business advice | Aug 23, 2022 |
I keep getting passed over for next-level projects. What am I doing wrong?

Dear Sean,

Over the past three years, our firm has consulted on a handful of potential jobs that I would define as unicorns—the homes are incredible and large in scope, and we hit it off with the owners immediately. While we do land a high percentage of jobs after initial consults, we consistently don’t get these unicorn projects. And while they are a tier above our current projects, I’m confident our firm is ready for that next level.

The pattern seems to be the same: The prospective client tours us through every inch of the home, stating that they want to do it all at once and not in phases. After the consultation, we provide a proposal for our services for the requested scope. And then nothing. We might get a polite “moving in another direction” email. When we try to follow up or get them on the phone, they are unresponsive. They claim not to want to break up the scope, and they don’t have any outstanding questions. Their excitement just disappears, and we have no closure or feedback for how to approach things differently in the future.

These losses sting. The prospective clients are always eager to meet on site and we have a delightful consult, only to be ghosted after sending over our fees. At this point, I can’t write it off as a mismatch—it’s happened often enough that I know something is off.

We charge hourly, and I suspect that we are charging too much as projects get larger. Should we consider another method as the homes and furnishing budgets increase? (For example, let’s say we’d charge $25,000 to design four rooms. That rate meets no resistance. But if we go to $100,000 for 16 rooms, they don’t bite.) We can’t break into this next level, and it’s driving me crazy! Shoot it to me straight: What am I doing wrong?

Unicorn Chaser

Dear Unicorn Chaser,

You asked me to shoot straight, so here it is: You do not speak the same language as your next-level client. It has nothing to do with your price being too high. Instead, it is about context and a mismatch of desire—you desire to be effective in the individual components while your prospective client seeks total transformation.

Here are your tells: Your prospective client shows you their entire house, asking you to share what you would need to do to transform the space (and their lives), but you respond with a room-by-room fee that makes each room a separate entity. They are asking you to tell them about the Monet painting they will have at the end of the project, but you are talking about brushstrokes. From there, there is no way back.

I am assuming that your unicorn projects are of such size and scale that they would be of interest to just about any interior designer in your market. Your clients know this, too, and are confident they could hire anyone they choose. That means the designer they hire will be, for them, the best in their world. In other words, you will have to be Wonder Woman in order to be hired.

That’s not as impossible as it sounds. You see, they have already come to you thinking that you are Diana Prince and with a vision that you could be Wonder Woman. However, you do not provide them with the context as to why they should imagine you to be Wonder Woman, and so you fall flat.

I am going to assume these projects genuinely belong on your firm’s evolutionary path. If the work you are currently doing is fulfilling and these unicorn projects represent a “grass is greener” scenario, that would be a topic for another column. To land these jobs you’re dreaming of, you are going to have to truly stake your claim and get specific about the one thing that matters to you as both a designer and a business—for example, “We need our clients to be great decision-makers who are willing to challenge their preconceived notions of what color represents.” You cannot be Wonder Woman to everyone, only to those who care as you do. The first step, then, is to define your niche.

You need to honor that those clients that care the most pay the most—not just in dollars, but in trust and respect for all that you do. As such, that means that some of these unicorns will disappear, since they are not meant for you, no matter how perfect the project looks, because it does not fall within your carefully considered, self-identified niche. From there, you are going to have to elevate the respect for what it is that you do. You have clearly built a terrific business focusing on the room-by-room work most of your clients seek. While this is helpful and impactful, it is not transformative. Transformation means you are responsible for the totality of how your clients will live their lives—everything from how they experience walking to the bathroom in the morning to relaxing with their family at night. All of it is yours to shape, and you must own that that is what you are providing, far more than finding great pieces for the living room. You will also need to get paid exactly for the path you define for your business. That may or may not mean jettisoning your current hourly model, but it most certainly means getting paid specifically for design.

Committing to serving unicorns is an enormous leap, and one that I suggest you do not take lightly, as you will foreclose on a ton of “yeses” when you do. However, the satisfaction that comes from creating true, ephemeral joy for those you seek to serve is like none other. It is just not for the faint of heart.

Last, if you feel like my advice here is just too-too, let me suggest to you that those you are competing against are all-in with the idea of transformation and what it takes for them to be Wonder Woman for these unicorn clients—ergo, why you get crickets after you submit your proposal. And, to that end, take yourself off the hook. Self-awareness is the aim, not reaching for the emperor’s new clothes. If going where I am asking you to go is not for you, then relish where you are now, knowing that for the clients you currently serve, your business is magical and could be even more magical for them. There is room for everyone who honors the designer and business they are first.

No matter what path you choose, really seek to know that it is the right one for you and your business. The rest will take care of itself.

Homepage photo: ©Shawn Hempel/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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