Every now and then a news item crops up about an interior designer or decorator accused of egregiously overcharging or bilking a client. These rare occurrences make sensational headlines.
However, in my 20 years of experience counseling designers, I have witnessed that most complaints against designers arise not from fraud or greed but from misunderstandings that could — and should — have been avoided in the first place.
Because of the complexity and subjectivity involved in design projects, confusion can occur at many points in the process. It goes without saying that clear and responsive communication is an essential skill for any designer.
I have identified five key points in the intake process where misunderstandings often occur that lead to disagreements and even lawsuits later on. Take care to avoid these fatal errors when setting expectations with prospective clients.
Prospects naturally want to know how much the project is going to cost them. Many designers, in an effort to be honest and realistic, will say they don’t know or it depends. Unfortunately, that can set up erroneous expectations for both parties.
What the prospect really wants to know is whether they can afford the project or whether the cost is worth it to them. I recommend providing an example or two from a similar type of project so that the prospect can get a ballpark idea of possible costs.
Then, follow that with a clear and thorough review of your fees and how you bill, including travel fees, drafting fees, markup, shopping fees, and administrative fees. Be clear about what is and is not covered in each fee. Ideally, you should provide this information in writing as well.
This is the flip side of the coin from costs. Although they may be reluctant to share a figure with you, clients — even the very wealthy ones — usually have some idea of how much they are planning or willing to spend.
If they say they don’t know or haven’t decided, suggest a likely range based on their requirements and ask if they are comfortable with that range. It is better to overestimate than underestimate. Once clients get a figure set in their mind, they will expect you to adhere to it, regardless of any caution you give them regarding possible additional costs.
Admittedly, this is a tricky one, because prospects may be influenced by current trends, friends or family members into thinking they want something they may not really want. When presenting your portfolio, explain that these rooms were designed to meet the tastes and needs of particular clients, and that you will work with the prospect through an iterative process to create a design you both agree on.
Never assume you “know” what the client will like or what is best for them. Get explicit confirmation from the client first, preferably in writing or by having them sign off on a design or purchase.
4. Outside influences
Ask the prospect if anyone else will be involved in the project, such as an architect, contractor, consultant or specialist, or spouse or other family member. If others are involved, you will want to confer with them before deciding whether to take on the project.
If you decide to take the project, make sure at the start that the client and other parties are all clear and in agreement as to your role and the services you will and will not be providing, as who has final decision-making authority.
Establish the client’s expectations for the timeline of the project — in particular whether there is a hard due date, such as a special event or holiday, by which they need the project to be completed. Also, discuss approximate delivery dates for materials, furnishings and custom work to ensure you will have access to the project site at that time.
Advise the client that any changes they or others they have enlisted to work on the project make may affect the schedule deadline. Keep the client apprised immediately of any schedule changes that may arise throughout the project and have them approve the changes.
When clients are uncertain, evasive or wishy-washy, it may be tempting to skip over some specifics until later or to assure the client that everything will be fine. However, you are only digging a hole that you may fall into later if something comes up and the client complains he/she did not agree to and does not want to pay.
In the long run, it pays to take the extra time to probe and provide estimates or hypotheticals to get a surer understanding of the client’s expectations from the start, even if they are not able to articulate them.
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