Author Archives: Lloyd Princeton

Build a Better Mousetrap

A keystone of American business for over two centuries has been the counsel of the eminent New England philosopher and scholar Ralph Waldo Emerson, who is credited as the author of the saying, “Build a better mousetrap, and the world will beat a path to your door.” It has inspired inventors and would-be inventors ever since. But you don’t have to be an inventor to profit from Emerson’s advice.

What holds true for an invention holds true for your firm as well. Are you unhappy with how your business is performing? Do other designers seem to be busy while you’re scrounging for clients? Build a better mousetrap. What can you do better than your competition? Are you a better designer? Are you a better salesperson? Do you run a tighter ship and always deliver your projects on time and within budget? Are you easier to work with and get great reviews from your clients? Do you have a knack for finding that perfect, one-of-a-kind product, artwork or accessory? Do you make sure you’ve dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s before closing out a project and take the time to carefully explain everything to the client and walk them through all the improvements you’ve provided for them, leaving them with all the appropriate manuals and care instructions?

Whatever it is, or they are, you are sure to do some things better than your competitors. So compete with them on those things, not on what they’re selling. There are clients out there who will value you for the gifts, talents and experience you have. If there’s room in the world for a Picasso, a Warhol and a Jackson Pollock, there’s room for you, too.

Need some help figuring out how to position your talents in your market? Contact me and let’s talk it through. I have helped dozens of designers to find their better mousetrap and enjoy a more profitable and satisfying business.

 

Reactivate Your Network

According to recent reports, interior designers are feeling optimistic about their business opportunities for the rest of the year, having seen their activity rebound in the past several months. As peak vacation season winds down and we head into the fall décor and design season, now is the time to renew contacts with those in your network who can serve as sources for leads and referrals.

In my previous blog I spoke about the importance of maintaining contact with ideal client prospects and former clients. The same holds for suppliers, vendors, industry reps, real estate agents, builders, contractors, specialists, consultants, and others who are likely to come in contact with current or new homeowners wanting assistance with design and remodeling projects. They, too, likely have had some time away from their businesses or had their minds on other matters during the seasonal lull. Get back in touch, remind them that you’re still around and looking for clients, and, in turn, would be able to send some business their way, too.

Depending on the depth of your relationship, you may just want to send a friendly email or make a quick phone call. For more important sources, invite them for coffee or a meal. Pass along a few of your business cards, and confirm you have their most current contact information and preferences. Make sure you have something to offer in return, even if it’s just to be available when they need a favor or some information. Reciprocity fuels relationships.

Also check out the calendar for upcoming business community and civic events, such as Chamber of Commerce meetings or fall fairs and festivities, and make an effort to attend. Take part in local design activities, like showhouses, tours, or free consultations. It helps to be visible and recognized as a leading local professional.

And don’t forget to update your website, social media channels and marketing materials. If you’re not satisfied with the amount of business your firm is getting, contact me. I can help you devise a marketing strategy to get your business back on track at this critical time.

The Price of Misunderstanding

I’m often called upon by my clients to help them settle a dispute with a disgruntled client. The problem, I find, usually results from some misunderstanding. Initial expectations have not been clearly set or met. The designer and the client have different accounts as to what was agreed upon, be it the design, the schedule, a product, or pricing. Fortunately, these types of disputes most the time can be mediated successfully. In hindsight, however, they should not have occurred in the first place.

One of the cardinal rules of any business transaction is to put it in writing. Moreover, the terms need to be clear and mutually agreed upon. This helps to ensure protection for both parties. Yet, many designers are reluctant to use a contract or formal letter of agreement with their clients, or their documents are not thorough or updated as changes are made during the project. When a problem arises, they have difficulty proving what was agreed to.

Proper documentation begins with the first client interview. Take detailed notes, review them with the client before concluding the meeting, and follow up with a written summary and itemized list of what was agreed upon. When you have confirmation from the client, then prepare your proposal, contract or letter of agreement, and review it with the client, preferably in person. If changes are made during the project, document those and have the client initial their approval. Needless to say, your documents should be as detailed as possible and clearly written for a layperson to understand. If you are using a prepared contract document, provide a cover document that highlights the main and essential points of the agreement in plain language.

Maintain regular communication with the client throughout the project and provide periodic progress reports. Addressing doubts and concerns is one of the best ways to ensure expectations on both sides are being met.

While they cannot anticipate or prevent all problems that may arise, proper documents will help to resolve disputes more readily and fairly. Otherwise, you may be liable for costs or damages, in addition to possibly losing a client and perhaps harming your reputation and prospects for future referrals.

If you need assistance with resolving a client problem, contact me. With my years of experience successfully mediating and negotiating such disputes, I can save you time, stress and probably expenses, too.

What Price Success?

Have you ever wondered why, in this day and age of electronic payments, retailers continue to price their goods with odd numbers, like $9.99 instead of $10? The reason is simple, really. It works. We all have a threshold of what we think something is worth. When that threshold is crossed—yes, even by a penny, it can dissuade us from making that purchase. The moral of this little lesson in marketing is, pricing matters.

