business advice | Aug 6, 2019 |
I've outgrown my current clientele. How do I level up?

Dear Sean,

I have been a designer for more than 15 years. In the past, I enjoyed working with clients hand in hand, educating them on the nuances of my work. We would shop—and sometimes even travel—together. The projects felt as much like the culmination of an educational process as a realization of a specific design. As I have gotten older, though, I find myself wanting to work with more sophisticated clients who do not need as much hand-holding. It’s not that I’m not grateful for my core clients, but I’d like to focus more on designing interiors for my clients than helping them learn the ropes. How do I make the switch and start attracting clients who are more hands-off?

Room to Grow

Dear Room to Grow,

I understand where you are coming from: You want to push the envelope as a designer and you feel like you need to have sophisticated clients in order to do that. Taking someone who has never worked with a designer to a profound result is a very tall order.

To really answer your question, though, you have to first understand the difference between your current clients and the ones you seek.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a client who knows nothing about design and 10 being, well, you, your clients are much closer to 1s than even 5s or 6s. As a 1, these clients are seeking support as they overcome their fear and intimidation when it comes to design. What you do so well is to help these clients learn about design, feel comfortable with their choices, and ultimately arrive at a well-curated and beautiful space. This process really has nothing to do with budget and far more to do with a client’s perception of themselves as capable of understanding the choices you are asking them to make. At the end of the day, your clients become functional (say, a 4 or 5) and literate as to what they like and do not like by way of design. You have done amazing work by bringing them to a 4 or 5, but do remember, at the end of the day, they are still far from a 10.

The clients you seek, on the other hand, are already knowledgeable and therefore already a 4 or 5. They know themselves and what they like and do not like. Perhaps they are devotees of design or have even worked with a designer to get there. They most certainly do not need you to do what you usually do by way of encouragement, education and support.

With this dichotomy in mind, you have to understand that if you want the sophisticated client to hire you, they will be thinking about it as switching rather than trying you out. Think about any long-term avocation outside of design, like sports, culture or cooking. You are already very comfortable with the tools you have to practice that avocation. For example, if you love to cook, you probably love your knives. If another knife manufacturer wants to convince you to switch to their knives, even the shiniest, glitziest new set won’t make a difference. You already love your knives, so trying the new shiny ones just because they are new and shiny is not going to interest you. The only way to get a seasoned consumer to switch to a new knife set is to solve a specific problem better than the one they’re currently using.

Back to your business. If you hope to work with more sophisticated clients, identify a different, more important problem and then use your tool to solve it. In the process, understand that these clients do not need you to educate them, but rather to elevate their environment to another level, design-wise. This means you have to speak to these clients much differently than how you speak to your current clients. You are going to have to go further with what your work will connote and how they can expect your process to bring them the fulfillment they seek. The design statement you make must be the overarching theme, your process must be refined to suit the needs of those who do not need hand-holding, and you must be paid accordingly. This places a premium on what is between your ears and your ability to communicate your ideas so that effective decisions can be made. Expectations will shift, and your soon your vision will matter more than your ability to encourage the leap in the first place.

If making this shift to more sophisticated clients sounds right to you now that you see the work ahead, go for it. Just know that your decision is a binary one. You have an amazing business serving 1s and 2s, and you can also have an amazing business serving 5s, but you cannot serve both at the same time. The reason is simple: You can only matter most to the ones that matter most. The choice, of course, is yours.


After a 30-year career, do I still need to belong to a professional association?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'll keep your details anonymous.

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