How to choose your ideal clients

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(This article was originally published on and has been edited for content and style.)

clientsWith homeowners spending more time at home these days and reconsidering their spaces, many design pros report business is booming. If you’re in the fortunate position of having more work than you can handle, perhaps it’s time to take a fresh look at how you select clients and projects.

We recently asked pros to share strategies for working with their ideal clients.

Start with basic project parameters

One straightforward way to screen your projects is to home in on the basic parameters in terms of location, scope, budget and timeline.For Katie Kath at Jkath Design Build + Reinvent in Minneapolis, working with her ideal client starts with screening the project to make sure it’s a fit given the work her firm prefers to do: designing and building projects from ideation through to completion. She also screens for the location of the project and the design aesthetic the client wants to achieve.

“We’ve gotten pretty refined and pretty buttoned up to ‘What are your goals, budget and timeline?’” Kath said. “Those are hard questions for people to answer. If we’re able to get this, they’ve moved up a notch.”

While clients may need some coaching and conversation before they feel comfortable sharing their budget number, it’s a must before signing a contract, according to Kath. “We have never worked with a client successfully that hasn’t shared a budget upfront.”

If the budget and project parameters are a fit, then it’s also worth considering the homeowners themselves, Kath noted.

Ask leading questions that reveal red flags

One way to identify clients you’ll enjoy collaborating with is to consider your deal breakers. You can then ask leading questions to sniff out red flags indicating that working with this client will involve those deal breakers.

Deal breakers may differ by pro, but examples might be a homeowner who is consistently unavailable or one who struggles to make even the smallest decision. Often, you learn that these client characteristics are deal breakers only after experiencing them on a project.

For instance, Allison Lind of Allison Lind Interiors in Seattle asks potential clients how hands-on they want to be. Many creative people enjoy being very involved and functioning almost as a co-designer on their project. Others may have a strong vision and simply want the designer to execute it. Sharing creative control works for some designers but not Lind.

“I’ve learned personally over the years that my creative process doesn’t thrive in that environment,” Lind said. “The client isn’t getting the value for their money and the end result is not going to be something I’d be creatively proud of.”

So Lind has developed a tactful way to ask about a homeowner’s desire for creative control in her intake form. If clients are looking for this kind of working relationship, she can quickly decline, as the project won’t be a fit.

You can quickly screen clients through a form they submit on your website, which is what Lind does, or through an email questionnaire you send to potential clients.

Charge for a design proposal to screen leads

Quick-fix home renovation programs have misled many people about what it costs to renovate and how long it takes. But after you provide a reality check, those expectations should adjust. Otherwise, you could be facing protests on pricing and schedule every step of the way. Also, clients with unrealistic expectations are more likely to undervalue your work and question your contribution, which isn’t a pleasant experience for any professional.

“Our [ideal client] is someone who understands the value of how we’re going to help them, and isn’t going to try to interfere in that,” said Tracy Parkinson at Nest + Co. in Norwood, Mass., who said 98% of her clients come from Houzz.

To screen for this, Parkinson said she notices how people respond when she explains the design process. She looks for people who are open to being told what the room needs and who don’t seem to try to control the process. If a prospect admits they need design help but then pushes back on every suggestion you make, that might not be the most positive working relationship.

Red flags indicating a client who undervalues your skills come in many forms. “I was just speaking to someone and giving our hourly rates, which vary depending on the level of designer,” Parkinson said. “When I gave her those rates, she said, ‘Can I pick and choose which one of you works on my projects?’”

This is the type of client who may later respond to an invoice with: “’It took you 22 hours to put a living room scheme together? You just showed me a sofa and a chair and a rug,’” Parkinson said.

She prefers, instead, to work with people who understand the value of her time and skill. She filters for these clients by charging to create a detailed design proposal for a potential client, then charging a retainer to start the actual work once a contract is signed. “People who are really serious and really understand are not going to have a problem giving you a retainer,” she said.

Similarly, general contractor, Jeremy Peterson of Westin Hills in Sarasota, Fla., charges would-be clients for the pre-construction work of planning a project. “We are not one of the companies who will fire off an estimate and change order later on,” Peterson said. “We try to get them to agree to a pre-construction agreement, where we’ll do drawings and develop a scope of work. Usually we find that people that don’t want to do it are shopping for a low bid. That’s not a good-fit client for us.”

While the pre-construction agreement often filters out clients who aren’t a good fit, Peterson also finds initial conversations often quickly reveal “if this is a value-driven client or a cost-driven client,” he said. A value-driven clients understands the benefit of what they’re buying. A cost-driven client simply wants the cheapest price—and may not connect that to quality of materials or work.

Decide to work with people you like

If you’re in the lucky position of having more work than you can take on, you can set additional criteria for projects you accept. “I only want to work with someone that I’d want to be friendly with,” Lind of Allison Lind Interiors said.

This isn’t just a preference, she said, it’s important for the design process. “You’re in their homes,” she said. “You’re creating these intimate spaces that they will be living in, that they will be experiencing every day. So, it’s vital to know them. And in order to know someone you have to like them.”

So, while she doesn’t expect to start spending time with her clients outside of the project, Lind does look for a connection where she could imagine doing so.

Similarly, Peterson, the Florida contractor, looks for a personality fit. “It’s a long process,” Peterson said. “You have quite a bit of interaction with your clients. We’re dealing with a lot of money. There’s usually a lot of emotion tied to money, especially when it’s someone’s personal residence. I really look to see if I’m able to build rapport with people and if we get along. If not, that’s not a fit.”

Listen to your gut

All the pros we spoke with said it’s important to listen to your gut when it comes to client red flags. Many said their gut spoke up loudly about problematic clients even very early in their careers, yet they worked on those projects anyway because they were building their businesses. And they suffered as a result.

Lind admitted she was, at times, drawn in by a difficult client who nonetheless had a dream design project. In the worst case, she had to quit because the relationship was so stressful—an experience that became a turning point in her career where she vowed not to work with a toxic client again.

“Even if you think you’re going to have these beautiful photos at the end, chances are you’re not, because the creative process is going to be totally thrown,” she said. “When you’re young you feel like you need to say yes to every job. You take on these jobs despite the fact that you think it might be a nightmare.”

Peterson said he learned this lesson through “the school of hard knocks.” From start to finish, projects can last nine months. “That’s a long time to work with someone you don’t get along with,” he said.

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