How to Say NO to Your Interior Decorating Clients - QC Design School

Tammy Hart, I.D.D.P, CAPS is a graduate and tutor of Q.C. Design School as well as a Certified Aging in Place Specialist from the National Association of Home Builders.  She is the owner and award-winning designer for Designer Chick Co., and she’s the previous director of the National Board for DDA (formerly CDECA).  She is a professional speaker and has spoken at venues like IIDEXCanada and the Small Business Forum.  She’s been featured in East in the City Magazine, has had a guest spot on Daytime Durham, Rogers TV and has won the HOUZZ Service Award 2017.  She works to empower young women to become successful future leaders and supports ocean clean-up efforts.

When I was in my early 20s, I worked for a financial institution in their inbound call center. This was probably one of my hardest jobs. More often than not, the calls had angry customers on the other end wanting me to say “yes” to changes or resolutions I just couldn’t say “yes” to. We were taught strategic tools and learned how to say “no” to a customer. When our “no” wasn’t successful, we got to escalate to our supervisors.

When I started my own company, saying “no” became a struggle. I was fearful that it would impact my reputation, that I’d lose a client, and that it’d be seen as poor customer service (and I pride my business on providing excellence in customer service). To top it off, I didn’t have anyone I could escalate to. Thankfully, I was taught strategic tools on how to deliver “no’s” effectively, and I’m going to share some advice with you. You can’t always say “yes”, so this is an important skillset to learn!

how to say no to business clients without losing interior decorating jobs

When is it appropriate to say “no” to a decorating client?

I don’t get joy from saying “no” to a client because I am so customer service focused. But, there are times when you do need to say “no”. Perhaps the client-designer fit isn’t good. Maybe they want a piece of furniture that really they’d regret purchasing in the long run because it doesn’t fit in the room properly. Perhaps they want to cut construction corners that could affect the integrity of their home to save a few dollars. Whatever the reason may be, we, as their consultants, need to say “no”. The key is doing it in an effective manner.

There’s a formula I follow when I say “no” to a client. I’m going to tackle these key points in the follow sample scenario.

  1. Actively listen.
  2. Empathize in frustration and share in enthusiasm.
  3. Educate from your experience.
  4. Offer an alternative.
  5. Follow-up.
  6. Be Gracious.

Saying “no”: a sample scenario

Active listening is the most important skill to saying “no”. It’s actually the most effective skill to providing customer service. As such, actively listening to your client’s request is extremely important. This allows you to fully understand their request and then reply to it appropriately.

Have you ever had a time when you weren’t fully listening and jumped to “no” too soon? If you don’t have a business yet, think back to your Interior Decorating course. In one of the units, you’re given a scenario where the client wants to keep all their furniture. Often, students will ignore this request and give the client brand new furniture, essentially saying, “Yah, no, over my dead body are you keeping this furniture in your room.”

painter with a paint roller

Actively listen

For those who do have a business, perhaps your client wanted a specific beige paint color. And before hearing them out, your inside voice screamed, “Yah, no, over my dead body is that color going in your room.” Meanwhile, your outside voice follows with, “No, that won’t work. You want this other color. Trust me.” The unfortunate part is, you haven’t given them a reason to trust you in that moment.

Your goal here is to get a win-win for both sides. You want to work around “no”. Using the paint color scenario above let’s first listen to the client.

“Ms. Decorator Extraordinaire, I was at the hardware store and just happened to go into the paint aisle because I’m so excited about painting the basement, finally. I found this really nice beige paint that I think will be perfect for down there. It’ll really brighten the space up!”

They’re so excited because they came to you with a beige paint sample for the room. Two things happened here:

  1. They are sharing their excitement.
  2. They just decided to tell you they want beige and a brighter space.

Unfortunately, you shot their color suggestion down so fast that you didn’t pick up on the latter details because all you see is a beige with a lot of pink undertones. You know they won’t be happy once it gets on the walls. Even though you may know this, you didn’t share this information with your client. Instead, you just said “no.”

beige paint swatch and colors for interior decorating job

Empathize in frustration and share in enthusiasm

What you should have done was share in their enthusiasm or empathize with them (whichever may be appropriate for the situation).

“I love knowing that you’d like beige. That’s a huge help! And I really appreciate you grabbing a sample.”

Educate from your experience & offer alternatives

So now, they know you have heard them AND appreciate their help. You’re valuing them. Next, comes the soft blow because you know it’s not the right beige.

In my experience, this beige has pink undertones. You may not be seeing in this particular light, but you would in your basement’s lighting. Here’s my suggestion: let’s paint a sample of it on the wall. And while we’re at it, I’ll grab a couple of my favorite beige samples that I think you’ll love. We’ll paint those on the wall, too, so you can see the differences between them. And then, you’ll choose your favorite.”

So now, you’ve helped to educate them, and you’ve empowered them. You’ve gently told them that their choice is not the best option, but you’ve also offered them alternatives and gave them the deciding power. You’ve done this in such a positive way, so there’s no fear of negative repercussions, hurt feelings, or resentment from them. Offering alternatives shows that you are hearing what they’d like or don’t like and provides them with the power of choice rather than just being told “no”.

I often find that by sharing your experiences, which essentially educates them, they feel that behind your “no” exists a valid reason. This step builds their trust in that moment and situation.

follow up with interior decorating job clients and be gracious professional to home owners

Follow up with your client & be gracious

Next comes the follow-up. Paint samples are on the wall. Give them a call after a couple of days and ask how they’re feeling about the colors. More often than not, they’ll choose one of your colors. This is not the time to say, “I told you so.” At this point, be gracious and excited for them.

That’s a great choice!” or “That’s one of my personal faves.”

This scenario is applicable to many decorating scenarios, whether it be about furniture, textiles, style selection, or accessories. It’s applicable to design scenarios like when the client wants to save money and cut construction corners (ie. Building permits).

Have you had any struggles in saying “no” to clients? Leave us a comment!

Speaking of wall paint colors… check out QC Color Expert, Christina Kittelstad’s 2019 Color Predictions!

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