Designer tell-all: How to handle tough clients

“Come in closer. You can even sit on the floor,” interior designer Madeline Stuart cooed, as if welcoming the audience into her living room. But we weren’t in her living room. We were in the Marc Phillips Red Barn rugs showroom during Legends 2022, an event May 3-5 hosted by La Cienega Design Quarter in West Hollywood, California. This year’s Legends event, California: The Golden State of Design, showcased 40 luxury showrooms, designer window vignettes, panels, cocktail parties, pop-ups and more.

Madeline Stuart (from left) hosted the “To Tell the Truth” panel featuring Kevin Isbell, Suzanne Tucker and Adam Hunter.

Whether or not creating a sense of intimacy was by design, Stuart, founder of Los Angeles-based Madeline Stuart Associates, set the tone for the rest of her panel discussion on managing client expectations.

Adam Hunter, Kevin Isbell and Suzanne Tucker — all seasoned design veterans with client lists full of recognizable names — joined Stuart on the panel. What made the discussion useful and special was that none of the speakers held back. They were vulnerable, honest and truly hilarious throughout the discussion, aptly titled, “To Tell the Truth.”

The worst of the worst

Stuart shared a story about her worst client, who would snap at her and throw fabric samples she didn’t like, forcing Stuart to run around at the end of the meeting, scooping them back up off the floor. Another client crawled under the upholstery to check that the fabric staples were lined up perfectly. Tucker, founder of San Francisco-based Suzanne Tucker Home, shared a tale about being fired for sending a client’s husband a bottle of wine on his birthday. 

Each of the designers had a story — or several — about being sued. Sometimes that happens when a relationship has soured too much. If a client files suit, Tucker explained, the burden of proof will be on the client and your errors and omissions insurance policy should protect you. (Just be sure to take out an errors and omissions business policy.)

Setting boundaries early

These stories are fun anecdotes after the fact, especially to interior designers who’ve had similar experiences. But what should you do with such information going forward?

Isbell, founder of Los Angeles-based Kevin Isbell Interiors, and Tucker each have a similar test to determine if they are going to take on a client in the first place and it is simple: Do they offer you a glass of water when you enter their home? Or do they treat you like “the help”? 

A red flag they all warned designers to look out for is when a client has a $30 million home but “no money for furniture.” In reality, those clients do have funds for furnishings, but their attitude speaks to their value system. You’re likely to have a difficult time justifying furniture prices and design fees to this type of client, the panel agreed.

When it comes to setting boundaries, Hunter, founder of Los Angeles-based Adam Hunter Inc., suggests having a waiting period to determine if you are going to give your cellphone number to a potential client. He also has an unenforceable, albeit charming, “Good Human Clause” in his contract, which includes “no yelling.”

Isbell joked that each clause in his ever-evolving contract has a different bad client behind it. 

When to walk away

Walking away from a potential client can be hard. Against their better judgment, designers take on projects for all sorts of reasons: the financial incentives are too good to turn down, the house is great, the high-profile client could help boost their career.

But the “To Tell the Truth” panelists agreed: While working with tough clients doesn’t necessarily get better, you’ll develop thicker skin — and your reaction time and instincts will strengthen overtime.  

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