How Designers Can Manage Client Expectations at the Beginning of a Project


As we’ve discussed, today’s consumer is both savvier and more demanding than ever before.  54% of designers say their biggest problem is the meddling client, according to Sandow’s 2017 Universe Report. So as a design professional, what can you do at the start of a relationship to create a productive, friction-free relationship?  Here are five ways to manage client expectations at the beginning of a project.

1. Kick it off with Confidence

Sell yourself with confidence, especially at the beginning of the relationship.  It will be much easier to do if before having the conversation, you have identified your ideal client and understand what services you are comfortable offering and what is beyond your scope.  If you are hemming and hawing or calculating on the fly, it will make it seem like they are driving the process, not a great precedent to start. Know what you are comfortable with and know before having the conversation that they are the right type of client for the services you provide.

2. For the consultation, sell the value before quoting a price

Schedule the initial consultation by first selling the value of what you provide and then telling them how much they should expect to pay.  You can do this is a conversational way. Understand why they are reaching out and what they are looking for, then set the stage for what you can provide in the consultation.  Explain the process and the benefits you will bring, primarily saving them time, money, stress, and mistakes in this process. Only then you should mention the cost of the consultation.   Try to confirm and process payment to hold the appointment.  Again, this is a way to control the pace, keep things professional, and introduce a level of transparency immediately in the relationship.

3. Meet with all the decision-makers

Whenever possible, try to meet with all decision-makers during the initial conversation.  Make it clear that you want to meet with everyone who will be involved in making decisions during the process and do your best to suggest a time that works for everyone.  

Not understanding everyone’s expectations up front can add time, friction, and headaches to the process later on.  You might get a certain direction from one member of the family that is vetoed later on. This is going to cost time and energy in the process.  Getting everyone’s opinions out in the initial session will create a smoother relationship.

4.  Set Parameters and Expectations and be Precise with your Words   

Explain your process and expectations.  First, set clear communication guidelines.  How do you want to communicate with your client?  What methods are preferred? What are off limits? Will you take phone calls?  Texts? Email? What are the hours? Too many communication platforms can cause confusion and increase the likelihood a message will be dropped or missed.   Also set expectations on the frequency of communication. Will you be reaching out weekly with status updates? Daily?

Set limits or parameters on your time.  Will you work weekends? What is off-limits?

Understand the investment amount they are comfortable with, when they expect the project to start, end, and the type of style they prefer.  Be clear up-front about additional fees to limit the possibility of scope creep.

All of these should be laid out in a conversation once they agree to move forward and followed up in detail in your letter of agreement.

5.  Discover their Personality in the Conversation

With nuance and professionalism, see if you can assess what type of person or personality they have early in the process.  You can do this by asking key questions: Have you worked with an interior designer before? How did it go? This will inadvertently give you a reference for the type of client they might be. If they have hired and fired numerous designers, it might be a red flag.

Ask if they have done any preliminary research on this project.  If the answer is no, they might be more of a “hands-off” client. If they have done a ton of research and already have concrete ideas on the project, that will give you a sense of how involved they might be through the length of the project.  

Their personality traits will start coming out when you start asking key questions.

Clients are going to continue to be more involved in projects.  The important thing from the beginning of the relationship is to lead the process with confidence, set parameters and be as clear as possible in your communication.   With these guidelines, you should be on the right track to a happy, productive project.