Author Archives: Lloyd Princeton

Take a Realtor to Lunch

About one in four purchasers of an existing home plans to do some remodeling or upgrading to bring the property up to date and transform it into the home they really want. Even allowing for the fact that only one in five of these buyers is likely to hire an interior designer to help them with their project, with some five million homes a month trading hands, that’s still a lot of potential business. Are you getting your share?

Demand for existing homes, especially those in good neighborhoods, is high. Competition in some areas is fierce, and desirable homes do not stay on the market for long before eager buyers willing to pay well over the asking price snatch them up. If you’re looking to market your services to these buyers, you need to have an inside track to the market. You want to be well connected with local real estate agents.

It’s not enough to distribute your business card and marketing materials to local agents and hope for the best. You need to build strong relationships with them, and that takes time and effort. Begin with an invitation to lunch, breakfast or coffee. The purpose of this first encounter is to introduce yourself and to learn more about the agent’s business and clients. You are not trying to sell the agent on your services, but let them know how you may be of potential service to them, such as notifying them when hear of a property that may be coming on the market shortly. Don’t harass them, but keep in contact regularly to share information and advise them of your availability. If you do get a referral, be sure to thank the agent and send an appropriate gift for their courtesy.

A referral for a real estate agent just after the major purchase of a house or condo could be extremely lucrative, but you need to have established trust and kept the lines of communication open and active. If their clients are happy with your services, that’s an added bonus for the agent, too, and will incentivize them to keep sending business your way.

What’s Your SQ?

Having an impressive portfolio will certainly get the attention of prospective clients. But it’s no guarantee they will hire you. When it comes down to choosing one provider over another, what often drives a customer’s decision is the provider’s reputation for excellent service. No matter how good your design skills, if a client fears you will be unresponsive, distracted or difficult to work with, they will look to someone else to handle their project.

In the eyes of the client, your level of service translates into how much you value them. If you don’t answer phone calls, respond to emails or text messages, bill them for charges they don’t understand or believe they didn’t agree to, or get off schedule or budget with no warning or clear explanation, they will assume you don’t place much importance on them or their business. That can lead to bad feelings and complications down the line, from disagreements about implementing the project to dispute over invoices and negative reviews.

One way to assess your level of service is to compute your firm’s SQ – its service quotient, sometimes called the customer service quotient. Review the projects you’ve completed in the past month and give each of them a rating (from 1 = poor to 5 = outstanding) on key customer service areas, such as providing a clear and comprehensive written proposal for the project, timely response to phone calls and written communications, staying schedule and budget, adhering to stated work hours and delivery dates and times, etc. Now, do the same with areas where you fell short or received a complaint from the client (from 1 = minor to 5 = extremely serious).

If you are seeing a majority of 4s and 5s in your service ratings and mostly 1s and 2s in your problem ratings, your level of service is more than satisfactory. Otherwise, circle those areas where your service rating is low or your problem rating is high and work on improving them. When clients are happy with your service, they’ll also be more enthusiastic about the results you deliver.

Look for the Untapped Niche

Find a need and fill it is the old business maxim. The corollary to that maxim is not to drop your line in the pond where everyone else is fishing. These days there are lots of anglers, both professionals and non-professionals, trawling the same pool of potential interior design customers. Your best bet to reduce the competition is to look for a different pond.

Interior design clients are not all alike and are not all looking for the same thing. You can increase your business by focusing on a niche rather than promoting yourself as a generalist. I recently came across an article about a young designer who realized most residential designers pitch their services to couples. So she decided to focus her business on bachelors, who were underserved and have specific needs that couples do not. By talking with bachelors and taking on a few as clients, she learned not only what services to offer but how to market her services to appeal to them, promising a streamlined process with a high quality result. Her business is booming.

What worked for this young, enterprising designer can work for you, too. Make some inquiries and do some research to try to find out who in your area is being neglected or underserved. Consider what will appeal most to these individuals, not just what type of design, but the entire business experience. Inquire about their reasons for not hiring a designer and create a service that overcomes their objections. They will appreciate your responsiveness and consideration.

Need help identifying a niche that suits your talents and experience? Contact DMC. We can help you assess potential markets and develop a strategy to reach them.

Say Goodbye to the Year That Was

How did your business do this year? I hope it was a good one, as it was for quite a number of designers. If not, well, there’s always next year. In fact, there is only next year. Regardless of whether things went well or not so well, it’s time to put this year behind you and focus on the year to come.

Do take time to examine your business’s performance and assess what worked best and in particular which were your strongest sources of revenue. Unless those were due to some temporary change in your market, you’ll want to keep doing more of them in the coming year. Also make a list of the things that didn’t work, did not provide a worthwhile return on the time or resources you invested in them, or just proved to be a waste of time. Don’t fret about them; just stop doing them now. Trial and error is all part of running a business.

