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.
One piece of advice I always give to designers who want help with marketing and growing their business is to identify their “ideal client” and focus their efforts there. No matter how good a designer you are, you can’t be all things to all people. We all have our strengths and our weaknesses, our preferences and our passions. Decide what you like to do and are really good at, and go after that customer.
Let me make a further distinction. When I say “ideal” client I don’t mean “imaginary” client. Some designers take “ideal” to mean their dream client, the one with lots of money who will let them do whatever they want and shower them with praises in the end. By “ideal” client I mean the one who is most likely to pay for your services. That may not be the wealthiest client or the most extravagant client. It is, however, the client that will keep you in business year after year.
Take some time to reflect on your best and favorite projects. Why did those clients want to hire you? What were you able to provide them with that made them so happy with the result? Are there traits they shared in common, such as age, location, income or project budget, taste or style preference, occupation, lifestyle? Create a composite portrait of your best clients and that will guide you in defining your ideal client. Once you have that, you can tailor your marketing, networking, referrals and other outreach there.
But, you say, I want to attract a “better” client. Go for it, but be prepared to make some changes to “up your game” in order to do so. Take a look at who currently has that business and try to figure out what makes them successful. To land your ideal client, you need to be realistic.
As any budding author knows, showing is more powerful than telling. In relating a story, when you tell the reader what has happened you give them information. When you show them something happening, you engage their imagination and create an experience. The same holds true for selling. It’s all about the presentation. To capture the customer’s interest, show them; don’t just tell them.
Even though they have an idea of what they want or need, customers need a reason to buy. They want to feel confident that the product or service they are purchasing is the best, or one of the best, solutions available to them. Show them. Don’t just provide them with a description of the item or a list of features. Demonstrate the features so they can experience them for themselves. Engage their senses and their imaginations. Use whatever sales or visual aids you can to make the experience as real and tangible for them as possible.
For each feature you demonstrate, present two benefits. Create a story as you go along. Help them envision how the product or service will make their lives better. Be as specific and detailed as you can. Give examples. Your knowledge and ability to apply it to their situation will increase their confidence.
When you have covered all the features and benefits, sum up by reaffirming with the customer the needs and wishes they expressed to you, and then review every product feature and its benefits, aligning their needs and wishes with those features and benefits. With a clear picture in their mind of what they are purchasing and why, they will have the surety they need to complete the sale.