Here’s the cold stone truth: If you are an interior designer, or you wish to become one, you have to be a people person. You don’t necessarily have to be an extrovert, but the reality is that the majority of your work as an interior designer is effectively communicating with clients, contractors, manufacturers, etc. And it isn’t always easy. For this week’s contribution to our Becoming a Better Interior Designer series, we at the Kuotes have collected our thoughts and tips on how to handle to clients, from tricky questions to stubborn personalities we’ve all experienced.
The Tricky Questions
“What is your design style?”
The Problem: This is the question almost all designers will receive before they are hired onto a project, and it’s a valid question…albeit problematic. The problem is its vagueness: What is your design style? Who else is hearing a flock of familiar buzzwords fly around in their head? Modern. Mid-Century. Glam. Shabby Chic. Classic. These words are super broad categories that do not really reflect anything more than a general aesthetic. There are thousands of designers who may describe their design style as “french country,” so what makes you unique?
The Answer: When in doubt, read the question again. The question your client is really asking is: Will you be able to design my home in a style that I love? As an artist, all of your designs should reflect you, but as an interior design business, your goal should be to create something your client loves. So the best way to answer this tricky question is to show your portfolio, say that umbrella term that describes you (“modern” or “industrial loft” or “shabby chic”), but then highlight unique aspects of your designs that ONLY YOU can bring to the drawing board. Finally, make the question about them. We cannot stress this enough. Explain what your design style will look like and feel like in their space. Relate your design style to their home. And always, always be honest with your client and with yourself. If you’re a designer who loves a layered, curated look (like us at the Kuotes), maybe you aren’t the person to put together a monochromatic, minimalist living room. And that’s okay. Stick to what is truly you or the project will turn out uninspired.
“How much is this going to cost me?”
The Problem: We all know the industry. It can be expensive. Not to mention, product costs fluctuate all the time, so even if you work really hard on a budget breakdown, you know it’s bound to change. The real problem is that your clients typically don’t understand the industry. Unexpected fees for shipping, delivery, customization, expedition, etc. easily incur, and it can be difficult to explain to a client why certain materials cost so much or why certain items really, really should be custom upholstered. To them, it looks like you’re just trying to make some extra cash.
The Answer: Honesty and padding. First, come to a very resolute decision on how much your client is willing to spend on their home. Then, you have to design a fee structure. How to charge for your services could be another whole article (and maybe it will be…), but the average East Coast designer will charge an initial design fee along with a retainer and/or a percentage of the project costs. Explain big costs first: any big furniture, structural changes, or electrical work being done. Offer advice on where your client can save money, usually through accessory items or by buying product through you. If you take a commission on product, be transparent about this and offer to split the savings with your client. While it’s great and generous for you to pass savings along to your client, do not feel guilty for earning a commission on product. You are helping your clients obtain cheaper pricing, and you’re curating their product selection for them—that is a service in itself. Lastly, pad your pricing so you don’t go over budget (or just plan ahead on going over budget). If your client gives you a maximum 40K budget, don’t spend 40K on product and your design fees. Allow for something to go wrong so the financials are there for any surprises. If everything goes super smoothly (and let’s face it, when does that happen?), you’ll be saving money for your client either way.
“How long is this going to take?”
The Problem: While we can generally estimate how long it’ll take us to draw up a design, there is constant room for error when presenting a timeline: back ordered product, something out of stock, something broken, your client changes their mind, the contract workers are taking long, there’s mold, etc. In short, due to unforeseen circumstances, you can never really know.
The Answer: Honesty and padding. Sound familiar? Luckily, people tend to be more forgiving with time than with cost. If a project needs more time, it is generally out of the designer’s hands, so the best way to answer this question is to give a thoughtful estimate with padded time. Then, make sure to CONSTANTLY follow up with vendors and contractors to make sure your client is always updated on the timeline. Knowledge is key here. Most clients will be very understanding of an extended timeline as long as they’re in the know and it doesn’t come as a surprise to them. It is the concept of being unaware and out of control that makes for an unhappy client.