Now that you have your list of dos and don’ts, close the book on this year and don’t look back. Start exploring what are the opportunities that lie ahead for the coming year. Conditions look very favorable for designers. The economy is growing. The stock market continues to break new records. Tax reform will probably leave prospective clients with more disposable income. Home values will keep going up in most parts of the country. How might these trends affect your business?

The interior design industry is changing. The interior design client is changing. As you prepare your business and marketing plans for next year, bear in mind how things may be different and modify your strategy accordingly. Build on your success and embrace change. That’s a winning combination for future growth.

What’s Your Investment Strategy?

Benefitting from rising home values, many homeowners are taking advantage of the additional equity in their homes to undertake long-delayed repair and remodeling projects. That presents interior designers with new opportunities. You may need to revise your strategy when reaching out to these potential clients, however.

Many consumers, especially those who have never worked with a designer before, regard paying for interior design services as a luxury. They believe they can get the result they want without the added expense of using a professional. To win these skeptics over, help them to see that hiring you is not an extravagant expense. On the contrary, they should view it as an investment in their home, both for today and for tomorrow, and in their quality of life.

A good place to start is by sharing with them the industry information that shows how much certain improvements add to the value of a home at resale. While not all projects will pay for themselves, many still add to the overall value of the house by making it more attractive to buyers by improving its aesthetic, functionality, comfort and convenience. Such homes generally sell for more and sell faster than comparable ones in similar locations.

In addition, create a vision of how their redesigned and updated home will add value to their quality of life. What is it worth to them to spend less time on maintenance and cleaning, to have a healthier environment, to have a home they are proud to showoff to their friends and family, to have a refuge from the stresses of daily life, to wake every morning and feel renewed and rejuvenated by their beautiful, supportive surroundings?

These consumers worry that they will end up spending more for the same result. Demonstrate the ways you can improve upon their own vision for themselves and deliver a design that exceeds their imaginations and expectations. They may be reluctant to expend much on their home, but chances are they are willing to invest in their own well being.

What Does Luxury Mean to You?

Luxury is not what it used to be. Before the days of mass commercialization, luxury was, well, a luxury. Few people could afford luxury items. They were a symbol of wealth and prestige. Today, even people with modest means can own a designer handbag, watch or gown (or a fine imitation). Gourmet items are sold in neighborhood supermarkets. Well-designed, stylish furniture and handcrafted accessories can be purchased at reasonable prices through the Internet.

The economic hardships that followed from the last recession put a damper on luxury purchases, and those with wealth chose less conspicuous forms of consumption, such as luxury vacations and getting fit and pampered at a spa resort. Today, luxury is not about the kinds of possessions one owns but about the quality of one’s life—health, wellness, relationships, fulfillment. Nonetheless, when clients hire designers they often envision a “luxurious” result. How can you deliver on that promise?

In a world in which the meaning of luxury is in flux, where celebrities and CEOs are just as happy to shop Pottery Barn as Schumacher, it’s up to you to define luxury for your clients. Ultimately, luxury is a state of mind. Helping your clients achieve the dream of their ideal home is in itself a luxury. Provide them with spaces that are both aesthetically engaging and highly functional, make their lives a little less complicated by minimizing maintenance and cleaning, create an environment where they can relax with family and friends or escape from the demands of their daily lives, and they will luxuriate in a home custom-designed to fit their needs and a make their wishes come true.

Yes, you may have less opportunity to specify high-end furniture and furnishings. Keep in mind, though, that these clients are willing to pay for high-end experiences. Transform their project into a journey and you can compensate with fees what you no longer make with mark-up.

What Does “Getting Published” Mean Today?

You can have a successful design business without getting your projects published or winning awards. Still, without question, getting published helps to solidify your reputation as a talented, experienced and in-demand professional. It can introduce you to a whole new pool of clients while serving at the same time as a kind of tacit endorsement of your work.

For designers today, the question is where should they get published. With the Internet and social media, there is a lot of self-publishing that goes on today. Sites like Houzz, Pinterest and Instagram, as well as Facebook and Twitter, make it easy for designers to “publish” their own work in many places in addition to their own websites and blogs. This is great marketing and can help get you noticed, but it doesn’t carry the same “stamp of approval” as being published by a third party.

Print magazines, both national and regional or local, still carry some weight as arbiters of taste. Most have standard policies about whether they accept unsolicited projects for publication and in what form. You should consult the editorial staff or website, if there is one, for information about submitting a project for consideration.

Fewer people are purchasing magazines these days, and there are fewer print magazines to choose from. Many magazines have gone electronic and can be found only online. The added bonus of being published online is that you can then link to the article through your website and social media platforms, increasing the number of viewers who will see it. Similarly, there are third-party blogs that cover interior design and decoration, and they, too, published projects from time to time.

Where you published depends a lot on who you want to see your project. Print magazines will reach a more traditional audience, online publishing a more contemporary one. Also, keep in mind that magazines, even online ones, had a limited publishing schedule and can only cover so many projects a year. It helps to get in early on their editorial planning process before they fill up for the year.

