If you’re an interior designer with your own business, you’ve likely dealt with clients who were less than ideal – and some that were just toxic to work with!

Even though toxic clients are not the norm, they are out there and when you encounter them it can strongly affect your business, team, personal life, and even your mental health.

In this episode, I share exactly what I define as a “toxic client”, and ways I’ve used my process to identify, manage, and prevent them altogether! I share some of my own misadventures that have taught me which red flags to look out for and how to deal with them. I dive into the importance of checking in with yourself and setting and respecting boundaries with clients. 

Warning: you’ll also get a little bit of tough love through the episode that will help you understand exactly how to avoid and manage toxic clients so that they don’t take over your life or your business!


Episode Resources

Read the Full Transcript ⬇️

Hey, hey, hey, it’s Rebecca.

And you are listening to Resilient by Design. Today, I want to talk about What to do when you have a toxic client. How do you handle that client who is making your life miserable? How do you manage them? That’s what today’s episode is all about. So hang on to your horses. First of all, I just want to start off by saying don’t sweat it.

If you’ve had this toxic client, or maybe you have it right now, this is totally par for the course. I have been there. Several times, and that’s why I feel qualified to talk about this situation, because I do believe that I have done a pretty good job of eliminating those toxic clients and managing them in the past, and now, I can truthfully tell you, at the moment, Most of my clients are dreamy and wonderful humans, but it wasn’t always that way.

And I see this inside Designer’s Room because, inside Designer’s Room, people are always sharing and asking questions like, here’s what’s going on. I’ve got this client situation. How would you handle this? And so I know that these toxic clients are out there. If this is you. Don’t sweat it. It’s okay.

This is not something to be mad at yourself about. Don’t be hard on yourself. It’s not anything that you’ve done, but there are things you can do in the future to help weed those people out. And I’m going to get there. So today, first, I want to just talk about what is a toxic client. What does that look like?

How do you know if you have a toxic client and then what are some strategies that you can put into place? To help prevent those clients and manage them if you have them. So it’s kind of a three-parter. So, before we get into the how, let’s talk about the who. Who and what is a toxic client? And I realize this sounds kind of a mean term, but let’s be honest, a toxic client is A client who makes you feel like shit.

Yes, I swore. It is a client who constantly is making you feel like, maybe you’re not good at your job. They’re making you second guess yourself. They’re making you maybe cry. They’re making you feel like you need to point your finger at someone else. You need to blame someone. They probably blame you.

They could be blaming your trades or your people. They could question your integrity, they might question your skills or your experience, your way of doing business. But the underlying descriptor that I think is the clearest for who and what would make a toxic client. It is a client who makes you feel like shit and they make doing your job extra hard.

Raise your hand, and nod in agreement. If you know what I’m talking about, most of you who’ve been in a business for a hot minute have had some glimpse.

It’s like an unhealthy relationship. They’re toxic because you’re still in a relationship with this person, even though they make you feel bad. And I think that’s a really important distinction. They’re not just like, ugh, gross people and they make me feel bad. It’s people who make you feel bad and somehow you have a hard time severing ties.

You might be telling yourself, well, Oh, this is shitty, but we’re so close to the end. I just need to get through to the end or, oh man, they’re really difficult clients. They’re really making this, my job so hard, but you know what? They’re paying their bills and I’m going to make money off of it. It’ll be worth it if I can make enough money, right?

Anytime you try to justify someone’s behavior, if it’s making you feel bad, I really want you to question it. But then there’s also those of us who know they have a toxic client, they know it’s a problem, but you just don’t know what the frick to do. Like you don’t know how to handle the situation. And so that’s why I wanted to record this episode for you.

Give you a little bit of a pass. It’s okay if this has happened to you, but also gives you a little bit of a ticket in the sense of here’s what you need to do. Go and do it. Get off your butt. Make this happen. Get rid of this human as fast as you can. The thing about a toxic client. It will start to permeate inside your organization, whether you’re a business of one or you have a team of five or more, what can happen is if you have a bad client and you’re still servicing them, but it’s to the detriment of you and your team, you are sending a message to your team members that this is not okay.

