business advice | Mar 2, 2021 |
I can’t find an installation-day system that works for my firm. Help!

Dear Sean,

Where do designers who do large residential installations find capable, patient movers to do the physical labor? In our market, the logistics of install day is a nightmare, which often results in us doing it ourselves—and by that, I mean my husband and I end up spending 10 hours unloading and perfectly placing several box trucks of furniture and accessories in a client’s home! While that worked well enough when we were in our 20s and 30s, that time is over.

I’ve tried traditional movers, but they are often unwilling to unpack, assemble or stand around and wait. I’ve tried younger interns whose schedules are too busy to accommodate the flexibility install days require. I need to delegate this, but since we do only one or two large installations a month, it doesn’t merit employing someone in-house. Do you have any suggestions on how to structure this part of the business?

Labor of Love

Dear Labor of Love,

The need for an effective install team seems essential to me. Without a doubt, your work requires that ta-da moment for your clients, from perfectly placed furniture and rugs down to the candles and flowers.

Yours is an interesting question, as I assume you do not adequately charge the client for the cost of this most important labor—that is, if you charge for it at all. That leaves you with the dilemma of trying to get the installation done on a budget or by yourselves. Because you’ve discovered that an install on a budget does not work, you wind up doing it yourselves.

If you ask any florist installing an event whether they would rather have three experienced designers on-site making $35 per hour or seven more junior assistants making $15 per hour, the florist would choose the experienced designers, because they can get more done, more effectively than any team of junior designers. Yet if you posed the same question to a client, they would likely say that seven has to be better than three, and would probably question spending $35 per hour for someone’s time when you could spend less.

Of course, you will need to spend more to work with installation teams that are professional and do it right the first time—as you described it, the constant flow of unpacking, assembly, moving and waiting. I see that you are on the East Coast in a substantial city, so I have no doubt that these high-end installation teams exist. The real question is whether you are going to demand that your clients pay for the team necessary to truly complete your work.

As for whether you need or can afford to have an install team on staff, that’s not a function of volume but of relative importance to your work. There is a huge difference between nicely done and perfectly done. Many designers will literally fold the clients’ clothes as part of their installation; others will not. If you are in the former camp, you can absolutely have an in-house team if installation matters that much to the finished project. Then again, if it matters that much to your firm, you have to be willing to be paid accordingly. My guess is that you do not perceive it as an essential part of your art, and therefore do not charge as such.

The value of art is beyond the thing itself—it is what is necessary for its creation. That necessity is whatever you say it is, and lives in the idiosyncrasy of your art and business. It has to matter to the level you say it does—with the full understanding that it may not matter to someone else in the same circumstance. So what? You did not build it for someone else; you built it for your client who cares deeply about the experience you say your design provides. If you are unwilling to charge for what you clearly care about, why would you expect your clients to care? You go first.

Value is as you demand it, and if it is necessary for you to do your best work, then please do so without apology. It takes Bentley one craftsperson one full week to hand-stitch its leather interiors for a single car. The leather interior is not meant to matter to a Toyota buyer (where it takes a robot less than three minutes to do the same work); it is meant only for those who deeply appreciate the craftsmanship necessary to manifest said interior. Bentley does not apologize for the price of its product, and neither should you.

Homepage photo: © Moodboard/Adobe Stock


Sean Low is 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.

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