I’ve been told by several business coaches that even if a client chooses to work with another design team, you should keep in touch and maintain that relationship anyway. But when you don’t get the job after months of consideration—including viewing your work in person and calling your references—what are the next steps? Do you ask for feedback on why they selected the other team over you? A standard reply to the rejection email? And how do you actually maintain that relationship, knowing they liked your work but that you weren’t their top choice?
—Francis Toumbakaris, Francis Interiors
The easiest advice for me to give is to tell you to send the standard reply to the rejection and move on—but I will not. You owe yourself and your potential client more than that.
That said, I disagree with the notion that you should maintain a relationship with the clients who do not choose you in the end. To do so is to root for the demise of the designer the client did choose. As far as I can tell, the only reason to stay in touch would be for the fantasy that you could swoop in and be the hero, either saving the day when the project goes south or replacing the other designer on the next project—why else would you maintain contact? I don’t like that energy.
I would choose the middle road: If you have as good a relationship as you suggest—months of dialogue, calling references, and viewings of your work—you have earned permission to seek feedback on how you communicated the essence of who you are throughout the process. But note that this is about you, not them. Don’t ask what you could have done better (i.e., adapted yourself to their needs). Instead, try to discover whether or not they understood you and your firm as you intended. Beyond that, there is nothing more to be gleaned and you should just move on.
The interaction would look something like this: “I’m disappointed, as I believe deeply that we are the right designer for you, but I understand and respect your choice and wish only the best for your project. Could I connect with you, not to convince you to change your mind, but rather to talk about what we might do to better communicate who we are as designers in the future? Our goal is to always be better tomorrow than we are today, and hearing your candid feedback would go a long way to making that possible.”
Then have the meeting and be done.
At the same time, the months of consideration you’ve described leads me to question what you focus on in your wooing process. You appear to be making it about liking your work (seeing your work in person, calling your references), and certainly that’s important. But you can probably assume that they liked your work before they called you. The actual decision a potential client makes has much more to do with your ability to be their Superman (or Wonder Woman) instead of their Clark Kent (Diana Prince).
Think about it: Before a potential client meets you, they do not actually know you. They only know what they think of you and your firm. To land them as a client, the actual you (Superman/Wonder Woman) needs to exceed who they perceive you to be (Clark/Diana). Underwhelm them and the answer is obvious. Meet their expectations and they will seek the designer who blows them away. So you have to blow them away.
The question then is how. Most would advise you to figure out what you did wrong and adapt to the client, but I am telling you to do the exact opposite. If you are trying to be all things to everyone, it is very hard to know what to do or say to blow them away. On the other hand, the narrower your focus—the more clearly you know what you are seeking to bowl over a client with—the better positioned you are to resonate with the clients that are right for you and your business. Position your business to speak clearly to the clients you care most about, and ignore the rest. The truer you are to yourself and what you stand for, the easier it will be for the right client to resonate with you—and yes, choose you and your firm over all others. This client will want the best for them and you and your firm will be it.
Sean Low is the the go-to business coach for interior designers. His clients have included Nate Berkus, Sawyer Berson, Vicente Wolf, Barry Dixon, Kevin Isbell and McGrath II. Low earned his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and as founder-president of The Business of Being Creative, he has long consulted for design businesses. In his Business Advice column for BOH, he answers designers’ most pressing questions. Have a dilemma? Send us an email—and don’t worry, we can keep your details anonymous.