While creating beautiful, functional designs is at the heart of being an interior designer, your ability to work with other people is as big a factor in your ultimate success as the art itself. Rarely will a designer meet a client who will happily relinquish all creative decisions, and often a designer will have to please multiple people as part of a single project, not to mention myriad vendors, contractors, and other service providers.
Interior designers work in spaces where clients have significant emotional attachment, especially in their personal residences, but also for commercial spaces that house their businesses. Interior design projects involve large sums of money, which can also create a lot of stress for everyone involved.
Ultimately, becoming a successful interior designer with repeat clients and a pipeline full of referrals comes down to how well you manage the overall process and all of the personality quirks and fluctuating emotions of your clients and everyone else involved in the final product. Setting boundaries and expectations, providing detailed legally viable contracts, and having a knack for tact and diplomacy are the pillars of a strong interior design business that can stand the test of time.
Here are some tips to help you navigate all of these hurdles.
Start Off on the Right Foot
The way you begin a project can often have the greatest impact on how smoothly it will progress. Be polite, yet firm in your processes and procedures. Here is the checklist to follow before getting started:
- Choose the right clients: Every job interview should be a two-way conversation, and an interior design consultation is no different. If your instincts tell you that a potential client is unreasonable or difficult to communicate with, do not move forward. Leave yourself available to take on a different prospect instead of sinking time into a lost cause.
- Begin the process with airtight contracts: Laying out the process in writing, including a work schedule, a payment schedule, and repercussions for missing deadlines on both sides, makes it hard for clients to claim injury. Your contracts should also include a clause that you, the designer, can end the working relationship at any time regardless of reason. All of your contracts should be drafted and approved by a lawyer you have vetted and is familiar with the business practices of the interior design industry.
- Vet your vendors and contractors ahead of time: You will likely be able to control the vendors you work with, but you might not be able to choose the contractor and other service providers you will work with on a project. Investigate all of the collaborators of the project so you know what you’re getting into. Advise clients if you do not approve of their choices, and be willing to cut ties with a project if you are not comfortable working with your clients’ choices.
- Have your internal processes in place before taking on a project: Make sure you are appropriately staffed and have your accounting and project management processes, which should meet best-in-class standards, documented in writing so that you and your team are all on the same page.
- Be clear about pricing: There is a common misconception that interior designers get steep discounts on products, which is rarely the case. Be transparent about how you price your services, whether you pass on discounts or mark-up purchases. You are working to make money and clients need to understand and respect how you structure your revenue.
Get on the Same Creative Page
As an artist, it is very difficult to deviate from your vision, particularly to please people that don’t have the depth of experience and long-term exposure to design that you do. However, your projects are ultimately the property of your clients. They have the ultimate say in the design decisions, to the extent they are not insisting on designs that present physical danger (in that case, you have a liability to insist on complying with legal building codes). How do you ensure you are creatively aligned with your clients? Try these steps:
- Go through your portfolio of work with prospective clients: Don’t assume clients are fully familiar with your aesthetic. Show them your style and ask them what they react positively and negatively to. Disarm them with friendliness, openness, and encouragement to be entirely honest.
- Ask prospective clients for inspiration images: Get as much information about their design vision and expectations before you begin your design process. Sharing a Pinterest board will make it easy for them to share images. Discuss their vision to see how flexible they are, and be flexible yourself.
- Provide a robust set of illustrations of your ideas before you get started: The more detail you can provide in how you envision the project, the better your client will be able to give their input. When clients feel out of control, they react emotionally. It is their money being spent and their space being altered, and they want to be the ones to make the final decision.
- Go shopping together: As an interior designer you want to guide your client to an outcome you are proud of, so letting them have agency is important. You can pick the places where you go shopping, but let them pick out pieces they like. If their choices don’t work in the space, kindly explain why from a technical standpoint. Be open minded, empathetic, and tactful.
Control the Schedule and Enforce Communication
As the professional interior designer, you are in control of your time and your business practices. While you have to work with your clients' availability, even when inconvenient, you should not accommodate unreasonable scheduling demands or put up with a lack of or disrespectful communication.
- Have a set schedule for meetings: At the beginning of a project, set a schedule of meetings to occur at regular intervals. You will know the appropriate amount of meetings and the points in the project where it's important to check in face to face. Do not allow a client to demand too much of your time or give too little of theirs.
- Regulate communication practices: In the beginning of a project, set expectations of reply times for emails - how long you will take to reply and how long they will have to reply (24-48 hours). Be clear about where emails and calls should be directed.
- Enforce deadlines for decision making: Be clear about how long a client has to make a decision and at what point they cannot change their minds without consequences. Be clear about this in the beginning of the project and reinforce it throughout the project.
Cultivating positive and productive relationships with your clients is crucial to your long-term success as an interior designer. Just like any other relationship, setting expectations, establishing boundaries, and coming to a mutual understanding of your shared goals and how you will achieve them provides a sense of security that leads to positive outcomes. Starting every project by establishing your standard way of doing business makes you look professional, competent, and worthy of respect and even deference in times of disagreement. It also helps weed out potential problem clients by testing people's willingness to accept your terms of doing business. Write the book, follow the words, and watch your business thrive.