How to Reduce Designer Headaches

As an award-winning interior designer based in Beverly Hills, Christopher Grubb has had a lion’s share of demanding clients. At the Las Vegas Market, Grubb provided designers with tips on negotiating successful collaborations with clients without anyone losing sleep in the process.

Referring to his methology as “The 5 Ps for Success: Procuring, Planning, Partnership, Psychology & Publicity,” Christopher Grubb, NKBA, IIDA, founder of Arch Interiors Design Group and owner/lead designer of two product design studios (The C.G. Collection and Autograph by Christopher Grubb) has worked out a system.

“After 25+ years in business, I would find myself wondering if I’m doing this right [handling the design process correctly],” he stated. The goal of his seminar was to share his insights with his peers to help them navigate the challenges of the interior design business. One of those, of course, is budget, especially when clients are immersed in the world of TV shows such as Design on a Dime where an entire living room is redone for $500, but the TV show leaves out the cost of the labor and construction. “The result [of those shows] is that it can be misleading,” Grubb explained.

Step 1. Procuring

“When I interview couples [as a client] I have them pull photos and visuals of design that they like individually,” Grubb cautioned. “If they do it together [instead of separate], you run the risk that one person might not like something the other person picked, but not know why they didn’t like it.”

Taking good notes is crucial. “One of the most important parts in the process is that the client feels heard,” Grubb said. “Show them Before & After photos. You can do this on an iPad, of course, but I find something beautiful in using an Old School portfolio to give a more tactile experience. As I show them the Before & Afters, I print out what might work for them.”

Just as a client does their own research on a designer, Grubb recommended doing the same. “Google your client to gain some information about them that you can weave into the conversation. For example, maybe they do volunteer work with a certain charity,” he added. “When I am in the Procuring process, I talk about repurposing, if there is something they already have that could work, but I really want to get them excited to get rid of all their furniture. When clients ask me what my style is, I invite them to my house to see.”

During the Procuring phase, Grubb explained that he will do a tour of the house, taking a lot of notes. “I’m not just giving away the information,” he stated. Acknowledging that sometimes clients will try to take advantage of a free consultation by asking for specific color recommendations, Grubb deflects the question, saying either, “I’d need to play with the [design] for a bit first” or “I need to be more involved in the project.”

Step 2. Planning

“When construction gives you a quote on how long a project will take, always add more time in,” Grubb commented. “It’s better that the clients get mad up front than when they’re calling you three-quarters of the way through and are upset that it’s running late. Don’t be a people-pleaser in that way or you will do yourself in.”

It’s important to thoroughly explain the design fees. “This is always a fun conversation,” Grubb quipped. “I try to discourage interior designers from doing a flat fee, although during the recent Recession, I ended up doing it [on a temporary basis]. You have to walk your client through the process very clearly,” he explained. “Give them a list of what’s not included, such as bringing in audio-visual people. And if they want you to meet with them after this point, it’s at an hourly rate.”

Grubb advised covering photography in the agreement. “We explain that we’re allowed to take photographs and will go over how the clients want to be mentioned in the publicity, or whether they want a non-disclosure,” he noted.

Step 3: Partnership

Ask early on how much they want to participate in the project. “We’ve had clients who want to play designer and go buy furniture on the weekend without guidance,” he revealed. “I also talk about ‘Like’ and ‘Love.’ The clients need to Love what we’re picking. We also have to explain that not everything has to scream, ‘Look at me!’ We’re essentially creating a language of design [between the client and designer].”

When clients have asked Grubb whether “it’s worth” spending XYZ on a particular item [that they love but might be just a touch out of their budget], he offered this approach. “Don’t sacrifice something to save a little money,” he commented, suggesting the extra money for the item be divided [in perspective] over the timeframe. “Say you’ll stay in that home for 10 years or more, that’s an extra $27 a month to have what you love,” he commented. “I tell the client that [it’s like] I’m making a custom suit for them.”

