Prepping your design conversation
Tuesday, April 08, 2014
Clients today are more demanding than ever. They think they have all the answers because they have done some searching on the Internet and watched a bit of design TV. They comparison shop right before your eyes, using their tablets and smartphones. They want to nickel and dime every product and service. They don't value your design experience or expertise.
Some designers dread calling on new clients because they feel they are walking into an ambush. No one should have to work that way. And you don't have to.
No matter how difficult or demanding the client may be, you can maintain the upper hand if you go into your interview prepared — not just as a designer, but also as a negotiator.
The secret to navigating a difficult conversation, as any leadership coach will tell you, is preparation — not preparing what you will say but preparing yourself mentally for having the conversation. If you view the client as a potential adversary, you may come off as too aggressive or too apologetic, depending on how you respond to their questions and comments.
However, if you approach the conversation as a discussion about how you and client can benefit one another, then you open the door to negotiation and joint problem-solving. Entering into a negotiation focused on what you each have to gain — instead of what you each have to lose — sets a more positive tone and gives you more leverage to negotiate.
Before you meet with the client, take some time to jot down a few notes. The authors of "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High" emphasize being clear in your own mind of what you really want and what you really don't want before the conversation begins.
Where are you willing to negotiate and where not? What do you need to know or have assurance of before you would work with this client? Also, to the extent you can, try to anticipate what questions, concerns or objections the client may have — again, not to rebut them in advance but to better understand the points of negotiation that crop up during the conversation.
At the outset, respectfully and discreetly frame the conversation in productive terms. The client has need of design services; you are an experienced design professional. You can benefit one another.
Let the client do most of the talking. This is not the time for selling. Instead of thinking about how you will answer or persuade the client, listen carefully for the information and clues that will tell you if this client and project will satisfy the negotiating conditions you jotted down for yourself earlier. It may seem counterintuitive, but listening is a highly-effective way of making contact with the client. We want to be understood more than we want to be convinced.
If the client seems hostile, evasive or uncomfortable, try to avoid becoming defensive or discouraged. Probe a little to find out what is triggering the client's behavior. Most likely the client is expressing a fear. Perhaps she has heard negative things about designers, had a bad experience with a designer or contractor, or is concerned about losing control of her wishes, budget or home.
You need to uncover and allay that fear to put the relationship on an equal footing. One designer who felt intimidated by her clients' wealth and success discovered, to her surprise, that they felt just as intimidated by her design sense and feared she might fault them for their lack of taste. Once they cleared the air and acknowledged their mutual respect for each other's accomplishments, everything was fine.
Having identified the client's wishes and concerns, you are now in a position to engage in problem-solving.
What safeguards or assurances does the client need to be comfortable working with you? What safeguards or assurances do you need to be comfortable working with this client? Are the demands of both parties reasonable and can they be managed to each party's satisfaction? If so, now the conditions are right to make a sale.
You have established a common ground and a basis for mutual trust, and thus have a receptive audience. This is when you can describe your services and demonstrate your skills, experience and expertise — which may lead to another, different negotiation conversation.
Of course, it may turn out that the negotiation breaks down at some point. The client may be unwilling to relinquish power to a designer, or you may have reservations about working with the client.
In that case, you can politely agree to disagree and go your separate ways. But you can walk away knowing that you are doing so from a position of strength and not as a victim of an inconsiderate client.
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