, time frame or whatever—the project suddenly changes.
It eventually becomes clear her goal is to pick your brain for ideas
and then to move on.
THE PRICE-DRIVEN CUSTOMER
Let’s not forget the price-driven customer. Although studies
indicate most people do not buy exclusively based on price, it is
the only consideration for about 10 percent of the public.
A novice designer may think giving big discounts is an appropriate
way to get jobs. However, by discounting her work, a designer agrees
that she deserves only a percentage of what is appropriate compensation
for the job. If you don’t believe in the value of your services,
none of your clients will either.
In my experience, losing a price-driven client up front saves endless
hassles later. They are easy to recognize because they challenge
every cost, ask for extreme itemizations and threaten to go elsewhere
if your price isn’t low enough. Should the smallest item be
delayed or need reworking, the price-driven client will demand additional
discounts until there is no profit left in the job.
THE BID TAKER
In the commercial design field, it’s standard procedure to
put large jobs out to bid. Sometimes the person requesting a proposal
acts as if the job is imminent when his company is just looking
for numbers to prepare a theoretical budget for two to five years
down the road. The work may not get done for a long time, if at
all, while your ideas and numbers can be used as a baseline.
This client will be very vague in his responses during your initial
contact while pressuring you for information.
THE DEPOSIT DODGER
Finally, in all projects some type of deposit usually is required
once a contract is written as proof of the client’s good faith.
The customer you wish you never had will attempt to reduce the amount
of the deposit or seriously question your need for one. Hopefully,
you will not be duped by this ploy.
What are some simple ways to protect yourself from bad prospects?
When you feel a gnawing doubt while discussing a prospective job,
pay attention. This doesn’t happen only to the uninitiated.
At any stage of your career, this is a wake-up call that someone
may be trying to take advantage of you.
Conduct your business as though it has been around forever. Use
professionally printed business forms, set definite appointments
with time limits, and put everything in writing.
It is very important to establish boundaries with new clients. If
you want to give discounts, do so after the first job for that client
is completed and paid for. You’ll be in a much better position
to determine if it’s worth it to you.
Always require a deposit that covers your costs. Set limits on how
much time you will spend with a prospect without some kind of compensation.
Have a prepared list of questions for new clients regarding their
time frame, budget and prior experience with designers.
Don’t marry the job thinking that with just a little more time
and effort—despite all the apparent negatives—it will
ultimately work. Successful business relations start and end in
balance. Each party gains something from the interaction and leaves
with positive feelings.
There are wonderful, generous, appreciative clients out there. Focus
your time and energy on recognizing who they are and cultivating
their business. Let the uninitiated have all the other ones, and
you might not miss the boat after all.
Ellen Milner is the showroom manager for Valley Interiors &
Design Center, Phoenix, AZ.