year in review | Dec 18, 2018 |
You asked, he answered: Sean Low’s top tips of 2018

As the year winds down, we’re looking back at the best stories of 2018—including some essential strategies and sound bites from Business Advice columnist Sean Low. (Want to read them all? Start here.)

On best payment practices: “It is entirely antiquated to have any money due to you upon completion. The reputational risk you face for not doing great work dwarfs whatever carrot you might need by way of the withheld payment. Pre-internet you did not face this risk, but today everyone has a megaphone, and a disgruntled client screams loudest of all. Never ever permit any fee to remain until completion; the practice needs to go the way of the dodo bird, as it serves no one—least of all your client.” (From “What’s the best approach to payment schedules?”)

On investing your resources wisely: “Nobody can tell you where you should go with your marketing intuition. Your design business, though, needs you to be aware that great opportunities can be like quicksand if you have no way to judge when enough is enough. Having a marketing budget and putting real thought into whether the effort is justified will guide you on when to say yes—and, more important, when to say no.” (From “When is participating in a designer showhouse worth it?”)

On the necessity of turning down the wrong clients: “If you do the work of expressing your promise and demands [to a potential client] and it lands like a lead balloon, you know it is not going to be a successful relationship. Proceeding down this road can never work, because at the very point you need trust and confidence in your ability to transform his home, that trust will not be there and you will be thwarted.” (From “Am I indebted to my clients?”)

On avoiding haggling with clients over individual items: “The digital marketplace has turned every client, seemingly, into a savvy shopper. But you can tackle this problem by omitting the prices. Present to clients that they are not paying for item selection but, rather, the overall vision. I’d even go so far as to say that line-item prices are irrelevant to the conversation—presuming you have met a client’s overall budget. If this line is not already in your contract, it needs to be: ‘No substitutions permitted once overall design is approved. If an item is not acceptable to client, designer, in her sole discretion, may choose to provide an alternative to said item or terminate this agreement with no further obligation to client.’” (From “My clients are out-shopping me!”)

On editing an existing space versus creating a new one: “Here is the issue with editing: It is actually harder than designing from scratch. If you are given a white box, you will be able to create as you see fit without constraint. When you are limited by existing pieces or fixtures, you have to figure out how to do work you are proud of given these constraints. It should actually be more expensive for your client to hire you to edit than for you to design from scratch. If it is not, then you are in the very tough position of having to do more—and riskier—work for less money than will no doubt be required for the project.” (From “Am I a stylist or a designer?”)

On owning your rates: “You see a world your client cannot see, or else you would not be her designer. Your job is to translate her vision for how she chooses to live, profoundly better than she could do herself. Your ability to make this magic happen comes at a price that you set. How you go about manifesting that price, whether by a retail markup, hourly or flat fees, or some combination of these, is also entirely up to you. So, own what you charge and do not hide from it by trying to make other players complicit in hiding how much you make.” (From “My client is undercutting me—and the showroom is helping her!”)

On charging strategy: “Design hours are more valuable than project-management hours, yet it sounds like you’ve been charging the same rate. Raise your rate for design hours.” (From “Help! My charging strategy is costing me money”)

On the good karma of referrals: “If you can make a recommendation, do so, and do more than just give a name: Make a call—describe the project and why it would be a terrific opportunity for the designer you are recommending. Just because a client does not hire you, does not mean they are not your responsibility from the moment they come through your door. Own the idea that every client deserves a designer’s best, even if that designer is not you, and the benefits of this relationship will come back to you in spades.” (From “I was just offered a huge project and I’m terrified—help!”)

On setting boundaries through leadership: “Clients tend to overstep boundaries—such as by texting after-hours—when they feel lost in their process. If clients do not know where they are on your journey together, they will try to decide the path themselves. In the context of your design business, however, that is a disaster. You must set the tone for your own business.” (From “How can I get my clients to stop texting me?”)

On retaining young talent: “Millennials want to be founders. They aren’t afraid of failure. If they aren’t stimulated or inspired, they’re gone. So how does this square with employee growth and retention? Loads of articles have been written on this topic and the common thread is this: over-communicate. Make sure that you set the metrics of success. Define the goals and then give your millennial employee the freedom on how to get there.” (From “My inexperienced assistant is opening her own firm”)

On setting boundaries: “You will likely never have to fire a client if the client knows they will, in fact, be fired if they undertake behavior you (and only you) believe to be inappropriate to both a successful relationship and project. For this to be true, there can be no landmines. There have to be very specific ‘Do Not Enter’ signs that you spell out for your client at least three times—first, during your sales process; second, during your contract negotiations; and third, when you come together as engaged designer and client. You may not like the iron fist, but without it, you and your design business will be dust in the wind. So dress up the iron fist with as much velvet as you like, just do not lose the iron.” (From “When is it OK to fire a client?”)

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You asked, he answered: Sean Low’s top tips of 2018 Sean Low is the 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? Shoot us an email—and don’t worry, we'll keep your details anonymous.

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