Practicality versus luxury is another balancing act interior designers face regularly. For example, opting for natural materials on the countertops although the care requires more maintenance than a laminate or other surface.

“I tell the client that [it’s like] I’m making a custom suit for them.” — Christopher Grubb

“I’ve never had a client call and say they regretted choosing natural stone,” Grubb stated. “When the maintenance question comes up, I ask whether they want a silk shirt or a polyester shirt. The silk one costs more, but it’s more luxurious.”

As the interior designer on the project, Grubb wants to keep the process headache-free for his clients. “I tell them the contractor has to call us if there is a change to the order,” he explained. “I’m the quarterback for my clients and my job is to protect them; I have their back. Show them how you do things — this helps build trust.”

When clients are hung up on making a decision about a material or item, sometimes asking “What do you not like?” is more effective at getting to the core, according to Grubb. “I also remind them, ‘I’m not here to spend your money. I’m here to get the most [value] for you.’” There have been times when a client will complain about expenses, asking, “Why do you need to do so many site visits?” Grubb’s answer: “I like to do so many because it’s easier to fix something – for example, in the lighting – before the wiring has been done.”

It’s critical to go over what is a billable expense and what is non-billable. “Go over the reimbursables, and remember that sales tax isn’t charged until you invoice the project,” Grubb affirmed.

[mks_pullquote align=”left” width=”600″ size=”24″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]

“I’m the quarterback for my clients and my job is to protect them; I have their back.”

— Christopher Grubb


step 4. Psychology

Budget is always a tricky thing to determine because no one wants to spend more than they have to and clients are often afraid of being judged by the number they throw out there.

“So how do you find out the real budget? I often ask, ‘What number scares you…Is it $75,000?… $100,000?’  And immediately they’ll say, ‘Oh we can’t do $100,000! Well, now you know their budget,” Grubb stated.

Since interior designers spend a lot of time getting to know their clients’ likes and dislikes and because projects will often span several months, it’s natural that a friendship begins to form. However, it is important to set up boundaries.

“We don’t do this as a hobby, and doctors don’t work weekends,” Grubb commented, referencing how some clients will try to blur the line between job and friendship and start asking for favors or advice on the cuff. “I might hear, ‘Can you stop by tomorrow?’ And I will tell them I’m booked for the next 2 weeks, whether I am or not. That eliminates those weekend phonecalls from Restoration Hardware, where the client is shopping and asking if something would look good.”

Step 5: Publicity

Grubb will send out postcards to past clients and potential ones – such as real estate agents – when he’s completed a project to keep the firm top of mind. Reach out to media editors and local journalists who cover home design or real estate locally. “Become the expert” these media professionals can count on for professional design advice.

He advised checking in with media professionals every few months to share recent projects or topics  that might be relevant to their readership. “Give them content they can use. It ups your game,” he said, adding that there is also the “pay to play” option of paying for advertorials in regional consumer magazines.

When having photography of your projects done, make certain there are vertical shots. “Don’t just do horizontals; verticals are for covers,” he stated.

For interior designers who create a lot of custom designs for their clients, Grubb suggests asking the furniture manufacturer if they’d like to add your design to their line, and ask for roughly 5 percent. “Don’t give away your designs for free,” he advised. [Grubb has started up two product design companies.]

Grubb also stressed keeping your company Web site – and especially the introduction portion up to date – even if most of your projects come from word of mouth. An interior designer in the audience from Flagstaff, Arizona, mentioned using to create files that she can share exclusively with her clients to create a “look book” of sorts. She noted that also provides the ability to tag other professionals whom you’ve worked with on each project [it will show up on their Houzz profile as well], nothing that a contractor she works with has done this on Houzz and that it has brought her business. Grubb asked the interior designers in attendance whether they had ever gotten a project from their Houzz or Facebook page and was pleased to see that quite a few have had success using this method. 

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