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Advice for DesignersSelling Design

The Vendor Client Relationship – A True Story

By 03/11/2010January 27th, 201749 Comments

Last year I was hired to do some decorating and styling for a client. They had seen my work through my photographer and were interested in the same look for their website.


I submitted my quote–through my photographer—who called me later that day to ask what I could do for ‘half my quoted price?’. The client had informed her, “We understand that we won’t get the ‘high-end’ look of the website we showed you because our budget has been reduced”.

In other words, would I then do the job halfway because their ‘budget’ was cut? My response to that was, “I can do half the job, pick a day (it was a two day shoot)”.

My look is my look, and my name goes on it when it’s finished. I don’t even know what less than ‘my best’ would look like because I can’t imagine doing any project that way.


I told my photographer it would be better if I spoke to the client myself to establish value.

The next day I called the client directly and said “The only thing that’s missing here is a conversation to establish my value; what it is that I provide and what it takes for me to give you the ‘look’ you want. After this conversation, you can decide what you’d like to do and I’m completely not attached to the outcome”. He said, fine.

We had a great conversation and he agreed to my original quote.


After the project was completed, I submitted my invoice (which was exactly what we had discussed). Later that morning I received an email from my client asking if I would ‘shave $300 off my invoice’ so that it would be more in-line with his ‘budget’. I declined and he paid the bill.

Why am I telling you this story? It perfectly illustrates this video (below), which has already made the rounds in the blogosphere but if you haven’t seen it, here it is:


Providing an intangible service is much harder than selling a product that you can touch and feel. You know what you are getting, it’s simple. A gallon of paint is what it is.

Services are different and in my 20’s I used to listen to sales tapes in my car and I’ll always remember this lesson: “The value of services always declines after the services have been performed.”


Which means as designers providing a service, our clients need to know in advance exactly what they are paying for or what the fee for the service is.

I have certainly made this mistake many times in the past (like I’ve said in this post, it would be way easier to have an agent to ask for the money) and have spoken to designers and students over the years and heard their stories of righteous indignation when they presented a bill to a client and they did not want to pay it. However, 99% of the time that conversation was probably missing from the very beginning (it certainly was for me when I encountered the same situation).

So the point of my story is this:

If you are a design blogger, don’t complain about your clients on your blog (I’m sure no one reading this post does). Write each post as if your perfect and favourite client was reading it. No one wants to hire someone that complains about the way their last job went down on their blog. It speaks to your professionalism, your ability to be responsible for how you contributed to the break-down as well as your ability to handle an uncomfortable conversation.


If you are a designer, your blog is an extension of your website (for some it is your website), and we spend way too much time blogging in the first place only to alienate a potential client. Your blog should be like a design magazine, a place to get inspiration! That’s what keeps potential clients and readers coming back for more!

I’m off to New York for the weekend my lovelies! If I see something inspiring I’ll post it!

xo Maria

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  • kerry@tranquiltownhouse says:

    Oh Maria how true this is. I work in the HR services industry as a consultant and it can be hard for clients to see the value of what is sometimes a bit mysterious to them even though there's always a 'product' of some description! That's why blogging is so wonderful…you always get lovely feedback in blogland! And as a creative outlet…so much fun! Thanks for sharing so much on your blog. It's quite an inspiration.

  • pve design says:

    Again, you share such wonderful insight and honesty.
    Thanks for keeping things on the up and up. After all, one does pay for what they get, right!
    I like that you stuck to your price.

  • Cristin says:

    It seems too many think our ideas / advice should be free. I have had neighbors come to my door on their way to the paint store to ask me my advice. Would I ever go to a doctor's or lawyer's home and expect free advice?

    Great post.


  • Grace says:

    Such words of wisdom. Have a great time in NYC.

  • Kathy @ Creative Home Expressions says:

    I never saw this video, so thanks for posting it, Maria. I had to chuckle at what Cristin said, but it's true! Thank you for posting this.

