Knowing how to deal with interior design clients is crucial. Dealing with clients takes up more than half of a designer’s time on projects. As a designer, it is vital to develop people skills, as it is the clients that are your source of income. After all, the best type of marketing your work is through word of mouth. If you leave clients unsatisfied, your reputation suffers.
Who am I to speak for most design schools? But in Work for Money, Design for Love, David Airey writes: “Design school most certainly does not teach you everything. That’s why you, as a successful designer, must be a lifelong learner.” And, I can speak for my own experience: Out of 36 subjects studied over 2 years in PSID, only one directly addressed how to professionally deal with clients (Business of Interior Design).
I just completed an online diploma course under The Interior Design Institute, and as I mentioned in a previous post, I’d share with you the insights of the three last modules. I assumed the last 2 were about how to deal with clients, but I was wrong. The 10th module (Your Client – How to Listen & Create the Environment they Desire), however, did. So this is me living up to that promise!
(To give you a heads up, the following focuses on residential interior design, and how to deal with clients during your first meeting.)
As an interior designer, you should keep in mind that when designing a space, you’re designing a space that provides shelter for your client, not only in a physical sense, but also in a psychological one.
A home is a sanctuary. A home is where we go to feel safe, where we can be exactly who we are, without caring about what other people think. Put yourself in your client’s shoes, and realize how privileged you are to be invited into his/her home—which is a private part of their world.
Reasons for Using an Interior Designer
Being an interior designer isn’t always easy. We have to wear several hats. And it is our responsibility to understand why a client needs us. Here are some reasons a client uses an interior designer …
- to organize space better (make it more relaxed and pleasant)
- s/he has other priorities and wants to delegate the design project to someone else
- to upgrade their lifestyle, an increase i self-confidence
- s/he needs help in expressing his/her personality
- to take pressure off them
- to avoid criticism
- to reduce risk, and
- to save themselves time and work
“Always keep your ears and eyes open when you’re with clients to see how you think their lives could be improved – remember you’re the expert and that’s what you’re there for. Apart from the obvious creative skills needed to become an interior designer, you have to be part-psychologist and part-sociologist with a little bit of detective thrown in!” – IDI
Before Your First Meeting
Before your first meeting, be clear on the site’s condition—you want to be dressed appropriately. Be clear on the address, and the time of your first meeting as well, and don’t you dare turn up a minute late!
It is very important to be mentally prepared for your first meeting. Keep in mind that you’re not the only one who’s nervous; so is your client! In the module, it mentions a few worries that your client may have …
- locking themselves into something expensive
- whether they’ll get along with you or not
- how you’ll react to their home
- what you’ll propose—will it be impractical and impossible to live in?
These are only a few worries your client may have. It is important to put yourself in their shoes at all times. You need to inspire confidence and professionalism. The module suggests compiling testimonials from previous clients, as well as a portfolio. Your portfolio will show them what you’re capable of, and most importantly, it’ll show them your design taste and style, and they’ll know whether to pursue with you or not.
Your first meeting is an opportunity for your client to learn the practicalities of how you work, what they can expect to pay, and what services your provide.
It is a good idea to bring a few design & decor magazines and/or books that you and your client can flip through together, and have them tell you what they like and don’t like, and why. You may want to attach post-it notes to the pages they comment on.
A suggested to-bring checklist:
- pad + pen – it is extremely important to take down notes, or
- a recorder to replace note-taking (you need to make sure it’s okay with your client)
- a camera to take photos of existing space, furniture and artwork (again, ask for permission)
- magazines and/or books (and post-it notes if you’d like)
- compilation of testimonials and portfolio (if applicable)
Questions to Ask and Observations to Make
“The specific questions you ask your clients can make or break a project. It’s also not enough to know what questions to ask. You need to know why you’re asking them.”
— David Airey
Your first meeting is an introduction to your client’s space. It may be extremely daunting and overwhelming, so you’d want to have some sort of written guide for yourself (a checklist perhaps), especially when you’re meeting with your very first client! The very last thing you’d want is to walk away from your first meeting and realize that you’ve forgotten to ask certain important questions.
Here’s a suggested list of questions to ask your client:
- what particular spaces or rooms do you want designed?
- how do you use that space/those spaces? (function/s)
- what particular preferences do you have for each space?
- how do you want to feel when you’re in the space/s?
- do you have a particular style you want for your space? (this is where design magazines come in handy)
Those are just the essential questions you will need to ask your client. The following questions should be tailored to your client’s answers and preferences. The reason you ask these questions, is obviously so that you’ll fully understand what exactly it is your client wants and needs from you. Those needs and wants should be made clearer by every following question.
Be prepared to be all ears! You have to be an excellent listener! Again, it is vital that you listen intently.
The module suggests that you ask for a guided tour of the entire house, although you’ve been asked to design just the living area. A story told by interior designer Martin Weymark makes it clear why this is important:
“… He was called in to design a new kitchen in a 19th Century house.
That sounds simple enough, but ‘after two meetings at the house – and stepping over the multiple piles of books all over the floor – I suggested to the couple that they didn’t need a new kitchen at all, what they really required was a library.
‘The clients were flabbergasted – that hadn’t entered their heads at all, but it didn’t take long for me to convince them.’ Several months later, a beautiful conservatory-like library had been built on the back of the house and the old kitchen left exactly as it always had been.
Everyone was happy: The flow of ‘traffic’ through the house worked well, the new library became a delightful family room and the kitchen was freed up and worked far more efficiently than it had done in the past.
It’s interesting that often clients don’t really know what they want. They know something’s wrong with the way they’re living and they try to articulate that to you, but don’t take things on surface value.”
As you’re given a tour of their home, take mental notes.
Here’s a few suggested questions to ask and observations to make:
- what condition are the ceiling, walls, and woodwork in?
- how’s the wiring?
- is there enough natural light in the space?
- what’s the condition of the floor? would they want it changed?
- is there enough storage throughout the home? is it sufficient for future needs?
- how many people live in the house?
- if there are children, do they often have friends over?
- do they often have guests stay over?
- are there any pets in the house?
- do they need extra rooms in the house?
- where do family members eat? do they eat together?
- where do they entertain?
- where do family members relax?
- does anyone work from home?
Those are only some … your following questions, again, will have to be tailored to your client’s answers. Here are some more—What’s the state of everything that exists? What can you work with? What can you change? Switch lights on and off to see existing lighting conditions. How can you improve them?
For this reason, it is important to tag a camera along, as it might be too much for your memory to handle. The photos will be perfect to have for before & after photos as well!
So, that’s all I have for you, taken from IDI‘s 10th module, “Your Client – How to Listen & Create the Environment They Desire.” Let me know if you’d like to add any points, or if you have any questions. I might be able to help you! I hope this article covered most of what you need to know for how to deal with clients during your first meeting. I hope it’s been helpful. Good luck! ♥