Treatment is okay that this behavior is acceptable and even though you might complain about it to your team because I’ve been there, if you aren’t holding boundaries with this person, you aren’t showing your team that you really value them and that you want to get this person off your docket. Now I might sound harsh and I’m sorry if I’m sounding harsh.

I just wish someone had told me this early on. I had an experience with a client. First of all, I had no boundaries. I didn’t really work weekends. That was maybe my one boundary, but I had no boundaries. I would be texting my clients day and night, and I had this one situation with a client who she, I don’t know if she was bipolar like there was something going on there that was, it felt like.

It just felt like she was in crisis and guess who she took it out on? Little old me and little old Rebecca, pregnant with a couple of people working on my team was a bit of a pushover and it was a big, it was one of the biggest projects I had had at the time in my business. And she would text me at all hours of the night, I’d be at 11 o’clock at night, breastfeeding my child because I had a baby, I had the baby while I was working for her.

She would text me these like sagas. And in fact, I could probably pull up the text messages, although I don’t, I may have deleted her from my phone. I don’t even think I want to bring that back up because it’s just going to bring back so many old raw emotions of panic, anxiety, feeling like I’m not enough, feeling like I’m not good enough.

Feeling defensive, like all of the feelings. And she would text me and say, why is this this way? And the contractor screwed up and you should have done this. And I’m so upset and I’m holding back his money. And like, well, I don’t know all the things that she would say. And it was a toxic relationship that I felt like I couldn’t get away from.

And all I wanted was for the job to be done. So now you’re pretty clear on what those toxic clients look like. They come in many shapes and sizes, different forms, and different personalities, but essentially they make you feel pretty bad about yourself. So here’s the thing, if you have this client already, there are things you could do in the future to prevent it and I want to talk about that at the end.

Let’s talk about what you can do right now. If you’re in a situation with a client that you know is not good for you, it’s probably not worth the money and you don’t know how to handle the situation. What I want to share is that you can fire a client or you can have a heart-to-heart with a client.

You don’t have to take their bully behavior. You don’t have to take their meanness and like, let’s be honest, I’m sharing an extreme segment of society that is just not a nice human. But sometimes people will push past the boundaries, they’ll step across the line if they don’t get pushback. And if you are somebody like me, who is just a super nice human, always trying to please, a little bit of a people pleaser, I’ve never really been the person to stand up and say, no, it’s my way or the highway, I’m better at that now.

Because I know people who are just naturally like that, I’ve always admired them. But if you’re more like me and you are a little bit more sensitive and you take things a bit more personally and you feel like really invested and you feel like, well, if I just did this, then this person would like me.

How can I get them to like me? If they’re just a toxic mean person, they’re probably not going to change their tune. It has nothing to do with you. It has everything to do with them. Their issues are their issues and not yours. Now, obviously, if you totally mess up, it’s your fault, but If you don’t have an understanding client who recognizes that you’re human and if you own your mistake, they should be able to move on from it.

As long as you are taking it that extra mile to rectify the situation, you need to hold a boundary. And this is something that I’ve taken years to sort of figure out. And what that is, is you need to cut that person off. Whether it is, I prefer that we communicate via email, Or you let them know I’m not going to be available on weekends or evenings.

Let’s touch base on Monday. It could be as simple as sending you a text on a Friday night. Maybe you don’t respond till Monday, or if you do respond, you might say, thank you for this. I’ll connect with you when I’m back in the office on Monday, sending them a very clear signal. If you do that a few times, they will start to get the picture.

Obviously, the sooner you do this in your relationship with them, the better. Once it’s so far gone, For me in that situation where the client was texting back and forth and bitching and moaning and blah, blah, blah, I just stopped responding via text, and then I would move the conversation to email.

I would either say, I’ll respond in an email like in the text message or I wouldn’t even respond in the text. And when I got really, when I got to a point where it was so bad, I couldn’t even engage. I would just head over to email and say, Dear so and so, here’s what I understand from the message you sent me.

I’d be happy to discuss such and such a thing, or here’s my response, or here’s my question for you. I try to keep everything in email. It’s also important to have an email trace of conversations, so anytime you can move a conversation over to email from text. The better and most professionals will understand that you are a professional so make sure you remind yourself of that.

