You’ve seen the postings: such-and-such a firm seeks Senior Interior Designer, with an emphasis on experience, management ability and proven track record of satisfied clients. Over the past couple of years I have seen a good number of older independent designers who have successfully operated their own businesses for decades apply for these positions because their client pool is dwindling. In most cases, they never even make it to the interview stage. Employers are looking for “senior designers” who are much younger.
On average, in human resource lingo a “senior designer” is one with around 10 years or more of experience. Some postings will specify, for example, bachelors’ degree in interior design or interior architecture and 8 years, or 10 years, or 12 years of experience. That would place the bulk of candidates in the age range of mid-30s to early 40s—far younger than the independent designers in their 50s or even 60s who hope to compete with them. Especially if the employer or partners are thinking of selling or transferring the firm to this individual eventually, they can anticipate another 15 to 20 years of work from them, as opposed to maybe 5 to 10 from an older designer.
In addition, some employers are looking for a minimum combined years of experience, but others, particularly commercial firms, are looking for number of years practicing a particular specialty. That can be another handicap for independent designers who have done primarily residential projects. The same applies to aesthetics. A firm that has branded itself to appeal to affluent urban dwellers has no interest in hiring a designer with 20 years’ experience doing traditional or country interiors.
If you are an older designer looking to make a career transition, you still have options. For guidance with your career, please contact me online or give me a call at 212.777.5718 x6 for an informal conversation about how we might work together.
December is usually a crazy time for designers. You’re pushing to get projects done before the holidays, tie up any business loose ends, fulfill your own holiday obligations, and maybe squeeze in some time for getting together with friends and associates to celebrate the season. Before the clock runs out on 2016, though, set aside a little bit of quiet time to think about what gift your business would like to receive that will make it happier or healthier in the new year.
Thinking back over the past year, what one change or addition to your business would have made the most difference in how it performed? Do you need more assistance, to free up more time for the activities that most impact the bottom line, to streamline or upgrade your operations, to find more qualified clients, to update your skills, to become more familiar with the latest products, to branch out into a niche specialty? How different would your business look a year from now if you make that change?
Then, consider what you need to do to bring about that change or addition. Is it time to hire someone full- or part-time, find a partner or collaborator, invest in new equipment or software, outsource some business functions, make plans to attend one or more upcoming expos, spend more time networking, sign up for a CEU or two? Whatever it is, make a commitment that that is the gift you will give to your business for the coming year—and soon. Your business will repay you with a lot more than thanks. Happy holidays!
For sheer reach, it’s hard to beat social networks as a marketing tool. Houzz alone boasts 35 million users, Pinterest 100 million. Lots of possible clients are browsing there. Of course, for that very reason lots of competitors are lurking there, too. You are just one of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of service providers hoping to attract the attention of a maybe would-be customer out of all those casual viewers and DIYers trawling the photo galleries for ideas and inspiration.
Call me old fashioned, but it’s my belief that the best way of attracting and obtaining clients still is through one-on-one, person-to-person interaction. You have a better instinct than some algorithm as to who is a promising and suitable client for you. You have the experience to know whether that person is serious about undertaking a project or just fishing for some free design advice. Moreover, people want to do business with someone they know, have confidence in, and trust. It takes time to develop those kinds of relationships, especially time spent face-to-face. Even if that person turns out not to be a prospective client, they may be a valuable referral in the future. You can’t get that kind of ROI on your marketing dollar by exchanging a few emails with a stranger.
Now is a perfect time to connect with former or prospective clients and arrange for some valuable one-on-one conversation. There are usually lots of opportunities for socializing. And because this is the season for renewing old ties, there is no pressure in making a phone call or setting up a lunch or dinner date to catch up with one another. So this holiday season try marketing without a net – a social net, that is. It’s one of the best things you can do now to benefit your business in the coming year.
Faced with an overwhelming array of products, suppliers and prices, consumers are turning to designers to help them select the best product at the best price. In many cases, design services are an afterthought or not even on the table. Once they have their shopping list, the clients will make the purchases themselves and arrange with a contractor to handle whatever installation is needed.
