Your First Interior Design Client

There’s nothing quite like your first project and your first interior design client meeting.  You’ll remember it forever. Not that you won’t remember some of the others, in fact, some will stay in the front of your mind for months. But your first is different.  It will be filled with hope and creativity; worry and nervousness.  But these are all good things to feel.  Even ‘worry’.  If you did not worry, you would not be doing your job.  So the first meeting with your prospective clients is very important.

What to expect from this first interior design client meeting..

Let’s say you’ve had a call or an email about your services.  The call has gone well as your client has told you briefly what they’re after and you’ve explained what you do and do not do. In my case, I always ask to meet them at their home or property that I am to work in as soon as possible. This way, I can cross off quite a few questions going around in my head.

When I arrive for my first client meeting, I always ask to see around the property, either right at the beginning or right at the end. I would suggest that you look around the property at the end.

Sit down with your client to start with and get to know them. They should be happy to show you around when they are relaxed and at ease with you. At this stage, you can ask ice breaking questions such as ‘how long have you been here?’. These are fact finding as well as ‘newsy’ conversational questions. They may ask you how long you have been working.

Be honest!

So, what questions should you ask them when you are sitting on the sofa opposite them? Go through the list and always, ALWAYS, take notes and write the answers down. This will help you remember afterwards and you will look professional.

  1. What is the scope of the project? How many rooms? Is it a house or an apartment? Do they want help with the whole property or just some of it?
  2. What are the clients like? Relaxed? Living on the edge? Living out of the country? Elderly? Have a young family? High Powered and not reachable most of the time?
  3. Access – this is critical. For workmen, for furniture deliveries, for you. Who has keys? Who can let you in? Is there a back entrance? Do the porters at the front of the block of apartments allow access to workmen? Are there parking facilities onsite that can be used?
  4. What style are they looking for? White, light and minimal? Colourful, bohemian and child friendly? Elegant, formal and artistic? This is where tear sheets come in handy.  Most clients can’t visualise the outcome so they choose what looks they like from magazines and books. If they have these then take photos of these shots with your smart phone so you have a visual record of what they like.  NB: The chances of their choice on the ‘look and style’ of the room changing are small – BUT – the chances they will end up with the exact pieces in the photos and tear sheets are remote.
  5. What is the brief? If you are completing building and decorating work, does the brief then include furniture, lighting, carpets, accessories, window dressings, artwork? All of these need to be accounted for when pricing the project. It is critical you ask “what things do you want me to manage? – will you be buying these things or will I”? There are costs to everything and believe me, NOTHING takes ‘only 5 minutes’! If you are managing furnishing items (discussion, research, ordering, payment and deliveries) then these MUST be accounted for in your fees.
  6. Time Scale – when are they ready to start? do the clients have a deadline? Are they moving in? Are they going on holiday whilst the work is being done? Are they going to be living there whilst it is? You need to be clear about what your builders/workmen can deliver.  But that can come later; at the moment you just need an idea of the plan that they have in mind. Don’t commit yourself to saying it can be done. Just because it seems you can get everything done, remember you haven’t checked all the suppliers work schedules and they will have other clients, holidays and their own lead times to work with.
Once you have asked all these questions and written the answers down, you can leave the client with a promise to get back to them, on email, with your proposal,(make sure you have their email address!).
Your second visit, if both you and the client are in agreement for you to take the job on, will be more detailed. It will encompass measuring and drawing a floorplan, taking photos and generally investigating the property and noting what things you need to do and get quotes for. But that’s for your second visit – don’t waste your time doing that on your first visit when you may not get the project or even want it!
After that first visit, writing your first proposal is also quite nerve racking.  Where do you start? What should you include and how much detail should you put in?
I tend to put a formulaic proposal together – that is, in the form of a template.

Basic List of Work

I usually make a sub title with the name of each room and list out what works need to be done. So it could be something like this:

Master Bedroom

Remove existing built in wardrobes

Install x2 bedside lights

Decorate – walls, ceiling, woodwork

New Roman Blind

New pendant light

New carpet and underlay

New Bed (kingsize) and headboard

Notice that there are no sizes (as I haven’t measured anything). There is no detail on any costs because you don’t have a quote or a budget yet. Nor is there any detail on style or type of decor.  This list is the most important part of the email as this will form the basis of how much you will charge them. If items are not on this list then they are not accounted for in your fees. If things are added on, then extra work will incur extra fees.

Once you have listed all the rooms with all the work, you can then put two other sections into the proposal.
General Costs
It’s here that I write a paragraph on what other items they may need to consider when budgeting for the work. Delivery of items, handymen etc.  It’s best that you say now, in writing, that you will handle the management of all these items and these will be invoiced as and when they come up. The little things need to be thought about now.
Trade Discounts
You should also detail here what your policy is on industry trade discounts.  Whether you pass on your trade discounts for furniture, fabric, lighting etc is up to you.

