10 Ways to Create Happy Interior Design Client Relationships and Avoid Disasters

Creating happy client relationships and preventing disasters is an important goal for interior designers because one unhappy client will tell up to ten other people. I’ll start with ten tips for now – feel free to share your own best practices, too.

The business of interior design is full of potential landmines, and many are related to how you communicate with your clients about money, schedules and responsibilities.

Consumer attitudes have changed dramatically since the recession started in 2007. While the Internet & HGTV have expanded interest in interior design, they have also created an army of savvy shoppers who may choose to purchase their own furnishings. Consumers have always been the biggest competitors for your services over other interior designers, and now they are more aware of design options than ever before.

We can be our own worst enemies when attempting to create happy client relationships. Your decisions about your ideal clients are more important than the potential for revenue. Please don’t take a client just because you need or want the business. Prevent disasters!

1. Decide how you will and won’t work

Decide how you will and won’t work before you have your next conversation with a prospective client. Add qualifying questions to your telephone interview list so you determine the deal-breakers before you spend time meeting in person. There are a few professions that are difficult to deal with (feel free to ask if you want to know which ones I avoid!), and I try to find out before the conversation leads to the first meeting. If you haven’t completed the exercise of clearly defining your ideal client, it should include demographics (age, income level, profession), psychographics (likes, dislikes and values), personality characteristics, technographics (their knowledge and affinity toward email, the internet, etc.), and I also suggest you include specific personality traits or other attributes you don’t want to work with.

If someone has worked with more than one designer and they are critical of all of them, run the other way. You’ll save yourself a tremendous amount of stress, time and money by avoiding difficult clients.

2. Create a script

Create a script for your questions and for your initial conversations with your prospects and your clients. As T. Harv Eker, a savvy businessman once said, “how you do anything is how you do everything.” Establish your professionalism, process and dialogue from the very beginning. Practice in front of a mirror if you aren’t comfortable practicing with your friends.

3. Compile a list of issues or questions.

Compile a list of issues or questions that you’ve encountered with previous clients and turn that into a Frequently Asked Questions About Working With An Interior Designer report. Offer this FAQ to your prospective clients prior to your first meeting. You’ll have an entirely different conversation if you surface the issues early.

4. Work on your courage and self-esteem

Work on your courage and self-esteem. Many of the biggest problems that arise with clients are due to the fear of asking questions that may appear nosey. These questions could be how much they’ve budgeted or decided to invest. How do you know how a client might react to these? So how do you handle this? Be proactive. Think about what can and has gone wrong in previous client relationships. How can you address this in the beginning part of your relationship with your clients? Making the difficult decisions before you begin your client relationship ensures that it will be much smoother. Or you will at least l have a means of addressing problems when they arise.

5. Ask your client how they prefer to work

Ask your clients how they prefer to work. Do they want to do their own purchasing? Do they want you to purchase some items for them? Or do they want you to purchase everything for them? Explain the benefits of you managing the process as well as the problems that occur when you don’t. If you don’t want to allow your clients to do their own purchasing, then you need to address this before signing a contract. Otherwise, you may find yourself upset when a new piece of furniture arrives without your assistance. Working with a client the way they prefer to work is integral to creating happy client relationships.

6. Determine how to bill

Almost 70% of all consumers prefer a fixed fee. How do you work? Are you billing by the hour with a markup? This puts you in a position of providing design services that are a commodity. I’ve lost jobs to designers who have a lower hourly fee. It doesn’t matter that I’m more efficient and my business is more automated than less expensive designers. Sometimes prospects just see a number. You’re also limited to how many hours you or your staff can bill. Even the most affluent clients are often stunned when they receive bills with huge time logs. When this happens, you lose trust, and potentially a lot of money. Your clients might choose to trim your scope of work, and then you lose control of your project, future referrals, and your profits.

7. Decide how you will both handle difficult situations

Discuss in advance how you will both handle the following situations when if and when they occur:

  • When they find a product for less money than you quoted
  • When a problem occurs with a product or service  you provided
  • When they add to the scope of work and it isn’t included in your contract
  • When they change their minds after an order is placed
  • When you don’t receive payments for your services as agreed in your contract
  • When they don’t discuss the amount they are willing to invest and your design exceeds the unstated amount they had established in their mind
  • When the client receives your early time bills (if you are billing this way)

Deciding how these tough situations will be handled upfront will make these difficult moments easier. On top of that, they may help you in a legal sense if the client makes trouble for you.

8. Allow your clients a healthy amount of control

Allow your clients the option to purchase some items on their own. Most clients like to have some sort of control (even if they say they don’t). Working this into your process can be a great idea. Sure, you will be placing custom furnishing orders that require your expertise. But not every space needs something custom and expensive. If the client has a secondary room that doesn’t call for custom furniture, you can let them have this space to contribute to. Let me find some off-the-shelf furnishings that fit the overall design. If the client was already hesitant about your markups, this can be a great way to give them some autonomy back, and establish more trust in you. The exception might be the ultra-affluent clients that don’t want to deal with the headaches of purchasing, managing deliveries and installations.

9. Discuss deadlines before you sign a contract

Discuss deadlines before you sign a contract. This is one of the biggest reasons interior designers get sued. If a client’s deadline is unrealistic, you must address this and decide how to handle it before you start a project. You need a clear contract and I recommend professional liability insurance for every designer. Just one lawsuit could lead to business failure and even bankruptcy. Agree on deadlines before drawing up a contract, and don’t agree to something you know you can’t do.

10. Explain your process

Explain your process. Our work as interior designers is misunderstood by most consumers. So be proactive and explain clearly how you work and the benefits you bring to clients. This has the added benefit of making a client feel like they are part of the process. Otherwise, they may feel hesitation and wonder if you really know what you’re doing. Your general process isn’t a secret ingredient – you can share the big ideas without fear. Happy client relationships (and any other kind of relationship) benefit greatly from open communication.

If you can do all of these 10 steps, you’ll create happy client relationships that make you fall in love with interior design – and generate more profits. You deserve it!

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Gail Doby

Gail, with her team at Gail Doby Coaching and Consulting, has helped more than 10,000 designers in 76 countries. Many of them have achieved amazing results... doubling, tripling (and more) their revenue and profit... with clarity and confidence. Gail and her team build one-of-a-kind experiences, walking beside Interior Designers to help them create and implement their plans.
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  1. Amy Yin on August 14, 2015 at 2:59 am

    Gail – We’ve adopted many of these strategies from your seminars and classes, and they have helped us tremendously. In addition to helping us find clients that best fit our philosophy, approach, and service level, clients have said how much they appreciated the open communication from the very beginning. Still, we’re always looking for way to improve our service and communications and will be adding tip#7 to our procedures. Thanks for the specific examples!

  2. Wendy Hoechstetter, CAPS, Allied ASID on August 23, 2015 at 3:00 am

    Great article, Gail, as always!

    Which are the professions you find most difficult to deal with? I’m assuming that attorneys top the list.

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