Avoiding Client Nightmares, Part 1

Avoiding Client Nightmares


According to Keith Granet, consultant to celebrity interior designers and architects, the biggest reason interior designers go out of business is working with nightmare clients.

Have you worked with nightmare clients before? I have. I remember the sleepless nights, panicky feelings about not getting paid, and in some cases actually had a few clients not pay their final bills. And often if they did pay, they renegotiated the invoices. It affected my cash flow, ability to pay my bills and hurt my self esteem.

Why did I end up with those types of clients? Was it just bad luck or something intentional? I think a large part of it was that I ignored the warning signs and took projects because they seemed exciting or potentially lucrative. Either way, it wasn’t worth it in the end.

Please don’t dismiss the next statement. You can’t afford to take even one bad client. The price you will pay is both financial and psychic. It can make the difference between enjoying this business and wondering why you ever became an interior designer.

I’ll share what I’ve learned over the years in hopes that it might save you a lot of stress and worry. After reading this, the next time you are in a client interview, I hope you will recognize the red flags that might pop up.

Gut Instinct

From these experiences, I learned to trust your gut instinct. It is always right. Some clients shared their horror stories about working with other designers, and I took it at face value and thought I could do it better. Wrong. That’s one of the biggest red flags. If someone interviews you and they criticize more than one designer, run the other way. You’ll be their next statistic. They either have communication issues, unrealistic expectations, or they use intimidation as their tool for leverage and power (sign of low self esteem).

Remember that everyone is on their best behavior during the initial interview. They want to impress you, and you are also interested in impressing them. However, it is best to be yourself.

Know Your Ideal Client

Your number one priority is to get clear about your Ideal Client Profile. Who is your Ideal Client? It’s not just about the demographics and their income or net worth. The Ideal Client’s psychographics, or values and interests, are vitally important.

What is their personality style? How do you work with that personality style? What personality traits are preferred and which ones are to be avoided? You must take time to define your Ideal Client. Even if you’ve been in business for years, take the time to physically write a profile. I created a workbook for this and highly recommend that you do this ASAP.

Behavioral Cues

Watch for behavioral cues. Because I worked mostly with “C-level” executives, the wives were often very passive and amiable. A few of these executives were so powerful that they used intimidation to manipulate and control their wives. That should have been my first cue. I had a faux finisher that was an incredibly adept people reader. If I had the opportunity to bring him in early in the conversations, he was able to share incredible insights that I missed. I was thinking about how to help the client and the overall scope of work I needed to organize. He was watching the interactions and listening to the verbal and body language cues. He was always right.

Here are a few recommended resources to help you understand personality styles including your own:

Wilson Learning (assessment) – Drivers (C-level executives are usually Drivers), Expressives, Analyticals and Amiables (it’s really good to understand the back-up behavior of these personalities when under stress so you know how to deal with them)

  • Book – Unlimited Power – Anthony Robbins (NLP – Neuro Linguistic Programming)
  • Myers-Briggs profile – www.capt.org/take-mbti-assessment/contact.htm
  • DISC – helps you understand the personality styles, too. www.DISC.com $29.95
  • Kolbe A – helps you understand your “conative” or natural strengths – www.Kolbe.com $49.95

I’ve used profiles for my employees, too. My husband happened to have taken the Wilson Learning profile as did I. We use this frequently when trying to understand the personality styles of others.

Self knowledge is incredibly important and useful, and knowing how to use it with others is extremely valuable, too.

Here are some other challenges you may also encounter:

  • Resenting or not feeling worthy of working with affluent clients – if you don’t feel worthy, you won’t attract these clients. Affluent clients (really all clients) want to work with self-confident designers who can lead them without being manipulative and without feeling that they are seen as a fat wallet.
  • It’s important to examine your own relationship with money. It may be related to the influences and experiences you had when growing up. You must work through this to be able to serve affluent clients especially if you didn’t grow up with money.
  • If you grew up in a household with difficult family members, you may find that your tolerance is set too high for challenging people. Many people compensate by being people pleasers and being overly patient. Examine your experiences, and think about the limits of what you will and won’t accept.
  • If you need revenue, you may be willing to overlook potential problems. Don’t do it. It’s never worth the stress

These are just a start of the red flags you should look for when meeting with clients for the first time. Next week, we’ll cover some of the specific clues to look for, questions you can ask to dig deeper and other warning signs to watch for.

Gail Doby

Gail, with her team at Pearl Collective, has helped more than 10,000 designers in 76 countries. Many of them have achieved amazing results... doubling, tripling (and more) their revenue and profit... with clarity and confidence. Gail and her team build one-of-a-kind experiences, walking beside Interior Designers to help them create and implement their plans.


  1. Terri L Maurer on June 27, 2015 at 5:42 am

    LOL, Gail. Everyone has had them at one time or another. As you mentioned, figuring out how to avoid more of them is critical to both the success of your business and your sanity. I used to tell my clients (commercial) that if I was going to have to work with either spouses or a committee, the fee would be 25% higher. Yes, I got a few odd looks, but when I explained that based on my experience, that’s just how much longer it would take to get the project finished. When challenges from outsiders (spouses) or multiple employees (committees) were added to the mix, the projects always took longer and cost more to accomplish. Proved to be a great way for those in charge to keep contacts to a minimum, and get their spouse – who wanted to play with samples and pick colors – off their back.

    • John on June 30, 2015 at 6:09 pm


      Unfortunately, the circumstances can be much worse when designing and building for a charitable organization, and there is a “Building Committee”. In some cases, leadership and committee must also answer to the Membership and Board of Directors, and significant contributors. The whole of which is often exacerbated by leadership and committee members, where there seems to enough participants, but each thinking another is taking care of the broad and detailed requirements for progress. This can include funding facilitation at the point of readiness, reading and understanding planning communications, procedures, construction docs, plans, specs, cost presentations and the design and build contracts – oh my goodness – the stories.

  2. John on June 30, 2015 at 5:53 pm

    Yes maam.

    When a potential client wants an introductory – interview meeting with me (small family owned design – build custom homes and light commercial), I have learned (the hard way) that it is necessary to also creatively disguise an interview of the client, be introduced to the whole of – husband AND wife or commercial team, seek the indicators, be sensitive to instincts and more when considering individuals as potentially new clients.

    Being willing to say no according to discovery, and history of learning the hard way, I can often make a decision before I get back to my truck, or at least before arriving home. This typically confirmed in discussion with my wife. This extra step with the wife tapping into the mysteries of a woman’s sensitivities and discernment, and reassuring.

    Beyond the initial discovery of qualifying a potential client, skills at how to best manage the variables in the general character of clients needs to continue through a service provider’s contract, performance, communications, actions and completion.

    Your article reminds me of serious consequences, where my sister was a Special Investigator for the US Attorney General (now retired). Her stories indicate “successful crooks” (a contradiction in terms), can one day be significantly cash and assets rich, and the next day having assets seized including a new home or commercial location built, in jail, found guilty, with no guaranteed recovery available for service providers.

    Anyone ever taken a potential client to a financial history and background check level?

  3. Magdalena Bogart on July 6, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    Right on Gail.

    I tried to get to the http://www.disc.com to check it out, but was connected to
    OMNIDEX.com. There was no link to the communication test for 29.90 which was offered to me by a coach for $ 150. The lower priced test might not exist anymore?


    Thank you for the article, which was thought-provoking for me!

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