How to handle dissatisfaction with interior designer?
August 19, 2021 11:46 PM   Subscribe

I was dissatisfied with my experience with an interior designer, and I'm not sure how to handle it.

I hired an interior designer to help me choose furniture for a small business. I was very dissatisfied with their process and the outcome. This was my first time working with a designer, and I'm not sure whether I should voice my dissatisfaction and/or contest the final invoice. I don't want to disrespect or devalue their expertise, but I don't think the project was handled appropriately.

The designer was recommended by a colleague. We agreed on a quote in advance. The designer asked me to send inspiration photos.

I spent a lot of time looking through websites and coming up with a particular style. I selected a list of pieces to fit specific needs in the business, as well as tons of inspiration pictures I found online with lots of details about what I liked about them. I sent the designer my list with detailed specifications (down to the heights of chairs and whether they should have arms, the number of drawers in the computer desks and their placement, the look and feel that I was going for, etc). I also specified my time frame and my numbers for both my ideal and my firm budget.

They then gave me two design options, neither of which remotely resembled what I had asked for in either style or usability, and they were missing some major pieces, too. Whereas I had indicated that I was going for traditional, homey, warm, and inviting, they had selected pieces that felt sterile and commercial/corporate. The designer had already started to coordinate with vendors to make sure the pieces I wanted met my timing and budget restrictions.

We discussed it by email a bit; I explained how their choices didn't match what I wanted (e.g., the desk they proposed had two shallow drawers along the tabletop, whereas I absolutely need three larger drawers on the side; the credenza had open shelves, whereas I needed them to have solid/opaque doors because they were in a customer-facing area), but I didn't feel that we were getting anywhere (they told me that they LOVED and recommended the desk - but I didn't think it mattered, since I didn't love it, and it didn't meet my clearly-stated needs). I proposed that we speak by phone.

The next day, I spoke with the designer for an hour. I asked her to start with the items I had originally selected as a launch point, and from there we selected pieces from online retailers. She seemed to be understanding for the first time that I had certain specifications for a reason. She helped me make sure that the items coordinated well. The conversation took just one hour, and most of the items we settled on were items from my original list. She agreed with me that we should have had the phone call at the outset, instead of after all her team's work with vendors had been done.

I also asked her to help me with sizing (making sure there the items fit in the space appropriately), and she sent me back a diagram of one of the rooms we had worked on, but I got the impression that simply eyeballed things instead of measuring them. Now that the items have arrived, it seems that that really may have been the case.

Now the invoice has arrived, and it understandably matches the original quote. But I don't feel that I got commensurate value out of this interaction. I am not sure how to proceed.

On the one hand, the designer did do the work to select items, coordinate with vendors, and try to stay within my time frame and budget.

On the other hand, I feel like they disregarded my ideas, wishes, and clearly-specified needs (not saying that they actually did this, just that it feels that way). I feel like they should have called me to discuss things at the outset, since that's all we needed to do and it seems like a reasonable first step in a design project. Most of the final pieces were my own selection anyway.

So, now I'm not sure what to do. I don't want to diminish the value of their work, but I'm very dissatisfied. I'm also totally new to working with an interior designer and I don't know what the right protocol is.


1) Is this normal for an interior designer, particularly for a small business space? Is there something I should have done differently?

2) Do I:
2a) Pay the invoice and say nothing?
2b) Pay the invoice in full, but also send an email (politely) expressing my dissatisfaction?
2c) Request a discount because of my dissatisfaction?

I am heavily leaning toward 2b, since they did put in time and work, and it was the amount we agreed on, even though (I feel) they should have done a much better job.

Thank you very much everyone!
posted by aquamvidam to Human Relations (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I think they managed to pull it together, get additional pieces that fit in with what you were looking for and get it all to you which is a ton of cognative labor and is worth paying for. If the pieces don't actually fit in your space, that is a whole separate issue and worth disputing imho.

