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I think it is a topic that could easily expand to hundreds of ways to create happy client relationships and prevent disasters. 

I’ll start with ten for now, and feel free to comment with your own best practices so we can help our colleagues, too.

The business of interior design is full of potential land mines, and many are related to how you communicate with your clients about money, schedules and responsibilities.

Consumer attitudes have changed dramatically since the recession started in 2007. While the Internet & HGTV have expanded interest in interior design, they have also created an army of savvy shoppers who may choose to purchase their own furnishings. Consumers have always been the biggest competitors for your services over other interior designers, and now they are more aware of design options than ever before.

We can be our own worst enemies when establishing client relationships. Your decisions about your ideal clients are more important than the potential for revenue. Please don’t take a client just because you need or want the business. Prevent disasters!

1. Decide how you will and won’t work before you have your next conversation with a prospective client. Add the qualifying questions to your telephone interview list so you determine the deal-breakers before you spend time meeting in person. There are a few professions that are difficult to deal with (feel free to email me if you want to know which ones I avoid), and I try to find out before the conversation leads to the first meeting. If you haven’t completed the exercise of clearly defining your ideal client, it should include demographics (age, income level, profession), psychographics (likes, dislikes and values), personality characteristics, technographics (their knowledge and affinity toward email, the Internet, etc.), and I also suggest you include specific personality traits or other attributes you don’t want to work with.If someone has worked with more than one designer and they are critical of all of them, run the other way. You’ll save yourself a tremendous amount of stress, time and money by avoiding difficult clients.

2. Create a script for your questions and for your initial conversations with your prospects and your clients. How you do anything is how you do everything. Establish your professionalism, process and dialogue from the very beginning. Practice in front of a mirror if you aren’t comfortable practicing with your friends.

3. Compile a list of issues or questions that you’ve encountered with previous clients and turn that into a Frequently Asked Questions About Working With An Interior Designer report. Offer this FAQ to your prospective clients prior to your first meeting. You’ll have an entirely different conversation if you surface the issues early.

4. Work on your courage and self esteem. Many of the biggest problems that arise with clients are due to the fear of asking questions that may appear nosy such as how much they’ve budgeted or decided to invest for fear of how a client or prospect will react. How do you handle this? Be proactive. Think about what can and has gone wrong in previous client relationships.How can you address this in the beginning part of your relationship with your clients? Having the difficult decisions before you begin your client relationship ensures that it will be much smoother, or you will at least you will have a means to address the problems when they arise.

5. Ask your clients how they prefer to work. Do they want to do their own purchasing? Do they want you to purchase some items for them? Do they want you to purchase everything for them?Explain the benefits of you managing the process for them as well as the problems that occur when you don’t manage the entire process. If you don’t want to allow your clients to do their own purchasing, then you need to address this before signing a contract and becoming upset when a new piece of furniture arrives without your assistance.

6. Almost 70% of all consumers prefer a fixed fee. How do you work? Are you billing by the hour with a mark-up? This puts you in a position of providing design services that are a commodity. I’ve lost jobs to designers who have a lower hourly fee. It doesn’t matter that I’m more efficient and my business is more automated than less expensive designers.You’re also limited to how many hours you or your staff can bill. Even the most affluent clients are often stunned when they receive large time bills. When this happens, you lose trust, and potentially, a lot of money. Your clients might choose to trim your scope of work, and then you lose control of your project, future referrals, and your profits. What clients want is a result that is based on emotional benefits.

7. Discuss in advance how you will both handle X when it occurs:

· When they find a product for less money on the Internet that you quoted at a higher price

· When a problem occurs with a product or service provided by you

· When they add to the scope of work and it isn’t included in your contract

· When they change their minds after the order is placed

· When you don’t receive payments for your services as agreed in your contract

· When they don’t discuss the amount they are willing to invest and your design exceeds the amount they had established in their mind

· When the client receives your early time bills if you are billing this way

· For instance – do you remember when we discussed X at the beginning of the relationship and that this might occur? This is what we agreed and now this is how we need to handle this situation

8. Allow your clients the option to purchase some items on their own. Wouldn’t you prefer to control the custom furnishings orders that require your expertise, problem-solving skills and detail management? If a client has a secondary room such as a basement recreation area that is used by their children, why encourage them to spend money on custom furnishings when using retail items is more appropriate. Your relationship with the client changes to one of a trusted advisor when you aren’t trying to make them purchase everything through you with your mark-up. The exception might be the ultra-affluent clients that don’t want to deal with the headaches of purchasing, managing deliveries and installations.

9. Discuss deadlines before you sign a contract.This is one of the biggest reasons interior designers are sued. If a client’s deadline is unrealistic, you must address this and decide how to handle it before you start a project. You need a clear contract and I recommend professional liability insurance for every designer. Just one lawsuit could lead to business failure and even bankruptcy.

10. Explain your process. Our work as interior designers is misunderstood by most consumers, so again, be proactive and explain very clearly how you work and the benefits you bring to them

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