After being an interior designer for over seven years, I still learn something new with each project that I take on. Whether it be a construction process or requirement that my contractor shares with me, or learning how to work with different personality types, there is always room for improvement, and always a lesson to be learned.
I learned a good lesson this week when I received my first, scathing review from a couple that I had worked with last summer. The lesson was with regards to clear communication with clients. Although the project was going quite well, with the exception of the usual delays and surprises that come up in every project, once it was time for the final invoice to be paid, my clients switched so fast, it made my head spin. While I was sure that I had done my best with their project, and had thoroughly explained how the billing process worked, they were furious, and accused me of taking advantage of them by charging them for extra design hours.
I’m not sure where the disconnect happened, but they claimed that I had promised to keep the design hours at 10, even though I had a signed addendum, from them, for 20 hours. Whether I had not been listening as closely as I should have when we had that conversation, or they had discussed it between themselves during a pillow talk session and had not conveyed it to me is not the point. The point is that they were extremely upset, and terminated all contact with me as soon as they paid the fee. Although I reached out to them, they terminated all communication until now, via the horrible review.
I don’t have to tell you that Interior Design is a very visual profession. Clients don’t care how you work, what that entails, or how much you know. They want to see visual examples of your past projects, so being able to have photos of the final outcome is important documentation to add to one’s portfolio. Those images, coupled with positive reviews of your work, are what helps designers secure the next client. We work hard to provide spaces that are both pleasing to our clients’ eye, and also make them feel comfortable, and highly functional in their space. Needless to say, there will be no photos of this particular project. But more than that, I lost a client, mid project, who I was really enjoying working with. I thought that they felt the same way until it was time to pay the bill. Obviously I missed some key communication points.
Which brings me to the point of this post. Designers are human too, and although a large part of what we do is listen closely, and manage expectations, we sometimes miss obvious signs that a client is not happy with the way the project is going. So here are some ways that clients can make sure that they are being heard, and create an open, productive communication with their designer.
First – and I can’t stress this enough – figure out ahead of time what your budget is.It’s important for your designer to know what you expect to spend on design fees, and what you want to spend on the actual project. By telling your designer how much you want to spend on design fees, makes it easier to define the scope of the work that they can provide for that dollar amount. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve met with clients and they have no idea what their budget should be, which requires me to try and educate them on what to realistically expect. I hate to be the bearer of bad news and explain to them the difference between HGTV projects, and reality. Do your research ahead of time so that you can figure out a budget before you meet with your designer. Contrary to popular belief, we are not out to milk your budget. We are respectful about spending your dollars, and that’s where managing expectations comes in.
Second, remember why you hired a designer in the first place.
Residential design is tricky because the owners are so emotionally attached to the project. Being clear about your style and what you want is important, but once the initial concept is developed and decided on, trust your designer to carry out your wishes. And for God’s sake, stop exploring! So many clients continue to look at design blogs, magazines, etc., which are filled with so many choices that it gets overwhelming. Constantly seeing new ideas can pull clients off course from the initial design concept. Not only does this slow down the design process, but it can also add to the final cost.
Trust your designer to lead you to your best outcome. After all, you hired them for a reason.
Third, don’t be afraid to let your designer know if they are doing something that you don’t like.
A good designer will always design for their client, but we are not mind readers. We also have thick skin and won’t be offended if you don’t like something that we suggest. It’s actually more helpful to know what you don’t want, as it helps us to zero in on what you do want. While we may try and push you out of your comfort zone, it’s still your space, and you will be living in it for a long time.
So the silver lining of my story is that by reading my client’s review of me, I actually got to find out why they were so dissatisfied, rather than trying to guess what pissed them off. My only wish is that they would have been honest with me during the process rather than abruptly ending the relationship without communicating the issues they were concerned with. Had they communicated clearly with me, we may have been able to thwart the problems that finally broke the proverbial camel’s back for them.