How to get into a Great Client-Designer Relationship

05 Jun 2014

I'm absolutely crazy about the people I work with.  Especially, my team and our clients.  We have been fortunate enough to be able to work with the type of clients who become lifelong friends.  I think it's largely because of the amount of information we put out there for our clients to consider before we are hired, and because we all ask so many questions before we agree to work together.   We've gone through a getting-to-know-you process before we've even started the actual design process.

{Me & a very sweet client at our first meeting}

I believe that for those looking to hire a decorator or designer, there's someone for everyone.  Like most positions in a creative fields, the decorator isn't a one-size-fits-all type of hire.  For a client-designer relationship to reach its full potential, (meaning, the process is lots of fun & runs smoothly and the results are a-mazing) there are some important things to consider.  

Ultimately, it's important to recognize that the decision to work or not work together is a two-way street.  Just as clients are looking for the right designers, decorators are looking for the right clients.  Everyone has different criteria in what he/she is looking for, but there are definite questions I would advise all clients ask themselves before deciding on who to hire, and for any designers who are looking to take on clients.  These questions are best asked before committing to work together, not after.

The design process can feel fun and creative and exciting and organized.   Or it can feel stressful, and harried, and confusing.  It's all about getting on the right train, so to speak.  It's about entering into the right relationship in the first place.   



{An in-process pic of a very dear client's home}


Our design firm follows the same process for every project, so a while back, we started to take note of which projects ran the smoothest and were the most satisfying for everyone involved.   We basically came up with a bunch of variables that I've noticed really affect the overall experience.  We also looked back to see if there were any warning signals for any of the projects we felt didn't run as smoothly as we would have liked and how we could have fixed it from the get-go.  In some cases, it would have been a matter of needing to know the future (i.e. that a "backordered" item would end up being backordered for-eva!!) but in other cases, it would have been about making sure that we and our clients stayed on track with our processes and with the way we do things.

I've learned that we need to stick to the way we do things.  We've created our processes for many reasons, but ultimately, because we know that following these processes will give our clients the best experience and results.  I've realized that in trying to please our clients with exceptions to the rules, in the end, it makes for a less successful experience for everyone.  

As an example, a few years ago, we decided that we would install our projects all at once before our clients could see them.  This came about because when things would go into my clients' homes piece-by-piece, I would get calls from my clients, worrying that maybe the sofa wouldn't end up working with the coffee table that was coming soon, or that the chandelier was too big.  I spent a lot of time talking people off of ledges and it was exhausting for me and ultimately, less satisfying of a process for my clients because of the anxiety that came with the arrival of goods.  Now, I can make sure everything is perfect before my clients see it.  They get to walk into the fully realized vision and they love it.  The process is better for me and for them.  



{The fully finished foyer in one of our super sweet client's home}


So, today I'm sharing my checklists for what clients & decorators should be asking of one another, how they should feel, and what they should be considering before getting started on a project together.  


{A pretty room I love via Domino}

The first set of lists is about how everyone should feel and can be used as a checklist for potential relationships.


How Clients Should Feel About Their Potential Decorator:

-You like him/her!

-You understand his/her process and it's exactly what you're looking for.

-You think their firm is well-run and organized.

-You love their work.

-You are excited to get started with them.

-They seem excited to get started with you.

-You are comfortable being on a waiting list to work with them.

-You trust him/her to talk to and confide in.

-You are comfortable with his/her fees and recommended project budget.

-You are comfortable with the timeline he/she has recommended for your project.


How the Designer Should Feel About Potential Clients:

-You like them!

-You like their style and get it.

-You feel confident you can help them create a home they will love.

-You think they are reasonable people (I.e. not dramatic) and that you can make them happy.

-You think the process will be enjoyable with them.

-You believe their budget is in line with the level of quality they desire.

-You believe their budget is in line with your firm's quality level.

-You are excited to work with them!

-You feel that they respect your time.

-You feel they respect your entire design staff.


And though I typically prefer to look at things from a positive standpoint, I do think it's important when entering into such a pivotal relationship, that people do a little mental check for red flags.  It will save so much time & energy in the long run.  If any of these red flags exist, it doesn't mean you definitely shouldn't proceed, but it should give you pause.  I've created red flag lists for both client and designers to take note of.     


{image from here}

Possible Red Flags for Clients to take Note of:

1. The potential designer looks as if he'she is working for free or practically nothing.  If it looks like he/she is working for free or practically nothing (which is what I did when I first got started!!:) then maybe the decorator is new & inexperienced and hoping to gain that experience with you (which is totally fine if they're up front about it) or maybe the decorator's fees are not transparent enough and they are making money in a way you don't understand.  It's always important to understand how your decorator is being paid.  At our firm, we are paid by design & meeting fees and the profit on the sale of goods.  This info is laid out in information we send to potential clients because we know that there are many different ways potential decorators charge and we want to be sure our clients understand our business model and are comfortable with it.  

2. You were not asked what your desired budget and quality level is.  A design firm needs to understand your budget in order to know where to shop for you and what you're looking for.  If they have not asked, and you haven't answered, you don't know what you're going to be presented with.  

3.  You are not comfortable with the designer's typical project budgets.  Whether higher or lower than what you are looking for, take into account how it will affect your project...  Do they have access to the right trade accounts for your budget level?  Will you be getting everything you need?

4. The potential designer doesn't have work in her/his portfolio that you truly like and you don't love the aesthetic you're seeing but you feel that they'll be "good enough."  The designer you're considering hiring may have come highly recommended and be truly talented, but if her'his work does not excite you, then they're not for you.  Everyone has his/her own style and you need to find the decorator whose work you adore.  

5. You do not really "like" your potential designer.  You need to enjoy being around this person so that the process is fun and special.  You can only do that if you actually like someone.  They be insanely talented, but if their personality doesn't jive with yours, it won't work well.