I don’t have to tell you that today’s interior design clients are price conscious, even the wealthy ones. Just ask any struggling luxury retailer. It’s not for recreation that they choose to spend so much time on their smart devices comparison-shopping for products. The same is true when it comes to fees. Regardless of what you believe your services are worth, clients have their own figure in mind. If you overprice your services, you risk losing clients. Of course, if you underprice your services too much, you erode your profitability and risk harming your business. Witness all the discount retailers who are going out of business.

Not for a minute am I suggesting that you should work for less than what you are worth. Follow the example of the savvy retailers. What you want to do is to hit a sweet spot that does not cross the client’s threshold but stays within your range of profitability. Then, present the client with a value proposition they cannot refuse. Increasing the value to the client will increase their threshold of price tolerance. iPhone anyone?

Be prepared that the client may not be consciously aware of what their threshold is, so you may need to do some probing and negotiation in order to seal the deal. No matter how good a designer you are, your pricing can make the difference between making a sale or losing one.

If you’re unsure about how to price your services in today’s market, contact me. I can help you devise a pricing structure and value proposition that will win you more projects.

What Else Have You Got?

If your business has been slow of late and your revenue projections are off for the year, don’t feel too bad. You are not alone. Selling design services is getting harder and harder these days. Selling design management even more so. A handful of designers are doing really well, but many are struggling to keep their businesses afloat. As I see it, the choice is diversify or die.

In my previous blog, I counseled that if you have some available cash consider investing in real estate or perhaps as a silent partner in a promising business where you don’t have to be involved in sales or the day-to-day management. You want to make sure you will be available when the next client comes along.

That’s right. I’m not suggesting you shut down your interior design or architecture firm. My advice is to seek additional sources of revenue to get you through the dry spells, something to help pay the bills while you drum up more work.

But what if you don’t have money to invest? If you can’t diversify your investments, then diversify your offerings. One strategy is to reposition your services to appeal to a niche clientele. An obvious one these days is to focus on aging in place modifications. Most young, first-time homebuyers are married couples who are starting or planning to start a family. You could advise them on preparing their home now so that it can be adapted easily as the family grows and grows up, also on making the home a safe and supportive environment for children.

A different strategy is to add a sideline, such as partnering with real estate agents to conduct walkthroughs with prospective higher-end homebuyers to point out the issues and opportunities in a property, or creating virtual interior environments for retailers’ or service providers’ websites. What other talents do you have that you can combine with your interior design expertise to offer a new service and potentially attract new design clients? Do some research to see what today’s homebuyers and homeowners want. Then use your creativity to offer it to them in a unique and compelling way.

Make Your Next Move to Greener Pastures

Clients more frequently are seeking design consultations and advice, rather than hiring designers to design and manage projects, often resulting in lower fees and fewer billable hours for the designer. This is making it tough for sole practitioners and smaller firms to remain profitable. In the past, when designers wanted to increase their revenues, they would focus on selling clients more products. Those opportunities are becoming harder to come by now, as more and more clients choose to go online and do their own purchasing. Designers need to be looking for other sources of revenue to sustain their businesses and maintain their incomes.

Some designers have sought to enhance their revenues by creating products to sell to clients and others. As I advised in a recent blog, however, without ample contacts and an aggressive marketing effort, diversifying into product design or manufacturing is not likely to substantially increase revenues and could end up adding to expenses with little or no return.

In recent conversations with clients struggling with the changes going on in our industry, I have been counseling them to consider pursuing alternative sources of income to supplement their design revenues. By alternative, I mean sources outside of the interior design industry. Depending on where you reside, there are, for example, at present many good real estate investment opportunities. Since designers frequently have good contacts with residential and/or commercial real estate developers or sellers, this seems to me a fruitful avenue for designers to pursue. Of course, as with all investments, there is a certain amount of risk. You need to decide how much risk you are able and willing to afford, and do your homework thoroughly before investing.

If you’re contemplating what you should be doing to grow your business or enhance your revenues, please contact me. I’ve helped many designers to develop strategies and plans that have allowed them to transition to their next level of success.

Are You Working Your Core?

For keeping fit or building a skyscraper, having a strong core is essential. When the core gets weak, the rest of the structure begins to suffer, and that eventually leads to problems. The same is true for businesses. If you neglect your core, eventually your business will decline. And as anyone knows who’s struggled to get back in shape, rebuilding your core is a lot more work than maintaining it.

What does it take to keep your business’ core in good condition? First, focus on your core business. Review your projects from the past several years. Where do you excel or have something to offer that is unique and in demand? Are you in the business of providing design services or selling product? Do clients hire you for your design expertise or to manage their projects? What types of projects do clients seek you out for – kitchens, bathrooms, bedrooms, custom spaces, whole house design or remodel, vacation homes? Where you find the greatest sustained demand and profit is your business’ core. Now, what can you do to strengthen your core business – attract more clients, more projects, or larger or more profitable projects?

