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How to Deal With Difficult Clients — And When Is It Okay to Fire Them?

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When is it okay to fire a client? Behind the Design

Bringing a client’s vision to life is one of the most rewarding experiences for a designer. It allows you to showcase your talents while also making your client happy. However, that’s not always how the experience goes.

Designers often have to deal with difficult clients who demand too much from them, make changes to the design without letting the designer know, or treat the designer with disrespect.

It’s difficult to know how to handle these situations. Keeping your client happy is the goal, but when is enough enough? Learn about how to deal with difficult clients and set necessary boundaries when communicating with problematic people.


Dealing With Difficult Clients: Recognizing Negative Behavior

The relationship between an interior designer and a client is important — you’re tasked with bringing to life their dreams of how their personal or business spaces will look. At first, your dealings with the client may be normal. But unfortunately, as with other relationships, red flags may begin to pop up. Consider the following situations.


The Client Continuously Shoots Down Your Recommendations

Disagreeing with your recommendations will happen, even with the best clients, but if you notice a pattern of behavior in which the person rejects everything you suggest, and they do so without offering constructive criticism, it can be a red flag.

Constant pushback will slow down the project, and it can affect you emotionally to feel unable to give your client what they want. At the very least, it shows that you and your client are not professionally compatible and that you might not be the right person for the project.


The Client Shows a Lack of Respect

Respect is the foundation of any relationship, personal or professional. Without respect, there’s no trust, so it becomes impossible to work together. If the client is abusive, insults you or any of your staff, or threatens you in any way, it’s time to fire them.


The Client Is an Aggressive Haggler

If you have already told a client what your fees are and they try to get you to lower them, this is also a bad sign. It can point to future issues with getting payments, including delays. It’s crucial that your clients respect what your work is worth, so it’s best to walk away from those who undervalue it.


The Client Takes Too Much of Your Time

Some projects are more complex than others and will require more time, but that’s something you and your client must take into consideration before the work begins. If your client is paying you for a certain amount of work, they can’t ask you to do more for free.

This is a common pitfall for designers who are just starting out because they want to make a good impression and not appear difficult, but it’s up to you to defend your time and work.


The Client Doesn’t Communicate

Your client hired you to translate their wishes into the exact interior design they’ve dreamed of — which is impossible to do unless you have access to the client. They have to communicate their preferences and give you an idea of what they’re looking for.

You need to be able to reach your client via phone, email, or other means if there’s an emergency or an issue you want to discuss. If it becomes impossible to reach the person, it may be time to let them go.


The Client Has Constant Payment Issues

If you’ve done your job, you deserve to get paid. Payment issues should not occur at all, but if they happen more than once, it’s a serious problem.


The Client Goes Behind Your Back

A client who goes behind your back and speaks with the contractor without letting you know makes everything more difficult. This can create confusion and inadvertently have a negative effect on their project. It’s also a sign of disrespect to side-step you, making you feel like you’re unnecessary.


The Relationship Doesn’t Improve

If you’ve spoken with your client about your concerns and the relationship doesn’t improve at all, this is another red flag. The relationship between a client and a designer needs to be one of trust and open communication, so if you see that despite all efforts things are not getting better, it’s better for both of you to go your separate ways.


How Do You Deal With a Difficult Client?

If one of your clients is already showing signs that they’ll be challenging to work with, certain strategies can protect you if you want to continue working with them.


Set Clear Boundaries

From the start, you have to set clear boundaries with your clients. This becomes even more important if they’re problematic. Have a clear idea of how many hours you’ll work per day and what times are off-limits. That way you’re not receiving phone calls at all hours. If you have a preferred mode of communication, let your client know.

Saying no to a client is tough, but it’s also necessary. If they ask for something that requires you to work longer than you usually do, or if they require that you finish a last-minute task they decided on without consulting you, you have every right to say no.

Making even minor changes to a project takes time. What your client sees as a small addition may mean hours of extra work for you. Make sure you’re getting compensated for that time.

Boundaries are important not only for your business but also for your well-being. Knowing that clients can call you at any time puts a huge amount of stress on you and can interfere with your personal life. Delineating what is your personal time and what is your work time helps prevent this issue.


Put Everything in Writing

You should have clear, written policies in place that clients have to read and sign before hiring you.

This is one of the most important things you can do to help yourself. Never begin working without a signed contract in hand.

Spell everything out in the contract you have your clients sign so they know what to expect and what you will expect from them. Include your working hours, how they can reach you, and your policies for the different aspects of the business. These details will let your clients know whether you’ll be a good match. They will also show clients that you are ready to enforce your boundaries if necessary.

One crucial detail you have to add to your contract is your policy on making changes to the project.

If you don’t have this clearly outlined, clients will assume that they can make all of the changes they want at any point in the process. That creates a nightmare scenario for you.

Require that all changes the client wants to make be clearly outlined in writing, and then have them sign a new contract. Depending on your policies, this might mean a different fee.


Foster Open Communication With the Contractor

Many interior designers experience the problem of a client going directly to the contractor to make the changes they want. You can prevent this issue by maintaining open and honest communication with your contractor. This encourages the contractor to come to you as soon as the client approaches them.


Have a Clear Conversation With the Client

Letting the client know what bothers you is important. Sometimes, people don’t realize that they’re being unfair or taking up a lot of your time. There are many effective communication techniques when dealing with difficult clients.

For one thing, always remain professional and calm. Even if the client gets upset, you want to clearly explain what issues you have with their actions. It’s also important to let the client talk and practice active listening. You do this by:

  • Paying attention
  • Showing that you’re listening
  • Offering feedback
  • Deferring judgment
  • Responding appropriately

Ask questions to let the client know that you want to understand their point of view. Once you’ve both expressed yourselves, make the effort to find a solution.


Is It Time to Fire the Client? Learn How to Do So Professionally

If you’ve tried every tip and strategy and you’re still struggling with how to deal with difficult clients, it may be time to fire them. This is not an easy decision, especially if you’ve already invested a lot of time in the project, but it is something that might become necessary.

Sometimes it comes down to you not knowing how to provide the results they want. Or you might realize that the client doesn’t know what they want, either, so anything you do will be a waste of time. Other times, the tipping point might be an unkind or disrespectful word or yet another late or missing payment.

No matter what has led you to decide it’s time to let the client go, you need to do this in the most professional manner possible so your reputation doesn’t suffer.

Let them know you’ll no longer be working with them in person or over the phone. Be honest about your concerns. Evaluate your contract to see if there’s work you need to complete for them and assure the client that you will complete it.

Perhaps one of the most important considerations when you stop working with a client is to not let the quality of your work suffer because of the problems you’ve had with them.

Always outline a clear exit or transition plan with a termination date so you don’t leave your client in the dark. Put all of this information in writing, along with a list of everything you’ve completed in the project, so no one has any questions or concerns.

Even if the relationship is contentious, thank the client for their business and their time, and be polite. You may also want to give them a referral if you know of a designer who is better suited to provide the services they need.


Focusing on the Right Clients

When you know how to professionally fire clients who are not helping your business grow or who may be affecting your bottom line, you can then focus on the right clients. Choose people who are ready to respect your work and your time and who remind you of why you love being an interior designer.

If you’ve been struggling with difficult clients, Behind the Design can help. We offer free tips about setting boundaries — find out what burnout is and how being available all the time can impact your business and your health.


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