I would do 2b in this case. It's fine to report (privately) that you didn't feel listened to from the outset, that you had specific choices for very specific reasons and such, and that you feel that some time on both sides could have been saved with more upfront communication. Thank them for the work they did do, that it was prompt, that they allowed you to communicate and backtrack their plans when problems arose. Then let it go. They might change up their practices a bit or they may not.
posted by AlexiaSky at 12:49 AM on August 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

> Now that the items have arrived, it seems that that really may have been the case.

So the furniture doesn’t quite fit the room and the layout and flow are not great?
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:58 AM on August 20, 2021

Best answer: It sounds like a mismatch between look/style the designer normally works in, and the one that you wanted. They may not have been the right people to work with in the first place and I can see why you're unhappy with the service. Having said that, if they have fundamentally delivered the work (you have products that work, which they sourced) then I think you need to pay them in full. I think it's sensible to give politely worded and objective feedback, particularly if you are likely to share your feelings about the experience with other people anyway.
posted by plonkee at 1:17 AM on August 20, 2021 [5 favorites]

If the items now do not fit the space after you expressly asked them to confirm they would…that’s worth some kind of discount or free resolution on their part (arranging for pick up of things that do not fit and delivery of items that do).
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:57 AM on August 20, 2021 [2 favorites]

It doesn’t really matter how much work the designer did if you can’t use the pieces because they don’t fit. I’d tell her that the furniture is unuseable because of this and work together with her on it until she can find replacements that suit the space. I wouldn’t pay her invoice until the job is done. If she’s any kind of professional she won’t expect you to either. Just explain nicely and together you should be able to resolve it.
posted by Jubey at 3:09 AM on August 20, 2021 [6 favorites]

Best answer: Absolutely 2B. If a piece literally doesn’t fit, the designer should aid you in returning and replacing at no additional fee to you.

One thing that hadn’t been mentioned - her drive to get going quickly wasn’t just jumping the gun. It’s extremely difficult to get furniture right now due to COVID production weirdness. I work for a university and our designer ordered new classroom furniture at the end of April/ beginning of May. Half the order arrived a few weeks ago… the other half of the order (of the same chairs) is delayed indefinitely. I know people who ordered residential furniture and given a 10 month lead time.

So the designer’s desire to work with vendors she knew and trusted and her tendency to move quickly are likely rooted in a belief that any delay could have resulted in no furniture at all. When I saw the initial blurb, I thought that would have been the complaint. The fact that she pulled off furnishing an office on any sort of timeline at all right now is worthy of her fee.
posted by Kriesa at 3:43 AM on August 20, 2021 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for these excellent insights!

To clarify, in case it makes a difference:

1) They did not order the furniture for me. They helped me to select retail items that I purchased on my own. (Their initial selections were through commercial vendors, but I would still have had to do the ordering and purchasing on my own.)

2) Their rates are hourly, though they did not provide a time breakdown on the final invoice.

3) To answer cotton flow sock: Yes, the pieces don't quite fit (I can make them fit, but it could be better, and the flow isn't great). The company's lead designer did a walk-through with me months ago, but it was a different designer who worked with me on furniture, and she had never actually seen the space in person.
posted by aquamvidam at 3:48 AM on August 20, 2021

I’m not a designer but I know one or two so I will just try to channel what I think some of them might say: designers often have a style and a market niche. Their website gives examples of their work and if what you wanted was a long way from what they exhibited you bear some responsibility for elements of misunderstanding. You wouldn’t go to a clothing store that displays sports wear and then ask for tailoring.

On the one hand you sound very thorough and it seems you put a lot of effort in to support their work. I think it sounds like they didn’t give you the right amount of attention in the early stage and that is a major error on their behalf.

On the other hand you also sound specific and precise and this is often where things break down. Yes, that perfect chair exists and a good designer in the right niche will know how to get that chair made for you to your spec. However, if you want that chair off the shelf and so within budget - it is very unlikely to be precisely what you want. They will get you something in the area.

Finally, a big part of a designer’s job is managing the client’s disappointment. One friend regularly finds his clients do not know that what they want are custom made things that have custom made prices. Their view - before they are disillusioned - is that they are looking at things (in magazines or other people's homes) that are off the shelf and it is just up to a designer to find them at the right price. In reality - the designer is going to have to work with the craftspeople or manufacturer to produce those custom made items that fit precisely at a very high price.

