Managing Client Expectations


Interior designer Gail Doby revealed proven techniques for avoiding potential budget and relationship pitfalls during a seminar at Las Vegas Market.

[dropcap style=”letter” size=”52″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#2432f2″]T[/dropcap]he designer-client relationship – whether it is an interior designer or a lighting designer – can be fraught with tension over budget, construction or shipment delays, personality conflicts, and the inevitable wrong color/size dilemmas that often crop up.

What interior designer Gail Doby – President of Gail Doby Coaching & Consulting in Denver –   has discovered is that by addressing client expectations upfront, there is less friction during the process. Even in a creative field such as interior design, technology has become an indispensable tool. With so many consumers in the habit of searching online for most anything, Doby suggests interior designers have a website for their business.

“Easy Client Budget Calculator”

For those designers who do have a website, many are not using it effectively. The consumer preference for online shopping also extends to researching and evaluating service providers. Your design services will be “shopped” and compared to other designers in your market area.

Whether you have a website or not, Doby suggests creating a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) that should be posted on the website and handed out upon the first meeting in a “Welcome Packet.”

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“When you know who you do and don’t want to work with, you’re more likely to attract the right clients and make more money.”


When Doby asked the audience how many designers have a “Welcome Packet,” no hands were raised. In addition to providing a level of professionalism, the Welcome Packet is the first step in explaining to the potential client what is involved.  She shared with the audience her own FAQs – titled The 10 Most Frequently Asked Questions About Working With a Designer – which are included in her Welcome Packet of design services as an example:

What’s the difference between Interior Design and Interior Decoration?

When should I hire an interior designer?

What’s the reason for bringing in a designer early in the construction or design process?

What role do you play in our project?

How do you express our style?

Can we shop together?

What if I see something online that looks similar to what you’ve specified for less money?

Now that I’m thinking about renovating, I occasionally watch HGTV shows; does your process overlap with what I’ve seen?

How do you set a budget?

What if I want to do most of the work and just need an overall plan?

At the bottom of the FAQ sheet, it reads: “If you’re ready to take the next step, please fill out the following information sheet/website form so we can be prepared for our conversation.”

While it might look daunting for the client to see a comprehensive Client Profile form included in the Welcome Packet, Doby affirms that it is an effective tool for both the client and the designer. As part of Doby’s interior design coaching practice, she urges designers to create an Ideal Client Worksheet for themselves (and adapt it for your client categories).

“When you know who you do and don’t want to work with, you’re more likely to attract the right clients and make more money,” Doby explains. “The key is to define your client so well that you know exactly how this person looks. This will help you create marketing materials that attract this client profile.” She advises creating Ideal Client Profile Worksheets for all of the market niches you serve.

What type of information is gathered on the worksheet? Besides marital status, number of children, income level, education, neighborhood, profession and level within a company, hobbies and interests, Doby’s worksheet asks: Is the design budget paid by savings or credit? What is your preferred budget range? What are your preferred travel destinations? Are you involved with any community organizations? What are your preferred brands? What brand/type of car do you drive? Where do you shop? Are you interested in health & fitness activities? How interested are you in the Arts? Do you collect anything (i.e. antiques, art)? Do you use any professional services (i.e. financial planners, personal trainers, nanny)? How do you spend your leisure time? What are your passions/fears? How comfortable are you with technology? Do you like to shop? Do you make your own travel arrangements? Do you shop online (if so, which sites), read blogs or magazines online? Which websites do you regularly visit?

While the list of questions might seem unnecessarily personal to the casual observer, Doby asserts that the answers provide greater insight into your client. For example, those who already have a financial planner or personal trainer are already comfortable with the idea of paying for services. Preferred brands and stores often reveal the clients’ comfort level with luxury, convenience, or service expectations.

The primary quibble revolves around design fees, and Doby points out that many interior designers hate to bring the topic up or feel defensive in stating their rates. To make matters worse, over the past several years more consumers are watching home improvement reality TV programs that give the impression that furnishing a home beautifully could be accomplished in just a few days and for under $2,000 or less.

What has worked for Doby was changing her business model to a “Value-based Fee Structure” that she calculates in a spreadsheet that outlines all the variables such as the home’s overall value, the percentage of furniture needed (also whether using some existing furnishings), the project’s square footage, sales tax, freight, delivery, and the designer’s markup, among others.

Doby suggests using The Home Trust International™ Interiors Index ( as a guideline. The Index is geared toward consumers looking to furnish or renovate their homes and recommends hiring an interior designer.

According to the Index, homeowners should “budget up to 35 percent of the value of their home for interior design services and furnishings. For example, if a finished home is valued at $2,500,000 then you should budget $875,000 for the interiors, design fees, and project management costs.”

If the client hasn’t revealed a real estate value for their home, Doby suggests using the real estate website to provide a realistic estimate for the worksheet. Doby’s Easy Client Budget Calculator even breaks down the client’s cost per square foot of furnishings. Her worksheet also organizes the calculations into Low and High Budget categories with costs listed for design fees at 20-, 25-, 33-, and 35-percent of the total budget.

Another area interior designers might not calculate accurately is the hours spent by each member of the design team on the project (i.e. principal designer, project manager, senior designer, junior designer, design assistant, purchasing manager, and CAD drafting). Doby recommends tabulating a “Predesign Hours Budget” for each, followed by “Predesign Actual Hours” and likewise “Design Development Hours Budget” followed by “Design Development Actual Hours” and so on to make sure all hours of work on the project are accounted for.

While creating charts and tracking information might be labor-intensive to set up initially, these templates can be used on every project going forward. With the budget costs upfront and expectations addressed, the amount of “surprises” that can derail many designer-client relationships can be greatly reduced and interior designers can spend more of their time handling the enjoyable aspects of each project. 

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