Clients clearly respect designers for their product knowledge and design sensibilities. Yet, they want their design services on the cheap. If they are not doing it themselves, then they are turning to online services that will provide them with turnkey designs for less. What’s a designer to do? I say, stand your ground.
Fortunately, there are still clients out there that need, want and appreciate professional design services. It’s more important than ever that you spend a sufficient amount of time qualifying prospective clients before agreeing to work with them. Unless you’re willing to serve as a specifier and nothing more, make clear to the client that you research and recommend products only as part of a holistic service that includes proper programming, design and installation. Help them to understand that the products are only part of the overall design, which you will customize to suit their tastes and lifestyle and enhance their quality of life. If that’s more than they want to commit to, they are not a good client for you.
These days it helps to allow some flexibility if the client expresses concern about overpaying for products. Depending on the item, you can give them the option to do some of the purchasing themselves. For items you research and purchase, you can either explain your policy and rationale on markups or decide on a flat hourly fee to cover your time and liability. Whatever works best for you, it helps to offer the client a menu of services and fees. They are likely to have more confidence in your recommendations if they come with some range of choice.
“How much do you charge?” “If I buy directly from you, do I pay the actual price or do you add a markup?” “What happens if I don’t like the product (or, design) you’ve recommended once I see it?” “When do you expect to get paid, before the project begins or after it’s done?”
Questions. Clients have lots of questions. Of course, you can patiently explain to them how you do business, what you are responsible for and what they are responsible for, etc. But you can’t count on them to remember—or to want to remember. That’s why you need a contract. I know designers who say they don’t like to use contracts. They feel they are too legalistic and may give the client the impression that they don’t trust them. Well, trust me, by not using a contract you are only putting yourself and your business at risk.
Few businesses operate without a contract, either explicitly or implicitly. (Have you looked at the back of an invoice or the terms of agreement on an online retail site recently?) A letter of agreement is all well and good, and it has legal force should a dispute arise. But it is not as comprehensive as a well-written contract. Many a designer has found himself or herself taken to task for some matter not included or specified in their letter of agreement. Never assume the client understands or agrees to something that is not explicitly stated in writing.
A contract is not completely bullet proof, but it is your best line of defense. So the next time your client starts asking questions, let your contract do the talking. It’s the best thing for both of you.
Time was, an interior designer could operate a successful business largely by relying on networking, referrals, repeat clients, and the occasional showhouse or project feature in a magazine or newspaper. Those days are gone. Designers today need to work much harder at attracting new clients and demonstrating their worth. Yet, many would rather lament the passing of the good old days than make the effort to market themselves properly. I can’t but wonder why.
In a recent article in Luxury Daily that should be required reading for every interior designer, Chris Ramey, former president of International Design Guild, talking about the decline in sales of to-the-trade and luxury goods, observes, “Amazingly, there remains a strange and misguided sense of entitlement among design professionals and design resources that they needn’t do what the rest of luxury industry understands is necessary to find new clients and drive business.” Not only are designers and manufacturers losing out to more consumer-driven home furnishings brands, they are giving up market share to non-design providers competing for the same customers’ wallets, notes Ramey. The old model just doesn’t work anymore.
Ramsey concludes, “Word of mouth may be favored, but designers need a solid foundation in branding and marketing to be truly successful. . . . The goal of marketing, both for to-the-trade companies and interior designers, is to expand their range of influence and communicate their value propositions directly to the people that most matter. In this industry, it is the affluent and high-net-worth individuals.” Surprisingly, surveys show a majority of interior designers have little or no budget targeted toward marketing (other than, perhaps, maintaining a website) and spend fewer than 10 hours a month on marketing and networking. How can they hope to compete with companies that are spending millions of dollars to influence the same client pool?
Longing for the good old days won’t bring them back. To maintain a successful business you need to adapt to today’s market. If you don’t know how to target or market to your ideal client, contact me, and together we can create a marketing plan and strategy to get your business back in the game.
Fundamentally, interior design today is practiced much the same as it has been for the past 20 or 30 years. Once designers master the basics, they tend to add to their knowledge base on the job, resolving each new challenge as it occurs. With the demands of managing projects and running and marketing a business, they have little time or inclination to learn new skills or pursue additional certifications—unless a business need arises—with the result that over time they may fail to keep up with changes in the industry.
