Don’t Be Afraid Of Difficult Conversations With Clients


Look, no one likes “difficult” anything. If we could sail through life with the ability to hit the “easy” button on everything — conversations, relationships, opening the damn jar of peanut butter without a struggle — then I’m sure many of us would do it.

But as entrepreneur and coach Tony Robbins said, "the quality of your life can be measured by the number of difficult conversations you are willing to have." And that’s true in business as well. 

If you’re not willing to have difficult talks with your interior design clients, your job could become very difficult on a regular basis.

It may not be what anyone would deem “fun,” but you need to get used to it. Lucky for you, with some tips and a little practice, it doesn’t have to be quite so ... well, difficult.

Set boundaries early

First up: Set. Some. Damn. Boundaries. 

This should be part of your initial conversation with a new client at your interior design business. Consider things such as: how often are you willing to text with the client about the interior design project? Are you working weekends? What about evenings? Holidays? 

Figure out what will work for best for you and include guidelines for these boundaries and expectations in your scope of work and letter of agreement. That way your client knows what to expect from the get-go, and you won’t be getting texts at 8 p.m. every time the client has a (what they think is) brilliant interior design idea.

Be a (fearless) leader

When it comes time for a difficult conversation, figure out what you would like the outcome to be — before you even get to the actual talking part. Are you at a point where you want (or need) to fire the client? Or are you just looking to redirect them. (Hopefully it’s the latter.)

Either way, you will be leading this conversation and you need to be prepared. Jotting down bullet points and outlining exactly what you’ll be saying is a good place to start. But remember — it’s a dialogue not a monologue. You may be leading it, but you also need to listen. And fundamentally, people want their thoughts, ideas and feelings to be acknowledged. Bottom line: They want to feel heard. So make sure your client knows you are really hearing them. 

These types of talks can have a lot of emotion behind them, but you need to be careful. There’s a fine balance about being clear with how you are feeling and also taking emotion out of the equation because let’s face it: Most times, it’s not personal. Difficult clients aren’t usually trying to be difficult (or rotten or downright mean), they just don’t know how to handle themselves in that particular, stressful situation. It’s your job to guide them.

Another thing: Make sure you are thinking about their perspective, especially if you skipped the first step above about setting boundaries (I warned you, didn’t I?!). If you suddenly find a client is walking all over your boundaries, stop and consider: Did I make it clear that I don’t work after 5 p.m. or on weekends? If you’ve set that all up in your agreement, then it’s far easier to remind them that these are the constraints of your scope of work and you can point back to that document. 

And finally, I don’t believe in ever saying to a client, “OK, tell me how to fix this.” You are supposed to be the leader and you should be going into this conversation already prepared with a solution. Plus, leaving the client to fix the situation is just a recipe for disaster.

In-person is best

When it comes to actually having these conversations, you really should try to have them in person. That’s going to put you in the best position to gauge the client’s response, see how well they’re paying attention, and get a real clear read on their emotions. 

If you really must have the conversation over the phone, that’s OK. Just do everyone involved a favor and don’t do it over email or text. The tone will always sound different, especially with text — and no amount of happy face emojis is going to save you.

In-person allows you to have a conversation with them — remember it's a dialogue! And they’re probably going to be more respectful overall or at least sound that way because the tone of email/text goes both ways: You can incorrectly read into their tone in a written message just as easily as they can do the same with yours. 

Also, consider having someone there with you if you can, such as a colleague they’re familiar with. That allows you to get away from the “he said, she said,” aspect because you have a witness who can also mediate and help you get a read on the client, too.

Ask questions

Make sure you come into the conversations loaded with questions. This allows you to be a sort of detective, an interior design business Sherlock if you will. (Hint: It’s always the butler’s doing.) 

Start with some broader questions and work your way down to specific ones. For example, you can start with “It seems to me that you’re not happy with (insert issue here).” That helps get the client talking — you can find out what is causing them to be unhappy, what is frustrating them about the situation, and so forth. Eventually, that leads you down the path to finding a solution that will work for both of you.

And, at the end of the day, remember that sometimes you’re going to need to be a little flexible. You might have to bend your rules a little bit. Why? Because you have to do the right thing. And that means if you’ve messed up somehow, then you need to own up to it and make it right.

If you know the conversation is going to involve a mistake you made, then you really need to think ahead on your approach to finding a solution. Don’t get defensive. Own your mistake and apologize. Then find a resolution and a way to move beyond it.

Don’t hesitate to walk away

Unfortunately, there will be times when you and the client cannot agree on a resolution that works for both of you. It just happens. And when it happens, it’s OK to walk away. It should be written into your contract that either party has the right to terminate at any point.

At the end of the day, you are the Sherpa leading your clients up the Mount Everest of interior design. It’s your responsibility to educate them, and when that doesn’t work to have that difficult talk. Is it going to be awkward? Heck yes. But it’s also the only way to really get back on track and enjoy the rest of the project together.  

And it’s certainly not as hard as climbing Mount Everest for real, so that helps.

Need more business insights and advice?

Join me in my Interior Designer's Business Launchpad — my free group on Facebook where I offer weekly coaching sessions to help your business thrive while creating beautiful spaces.

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