Pro Tip: When you become a trade member at Kathy Kuo Home, we handle all of the follow-up and project management for you, making it super easy to provide your client with an accurate and speedy timeline they’ll be happy with.
The Stubborn Personalities
the kinds of clients that make you want to use this emoji ^
The Penny-Pinching Princess
We all know them. In fact, they may be a great client most of the time: they know exactly what they like, exactly what they need, they have excellent taste and style… but the issue arises when they want high-quality furniture and decor but are not willing to spend the money for it. They expect you to step out of your interior designer shoes to become a magician and/or professional haggler.
The Solution: As Teddy Roosevelt famously proclaimed: speak softly and carry a big stick. The advice here is to thoroughly explain the reasons behind all of the charges your client may incur. Most people, once they learn the process of upholstering furniture or understand the difference between different grains of leather, come to terms with the pricing. Negotiate where there is room, normally with accessories and fabrics, but have a firm hand. This is where the big stick mentality comes in. It’s your job to ensure the work you do is quality work that you can be proud of.
The Indecisive Individual
“Well, I really like modern decor, but I’m also a big fan of French Country. I’m in love with those warm neutrals, but can we also add a pop of color?” Do you ever get recurring nightmares that sound like this? It’s not that indecisive clients have poor taste, but many people have trouble making hard decisions. Instead of getting frustrated, sympathize. Have you ever been the one forced to pick the restaurant or the movie for the evening? Those are just small decisions. Decorating a home is a huge decision…so huge, in fact, that they hired you.
The Solution: Has everybody seen Inception? If not, watch it and take notes. A key strategy for indecisive clients is to try to piece together what they really want from what they’re saying and then restate it, coming from you, with confidence and design flair. Chances are, they’ll love the idea because it comes from them, but it’ll be presented and backed in a way they can feel comfortable with. That is your job as a designer. Need an example? Think of a conversation like the following:
client: “I don’t know, this wall seems empty. Maybe a wall covering? Or I don’t know, I don’t want it to be too busy.”
designer: “Well, let’s do a muted, wood panel wallpaper so that we add texture to the surface without adding in too much pattern or color.”
Pro Tip: Notice how the hypothetical designer above made their suggestion as a statement and not a question. Very simple changes like that can make all the difference when handling tricky clients.
The Tasteless Type
Sometimes your client will suggest something, and you just feel the vomit collecting at the back of your throat. You bite down on your tongue to keep from shouting: “That? You want that in your home?” If you’ve ever felt this way, you’re not alone. Sometimes your design style just doesn’t line up with what your client is looking for.
The Solution: It totally depends on the situation, but like we said before, if you’re constantly in design disagreement with your client, the truth may be that your design style just wasn’t what they were looking for, and that’s okay. However, if you generally agree but have a piece or two you can seem to come to terms with, go with the following: 1. Explain yourself. There may be a very valid design-based reason for your opinion your client doesn’t see. Maybe the piece they want is beautiful but just doesn’t work from a functionality standpoint. Or maybe it clashes with another detail of the room they’re looking over. Your client hired you for your expertise, so make sure it’s communicated in a way they can understand. And if that fails, 2. Give in. You can’t win them all, and at the end of the day, the space is for your client to live in. You’ll probably never see it again. As long as you generally like the look of the space you created, that one hideous painting your client is in love with is not the end-all-be-all of a project.
Our Most Difficult Client
Kathy likes to joke that Maya was her most difficult client, never quite agreeing where things should go when she designed Maya’s room about a year ago. But even our most difficult client is a client we love to death, so here is the most important takeaway from this article: your clients are your career.
Although we joked about the frustrations some of our clients bring us, treat your clients like gold and NEVER get defensive. Never let your client know you have a zillion other clients that you are also dealing with. Clients should feel like they are your number one priority, and their opinions are always right (even if that’s not always the case). At the end of the day, respect, honesty, and truly being able to listen to a client’s needs is what will make or break your business.
How do you handle tough situations with clients? Any advice? Feel free to share your stories in the comment section below.
Did you miss the other articles in our Becoming a Better Interior Designer series? Get caught up!