  • Red Door Home says:

    Great info and so true. There is value in ideas. When you make something it is not just the tangible cost of the product that has to be considered.

  • Marija says:

    This hits so close to home I can barely contain myself. I want to write and write and write but instead I will just say – well done. Perfectly illustrated, valid points. My accountant told me that if I didn't bill the day the service was complete, I would forever feel like a collection agency. He was right. Great advice as usual. Marija

  • Kelly at Kitchen Sync says:

    Hah – what is experience, right? I hadn't heard the value declining after the service but it's a good point too.

    The wonderful thing is, you also create your own reality; if you believe you do provide great value, and your clients are wonderful people, it tends to work out that way.

    Building value into everything you do and conveying it to the client is also super-important.

    Good post!

  • details and Design says:

    Great post. I have not encountered people not wanting to pay except a few times and typically not a client I did a "real" job for but maybe just a bit of consulting which normally do not do anyway.

    I do think, though, that you can be truthful on your blog. I do not think every blog needs to be row after row of pretty pix. I read blogs of varying topics for information also and enjoy different perspectives and sometimes opens my mind to other viewpoints.

    I do not have any other persona other than "myself" so that may come through on my blog too. And, since I write what comes up in the course of my day as a designer and small business owner, it is not always sunshine and roses. But, I do not blow smoke to my clients in person nor will I do that on my blog. They get what they pay for based on my expertise. If they want a "it's fabbbbulllousss darling" regardless of what I think, then they will need to go someplace else.
    Now, if work slows down and I am working at mcdonalds, I might be willing to blow more smoke!!!:)

  • Karena says:

    So so true Maria, come and see my latest art, I think you will like it!
    Art by Karena

  • Imogen Lamport, AICI CIP says:

    So true. This is why I charge by the service not by the hour, so there is no shaving off, and we all know exactly what the bill will be before we go ahead with the job.

  • funcolors says:

    Which means as designers providing a service, our clients need to know in advance exactly what they are paying for or what the fee for the service is.

    Exactly. And I would add constant communication because stuff happens and sometimes things change which can mean original agreement needs to change too.

    Having been the client on the receiving end of a designer's inability to quote and communicate, I can tell ya it is no fun. But I learned a lot from him. Biggest lesson was you don't wait until everything is done to say, "oh, by the way we're 30% over the original contract price." He over-promised his abilities in the contract. I expected a certain level of quality which he didn't understand and did not have the capacity to deliver. I took accountability for not knowing the extent of his ability and started providing feedback. What I saw as coaching-him-up to meet his own commitments and my satisfaction as the client, he saw as extra design work outside the scope of the original contract. There were several tense conversations.

    The take away from that experience was the word "expectations". I am probably somewhat annoying about communicating and clarifying at every turn what everyone is expecting. A few too many details – just a few — in the name of good communication never killed anyone. A final invoice with a SURPRISE bottom-line 30% more than expected and I just about had a cow.

  • Nancy@marcusdesign says:

    Well said Maria, to be honest many professionals without a tangible product face these problems regularly! My parents are accountants (so they too provide a service) and you would not believe how clients will bargain with them!! I MUST show my mom this video, thanks for the post!

  • heather jenkinson says:

    This is another excellent post. I agree that the responsibility lies with the designer here – as you demonstrated. It is our job to be as clear and transparent as possible in all matters and a discussion with the client and their expectation is the backbone to every project. We should anticipate having to explain our value, especially as a particularly well designed room should look effortless!

    I have only very recently experienced the type of client demonstrated in the video. Any client trying to get a cut price right at the very beginning, either does not understand the value of what they're 'buying' (and it's our job to explain it), or they are not serious clients and in both cases, be aware: trouble ahead!

    I love your blog.

