As a designer, naturally, your role is to give your opinion. That’s what clients are hiring you for, that’s what clients are wanting you for – to come in and share what you think, what you feel, and what you recommend. But what do you do and say about what’s already there? What about the designing and decorating that the client has already done and that now needs to be undone? What do you say about that? Well, you proceed with VERY careful caution.
Diplomatic Descriptions, rather than Offensive Opinions
Years and years ago on my senior trip I was clothes shopping with some friends. And at some point, as you always do when shopping with others, I asked them, “What do you think?” to which I heard, “That doesn’t look good on you at all. That blue really looks bad on you and it’s just way too big for you on top. ” Ok… jeez, don’t have to be so harsh about it. But really, that wasn’t the worst of it.
You know what was? That it came from a complete stranger. It was just someone who was shopping nearby, heard me ask for an opinion, maayybbee thought I was asking her, and then replied. But, the situation didn’t stop there. Nope, to make matters even worse, when I responded with “oh, not this, the shirt that I’m wearing is mine,” she simply replied with, “Oh, well, it still doesn’t look good on you.” Ouch.
Now, I’m going to go ahead and take a wild guess that you’ve never talked to a client like that because it takes a rare person to be so bold. But, I share this story for a reason. And that reason is because despite your unlikelihood to speak with that amount of brashness to someone, what is likely is your thought and question of, how do I talk to someone about what they’ve already done without offending them? How do I say what needs to go and what needs to change in a way that’s diplomatic and informative, rather than judgmental and potentially hurtful? Well, let’s talk about the three ways to go about it.
1. “Too” is Too Much
First, you want to avoid the word “too.” Now on its own “too” doesn’t sound like that big of a deal. It’s a small, short word, so really how much damage can it do? But when you add in some adjectives behind it? Well then it quickly goes from mundane to menacing. It goes from justified to judgmental. It goes from description to degrading. Here’s what I mean.
Let’s say you’re at an initial consultation with a client and they show you a guest room that they’d like to change. They tell you that they don’t like it – it’s dark, dreary, and just not what they want out of the space. And trying to be agreeable you reply with, “Yeah, I see what you mean. The wall color in here is too dark and the furniture is too dark as well. So we can brighten them up. And then we can bring in some additional pieces to create a seating area and a place for guests to set their bags.” Ok, not too bad, right?
However, what the client heard, and now feels is, “You did a bad job of decorating this room. I don’t like the paint color you picked, it’s a bad choice for this space. And that heirloom set of furniture you put in here, well it’s ugly so we’ll need to get rid of that. And then we can bring in some additional furniture pieces to create a seating area and a places for guests to set their bags.” Whoa, that’s wildly different from what you said. Yes, yes it is. But it all happened because of that one darn word, “too.”
Let’s try another situation. You’ve just put a jaw dropping presentation together for a dining room, and you can’t wait to show it off. Then when it’s finally time to lay it all out you excitedly present the curtain fabric and say, “I think this pattern will be beautiful in the space. Right now the curtains in the space are too sheer so I’d like to bring in something a bit heavier for this space.” But what the client hears is, “I think this pattern will be beautiful in the space. Right now the curtains that it took you hours and hours and hours to research, find, and create on your own, are well, stupid and cheap looking. So I’d like to bring in something that makes more sense, something heavier for this space.” Haha again, whoa! That’s not what you said! You’re right, it’s not. The client’s mind added that, because of the word “too.”
Here’s the thing, the word “too” really is a judgement. It means excessive. So when you simply say that something is “too ___” you’re saying, it has gone into the territory of unnecessarily extreme. So let’s just simply restate those comments above without the word “too” in them to see what I mean.
So first, the statement about the guest room that the client thinks is dark and dreary. “Yeah, I see what you mean. The wall color in here is dark and the furniture is dark as well. So we can brighten them up. And then we can bring in some additional pieces to create a seating area and a place for guests to set their bags.” Much easier on the ears, huh? And all we did was remove the word too.
Now the second phrase without the word “too” in it, “I think this pattern will be beautiful in the space. Right now the curtains in the space are sheer so I’d like to bring in something a bit heavier for this space.” Again, much easier to listen to, especially from the clients perspective. All because of that simple, three lettered word “too” that we yanked out of there.
