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Turning Vendors Into Trusted Partners

Vendors are an integral part of interior design. They’re the source for all of the individual components of your project, and you rely on them to turn your designs into a physical reality. In many ways, vendors are extended members of your design team, and they play a large role in the success or failure of your projects. In order to remain in control of the final results of your work, choosing the right vendors and cultivating trusted, mutually beneficial relationships is a fundamental part of creating long-term prosperity as an interior designer.

What Are Vendors?

The term vendor in the context of interior design refers to any supplier of furniture, fixtures, and design-adjacent services, for example, building, moving, and installing. The sea of design vendors is wide and deep, and while certain projects may require you to find a new vendor with a specific, unique capability, every designer should have a bench of go-to vendors in areas they’ll use for every project. These include furniture sources, soft and hard materials providers, painters, wall covering appliers, fabric-working specialists, movers and installers, and contractors.


Successful designers have a Rolodex of vendors with whom they have a long-standing and trusted relationship. Not only must a vendor be able to provide the products or services you seek, but they must also be clear and timely communicators, dependable to deliver your orders correctly and on time, trustworthy to protect the privacy of your clients, and ethical in the way they operate their business. Your professional reputation will be directly impacted by the experience your client has with the vendors involved in your project, which is why you want to control vendor selections and make sure you are working with vendors you can depend on. To help ensure a vendor is worthy of your partnership, vigorously vet all new suppliers, including calling some of their other designer clients and business associates for references.

How Do I Find Quality Vendors?

While internet searches and online resources are a good place to start your vendor search, a more targeted approach will be a more efficient use of your time. Also, consider the value of meeting potential vendors face-to-face, where you will have an easier time assessing character and establishing a meaningful connection. Visiting trade shows will give you the opportunity to peruse the wares of hundreds, if not thousands, of vendors all in one place. If you pass a booth and like what you see, a brand representative, and often the company’s owner, is available on site to meet and begin a new relationship. Some of the biggest vendor trade shows for interior designers are the biannual High Point Market, and Las Vegas Markets, which attract the best and the brightest of interior designers, furniture and fixture vendors, media, and other leaders of the international design community.  Universal to the Trade is one of the vendors at High Point Market offering a gorgeous showroom full of new collections, educational sessions to help designers grow their businesses, a Designer’s Lounge to recharge and not to mention a steady stream of tasty food and drinks.  Neil MacKenzie, Director of Marketing at Universal, is dedicated to serving designers through innovative ideas like no order minimums, the ability to leverage an opening order discount, the ability to order online with a credit card and have products ship within two weeks.  Visiting these showrooms during Market is a great way to find vendors that have products that fit your brand aesthetic as well as your business processes.


Visiting vendors showrooms is also another great way to experience products in-person and meet with potential points of contact. Many major cities have large centers where several showrooms are housed under one roof, making them invaluable resources for designers. In New York City, the D&D building, A&D building, and New York Design Center are must-stop shops that together include almost all of the major international luxury brands. In Los Angeles, the Pacific Design Center draws designers from all over the world.


Vendors also advertise in trade magazines, like Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, and Interior Design, for example. Searching for vendors through traditional media and social media is a great way to potentially discover new suppliers, who you can then connect with to set up an in-person meeting. Belonging to trade associations like ASID, IIDA and IDS are also helpful resources to connect with vendors, in addition to several other benefits they offer to interior design business owners. Last, but not least, word-of-mouth is a very powerful source for finding suppliers, especially when looking for service vendors, such as painters, installers, and builders. Service vendors tend to be highly localized, making it harder to discover quality vendors through a blind search, so talking with your network to find the right partners is essential. You can also cross-check any references by searching a business name with the Better Business Bureau and other trade associations. Do not rely exclusively on sites such as Angie’s List or Yelp to source vendors.

How Do I Turn My Vendors Into Trusted Partners?

Once you have found a group of suppliers you want to work with, you’ll have to put in work to build a good relationship with them. Instead of viewing a supplier as your subordinate in the design process, treat them as the equal they truly are. Just like any other type of relationship, mutual respect will come from treating your vendors by the “golden rule.” Respect the fact they're operating a for-profit business, and have their own margins to consider, schedules to adhere to, and employees to manage. A high-quality vendor will respect the value that an interior designer brings to their business, acting as filters to bring them serious clients, and taking the burden off of vendors by educating clients about the products themselves. John Dupray of Revel Woods says, “We value the expertise a designer brings to the process. They are the true North Star of a project’s design process.”  While you may not always work with vendors who sell exclusively to the design trade, it’s important to select vendors who respect the trade and offer proper compensation, like designer discounts, to reflect the value an interior designer brings to the vendor’s business.


Beginning a vendor relationship with mutual respect is the first step to a successful partnership. Before you begin a project, explain your project management procedures and get written confirmation that they will be able to fulfill their part of your overall process. Also, establish a standard means of communicating about business matters. Email is recommended, as it produces an easily searchable record. Once you’re working together on projects, do everything you can to make sure the process runs smoothly. The most important component of managing the relationship is to communicate clearly and in a timely manner. Before providing a vendor with specifications, triple-check your data to make sure you’re giving them correct information and providing all of the details they will need to give well-informed work proposals, comprehensive quotes and time schedules, and any other input their expertise can lend to a project. Constantly check for grey areas in your communications so that you can clarify meaning before a mistake is made. Stay on top of open items and follow-up in a firm, but respectful manner. In the words of famed interior design podcaster and co-owner of Window Works, Luann Nigara, “If something goes wrong on a project, do not throw your vendor under the bus to your client. This will only cause an intelligent client to question your judgment for recommending that vendor in the first place.” Be fair when assigning responsibilities for mistakes, and consider the bigger picture before letting one mistake destroy your relationship with a vendor.

Creating An Environment For Success

Once you have found a team of high-quality vendors you are excited to work with, you have to do your part to ensure vendors can successfully achieve the results you have both envisioned. As touched upon in the previous section, organization and robust project management is the responsibility of the interior designer, and you are ultimately the person who will be culpable for the final results in the eye of your client. To ensure you’re capable of managing the design process and its many supporting vendors, stay organized with project management software that is specifically created to meet the unique needs of interior designers. The right tool can save you countless hours of manual data entry, document design, and makeshift spreadsheet management. Sign up for a free trial of Design Manager today to see how its project management features can help you ensure every project is a success story for you and your vendors.

 

If you have found a way to communicate with vendors that really makes a difference or if you have any tips or tricks for working with vendors please share in the comments below.

Margot LaScala
Margot LaScala
Contributing Author

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