  • Space by Eliana Tomas says:

    For some reason, I was expecting a completely different ending on this post, Maria. Nevertheless, I agree 100% with it. I take my blog very seriously. Sometimes I wish I was a bit more relaxed. But I am not and I love it. With all the people I’ve worked with and still work with, I take care of themselves the way I would like to be taken care off too. And I have to say i love privacy. I believe it’s because of my customer service that more than once I’ve worked with clients in more than one project, and now I can say I’ve been consulting abroad with a client on the third project. A blog is indeed our extension, our wishes, point of view, personality and indeed character completely exposed in the blogosphere.
    Enjoy NYC!

  • guylaine rondeau says:

    good post hon!
    have a great time in the big apple! 🙂

    go to "artisanal" for me… (park avenue & 32nd)
    have the waiter select some cheeses for you and a lovely wine to accompany them… and make sure they bring you the nut bread!


  • guylaine rondeau says:

    ps. it’s the no.1 french bistro in nyc ~ i first saw that place walking to my wisdom weekend and “i had” to go there… you will love it! (the facade is on 32nd, but the address says park ave)

  • "Yeah, that works..!" says:

    Amen. What a right on post for any designer at any point in their career. Thank you for sharing such valuable info.

    (if you can – Locanda Verde in Tribeca – great eats! plus Robert Dinero(sp?) is part owner and I adore him!)

  • Tammy@InStitches says:

    Great advice, Maria. One thing my mentor taught me 22 years ago is "Never discount your labor" but, I am happy to offer discounts on fabric ! Have a great weekend in NYC.

  • Developing Designs says:

    The topic of charging, sticking to what the value is and not budging as been discussed in the design community many times, especially in these economic times. I think we need to keep hearing it over and over, remind ourselves of this so we don't get less than what we are worth. The ones that really need to understand this, are the clients, being firm and educating them is the first step. To get someone like you did to keep pushing the envelope is frustrating, I admire your ability to stand firm so he would not take advantage of your services.

    Great tips (as always) which will help others (including myself) to succeed and go even further. Thank you! xo Laura

  • Linda says:

    The video is great. As a professional photographer I would get calls from people who would ask my fee for a portrait session and then offer me less than half of what I charge and say" I only need one shot". I would always say to them " so you want me to drive an hour into the studio, set up all my lights for a full photo shoot, put in a new roll of film, pay for processing and printing but only charge you half since you only want me to take one image?" That usually shut them right down and they would book the session.

  • Charlotte's Color Specialist says:

    So true. I've turned down clients because they had a certain budget that would compromise my value. Great post!

  • Naomi says:

    Good for you for standing up for yourself! It was a great idea to call and speak with him directly. I feel like in this internet world we live in today, it is so much easier to send an email, text, whatever than just pick up the phone and speak with someone!

  • Sara @ Russet Street Reno says:

    I think in general people should refrain from discussing the negative aspects of work, clients, bosses, coworkers, etc, on their blogs (or Facebook or Twitter). It's just not a good idea. However, I reserve the right to complain about the previous owners of our house because I've never met them and never will! ha

  • Vanessa says:

    Great post Maria! Good for you for not wavering with that client – everyone is happy in the end. Have a wonderful time in NYC – looks like you will have good weather!

  • Ideezine says:


    We can always learn more. Our words and blogs are our flowers to others. Some well some won't…next!
    Don't compromise your standards it's not a good thing on any given day.


  • FrenchGardenHouse says:

    A great post. I have to let you all know, "Would I ever go to a doctor's or lawyer's home and expect free advice" um….YES! people do!

    It's not just in design work that clients have a budget problem. I sell antiques, and I can't tell you how many times I hear the same "it's not in my budget". I offer an equally gorgeous piece of furniture, that is within their budget. No, that's not the one, the client really wants the more expensive one, but for way less. sigh.

    Having a clear idea what the value is, of a service or a tangible item, is the bottom line. Loved the video, I had never seen it, so thank you!

  • Between you, me and the Fencepost says:

    I love this post. Very clear and I also like to read about how you handle(d) a 'difficult' conversation. You are always such a professional and it shows in your work. Always. Your blog, website, and of course your amazing design. I love you !

