Consumer attitudes have changed dramatically in the past decade. While the internet and HGTV have expanded interest in interior design, they have also created an army of DYI “savvy” shoppers who may choose to purchase their own furnishings and handle other parts of their project. Consumers have always been the biggest competitors for your services over other interior designers, and now they are more aware of design options than ever before. You have to work harder to convince clients they should hire you. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should take whatever client comes your way.
We can be our own worst enemies when establishing client relationships. Your decisions about whom you select as ideal clients should involve more than just the potential for revenue. Please don’t take a client just because you need or want the business. Here’s my advice for how to prevent client disasters.
1. Decide how and with whom you will and won’t work before you have your next conversation with a prospective client. If you haven’t completed the exercise of clearly defining your ideal client, it should include demographics (age, income level, profession [I found some types of professionals difficult to work with]), psychographics (likes, dislikes and values), personality characteristics, and technographics (their knowledge of and preference for email, texting, use of online tools, etc.). I also suggest you include specific personality traits or other attributes you prefer to avoid. If someone has worked with more than one designer and they are critical of all of them, run the other way. You’ll save yourself a tremendous amount of stress, time and money by avoiding difficult clients. Add the qualifying questions to your telephone interview list so you determine the deal-breakers before you spend time meeting in person.
2. Create a script for your questions and for your initial conversations with your prospects and your clients. As Harv Eker, a savvy businessman said, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” Establish your professionalism, process and dialogue from the very beginning. Practice in front of a mirror if you aren’t comfortable practicing with friends, colleagues or family members.
3. Compile a list of issues or questions that you’ve encountered with previous clients and turn that into a Frequently Asked Questions About Working With An Interior Designer report. Offer this FAQ to your prospective clients prior to your first meeting. You’ll have an entirely different conversation if you surface the issues early.
4. Work on your courage and self esteem. Many of the biggest problems that arise with clients are due to the fear of asking questions that may appear nosy, such as how much they’ve budgeted or decided to invest, for fear of how a client or prospect will react. How do you handle this? Be proactive. Think about what can and has gone wrong in previous client relationships. How can you address this in the beginning part of your relationship with your clients? Having the difficult conversations before you begin your client relationship ensures that it will be much smoother, or you will at least have a means to address the problems when they arise.
5. Ask your clients how they prefer to work. Do they want to do their own purchasing? Do they want you to purchase some items for them? Do they want you to purchase everything for them? Explain the benefits of you managing the process for them as well as the problems that occur when you don’t manage the entire process. If you don’t want to allow your clients to do their own purchasing, then you need to address this before signing a contract. It will be too late afterwards when a new piece of furniture unexpectedly arrives without your knowledge or assistance.
6. Explain and discuss billing options. Almost 70 percent of all consumers prefer a fixed fee. How do you work? Are you billing by the hour with a mark-up? This puts you in a position of providing design services that are a commodity. I’ve lost jobs to designers who have a lower hourly fee. It doesn’t matter that I’m more efficient and my business is more automated than less expensive designers. The client is only comparing cost, not quality. You’re also limited to how many hours you or your staff can bill. Even the most affluent clients are often stunned when they receive large invoices for time billed. When this happens, you lose trust, and potentially, a lot of money. Your clients might choose to trim your scope of work, and then you lose control of your project, future referrals, and your profits. What clients want are predictability, a sense of control, and a result that is based on emotional benefits.
7. Discuss in advance how you will both handle “x” when it occurs, such as,
- When they find a product for less money on the internet that you quoted at a higher price
- When a problem occurs with a product or service provided by you
- When they add to the scope of work and it isn’t included in your contract
- When they change their minds after the order is placed
- When you don’t receive payments for your services as agreed in your contract
- When they don’t discuss the amount they are willing to invest and your design exceeds the amount they had established in their mind
- When the client receives your early billings for time if you are billing this way
If such an issue occurs, you can then refer them back to the initial conversation. For instance, “Do you remember we talked about this during one of our first meetings? This is what we agreed we do, and now this is how we need to handle this situation.”
8. Allow your clients the option to purchase some items on their own. Wouldn’t you prefer to control the custom furnishings orders that require your expertise, problem-solving skills and detail management? If a client has a secondary room such as a basement recreation area that is used by their children, why encourage them to spend money on custom furnishings when using retail items is more appropriate? Your relationship with the client changes to one of a trusted advisor when you aren’t trying to make them purchase everything through you with your mark-up. The exception might be the ultra-affluent clients that don’t want to deal with the headaches of purchasing, managing deliveries and installations, no matter what the item.
9. Discuss deadlines before you sign a contract. This is one of the biggest reasons interior designers are sued. If a client’s deadline is unrealistic, you must address this and decide how to handle it before you start a project. You need a clear contract, and I recommend taking out professional liability insurance for every designer on your team. Just one lawsuit could lead to business failure and even bankruptcy.
10. Explain your process. Most consumers misunderstand our work as interior designers. Be proactive and explain very clearly how you work, why your work that way, and the benefits you bring to them.