What To Do When Your Client Doesn’t Like The Result

Dec 07, 2022

We've all been there.

You’ve come to the finale of a project, the installation is complete, you’re exhausted, elated and, above all, ready to move on.  Only...

The client is not happy 😬

So let’s talk about what to do, because this has happened to me and it’s happened to many of my clients and so, whilst I’m always open to accepting responsibility when I’ve messed up, I actually don’t think these situations are always about the design.

Let me explain...

“Life is flux”, wrote Heraclitus, the Greek philosopher, in reference to the fact that things are constantly changing.

Yet as humans we tend to resist change – even when we ask for it. 

In my experience, often a client’s dissatisfaction with the end result is more to do with the gap between their past reality and their new reality. 

The fact they’ve got used to seeing and experiencing their space in a certain way and they haven’t yet acclimatised to the newness. 

Perhaps there’s a gap between their imagined expectation of how the space will look and feel and how it now actually does, with everything installed into it. 

And it’s this gap that feels uncomfortable, not the design itself.  Yet often the designer will be on the receiving end of that discomfort.

It’s like when you go on holiday and on the first day you feel really out of sorts and irritable because it’s all strange and new and you don’t know where anything is.  You’ve not relaxed into your surroundings.

The Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls coined the term “The Fertile Void” to describe a space or phase when you can’t make sense of what is happening; you are unsure about who you are, where you are and where you’re heading - you’re in an empty place of “not knowing”.  However the void is referred to as “fertile'' because within the emptiness, there is the opportunity to practise the art of being, to process the change and to find a new identity and purpose. The fertile void is an opportunity to create new hopeful beginnings.

And my theory is that, whilst your client is sending you shouty emails about the firmness of their new sofa cushions, they are actually dealing with the discomfort of their own fertile void.

When the message arrives from the client saying that the sofa isn’t comfortable it’s a very normal human reaction to think “oh no, I’ve messed up, they’re unhappy with me, I need to get my problem-solving, people-pleasing hat on and make this right!”

But actually our job as the designer - and also the leader of the business (where our goal is to wrap projects up efficiently and not get pulled into a lengthy process of swapping or exchanging things) - is to navigate the client’s discontent; gently but firmly leading them through it. 

“Times of disruption or constructive change, are not only predictable, but desirable. They mean growth. Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”  – Fyodor Dostoevsky

We need to rise up and remind ourselves that we ordered that sofa having presented it to the client, advised them of the cushion filling specification and given them the opportunity to go and sit on it themselves just to be sure (and did they actually do that?)

My point is, often we are not at fault. And it’s not in the scope of our services to start panicking and doing whatever we can to make the client happy.

Often, just telling the client that actually they approved the item and it’s going to be costly to change it will trigger the switch inside their mind that begins the process of adapting to the change and getting used to their new, slightly firmer than anticipated sofa.

But this requires us to stand firm. 

To not deviate to people-pleasing or panic that our client is unhappy with us.

It requires the emotional awareness that yes, a discontented client feels uncomfortable, but our job is to guide them through their discomfort, remind them that everything in their home has been carefully planned and thought about, and that perhaps - rather than flipping out and demanding the whole thing goes back - they sit with it for a couple of weeks. 

I’ve done this on more than one occasion and not once had an experience where the client didn’t, after a period of getting used to the new, decide they loved it after-all.

Bottom line?

As an interior designer there will be times your clients will be unhappy - often as a result of all the change.

And tempting as it may be to either -

a) Tell them exactly what they can do with their new sofa, or
b) Jump into crisis-averting mode and spend a week of unpaid time sorting it all out for them -

Your job is to step into your most calm, reassuring and professional self; support your client through the void, and then gracefully move on to the next project (whilst managing not to say “I told you so” as you do).

Golden Rules of Client Management

Communicate Fully & Often
Every decision made, every client sign-off, every step you take in the design - document it and communicate it to the client. Having them understand how thorough you have been in the process (and that no design decision has been taken without their agreement) can greatly manage expectations and see off a

Clarify Decision-Making & Approvals

Before you start the project, let the client know that they will be asked to approve everything before it is specified, ordered or installed. If they don’t want the administrative burden then let them know they are delegating approval responsibility to you (along with their rights to be too upset if it turns out they don’t like something).

Give Options

At the end of the day, your client wants to feel in control. If you present one choice and tell them “do you like this - yes or no?” they feel locked in. Whereas if you present a couple of options and let your client choose you are also letting them know that they have made the decision - not you - and it’s on them to calibrate to their choice.


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Katy x

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