In my last post I pointed out several indicators that suggest business is likely to increase for interior designers this year. You may be thinking, therefore, that perhaps this is the time to raise your fees, before those inquiries start coming in from clients. The start of a new year is often a good opportunity to implement a fee increase. But before you do, consider some other factors as well.
While clients are accustomed to businesses raising prices or rates at the beginning of the new year, they are not always willing to go along, especially if they feel the increase is not warranted. They may jump ship and decide to try another retailer or service provider instead. So, one question to ask yourself before you announce a fee increase is whether your clients feel that your value to them also has gone up. Since we are not yet in the peak spring design season, it may be too early for them to envision or recollect the many benefits they will reap from your professional skills and expertise. It may be better to wait a bit longer until the design media helps by creating a greater sense of urgency. Then, when you meet with the client you can inform them about your fee increase and the reasons for it.
Another factor to consider is competition. Today designers are not just competing with other local designers. There are online designers, designer listings on platforms like Houzz and Pinterest, design software and apps, retail designers, and contractors and remodelers—all competing the for the same pool of potential customers. If your clients perceive, rightly or wrongly, that they can get the same service or result for less, why would they want to pay more? However, if you know that your clients value your work and want the look and/or service only you can provide, then you have an edge and can charge a higher fee.
Whenever you decide to raise your fees, be sure to give clients plenty of advance notice. Never attempt to apply a fee hike retroactively. And do not raise fees exorbitantly all at once—a good rule of thumb is between 10 and 20 percent, depending on market conditions. Clients usually will accept a reasonable increase, if it is presented properly.
Whatever your political views, there’s little doubt that the incoming administration will be good for the design business. Stock markets have already hit record highs in anticipation of a more business- and investment-friendly environment. With extra money in their bank accounts and home prices on the rise, affluent homeowners will be more likely to invest in redesigns, remodels and upgrades, as well as new and second homes. Now is the time to prepare for what could be a busy spring season.
If you have not already done so, here are some steps you should be taking to get your business in order:
- Review and refresh your marketing material, including your website, Houzz portfolio, Facebook page, and whatever other social media platforms you use. Keep in mind that many of these prospective clients are likely to be in their 30s or early 40s. Your outreach efforts need to reflect their tastes, preferences and wants.
- Reconnect with former clients and others in your business network. Let them know you’re available and remind them of the range of services you can provide. Arrange a non-business, face-to-face meeting, if you can.
- Spend some time getting up to speed on the latest trends, products and technologies for the home. You don’t have to employ them in your design, but you want clients to know you are aware of them.
- Check in with vendors to get updated information on product availability and delivery schedules. With a shortage of skilled labor in many areas, it’s also a good idea to keep in touch with contractors and tradespeople as to their availability.
In addition, assess your capacity to take on more business if the opportunity arises. Do you have freelancers or colleagues who can share the load? How quickly could you bring on additional help if you needed to? A bit of planning now may give you a competitive advantage later.
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.