You don’t need to be at their beck and call. So that’s one thing you can do. Shift the conversation over to your preferred way of doing things. The other thing you can do is meet in person. This sounds a little confrontational, but If it’s really bad, you need to get to the bottom of it and show up in person be courteous, be kind, and communicate.

And if they elevate the situation, that’s on them. But it doesn’t serve anyone to get defensive with an email. I don’t know, pick up the phone and have a screaming match or take their screaming and then internalize it. Put your face to their face. You know, I once worked with a client who. Wouldn’t respond to our invoice emails like nothing, nothing, nothing.

But if I got in front of him by accident or on the street, or if he happened to be at the house and we were there and I said, Oh, did you receive that? You know, we’d really like to receive payment. He would immediately pay. And so some people are really brave. What do they call them? Like the keyboard warriors, or I don’t know what it is.

But then in person, They are not nearly as brave because that is putting a face to a face. So this is not an episode meant to teach you how to handle confrontation. By no means am I equipped with that. However, I think sometimes we get nervous dealing with a difficult client who’s making us feel bad and they make us feel like it’s all our fault, but really all you need to do is have a conversation.

And sometimes what you need to do is say, This isn’t working out. Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to either return a certain amount of money, or I’m going to hand over the project to the contractor, or I’m going to hand over this so you can finish it on your own. I just don’t think it’s the best fit.

I best, we’re not in alignment and ended up positively. If you’re close to the end, you can ride it out. That’s your choice, but I just wanted to be here, I guess, to support you and let you know, you can. Sever a relationship if it is not healthy. Ultimately, the long game is not getting that one project done and photographed.

Because guess what? Here’s what I’ve seen go awry with designer colleagues. They wait it out. They wait it out. They’re like, I just want it. This is going to be my portfolio piece. Like I just need to, I’ll just deal with this client and their crazy husband. Like I’m just going to get through to the end, but they get to the end and the client’s not happy with the result.

And then the client doesn’t, doesn’t even let them photograph the space or they photograph it. And then the client sends them a cease and desist. Do not post this. Like, I’ve seen it all. So don’t suffer for one project. Think big picture, long game. And so then the last thing I wanted to talk about was, how do we not get into this situation in the first place?

Right? Because like, that’s the ideal. Like, I don’t want to figure out how to deal with the person. I just don’t want to have that person. The best way to. weed out these toxic clients who take advantage of our good nature. And most clients are not like this. Like I want to make sure that anybody’s listening to this like most of my clients have been so wonderful.

And in fact, I interview my own clients for this podcast. It was like first and only time I’d done it. I probably should do it again. I interviewed two of my clients on the podcast and they talked about how they decided to hire me. Why me over another designer? And what they say in that episode, and they share a lot more nitty gritty in-depth, so you should definitely go listen to it.

But what they say is the fact that I appeared so professional and had a process made them consider me over other designers who didn’t really seem to have a set system or a way to communicate their pricing. And so process and getting a business established with A to Z is what’s going to help push away those clients that want to do it their way.

Because if you can show up on your website, in your discovery call, in your, you know, your about us documentation, your, all of your collateral in your consultation to show potential clients, I have a system. This is how we work. A, B, C, and D. This is our communication policy. Communication policy is probably one of the number one ways that you can Keep clients in check is you need to let them know early and often.

How do they communicate with you? Is it our preferred method of communication via email? Is it only Monday to Friday, nine to five? You are allowed to set those rules, but if you don’t set those rules before they hire you, It can be a bit of a dance, so make sure you’re setting those rules. But when that client comes to you or that potential client comes to you and you say, this is how we do things, it shows someone like, Oh, this bitch needs business.

She’s legit and maybe I’m going to have to do it her way. So maybe she’s not right for me, which is also okay. Right. But if you can have everything, in writing, in a contract, and you walk those clients through your contract at the beginning, not only do you look more professional, but you are laying the groundwork.

Like, hey, yeah, you’re paying me. You’re paying me to come and play in my sandbox. This is like tough love, Rebecca, today. If you guys hated this episode, Just DM me. It’s okay. I can take it. I don’t know why I’m feeling hot and bothered today. I think I just, Oh, I just, I’ve been seeing so many designers in situations with like clients that are taking advantage of them and the designers are sort of acquiescing and they don’t know what to do.

