How Interior Designers Can Fill Their Pipeline with Ideal Clients

Like all service-oriented businesses, interior designers are always in need of clientele. Even when currently engaged in numerous projects, design professionals should always keep this search active. Building and maintaining a strong client pipeline allows designers the breathing room to plan for the long term and be able to withstand the fluctuating business landscape.

I am always looking for ways to help my designer clients devote more time to creative and artistically oriented pursuits. I believe that following best practices for client selection and understanding the power of saying no will go a long way to make a design business run smoothly, thrive, and grow.

One of the most crucial nuggets of advice I impart to interior designers is, “Look for work when you are busiest.” This may seem counterintuitive, but I believe it is important to set plans in motion and look for clients early for projects. It is important to put ample thought and deliberation for a professional relationship that may last for years to come. Often designers get so caught up in a streak of steady work but get surprised when work dries up because they didn’t put in the efforts to gain new clients and projects when they were busy.

Inquiry and Advocacy for Selecting Clients

Interior designers have the power to define how they spend their daily work life and entire career by the quality of the clients selected throughout the life of the business. But first, designers must establish and communicate the value of their talent and experience to potential clients. A common challenge for a creative professional is assessing and communicating one’s value in order to attract a steady flow of clients.

I detail in my book The Business of Design the two key parts of defining and communicating the value of a designer’s talent—inquiry and advocacy. Inquiry describes the efforts designers make to understand someone’s tastes and sensibilities and if there is a connection or common ground.

If the inquiry is positive, a designer can move onto advocacy. It is at this crucial stage where designers can truly sell themselves and share their passion for design and how their talents can benefit a client. Then designers must show potential clients the breadth of their past work. Lastly, they must share with clients the logistics, costs, and processes that a design project entails.

I like to call the three value-establishing strategies of advocacy a designer’s “why, what, and how.” Designer/client relationships must be based on trust and mutual respect and the inquiry and advocacy I describe can go a long way in helping you select the right types of clients for your design firm.

How to Determine the Ideal Client

When many designers first start out, they have no choice but to take on any client willing to pay for their services as they work as a junior designer to build experience and credibility in the industry. They are often driven by the fear and anxiety that plagues many business owners—that turning down business may lead to less work in the future or that it alienate future potential clients. I want to urge designers to trust their gut as they will often find that their intuition leads them on the right path to the right client or project. In addition to this, I urge designers to ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Do I like the client?
  2. Will this project advance my firm?
  3. Can I work with the client?
  4. Does the client appreciate my expertise?
  5. Does the client have the proper budget to build this project?
  6. Are all the members of the team people I can and want to work with?
  7. Have they offered me a glass of water?*

*Note that #7 above is certainly weighted less than the first six questions but it is an interesting way to assess the true courtesy of a potential client. A small gesture of courtesy like providing a beverage is a meaningful indication of the overall attitude of a client.

The Power and Art of Saying No

I do believe that designers have to say “no” to a potential client if they cannot answer “yes” to all above seven questions. These questions keep designers from working with clients who don’t have the proper appreciation and understanding of their value as a creative talent, which in turn can lead to a bad working relationship. I firmly believe that it is powerful for a designer to say no because it reveals the confidence of who they want to work for and what they want out of life.

However, there is a skill in saying no that will be healthy for design businesses in the long run. When saying no to a potential client, a designer should put them at ease by softening the rejection with positive feelings as the person could possibly be a future client.

You certainly want to be honest but should communicate it in a way that is constructive like saying the scale of a project is too large for a firm’s bandwidth or the aesthetic of the current project is not the proper match for the firm’s capabilities. Lastly, if you can, try to combine your rejection of a client with a referral to another designer. Habits like this have the potential to do wonders for your circle of professionals, leading to more work for everyone, and positive word of mouth buzz about you.

Some designers will get to a point where they simply have to say no for lack of resources and time. But I urge designers that if they meet a really compelling client who may lead to more work in the future, it might be worth the extra investment of adding more resources and more staff to take on the client project. Expanding in this way can be smart for designers who plan smart and grow along with their client pipeline. As designers gain experience and gain acclaim, they can make themselves so indispensable and so desirable that future clients will wait patiently until they are available.

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