Saturday, May 7, 2011

Selling Design

Interior design services can be a hard sell. Everyone seems to be giving them away now. Furniture stores, decorative fabric stores, gift shops, contractors, etc. I've even seen a local painter that advertises free design services on the side of his truck. Don't we all know by now that nothing is free in this world? Don't we all know that time spent in "design" by a sometimes questionably self-proclaimed designer will be charged somewhere else?

If you're reading design blogs, then you probably realize the value of good design. A good designer can make a huge impact on a project and help you spend your dollars wisely. Knowledge of materials (construction and furnishings), sources, contractors, construction techniques, workrooms, and technology used in the home is critical in achieving your desired end result. Most importantly however, is the vision and ability to call on all this and be able to harmonize it in a way that gives the homeowner the look they want. It's the magic that happens when everything falls into place to create the whole. Whether it's the pleat in the drapery panel, the special carved detailing in the custom cabinetry, or the specification of special light fixtures, a designer should be able to consider all those things when creating an ambience or look in a room. I often refer to an interior designer as the conductor of the symphony. You don't have to master each and every instrument, you just have to be knowledgeable (or know who to ask to gain that knowledge) about how to use them all to work together to achieve a certain look.


Not everyone has the money for this. Most time hiring an interior designer is a big splurge for people. We all know this. We know that this service is not an expense "necessary" for life. However, if you are looking to make some big furnishings purchases, remodel, or build a new home, then hiring an interior designer does make sense. Having someone look at your project with objective eyes with knowledge and expertise is a good investment.

Most designers sell services and product. Whether it's furniture, window treatments, wallcoverings, tile, paint, whatever. When designers sell these products they are responsible for getting the right product to their client. They are using knowledge of their sources to come up with the best product for the job. I have so many vendors with whom I have accounts, I don't really even know how many I have. As a designer, I can access any trade only showroom out there. Really, the sky is the limit. While I have trusted vendors that I go back to time and time again, I will try new products and vendors to get what I want for my projects. Most designers that primarily sell design do the same.

Houston Rug Mart

I feel like knowledge of product services, contractors, workrooms, etc. has value and should be paid for. Therefore I do not extend my full discount to my clients. On top of my design fees, I charge a percentage of my cost on product. There must be designers out there that give clients their full discounts (or say they do) because I have had many people ask me if I will extend them my discount. What happens when the fabric comes in damaged or there is a price increase between the time I'm handed the deposit and the time the order is filled? What about all the time spent on placing and tracking orders? What about time spent on accounting and invoicing? I don't charge hourly for the placement and tracking of orders. That is covered in my percentage. Lauren Leiss describes the process well in this post on her blog.


Many times I have put a really low flat fee on design where a large amount of purchasing was going to occur, anticipating my profits in the product I would sell. (Okay designers, tell me I'm not the only one who made this mistake!) Living room, bedroom, etc. full of furniture, window treatments, rugs, etc. My clients took the design and went out and bought everything retail! I've even had them purchase one or two of the items (least profitable, usually) and walk with rest when I had done a very low flat fee. They ended up with much cheaper goods and many times substituted things I would never have wanted in their space. I learned fast that you have to charge properly for your design time then be competitive with product pricing. I want to provide the whole package. Not just for my profit margin, but for a happy, satisfied client with a beautiful, functional end result!

This is not to say I want to sell design only. I need to sell product to stay in business. As a business owner I can't bill my time out 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. I have many other tasks that fill my day just like any other business owner. Marketing, accounting, product research, planning, general business activities, blogging. :) I need to sell product because my hourly fee is not enough. I also want to control the quality and type of products my clients buy. I have had a client purchase an item from a retailer, after I had presented and recommended one from my sources. Yes, mine was somewhat more expensive, but the look, design, and function of the piece they chose was not at all appropriate for the space. I don't think it was worth saving a few hundred dollars (after spending many thousands) to go cheap on that one item. Of course, I don't find out about all this until AFTER the purchase is made and then I'm asked my opinion. Sticky situation.

With the internet, people can find anything they want now, more cheaply than ever before. Clients can take a design and shop it, not only with various retail sources but in cyberspace. I try to make the pricing on products I sell competitive so that my clients can afford the best product for their project. I can do that because I'm selling design too. All of my profit is not locked up in product. However, there will always be something cheaper out there and someone always willing to beat my price. I realize that and do not claim to have the cheapest pricing on goods. For example, I sell a certain brand of window shades. They are a great product and I love to use them. I can go online and find those shades all over the place. I adjust my markup so that I am competitive with other vendors. I may not the cheapest, but I'm usually in the middle somewhere. I'd much rather my client have the products I think are best for the job and purchase through me than buy elsewhere.

