business advice | Apr 23, 2024 |
My firm isn’t landing the right leads, despite thoughtful marketing. What am I missing?

Dear Sean,

We can’t seem to capture the right leads. Our firm gets plenty of inquiries, but they aren’t consistently from the type of client we hope to reach. Every now and then we get a solid one, but more and more it seems that we’re getting people who want quick design help and then to manage the execution themselves. That is not a service we wish to offer, as it isn’t the right fit for our firm’s structure and size.

Our business is built on providing full-service design, and our marketing speaks to this. We design and execute, no questions asked! Except, they are asking—and often go elsewhere when we hold firm to our process. Whenever we have tried to accommodate and offer a lesser service, it has been a disaster. No one is happy.

Additionally, we find that no prospective client is willing to wait—some even questioning if we can speed up our standard process. We stick to how we need things to run, but consistently attracting the wrong type of client is proving to be exhausting.

How do we reach the clients who want the full package, and are willing to pay for it? We know they are out there. Is it just a waiting game?

Tired of the Chase

Dear Tired,

I am a huge believer in outrageous promises and outrageous demands.

In August 2017, Nestle—a brand that knows a little bit about coffee, as one of the biggest owners of coffee brands in the world—bought the Blue Bottle Coffee chain for $500 million. At the time, Blue Bottle Coffee had about 50 stores, while Starbucks had 23,000 and was worth about $80 billion. At that purchase price, a Blue Bottle customer was worth about four to five times what a Starbucks customer was.

Targeting a particular market niche means that you make an outrageous promise and pair it with an outrageous demand. Blue Bottle Coffee says it makes the most outrageously good cup of coffee for coffee lovers and snobs. However, to get that cup of coffee, you have to wait twice as long to get it and pay twice as much.

Your job is to create scarcity and to live in your niche with an outrageous promise and outrageous demand. It means you will get paid the most to do what you do, so that you get permission to do only your best. That is the definition of an outrageous promise and an outrageous demand. You do both so that you can provide your best and are given the stage to do so.

All creative businesses are talking to the smallest possible viable audience, just like Blue Bottle. Starbucks customers are seeking a quick, easy, affordable, middle-of-the-road product; while Blue Bottle customers enjoy the thrill of waiting longer and paying more for the very best. You want the people who love you the most to pay you the most because they want to—not because they have to. That drives the idea that you’re going to remain in a scarcity model by intention: You are not for every client, but you are everything for the right client.

You shared your firm’s website with me to get concrete feedback. I was able to review it and see that it is laden with vague statements where the opposite cannot be true—therefore you have told me nothing. For example, on the services section of your site, you say, “[Your firm] is a full-service interior design firm specializing in exceptional aesthetics, concierge-level project management and unparalleled quality with the aid and collaboration of our trusted team of tradespeople and exclusive vendor access.” Could you ever be a firm specializing in boring aesthetics, average project management and meh quality with average tradespeople and vendor access? Of course not. So you are merely describing what every designer does, and nothing about what only you can do.

You may want to be Blue Bottle, but your marketing is giving Starbucks. No shock then that the clients showing up are looking for only a portion of what you do. You have failed to tell anyone, including your desired niche client, who you are. Note that niche does not mean narrow—it means specific. For example, New York designer Robin Henry stands on the idea that it is beautiful when it is done, and done when it is beautiful. She has literally built her entire business based on this notion, leaving abundant room for those who just seek to do pretty work. If a potential client does not see the world’s beauty as Robin does, she is not for them.

This all means that you have to go first, without apology. You earn permission to create joy, not meet a need. The irony of ironies is that scale comes from the depth of a single thought. There is no such thing as either full-service or a package when it comes to the design business. These words connote sameness, as well as the idea that you are willing to do something less than your best. Let your voice be only as you would have it, and make sure you communicate your desire to own only your stage. Do not find frustration in those that cannot see what you do; only the opportunity to ignore those who never will.


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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