Second, focus on your core market. Where is most of your business coming from? You may aspire to working with wealthy clients, but are they your ideal client, the one that is going to hire you and refer you to others? Is your business mostly local and through word of mouth? If so, how can you increase your number of contacts with prospective clients? If you receive a number of inquiries through your website, social media pages or designer referral services, how can you enhance your online presence?

While it’s good to diversify your business to increase your opportunities, be careful not to neglect your core business in the process. If you accept whatever business comes your way, you run the risk of getting distracted, losing touch with your client base, and diluting your brand. Especially in time of increased competition, maintaining a strong core gives you a firm foundation upon which to grow your business and expand your market.

Think Twice About Adding Products to Your Business Mix

A common diversification strategy for interior designers is to create products. On the face of it, this appears to make sense. Aside from designing interiors and managing projects, what most designers know a lot about is product. Certainly, many designers have successfully launched their own product lines, some quite famously. In the current market, however, if you are looking to diversify your business, product may not be the right direction in which to go.

With globalization and new production technologies, the amount of product available to designers and their clients has grown exponentially in recent years. And along with it, the number of distribution channels have multiplied, especially on the internet, which is where most clients are searching for product. It is a challenge for anyone selling products these days to attract a profitable share of those eyeballs. If you think it is difficult marketing interior design services online, try promoting products. It requires substantial effort and resources, and constant vigilance.

On the other hand, if you have a sizeable and active clientele and/or network of designers interested in purchasing your products, or have access to bespoke retail outlets, creating products may work for you. Preferably these would be distinctive products that could be provided on demand or manufactured in small enough quantities to minimize your initial investment and overhead costs. They should also be easily scalable, so if demand increases you can quickly ramp up to meet it.

If you’re thinking about diversifying your business, whether with adding product or new services, contact us. We can advise you on what may be your best options and help you avoid missteps by developing a realistic transition plan to keep your current business thriving while you grow into your new one.

Where Is Your Business Headed?

Think back three or four years ago. Would you have predicted that your business would be where it is today? So much has happened in our industry in the past several years that it seems a challenge to plan just a year or even six months ahead. Nevertheless, I encourage you to consider taking the long view and develop a five-year plan for your business.

Yes, I know it sounds absurd, given the fast pace of today’s business environment and continuing economic uncertainty. Here’s why you should do so. Without a long-range plan, you can easily begin to drift, tossed about by near-term trends and fluctuations in demand. While you can’t know for certain what the next six months, year or three years may bring, you can anchor yourself to your desired future for your business by planning ahead and allowing for contingencies that may occur.

Start with the obvious question: Where do you want your business to be five years from now? Ideally, do you want it to grow in size or expand into new markets? Do you want to be more diversified in your offerings or specialties? Would you like to do more selling, client development, and/or consulting and less design work? Or perhaps you are looking forward to retiring or selling your business. Those types of changes don’t happen overnight in most businesses. They require research, planning, cultivating contacts and enlisting expert advice, possibly hiring and developing staff so that they will be ready to take over some of your current duties when the time comes. Some scenarios may also require amassing a certain amount of capital.

Even if you can accomplish your goal in less time, it helps to take the long view. Like standing on the top of a mountain, you can see the lay of the land clearer and not be distracted by incidentals. Your plan does not have to be detailed at this point; it just needs to include the major objectives and milestones. Then, if something occurs you did not anticipate, you can maneuver around it or adjust as necessary, and keep moving toward your goal.

Low-Risk Method for Updating Your Business Model

With competition from so many quarters, designers, it seems, are having a difficult time maintaining a unique and viable proposition for their business. Perhaps you’re thinking of expanding into new areas of service, designing products, or adding a design specialty or subspecialty to your menu of offerings in order to set your firm apart from your competitors. It’s always a good idea to adapt your business model to changing market conditions. But how can you know if such a move will be successful?

When markets are in flux, sailing into uncharted waters can be risky. Will there be a big enough market and sufficient demand for what you intend to offer? How should you price your new services or products? You will need to take time away from your usual activities to ramp up for the change, identify potential clients, and promote the new offerings. Quite possibly you will need to hire or outsource additional personnel and have to seek additional capital to fund the expansion. All this before you have secured even one new client or project.

Before going all in on modifying your business model, take your idea for a test run. Just as you would for a new design concept, develop a prototype of your new service, product or specialty area and seek out by word of mouth a client or two you can try it out on. This allows you to minimize your investment and exposure while gaining invaluable knowledge and experience. You will quickly learn if you have hit upon a viable new business proposition, and, if not, whether you need to modify it or change strategy.

If you need help structuring your business proposition or determining how you can better position your firm in today’s market, contact me. I have helped many designers to grow and advance their businesses by showing them how to retool their business models to make them more competitive and profitable.