When I opened my new studio over a year ago, I strongly believed that good design will sell. I still hold on to that belief and purposely created a design studio vs. a retail store. Not to say I won't go there some day, maybe after I've really proven to myself that this is a viable business plan. This is in fact, a more traditional way of approaching the business of design. Offering design with competitively priced products from a large variety of sources, carefully chosen to create a unique and special look for each client.

I'd love to hear from other designers out there about how they work with clients! It's such an interesting time to really discuss how we work and contemplate how we fit in with the market these days.

By the way, check back for a giveaway I'll be offering.....something from my Showhouse room. I'll give you a hint. It starts with "flo-" and ends with "-kati"!


Suzanne Lasky/S Interior Design said...

Very well written and I was nodding my head up and down as I read. I am in the same state of mind regarding how I run S Interior Design as you are.

Teresa Hatfield ~ Splendid Sass said...

AGREE, Carla!
There is a huge difference. Everyone is looking for something free, and it just doesn't exist!
Lovely post and i hope that your weekend is filled with fun things.

Kathysue said...

Carla this is a very well written post, agree whole-heartedly. Very thoughtfully written, Kathysue

quintessence said...

I am not a designer but agree with everything you noted in this very fair informative post!!

Sally@DivineDistractions said...

Very well articulated, Carla. Our best clients realize that we can provide something to them that they cannot find elsewhere. It's a little harsh, but I often tell potential clients "cheap, fast, good...pick 2!" You don't get all three, but when someone values what designers bring to the table, they understand. Well done. I enjoyed our chat the other day, & I'm sharing your post.

Kellie Collis said...

I cannot agree more. I can't wait for the giveaway. I'm so excited! Enjoy the lovely day, Kellie xx

Anonymous said...

Americans are obsessed with getting a bargain, finding it cheaper and discounted etc...we have had it drilled into us from the time we are old enough to watch television...look at all the marketing and sales's all about's so hard to get Americans to think quality, design, function vs cheap price...
Carla, I think you've written an informative and succinct piece on the working end of your business and how it affects the design outcome too....amazingly enough, a lot of people have no idea...
hope you're having a great weekend..

Kathryn said...

A thoughtful, professional approach to the business. Great info!

Karen said...

It was really interesting to read a designer's perspective. I've only worked with two designers, one a seasoned decorator with years of experience and the second newly graduated from design school. Both gave me good ideas but the woman with less experience taught me where to save and where to splurge. I would use her services again in a heartbeat because I could tell that her goal was to make me happy and give me the most bang for my buck while maintaining the quality look I wanted. I felt like her bottom line was the only goal of the first designer.

I think that the approach the designer takes is key to making a sale with providing the client with a look they are happy with.

Unknown said...

Well written on how a professional interior designer does business. Clients have responsibilities as well and need to have open and honest communication with the designer for the best possible outcome. The best clients are ones who value the input of the designer, after all that is why they hired you in the first place!

Mary Ann Pickett said...

What a fair and honest report. I have tried billing just hourly and telling clients where they can get the goods retail (then they are on their own) or billing hourly with a smaller up charge on wholesale...since everyone wants a deal...but it gets tricky with things as simple as a pillow when they can cost $100 of dollars for good fabric, trim and fabrication and clients wonder how that is possible when at Pottery Barn... So, I am just trying each case individually. Not a great answer. Good luck and thanks for your thoughts, Carla. So, about that give-away ?? :) said...

Carla, this really is brilliantly worded. It is difficult to distinguish yourself as a knowledgeable professional in design these days because everybody and their mother has hung out a shingle, so to speak. I do agree with so much of what the comments on this post say, too. Americans want everything for nothing. And most things are throw-away. We have replaced treasure and pride with cheap. I too, have had more than my share of clients who have taken my ideas and gone shopping elsewhere. I don't understand the mindset of not charging hourly plus markup. I'd rather take a lesser markup than give away my time to someone who shops elsewhere and I loose the product sale, too. Great post and I am going to link to it this week. Thanks Carla!

Hannah said...

I do charge a markup on everything I sell, but I break it out and call it a project management fee,just a little psychology game. Most folks understand business consulting and project management and how a consultant works, so I explain that my work is very much as a business consultant who does design. That speaks to me being a careful money manager as well, people like hearing that. I explain you would pay a financial consultant because they have a tacit knowledge of the business, a practical knowledge of the business, and a gift for seeing through the confusion to the best decision.

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