Don’t great clients make our work so much more rewarding? Isn’t it way more fun to work with clients we enjoy? Developing fabulous client relationships has to be one of the best things about the interior design business. The truth is, happy clients are a must if we want to survive in interior design.

But how do you go about creating the optimal client relationship?

We all love the design part of the business. Sometimes so much so that we find it hard to resist jumping right into design with a client. But, by showing a little restraint, and doing some diligence upfront, a lot of hassles and conflict can be avoided when you do get into design.

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Establishing your process from the very beginning pays off big time in the long run.

Getting clear about how you’ll work together as partners, sets you up for a smooth and productive working relationship. A great start with a client is a sure-fire path to teamwork and success.

In the past, our team has done it right, and we’ve admittedly done things flat-out wrong. That experience taught us to adopt some “fundamentals” for setting up rewarding relationships.

Here’s our 9-point plan for “starting off on the right foot” with clients:

1. Crystallize the outcome of your work together.

What does the client want? What are their objectives? Do they have a vision? What’s the detailed scope of the project? What are the deliverables? What’s the targeted completion date? Is it realistic? What’s doable? Set the tone for managing a realistic timeline and delivery expectations.

2. Detail the conditions of satisfaction when the project is completed.

Fast forward to the end of the project when everything is done. What are the conditions of satisfaction that will have your client walk away thrilled with your work? What will make them recommend you for another project?

3. Get super clear about your respective roles.

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What will you do? What will they do? Are you going to do all the buying? Will your client be buying things on their own? When will you get your mark-up? What will be outside of your mark-up?

Who owns the vision? Are you creating into the client vision, or is the client asking you to create the vision and bring them onboard?

Define the line of demarcation. This so important once you get into the process.

What if you’re supposed to be driving the vision and creativity, and the client keeps coming back with creative ideas that are off-vision? Referring back to this agreement, gives you a fair and objective starting point to discuss this “infraction” with your client.

4. Compile a list of frequently asked questions about working with interior designers or design firms.

We picked up this idea from an article by Gail Doby entitled, “10 Ways to Avoid Client Disasters”. She suggests offering this FAQ to your prospective clients even prior to your first meeting.

5. Talk about what happens if there is a breakdown in the process.

What are the possible scenarios that could go wrong, based on your experience? Discuss how they will be handled in advance of them occurring. This will completely shift the conversation when you do encounter challenges.

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6. Work style and schedule.

What’s the client’s schedule? When is the best time to reach them by phone? Best time for meetings? What do they want to see in person? When are online presentations appropriate? When do they prefer email communications?

Setting up a streamlined process for communications is critical to a smooth working relationship. Does it make sense to set up a weekly touch-base phone call or meeting? Does it need to be twice a week? Three times?

Having a set schedule for when you speak or meet eliminates many “one-off” phone calls or emails that can be disruptive and down right annoying.

Regular touch-points where discussion can occur around a manageable list of outstanding elements, along with an agreement not to do these “one-offs” in advance of the project start will be a time-saver, and a life-saver. It will eliminate a ton of frustration and irritation.

It also gives you a clear space to focus on your client’s project in its entirety, and you can set up your discussions within the context of the overall project.

7. Create a work-back plan based on the above conditions and deliverables.

Detail clear, actionable steps, with a timeline that works back from the completion date. For this first step, use a range of dates for the major milestones, to give yourself some flexibility.

Establish turn-around times for answers and direction from the client. Tell them the timeline is based on decision turn-arounds within a week, or 10 days, or 2 days, whatever is appropriate for the project. On of the biggest causes of project delay is not getting the answers needed from the client to keep things moving forward. Make that clear up front.

8. Zero in on the budget.

Budget drives everything, whether we like it or not. Discuss how many rounds of design are included in your initial fees, and what constitutes a change order. More client conflict occurs around money than anything else.

9. Develop your formal working agreement based on all these factors and discussions.

If you need to get the project contract signed-off fast, get a signed estimate from the client with a clause that a work process agreement will follow. That way, you can be confident you have the project, while you’re working out the process with the client.

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When you take the time to get your partnerships properly set up from the start, your working relationship will be all-the-more productive, rewarding, and fun.

With much of the hard stuff done up front, you can keep your focus on producing great creative and design work.

Do you have a start-up practice you follow with new clients?

Do you have any tips you can offer on how to assure you get off to a great start with clients?


VIOSKI is an experience of artistic expression brought to life in timeless modern furniture design. Unique in style, charismatic and sensual. Each piece is masterfully created to be simple yet complex. Proportional yet fluid. Handcrafted in California by master artisans who devote themselves to extraordinary quality. VIOSKI is New-Century Modern.

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