How to Handle Clients That Shop You

Every now and then a designer contacts me for advice on dealing with a client who has taken their product recommendation and purchased it themselves online or directly from the vendor. Fortunately, this does not happen often, although with so much product easily available through the Internet it happens more often than it used to. Some clients are just bargain hunters. Others are suspicious of designers marking up products excessively.  It’s all part of the “new normal” today. Here’s what designers I’ve talked with recommend.

Some designers have decided to avoid the problem altogether by raising their design fees and eliminating markup on product, or by only offering design and project management services and letting the client do all the purchasing.  Others markup to-the-trade-only and custom pieces not easily available to the client but not any products bought at retail, whether in-store or online.

Another strategy to prevent being shopped is to withhold from the client identifying information, such as vendor or label names or product numbers, to make it difficult for the client to comparison shop or contact the vendor directly.  A similar tactic involves working with vendors who offer the ability to “private label” products, thus making them one-of-a-kind and untraceable.

Aware that clients are likely to ask or take matters into their own hands, some designers prefer to have a conversation about purchasing with the client during the initial consultation. Among other topics, they explain to the client that products that appear to look the same but sell for less are not of the same quality and reliability. They also let the client know that they assume all liability for any products they purchase themselves, including shipping charges, damages, returns, and warranty claims. So as to avoid any misunderstanding, they explain to the client their policy and fees regarding shopping for and researching products, markups, discounts, and products they have researched and specified that the client later decides to purchase independently.  These terms are also included in writing in their contract or letter of agreement.  In some cases, to ensure they are compensated for their time and expertise, the designer will notify the client in advance that they will charge their commission or markup percentage on any product they research and specify, regardless of who makes the final purchase.

If you’ve not had a conversation with the client previously and you’ve been shopped, you need to make your client aware of the responsibility they have assumed and agree on how you will work together going forward.  You will be able to tell by how the client responds whether they value your services or not.  Don’t lose a good client over a possible misunderstanding.  On the other hand, if the client brushes you off, it may be time to move on and cut your losses.

Gail Doby

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