So the moral of this lesson? Avoid using the word “too” when talking about what’s already in the space, like you avoid hanging pictures three inches from the ceiling. In other words, don’t do it. As if you do, you run the risk of the client hearing something very, very different than what you said, and no one wants that.
2. Mum’s the Word
Now, what else should you do to proceed with caution when discussing the decorating that the client has already done? What do you say if something really, really needs to go and what if they know it needs to go too? Well, mostly, you don’t want say a thing.
You just look at it, make notes on it, and consider whether it needs to go or not, but avoid commenting on it. Avoid talking about how it does or doesn’t go within the space, why it won’t work in the future design, and in general what you think of it, especially at the beginning. You just ask if there’s anything they’d like to keep in the space, take it as a matter of fact for the moment, and then keep the comments in your head.
Now what about if the client seems to really be going on and on about how they hate the space though? Do you join in on the fun of sharing in their disparaging comments as a way to build a common connection then? Nope, you sure don’t. You just keep calm and carry on. But why? Wouldn’t that be a great way to strengthen a bond? Unfortunately no.
Think of it this way. It’s like talking badly about your family, only you can do that. You’ve earned that right after years and years of loving them and dealing with them. But when someone else jumps on board and starts complaining about them too? Well now those are fightin’ words.
The same goes with design. When a client is showing you what the space looks like now and they’re really going on and on complaining about it, you want to be extremely careful with what you say. You don’t want to just jump on that band wagon in an effort to be agreeable as that’s not how it’ll end up being interpreted. It’ll end up seeming, and sounding, offensive. So just remember, complaining, just like trust, is something you have to earn. It’s a privilege, not a right.
3. Focus on Future Action, rather than Changing the Past
So what do you do instead? How do you acknowledge what they’re saying and what they’ve done without making a judgement on it? Well, let’s go back to the original dark and dreary situation. The client said that the space is just too dark, dreary, and just not what they want, and they bring you in to see. But rather than saying “Yeah, I see what you mean. It’s too dark in here…” instead you say, “To brighten the space we can choose a different color palette, bring in some additional lighting…” and on you go. No judgements, no agreement that the space is dark and dreary, or even a comment on what the client has already done, just acknowledgement of what they want, and a discussion of what can be done.
And each and every time, that’s what you’ll want to do – focus mostly on what you’ll do, rather than what you’ll change. And although that may seem like the same thing, it isn’t. Changing something potentially means that what they’ve already done, wasn’t good. Changing means that what they did, was ugly, wrong, or just an all around bad idea. Change can also be scary to people, especially if it’s a lot. Doing something however, is just well, action.
So use phrases like “It’d be beautiful if we added…” It’d be wonderful to bring in..” or “If we put some …. here, it could bring in additional seating/storage/light for you.” Or “If we paint the walls …. then ….” Just informative about what will happen, not judgmental about what already has happened.
Now what about times when you have to talk about changing something? Maybe you’re using the dining chairs but are changing the cushion fabric? Or you’re using a piece of furniture but want it painted? Well, then you may have to start using the word change, but do it sparingly, and carefully. Or use the word “swap” as a possible alternative as a way to say change, without bringing along the possible negative baggage with it.
Your Words Matter, A Lot
See, when you’re invited to give your opinion, clients are really asking you to take action. Sure some of it will be a change, but they’re not concerned with what you think of what’s there now (unless they specifically ask you, “What do you think of this space?” or “What would you change and what would you keep?” – in which case you’ll want to tread VERY carefully). No, they’re just concerned with what you’re going to do, and what the end result will be. And even when you do talk about how the room will be transformed, you’ll want to be careful with what you say and how you say it.
And although I know some of this may seem like fussy semantics, the fact of the matter is, your words matter. What you say, and how you say it, can entirely change a client’s perspective of you and your work. So it’s important to be mindful of your words and how they come across. It’s important to be mindful of the fact that the client may have actually worked very hard to get the space to the level that it’s at today, but they know they need your help to get it to the next level. So share your opinions, but do it with caution, with sensitivity, and with an acute awareness that what they did, is not what you’ll do, and that that’s entirely ok. That’s what they hired you for anyways.
Let me know in the comments below, how do you talk to clients about what’s already in the space they want you to design? Do you find it challenging to do it diplomatically? I’d love to know!
And if you’re for looking for even more ways to serve your clients exceptionally well, and are looking for a step by step plan on how to do just that, we’ve got that answer for you here!