Avoiding Client Conflicts

Every client is different. Yet, you know from experience that many clients voice similar complaints. Use that knowledge to your advantage. While you can’t always anticipate reasons for a client’s dissatisfaction, or control them, there are ways to apply past lessons to avoid repeating conflicts with clients. Why wait for them to complain?  Anticipate where friction might arise and dispel it before it becomes a problem.

One of the most effective ways to avoid conflicts is full disclosure. Clients frequently complain that they were not well informed about costs, billing procedures and rates (including expenses), purchases and purchasing decisions (including returns), scheduling and delays, and shops charges and contract labor. All of this should be clearly laid out in your contract or letter of agreement and gone over thoroughly with the client before the start of the project and any money changes hands. Maintain frequent communication with the client throughout the project and get written approval for any purchases, additional expenses or schedule changes. Complaints often arise because the client begins to mistrust you or lose confidence in your abilities. Be as transparent, communicative, flexible and responsive as you possibly can without compromising your professional judgment or integrity.

Another area where conflicts commonly arise is design choices. Clients may dislike your recommendations or agree to a color, pattern, material, accessory or what have you and later change their mind once they see it in their home. This is not always avoidable, especially if the client does not have a clear sense of the aesthetic they want or whether it suits their home and lifestyle. They think they will know it when they see it, but that is not always the case.  In such a situation, giving the client as much visual information as possible—samples, swatches, pictures, renderings, etc. Shopping with them and involving them in the decision-making may help to avoid bad feelings later on. Also be very clear up front which decisions can be altered (e.g., paint color) and which cannot (e.g., custom furniture or window coverings).

If there are other types of complaints you encounter frequently, write them down and then think through what you could do to avoid them. Apply the same thinking to your prospects. Are there telltale signs that let you know a potential client may be difficult or never be satisfied? If so, avoid taking on those clients and the resulting nightmares that go with them. There are plenty of other potential clients out there who will value your services and be delighted with the improvements you made in their home and their lives.

Why Do You Do What You Do?

Amid all the ups and downs, hassles and frustrations that come with running a business it’s easy to lose sight of what led you down this road in the first place. I don’t know of any designers who went to design school because they wanted to spend hours on the phone placating clients or cajoling suppliers into delivering merchandise on schedule. At the end of the day, though, that’s what pays the bills. But unless you’re solely in business to make money, it’s not what feeds your soul.

The day-to-day grind of running a business can wear you down over time. You can reach a point where you begin to wonder if it’s all worth it. Believe me, I’ve been there. That’s why it’s so important to take some time once in a while to get back in touch with your original passion and vision, and assess what’s going on in your business.

What could you be doing differently that would free up more of your time to do the things that really matter to you, that give you joy and satisfaction? Are there routine tasks you could delegate or outsource? Do you need to schedule time on your calendar for the activities you enjoy and look forward to? Have you been wanting to try your hand at something new, to give yourself an interesting challenge, or develop a different skill? Or do you just need some time away to refresh and soak up some inspiration?

Any and all of the above are possible, even if you’re a sole practitioner. Many options are available. It just takes a shift in perspective and some planning. I can help. Contact me, and together we can create a plan to get your excited about your design business again.

The Mark of Distinction

Home values are the highest they have been in years. Many homeowners are taking advantage of that additional home equity and low interest rates to take out loans to finance home remodeling projects. With the holidays and winter just months away, and fall design season in full swing, remodelers of all kinds can expect clients to come calling. Will they call on you?

Interior design activity picked up in the second quarter, but designers still lag behind contractors, remodelers, and kitchen and bath specialists in the amount of business they are attracting. Cost can be a factor, certainly, as can be the size or type of project. Still, all things being more or less equal, many homeowners are opting to work directly with tradespeople rather than through a designer. This suggests to me that they do not perceive a sufficient added value that the designer would bring to the project to warrant the additional cost. After all, there’s lot of free or low-cost interior design help out there. That puts the onus on you, the designer, to demonstrate that value.

If you haven’t done so lately, I urge you to take some time to review your website, social media pages, and promotional materials through the cold, hard, skeptical eye of the consumer. How are you distinguishing yourself and your services from the competition, both those outside the profession and other designers targeting the same market as your ideal client? What makes your offering unique? Do the images you are using demonstrate what sets you apart, or are they similar to those of lots of other designers (to the uneducated eye of the consumer)?

Think of the perfume counter in a large department store. There are literally hundreds of brands for the consumer to choose from, each promising to make the purchaser more alluring. Yet, each strives in its way to appear in some way unique, touting its mark of distinction, be it a celebrity endorsement, appeal to a certain lifestyle or fashion sense or lifestage, distinctive bottle or branding, or guaranteed results to attract the object of one’s affections. In the end, they are all selling the same thing, but not in the same way.

So what is your firm’s mark of distinction? It should be obvious and front and center in all your business communications. Otherwise, yours is little more than a generic brand.

If you are having trouble identifying or articulating your mark of distinction, then please contact me. I will work with you to review your marketing materials and create a unique, distinct brand presence to set you apart from the competition.