It’s easy for clients to be gung ho at the start of a big design project: Expectations are high and the creative process is often great fun (“Wow, just imagine how awesome that chandelier’s going to look!”). A while down the road, however, when the contractor still hasn’t installed the bathroom tile, and some crucial fabrics or pieces of furniture turn out to have been discontinued (or arrive damaged), the prospect of waiting longer and longer for a home that never seems to be finished can become a real psychological grind. What strategies do wise designers employ to help homeowners hold onto those feelings of happy anticipation for their new abode?
Preparing folks to deal with schedule snags is a duty that begins on day one. “When you are considering taking on a new client, ask them ‘How do you handle disappointment? What project hiccups are the most stressful to you?’” counsels Toronto designer Meredith Heron. AD100 talent Brigette Romanek dives straight into the topic as well: “When I’m excited about something, I want it yesterday; clients are the same,” she says. That’s why she highlights the importance of “listening and tuning into what they’re saying is okay” when it comes to potential delays, and even tuning into clients’ body language. “It all comes together and gives you a sense of where you stand,” she says.
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Prompt and comprehensive updates are a must throughout the course of a project, especially when its timing begins to slip. According to Michelle Morgan Harrison of Connecticut’s Morgan Harrison Home, “You know the clients are concerned with the pace of the job when they start sending to-do lists to ‘move things along.’ This is a clear sign that their patience is dwindling. Being proactive is key, as lack of communication is always the culprit.” For Morgan Harrison, “Weekly or biweekly team site meetings are critical to keep a project moving and keep the lines of communication open. Meetings are the best way to manage clients’ expectations, make them aware of issues in real time, and help them see that the process takes time to be done right.”
When the inevitable complications do occur, Romanek suggests that supplying a fix up front can avert client annoyance. “By the time I’m calling them, I have at least some news that will help put a Band-Aid on the situation. I try not to just go, ‘This isn’t happening—oh well, sorry, too bad.’ I express to them that I’ve exhausted every resource, and here’s an idea of what we can do.”
Even a bit of humor can work. Heron recalls mediating a kerfuffle that involved a tardy stone supplier. “My client asked me earnestly, ‘How do you have so much patience with this guy?’ I responded; ‘I don’t have any patience with this guy, but in front of you I’m endeavoring to appear to be professional. Behind the scenes, in Slack and iMessage, I’m swearing like a sailor.’” The statement was accompanied by a Real Housewives of New Jersey GIF of Teresa Giudice flipping over a restaurant table, to illustrate Heron’s actual feelings on the matter. “I think this defused the client’s own frustration,” she comments with some satisfaction, “and gave him the confidence that I was doing my very best to handle the situation.”
Additional advice falls into the “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” category. “We now preface all new projects with a climate change discussion,” Heron states. “Delays due to extreme weather events have become something we have to deal with on a regular basis.” Smart practice for Romanek means hedging bets on vendors whose schedules may be in doubt. “At certain times, when I’m told that a piece is going to be delivered in four weeks,” she says, “I’ll put on the schedule for my client that it’s six weeks or it’s seven weeks, because I would rather have them be happily surprised that it has come in early” than have to explain a missed installation date.
“When clients feel like you have their backs and they trust you, it’s much easier to deliver painful updates,” is how Heron sums it up, and Morgan Harrison agrees: “My job is to be their advocate and enable them to understand the process and prepare ahead of time. We never want a client to be caught off guard or lose their trust.” Your demonstrated commitment (“I express that we’re in this together, and the more we can support one another, the better off we all are,” says Romanek) will buttress theirs, making them better able to cope with setbacks—probably not joyfully, of course, but at least with some equanimity.