I ALWAYS pass on my discounts. Or what would be the point in the client using you? This industry is built on trade. It’s only fair that you pass on what help you can to your clients.

I know other interior designers that don’t pass on any discounts at all and some that go halves with their clients. I think that’s a bit odd!

In this section, you should ask questions that you will need answers to (are they keeping certain fixtures?, are there things for selling? etc).

What is the brief from your interior design client?

After the initial greeting, lay out what the brief is as you understand it.  This is crucial as it allows the client to see what you have picked up. This section should be a short outline of what work is needed.  Full decoration, structural, any garden or outside works and the general purpose to the work. Are you making is child friendly? Restoring heritage work? That’s the sort of thing that can be added into this ‘brief’ paragraph.

Then you move into more detail by listing the items to be worked on.

Advice, Questions and Budgets

The next thing to mention is about budgeting. I always advise them to plan and budget for each item of furniture or accessory. This is good housekeeping as most people just look through magazines and want what they see without the slightest notion of how much things cost.
I will tell you now that most clients won’t want to give you any answers! Which is why I always tell THEM to think about the budget first. If and when you see them again, you can go through the list of items to be bought and hopefully set a price – a rough price for each item.

It just gives you and them some guidelines. And sets an attitude of trust that you’re all on the same page.

The worse case scenario is when they ask you to find an item, you find one for, say, £500 and they come back and say they thought that £2000 was the right price to pay for the item. So, you’ve wasted your time, they are surprised you’ve found something great for £500, but now the whole search begins again because they are raising the quality and brand level. All because they were not clear from the outset what they wanted to pay for their new items. This is why setting budgets for items is important.

Bear in mind that even if you do get them to give you a budget, they will often not heed their own advice and suddenly start spending wildly. One client insisted she only had £700 to spend on tiles, but then visited retailers and looked at magazines and spent £1500 on the tiles!  It can be hard not to grimace when clients blow their own budget. Just make sure you are not held responsible, which you are not if you don’t get clear figures or sometimes don’t get a budget at all. If you hold the purse strings it is up to you. If they do, then it is up to them to keep to their own budget.

Your Fees

The next section of the proposal is your fees.  You can charge whatever you feel when you are starting out.  But don’t go overboard.

Think carefully about throwing large figures at clients who have a property to renovate.  They will be wary about spending large figures on you when they would prefer their money to go towards their property.  And they are right. You are there to help them create and realise a lovely home. Not push them over budget, worry them and make them wish they had never employed you!

Look after your clients well – always go the extra mile and give them a fair or a better price than they would get elsewhere. This way, they will enjoy the experience and so will you.

Be fair, be honest.

In this section you should also note if you are registered for tax (VAT in the UK) and any other things that you would charge for. Travel time (I don’t charge for), extra items (I do charge for), calls, deliveries…all this should be detailed. If you don’t detail these items, prepare for questions on whether you charge for out of hours calls and the like. Clients want to know what is included and what is not.
When you give your fees, detail how payment will be scheduled. I tend to break my fees into 3 payments for small projects. One right at the start, one in the middle and one at the end when all the work is finished.

It is important you get your first payment right at the start. This means that the client is serious and wants to get on with the work. Any hesitation means that they are unsure (either about you or the project) and maybe not ready to start the work.  This is where you weed out the time wasters.  It also guards against you doing work without being paid for it.

Larger projects can be invoiced for monthly. Most builders like to be paid on a schedule, every two weeks or so. You could use that as a template.

Signing Off

The final section of the email should be a few words to sign off and a few words to detail the next steps, if they decide to employ you.

This should include the fact that an initial payment invoice will be the coming their way and any other pertinent issues you need to start the process such as making contact with the building porter, collection of keys or meeting onsite with your builder.

Keep this end of the proposal light, friendly and polite.  Finally, read the email back to yourself for grammar, continuity and spelling issues and hit the send button.

Sit back and wait!

What reply will you get?

Be prepared for your first interior design client to say no outright, to ask you to lower your fees, to reply that they have changed their mind or indeed never get back to you at all!  Be prepared for time wasters. Many people want advice and have no intention of using you. Your instinct to identify these types of clients will improve as you go along.
If your client is honest and decent and serious about the project, they will get back to you fairly quickly.  Give them time to discuss the proposal with family members though. Don’t hurry them. Just keep busy with your other projects.

After that, if all goes according to plan, the dialogue and project can begin. Good Luck!