How to Respond to Difficult Clients (Using 4 Readymade Answers for Artists)

By Denise Ivey Telep in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

As a young art entrepreneur, I can remember being on a sales call where I was asked to estimate my final price without having designed the project yet.

I tried to explain to the interior designer that such a request was nearly impossible, since I hadn’t even sat down and sketched out possible designs. . . the best I could do was ballpark a range, and even at that, I would need to adjust for variables.

This answer was unsatisfactory for my client, and I had what I now refer to as a “retail awakening.” You see, the client was unwilling to pay for my design time if they couldn’t afford the final project.

In the world of traditional interior design, quoting a price based on square footage is a perfectly normal thing to do. In my world of murals, on the other hand, creating a fee out of the air, without even a basic design in hand, would be sheer folly.

Most artists, whether selling commissioned pieces or finished art, will invariably find themselves in similar sticky situations. To keep the client happy, get the sale, and maintain professional relationships, it helps to have a healthy amount of social finesse and verbal skill.

The following paragraphs will give you some “readymade answers” for a few tough situations that most artists—at some time or another—will likely find themselves in.

First, understand what the buyer really wants

Ever since my original “retail awakening” I have come to learn that the buyer, most of all, wants reassurance.

Like in any sales scenario, the buyer wants to know the product is worth the price. Knowing yourself and your own worth becomes a critical part of speaking with confidence and transmitting your professionalism.

When I was younger, I was afraid of two things:

First, that I would quote a price that would end up being too low for the work I would want to do, and second, that my price would be too high for an unknown idea in my customers mind.

For many artists, of course, previous sales will set the price for your work and the artwork already exists (hanging up in the gallery, most likely).

But if you do custom or commissioned work, every new idea has size variables, design variables, production variables, research time, and installation variables that will make quoting a “ballpark” price a disaster.

What’s the solution? Well, today, when I am asked, “What will this artwork cost me?” I have a short 1-paragraph response that I use over and over again. I say:

“Your final price will be determined by my time, the size, the complexity of design, the production of the actual work and whatever installation might be required. Since this work is custom, you decide all those requirements which means you’ll have a great deal of control over your costs.”

Then I begin the design idea process and show them what’s possible.

I have found that “price fears” have less to do with the actual amount, and more to do with what the client is getting for the money spent. In other words, if the client is excited about what you are suggesting, and can see the visual impact of what you can do, then price is not even an issue—price only becomes an issue when the client is worried they won’t get a good product.

By using the example paragraph above, I show confidence and knowledge of my process, which helps allay any fears my customer might have, before an idea is even in the wind.

What to do when the buyer starts negotiating

If you are ever in a situation where a “patron” wants to negotiate a price, you’ll probably find yourself uncomfortably wanting the sale, but not wanting to be taken advantage of or disrespected.

For example, if your price for an original is $1000, and the patron “lowballs” you, I recommend the following conversation that, at its heart, has a win-win attitude.

“Will you take $500 for it?” a potential buyer might ask. (Be warned, my next answer here will shock you. . . )

“I would love to take $500 for it.” (Disarm them by not being offended or defensive.) “When my art goes to a good home, I feel great. Unfortunately, all my other collectors would feel cheated because I would be immediately devaluing their artwork. I am sure you wouldn’t want me to do that. . .”

Then—and this is very important—ignore the question of price and immediately begin a conversation to discover why they liked your work.

Ask them what they see in it, and refrain from telling them what you see in it. When the customer has connected to a piece of art, it really is all about them at that moment. If you validate what they see, you may learn more about your own work than you thought possible—and they’re more likely to buy your art.

Here is another thing that might shock you. Had you accepted the lowball offer of $500, you would have immediately devalued the piece in the customers mind, and nine times out of ten they’d say, “Okay, well I’ll be back. . . I have to think about it.”

The reason for this is simple. If you don’t believe your art is really worth $1000, then maybe it isn’t worth $500 either.

What to do when a client wants something for free

In the custom art business, as a muralist, I am periodically asked to do more than what was originally agreed upon. Because I want to maintain the best possible relationship with my clients, the question becomes how much extra “free” work can (or should) I do without devaluing myself or my time?

Usually these requests come from customer ignorance—they see that you have paint already mixed, or a palette set to go, so they feel that it’s just a matter of a few strokes here, an extension there, another cloud, a deeper shadow, etc.

Most of the time I’m glad to add a few details or stay longer to accommodate my customer’s request. If all goes well, she’ll be the source of many more referrals, so it’s not worth leaving her unhappy.

However, if what is being asked will take an additional day, or cause more expenses on my part, I always respond, without any nervousness or defensiveness on my part:

“That would be a great idea.” (It’s always best to appear accommodating before you state your conditions.) “It will take another half day of painting at my regular rate. Would you like me to plan for that?”

If your customer says, “Oh, I thought you could just add that in right now,” your response should be:

“Well, right now I’m still concentrating on the areas that aren’t up to my standards yet. . . since I’ll be signing my name to this when I’m finished, I personally have to be happy with it. But I’d be willing to adjust the area you’re talking about, it’ll just take me another half day. Would you like me to plan for that?”

This same type of thing often happens in the early stages of a commission piece when a client asks you do draw up an idea without wanting to pay for the time you’ll spend.

I have found that design and sketching costs are best received when placed within the total price of the art, so to justify a design fee you might want to say:

“Based on what we already discussed, I’ll be creating a drawing for your approval before starting on the actual project. I charge __________ for the time I spend sketching, and if we go forward with the project, you’ll receive that same amount credited towards your initial down payment.”

It is also a good policy to say “down payment” rather than “deposit” since many people misinterpret a deposit to be refundable.

Your main goal in communicating with confidence should be to make sure that your responses are both clear and positive. Handling objections with a  first response like, “Sure I can do that,” will get you much further than, “What? We didn’t agree on that!”

Your customers also want to know that you think highly of the work you produce and that you have standards you will not fall beneath.

If you convey right from the start that your expectations for the finished artwork are just as high as theirs, then even when having to deliver bad news like, “I will be charging for another painting day,” it will be understood that your intent is to simply give them the best work possible.


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