  • Debra Phillips says:


    you are one of my favorite "go to blogs" not only do you share inspiration but true life experiences to learn from.

    years ago that when a potential client (landscape) wanted to bargain endlessly,at the beginning of the
    proposal stages i would on occasion buckle. now with a firm refusal (some compromise is often possible)i realize this is not my client because it will resume at the billing stage.
    forwarded the video to my staff in the shop, they will love it! these days the things people will ask for leaves us speechless…LOL

  • Gwen says:

    Really great way to put this issue Maria. I have been reading so much about this topic lately because I think that I am ready to make the jump on my non decorating blog to getting paid. I am really getting tired of giving it all up for free.

    My time is valuable.Yours is much more valuable and I get something out of each and every one of your posts:)

  • Marlo says:

    I really admire your confidence in handling delicate conversations – and effectively too.

    I'm always learning something new from you.

    Have a great time in New York! 🙂

  • mrsben says:

    Great words of wisdom Maria. I cannot even conceive someone bargaining for a commodity or a service. -Brenda-

  • This Photographer's Life says:

    You inspire me all the time, and you have done it again. This is amazing… there is so much to be learned from it. Thank you.

  • Design Wanna-be says:

    Have fun in NYC!

  • Laura Trevey says:

    Thanks Maria!

    Excellent advice as always…
    Have a beautiful weekend!

    xoxo Laura

  • Nikole says:

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! As a photographer people are always trying to talk me down and sometimes it gets me down.

  • Marcos Menezes says:

    Excellent points made.

  • Elie's Papel says:

    clients are a mysterious kind of people… you never really know wht's in their heads… have fun in NY and enjoy!

  • VictoriaArt says:

    SO SO true! Stick to your guns! I love that!
    Email me if you have time for coffee in the city!

    Kiss! ~Victoria

  • Vickie H. says:

    Maria, my husband and I have just had a discussion about your blog post and this issue with clients. His take on this subject is that it comes down to integrity on the part of the client. Sometimes you get your first glimpse of a person's true character when you are involved in a transaction with them concerning money.

    Thank you for a great post.

  • Cindy says:

    I have seen gorgous homes that are decorated on a budget. A talented designer can take something that is inexpensive and turn it into something fabulous…i.e. Eddie Ross.

    I once used a designer that my wealthy friend used. She was suspecious that she was charging her more than other clients based on their lifestyle, but she loved everything she did for her. I decided to get a quote from her on some bedding similar to my friend's. I did not mention my friends name during our consultation. Long story short…my friend ended up paying about $3,000 more than me! In fact what I had done had more detail and the fabric was harder to work with!

  • Cote de Texas says:

    Maria – not exactly sure what you are saying here
    you spent the first 75 percent talking down about a client of yours who didn't want to pay your fee
    then you lecture us to not talk bad about out clients on the our blogs.
    which is it?

  • Maria Killam says:

    Hi Joni,
    I get that it could be interpreted that way and I was just telling the story the way it happened so I could post that video because I think it was so great!
    Thanks for your comment, if you posted that, other people probably thought the same thing!

  • Ragland Hill Social by Gwen Driscoll says:

    I think your comments are so true and the biggest part of our job is allowing potential clients the opportunity to understand our value. Hope you are well. Happy Weekend.


  • Visual Vamp says:

    Great post.
    Love your personal magazine 🙂
    xo xo

  • DesignTies says:

    As I'm sure you'll understand because we've talked about this topic before, your post rings sooo true… and your advice is happily and seriously received!
    Hope you're well…

  • mydivabydesign says:

    So true! Don't complain about your clients on your blog. It is so unprofessional. Complain to your best friend! (kidding) Thinks of difficult clients as opportunities to make changes to your services that will make you even better! Find the positive!

  • Donna @ dh designs says:

    Nice to see this in print! And that video is bang on. We need to make sure clients know exactly what they are getting for their money – which as in your example is more than likely going to convince them that you are worth it!

    Hope you had a great time in NYC – one of my favourite places in the world!

  • Lazy Gardens says:

    ROFLMAO at the video!!!

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