And I just felt like I needed to share a little tough love and also like tools because you, you can stop attracting those clients. You can get it. Beautiful humans hire those who value your worth, who completely trust you, and who are reasonable human beings. You can, and you need to have a system so that when the client comes to you, you look professional.

That’s why I established my course, power of process, right? That’s why I teach systems on this podcast. That’s what really lights me up and gets me so So pumped is this idea of having a process in your business. And because that’s what was a big game changer for me, it immediately elevated not only how much money I could charge, because I would be able to say here, here’s my seven steps.

This is how we work from here to here. It’s going to be this fee structure. Then it’s going to be this fee, you yada. And people were impressed. They’re like, all right, this girl’s legit. She knows what she’s doing. I will gladly pay her 10, 000 to design or I will gladly pay her 30, 000 to design plus implementation or whatever it was.

And it shocked me to be quite honest, how overnight I went from a one-woman show with an assistant designer charging hourly, not really estimating hours. Or if I did, I was overpriced and I didn’t really know the next step and I would show up at my client’s house and they’d be like, okay, well what then what, what do we need?

We really want to pick the furniture. Should we go look at the fabric with you? And I’d be like, I didn’t have a process. So I’d be like, yeah, sure. Let’s find a time. I’ll email you. Let’s find a time. We can go to Kravit. I’ll take you to Kravit. I’ll take you to Bill Burrows. There’s a bunch of fabric showrooms at Avondale, this area that used to be in Toronto and now it’s not there anymore.

They’ve moved to where my office is, but if you are a Toronto designer, you know what I’m talking about. And I would meet them and I would drag them to the showrooms. We’d go through all the fabric. And then it’d be like, okay, so now what? And it would be like, I mean, I’m good at thinking on my feet, but it was draining to always be making up, okay, that’s great, no, and I was, you know, it was casual, I’m gonna, this is great, we’re gonna order the, the memo samples, I’m gonna get them sent to me, and then I’ll swing by your house next week, and we can really narrow it down, and we’ll look at, and like, maybe for you, if that’s what you like to do, and you’re happy, and your clients are amazing, then this episode’s not for you.

So just skip to the next episode. But for me, when I finally said, Hey, this is Rebecca Hay Design’s way. There are seven steps. After we do this, then we’re gonna do this. And guess what? No, you’re not involved. In the design process, I handle those details so you don’t have to. As soon as I started doing that, Clancher was like, Oh, okay.

Like it was night and day. So if you can establish a process if you can have a communication policy that is outlined so that clients understand where your barriers and boundaries are, if you can also have a contract that is outlined with all of the details to make sure the clients understand they’re playing in your sandbox, that is going to go a long way in making sure that the wrong clients don’t slip through the cracks.

They’re going to happen from time to time. And then that’s when you need the tools to deal with it. Or you need the community, like inside designer’s room to say, Hey, this is happening to me right now. Like, what do I do? And that’s why I built Designer’s Room. That’s why I created it because there are times in your business when you need help, like.

Now, like I can’t wait till the next time I go to that event or that party to run into my designer friend. Like, I want to hear what other people are doing. Like, how would somebody else advise me? What would Rebecca do? What would Rebecca do? W W R D. But it’s helpful to have that feedback in real-time when you need it.

And that’s what Designer’s Room is for, having your process and having a set way that you do things, especially if you don’t have anything else established in your business. Get yourself a solid onboarding process. What I mean by that is what are the steps that you follow that you take clients through from the moment they reach out to you till the moment they sign on with you?

Hone in on that. If not anything else, hone in on that because once you get super clear on that process, the rest will start to follow. But that will help you bring on the right projects with trusting clients who are willing to pay your worth. I hope that wasn’t too preachy for you guys. Anyway, let me know, send me a DM on Instagram.

If you’re loving the podcast, please don’t forget to leave me a review. It would mean so much to me. Just go on over to Apple iTunes. You can also leave a comment. That would be awesome. So other designers know that we exist. It’s amazing. Not everyone knows that this podcast exists, so let’s spread the word and share it with a friend.

I will see you soon.