6. You do not 100% trust your potential designer.  Even if they are an amazing decorator and can create the home of your dreams for you, if you don't believe & trust in them 100%, it will not work.  You have to believe in them in order for them to be truly creative and give you the best results.  You also have to believe they are honest and have your best interests at heart.

7. The potential designer has not clearly explained the design process for you.  If you are looking for an organized process, you should expect that your potential designer will be able to outline how everything will work for you.  If he/she cannot do this, I would worry that the process might not run smoothly.  (When I first started out, I didn't do nearly enough explaining and know that things didn't run as smoothly as they should have.  It was more of a flying-bf-the-seat-of-my-pants type of process.)

8. You have asked or want to ask the potential designer for a discount on his fees.  This means you're not completely comfortable with what they will be billing you.  If you are not, you should not proceed.  Getting into a relationship for a luxury service with someone who has reduced his/her fees for you isn't really the best foot to start on. If you are dying to work with them because you love their style so much but cannot quite afford to hire them, it's probably best to wait until you can or lessen the scope of your project so that you can. Or, if you believe your designer's services to be too expensive, then you do not think that they are worth what they are asking, and they probably aren't for you.  

9. You have heard negative things about the potential designer.  Of course, you can't always believe everything you hear, but things like negative reviews from past clients should be looked into.  Find out why the review was negative and what happened?  (Is it a "bitter party of 1" case or valid feedback?)

10. Your potential designer is very sweet to you but isn't as nice to your nanny or receptionist.  Major red flag, enough said.  (This goes for your family & pets too!! ;)  

11. You are not sure if your potential designer "gets" your style and what you're looking for.  Maybe you simply need to give him/her more information and talk more, and that's okay.  But be aware that this is key in a successful outcome.  

12. Your potential designer talks badly about "other designers."  The person you want to work with should be confident in himself/ herself and not feel the need to put others down.

13. Your potential designer says that the date you need your project completed by is sooner than he/she is comfortable with.  If you will only be satisfied by having a project completed by this date, then you shouldn't proceed with someone who cannot do it by then.  And if your date is truly very soon and your potential designer says "yes!" make sure you know what types of products you'll be receiving. (ie custom vs. noncustom / trade vs. retail vs. one of a kind etc.)

14. You have asked your potential designer to make an exception to how they normally work & their processes.  It's always good to work with flexible people, but if are you asking a business to operate outside of its normal processes, you can expect that your project may not go as smoothly as those that projects that follow the normal way of doing things.    


If any of these red flags have been raised, it doesn't necessarily mean that you won't love working with your potential designer...  they're just things you should consider carefully before saying "yes."



Possible Red Flags for Designers to Take Note Of:

1. Event Deadlines.  If your client is hiring you because an event is coming up, be a little wary.  Make sure you are comfortable meeting any shorter-than-normal deadlines and that it will not send your processes out of whack.  If it will mess things up internally, don't take on the project.  Take into account what the event is...  is it a party? a holiday? a baby's arrival?  Take into account the sorts of emotions will be associated with the project, because if your client is feeling them, you will be too.

2. Requests for discounts.  If your potential clients are asking for a discount, they either (A) don't feel they can afford to pay what you're asking for because it's out of their comfort zone   (B)don't feel you are worth what you are asking for or (C)feel the need to negotiate everything (and let's be honest, that negotiating will be with you for the entire design process.)

3. Your assistant tells you they were not nice to him /her.  People are people.  We all need to be treated kindly no matter what our position or title is.  Your clients need to respect all members of your team.

4. Your potential client tells you that they want the house to look like "so-and-so-designer' could have done it.   If your client doesn't love your work, they're not going to trust you 100% and you might not be able to make them truly happy.  If you are excited to make your work look like so-and-so's, then by all means, go ahead, but if so-and-so's work isn't your thing, you may need to pass. 

5. You are not your client's first decorator.  Again, I'm not saying any of these red flags mean you shouldn't work with a potential client, they're just things to take note of & to consider.  I've had plenty of clients who have previously worked with other designers and they have been absolute dream clients. (really truly)  I have also seen potential clients who seem extremely difficult to please and it's important to consider the possibility that the issue was with them and not with their previous-however-many designers.  

6. Your potential clients want you to make an exception to the way you do things, just a little,  for their project.  This can totally work for some, and I see the appeal of being flexible, but again. something to note.  You need to make sure you can provide the very best service to your clients and if you are doing things outside of your normal scope, you might not be at your best.  

7. Your potential clients are uncomfortable discussing their budget & price points.  For the process to work, your clients need to be open with you about what they are looking to spend so that you can present them with the most fitting selections.  If they are uncomfortable telling  you or don't know how much they're comfortable spending, try to help them figure it out.  If you are unable to get a handle on the budget level the client is looking for, don't proceed.


If any of these red flags have been raised, again, it doesn't necessarily mean that the two parties won't be able to work together, but it does mean that the client might not be 100% comfortable with what is being provided by the designer or how it's being provided.  Thing may need to be further discussed and/or explained to get to that comfortable jumping-off point.  I can't stress this enough, but if both parties aren't 100% comfortable proceeding, they shouldn't.  If you are a designer and you can tell your potential client doesn't seem to be completely comfortable with working you for any reason, you should try to make them more comfortable, and if you are unable to, you should not take on the project for everyone's best interest.

This is very hard to do.  There have been times in which I've had to tell potential clients- whom I've absolutely loved talking to and/or meeting- that I don't think it will work for various reasons.  Most people are very appreciative of honesty & openness.

Anyway, I'd love to hear from any of you who have more to add to the lists!! Enjoy your day & I'll answer any questions in the comments section!!

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