Surveys show that most designers do not belong to a professional association, attend conferences other than product expos, or participate in seminars, workshops or other types of professional development, whether in person or online. When times are good, that does not present a problem. When times are not so good, however, these designers may find they are having a hard time competing with those who have made an effort to keep themselves up to date not only on the latest trends, but also on recent developments and changes in processes, methods, purchasing and technology.
I am seeing this issue crop up now with some designers whose businesses are struggling and who are considering closing shop and going to work for another firm. Even though they have years of experience and a number of satisfied clients, they do not possess all the skills that employers are looking for today and thus are losing out to less experienced but, in some ways, more qualified designers. My advice is to take some time to brush up on and update your skills before seeking a position with a firm. It will make you a more competitive candidate and, in the long run, a better professional.
A picture, they say, is worth a thousand words. But are a thousand pictures better than one? It seems there is no limit to the amount of eye candy consumers today can digest. The Internet is a veritable ocean of images, with more and more added every minute. While scanning all those photos may be a pleasant way to pass the time, I wonder whether uploading hundreds of images is an effective marketing strategy.
Thanks to sites like Pinterest, Instagram, Houzz, Facebook, and others, if you have great images, people will go out of their way to find you and let others in their network know about you, too. Of course, that’s also true not only for interior design but for all kinds of consumer products, fashion design, restaurants, and much more. With so many companies and individuals vying for attention, it is hard to hold anyone’s gaze for long. Abundance has bred opportunity, but it has made notoriety more fleeting, too.
Some designers I’ve spoken with welcome the exposure. It has helped bring them new clients. Others worry designers are giving their designs away for others to copy and lowering the value of their services. They may have a point. If designers are marketing themselves primarily through images, are they not reinforcing the view that design is only about aesthetics? Does that in part account for why consumers are buying more product but not spending money on design services? I don’t have the answer, but I know this much: It takes more than a beautiful image to turn a viewer into a client.
People shopping for products and services these days want more than some information and a few glossy photos. They want to know what’s your story. Who are you? What do you do? How do you it? Why do you do it? They’re not just interested in what you have to sell. They want to know are you a person or company with integrity, someone who shares their values and is in business for more than just making money. If you sell a product, they want to know what it’s made of, how it’s made, under what conditions, and what your sources are. In short, consumers today want the full story.
Lots of folks are vying for consumers’ attention, so your story has to be compelling and it has to be packaged well. We are living in a visual, and increasingly video, culture. People would rather watch than read, especially if they are checking you out on their smart phone or tablet. Invest in a good quality, eye-catching video presentation and some digital marketing materials. Attract rather than promote. Tell viewers about your or you company’s values, what you do to help your customers or clients, and why you feel what you do is important. Show how you improve your clients or customers lives. Let them know what you can do for them. The focus should be on people not product or design.
The customer wants to get to know you first before doing business. They want reassurance you are someone they can trust. Tell your story and show how your product or service aligns with your story. If you do it well, you’ll have an opportunity to pitch your product or service afterwards.
Fashion, décor and TV programming all change with the season. So should your marketing. I’m not suggesting that you should cater to every trend promoted in every home and lifestyle magazine or website (although it’s always good to know who’s influencing your clients’ ideas about design). It’s not your design that needs adjusting. It’s how you promote your services that could use a refresh.
Summer is winding down. We are heading into the fall home buying and redecorating season. Now is the time to start reminding clients that the holidays will be here quicker than they think and to lock in their design project before schedules fill up. They also may not realize how long it will take for that new gourmet appliance or item of custom furniture to arrive. It also wouldn’t hurt to remind them that fall is a busy time for many people with back to work, back to school, events and festivals, and preparations for winter and the holidays. It might be hard for them to squeeze in that DIY project they had planned to get done before Thanksgiving. You can get that done.
Take some time, too, to assess how your business has performed during the first half of the year. If you haven’t been as busy as you’d like, it may be time to rethink your approach or strategy. Demand is high, but many of today’s clients are less interested in paying for design services. They are looking for someone to counsel them in their design choices and to provide knowledgeable guidance about which products and materials to purchase. Retooling your marketing message, your menu of services, and your social media presence may be just the thing to attract new business and end the year on a high note.