I think 2b is the right approach- and you have mostly written it above. Best of luck.
posted by spibeldrokkit at 4:02 AM on August 20, 2021 [3 favorites]

Good advice above. Would just add to factor in the rate and prestige of the designer into what you can ask from them. I probably would just eat a $40/hour or less fee and by $100/hour be pushing hard on them to make it right (midwest.)

Also, if your business is put at risk by this then you almost have to try to get something from them. It wouldn’t be pleasant but they’d understand.
posted by michaelh at 6:28 AM on August 20, 2021

I am not sure how relevant this is, but designers often work on a combination of hourly rates and a markup on the furniture/services. Also, they have different levels of service. The designer I know is on site for every delivery and install. They often coordinate so that all the furniture is delivered same day or in the right sequence (want the carpet before the desk). While I agree that designers often have a niche or a style, a good designer should be able to adapt to whatever the client wants or tell the client that they are not the right person for the job. The designer I know really well does large corporate designs, full floor carpet to lighting designs and installs working with the architect on things like outlet placement, etc as well as very large private homes. They turn away work all the time because it would be a bad fit style wise and a time suck.

Furniture is hard to come by for immediate delivery or even short term these days. My designer friend has been going to the Resto Hardware outlet on certain days at certain times to be there when the new shipment of floor samples or whatever show up. If the day and time is Monday at noon, if you are there Tuesday morning or even late Monday, you will miss out on some real good pieces.

This designer will be there when the painters they hired show up. Make sure the color is right. Make sure the drop clothes are down and the cleanup afterwards is thorough. Even will decide where to put the extra cans of paint. The logistical nightmare of coordinating sometimes dozens of vendors to all do their part in a specific order at a specific time is amazing to me. Add to that the things such as the building they are installing in shuts down the freight elevator from noon to one and they have to coordinate around that, get the insurance, make sure the furniture fits in the freight elevator or through the door or have a furniture maker on site to cut a couch and put it back together to get through a door, etc, is daunting. The only thing I can compare it to, and I have worked as the person in charge of operations for a publicly traded company is taking 3 children under the age of 3 on a two week vacation 4,000 miles away. (Diapers, food, clothes, car seats, getting on the plane, having toys available, etc, )

Having said that, if you agreed on a price, they ultimately performed, I would pay them and let them know why you were disappointed. I do not know what expectations they set for you or you set for them. The red flag to me was when you said you ordered and paid for the furniture yourself. The designers I know would prolly not work on an hourly basis. They would want to order the furniture with whatever designer discount they get, and then mark up the cost back to retail to you. I guess what I am saying is you get what you pay for.
posted by AugustWest at 8:42 AM on August 20, 2021

I think you should have a conversation with the lead designer to get a better feel whether this is part of their normal workflow. To me, this sounds like you did 90% of the work. What exactly were you paying for? (I know what you expected to pay for, but I don't think they delivered on that.) I would push back on the company to get a better idea of what services your invoice was intended to cover. Do you have a contract or initial service agreement? Anything that details what services they provide for their charges?

To me, the answer somewhat depends on the amount of the invoice. If we're in the thousands of dollars, then I do think that there should be some discount and/or a strong understanding that you were not happy with this process and this designer. If it's a $300 consulting fee, then you might just have to eat the cost.
posted by hydra77 at 9:55 AM on August 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

Do you want them to have a second chance? If so, you could tell them that their suggestions didn't come even close to following the design direction information you laboriously put together for them, and because of that you won't be able to give them a positive review on Yelp and Houzz (if you are in the US) but you are willing to give them a second chance. Then they get to decide what's more important to them...not spending more time on it or not risking a bad rating and review. Frankly to me it sounds like they did a crappy job and didn't deserve to earn this money for poorly provided service.
posted by Dansaman at 10:44 PM on August 23, 2021

Response by poster: An update: I went with 2b. I received a one-line reply with an apology for any inconvenience.

I still learned a lot from this experience. Thank you all for your great insights.
posted by aquamvidam at 5:16 PM on November 2, 2021 [1 favorite]

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