I recently started working as a freelance project director. I have spent 20 years working as a project manager for property developers with in-house interior design studios. My skills and enjoyment of the design process lie in understanding the life cycle of a project and orchestrating the team so that the designers, engineers and general contractors are collaborating with the client’s best interests at heart. I love delivering projects, and the nitty-gritty problem-solving required, all while getting to appreciate someone else’s great designs.
However, I am finding it difficult to sell my services. How can I put my case forward to interior design studios to encourage them to collaborate with me? Or, how can I connect with high-net-worth clients to help them understand it can be worth spending the extra fee on a project manager who collaboratively works with all parties? A lot of the time they say, “Well, my interior designer will manage the project,” or “My builder will just do it.” I find most design studios seem afraid to get a project manager involved, but I feel I am adding so much value by reducing their time on non-design-related scope and allowing them to offer their clients an elevated service. Am I missing a trick?
Dear Problem Solver,
Most designers working on ultraluxury projects are at the top of their game—this much we can agree on. In the next five years, it is safe to say they will get better as designers, but not that much better. The art of production management, on the other hand, is still in its infancy for both construction and decor. Think of all the ways we can communicate today as opposed to 10 years ago—via text, audio and video. Throw artificial intelligence into the mix, and these tools become exponentially easier to use.
Yes, the steps to produce any project remain the same; but client management has never been about the delivery of information—it has always been about the delivery of unessential information. For instance, if a designer orders a sofa to arrive at a particular date, does knowing when it leaves the factory matter to the client as long as it arrives when it is supposed to? Of course not. But being able to communicate what is happening can establish a perceived level of care that makes the designer more trusted and professional in the eyes of their client. And when there are bumps in the road, as there always are, the delivery of unessential information can provide the designer the opportunity to solve the issue at hand.
If you are doing what every project manager does, only better, you are swimming in a very crowded pool. Instead, why not see yourself as someone with the ability to entertain (yes, entertain) by creating deliverables that, to paraphrase Seth Godin, everyone would miss if you did not provide them? From there comes the opportunity to be not only an invaluable resource but to potentially increase revenue for the design firm as well.
Allow me to share an example from one of my clients who, to my knowledge, is an absolute unicorn. During the pandemic, one of the issues confronting my client, a woman who owns her own firm, was that her clients had a bad habit of talking only to her, in spite of her team’s outreach. It was really becoming a problem, unnecessarily delaying basic decisions and processes. I suggested that she have each of her employees provide her with a five-minute video every week to share what they were working on. They could send along supplemental materials as well, but they had only five minutes to present everything.
Her employees actually loved doing the videos. They could communicate directly with my client, and she could take in their work on her schedule. One junior designer decided to have fun and reported on the kitchen of a particular project while pretending to be Gordon Ramsay. My client loved it so much that she sent that section to the client. The client thought it hilarious—and she responded to the junior designer within five minutes of getting the video.
Not to be outdone, another junior designer asked an actor friend to discuss a different client’s bathroom as “The Dude” in The Big Lebowski while sitting in a tub (if you know, you know). My client sent that video to the client, and the response to the junior designer was even better.
That was about two years ago. Today, the firm creates four to six videos a week for clients, and it has transformed their business. Clients are quick to respond, and they love the library of videos they have after a project is finished. To be clear, the entire update is not in character—only one part, about a minute. My client, the firm owner, is not involved at all other than to approve decisions when necessary, and the new system has completely resolved any communication issues. The company’s production fees have also tripled. If they were charging a commission on goods (which they do not), the fees they are collecting would come out to roughly a 90 percent—yes, you read that right—markup. Their profit margin on production is now equivalent to the one for design. I do not know of a more profitable designer in the industry.
Instead of worrying whether you’re missing a trick, why not see if you can redefine the game? My client had the intuition to use video in a way no other designer ever had. If you are as passionate about the design and production process as you say, then why not make the leap to obsession and see what you can create to make everyone feel more seen, heard and understood throughout the process than they ever have in our spreadsheet-centric world? Seems like low-hanging fruit to me.
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.