Originally published in STIR®
The economy may be gloomy, but designers can find success with these best practices.

These days, consumers are tightly guarding their finances and eliminating spending on what they consider unnecessary items. Unfortunately, interior designers and architects often fall under a homeowner's "nonessentials" category. What's more, homeowners' unprecedented access to accessories, fabrics and furnishings that were once exclusive to the trade is only compounding the troubles designers face in lean economic times.

"We have to accommodate this changing environment because the old formula will not work anymore," says MaryBeth Wilson, an interior designer in Plymouth, Mich. "When the economy is down, everyone wants to get as much value for their dollar as they can. In turn, we have to be able to express to clients why we add value."

But the faltering economy can provide designers with an opportunity to take stock of their business – examining what has made them successful in the past and determining what can keep them relevant in tough times. Here, we suggest some strategies for survival in a down economy.

Offer hourly consultations.

  • Offer hourly consultations. “People still care about how their houses look, and sometimes they just want a couple hours of design consultation,” Wilson says. “Being willing to help and even teach them how to accessorize or how to look for things that could work with their existing furniture can make them feel like they are getting their money's worth. “Hourly consultations also show consumers that interior designers are willing to work with them, regardless of the budget. “I have made sure that I have a reputation that no job is too small,” says Lancaster, Pa.-based designer and author Sharon Hanby-Robie, who is also the resident home d├ęcor expert for QVC. “I have no problem just going out and picking paint colors. You have to know what your reputation is out there. If it's that snob-attitude reputation, that's a problem.”
  • Keep in touch with past clients.

    Hanby-Robie will seek opportunities to do a class or lecture on a local level, which not only introduces her to potential clients but also allows her to connect with former ones by inviting them to one of these events. “We start talking about what's been going on in their lives,” she says. “You do all that personal kind of contact, and you make them remember what a good experience it was for them the last time you worked together. And even if they're not working on a project, you're now in their brain. They talk to their friends and neighbors, and you start getting calls.”

    Relate to a client's budget.

    Show that you understand the budget constraints of your clients by focusing on small changes that have a big impact, reusing items they already have in a different way, updating accessories, or buying things secondhand,” Wilson recommends. “I also think it is important for clients to realize that designers have budgets, too. Not every designer's home is done.” Plus, don't be afraid to spread out your services. “I will tell clients, 'If you have a limited budget this month, let me know, and I'll stop when I get to that point,'” Wilson notes. “And then we can pick up in six months or whenever they have the money again.”

    Form professional partnerships or alliances.

    Hanby-Robie collaborates with two major furniture stores in her area. For one of them, she does design talks for customers. At another, she conducts training seminars with the store's designers and managing staff. Designers can also contact home builders to provide interior design services for their model homes. By forming these types of associations, designers can extend their reach to a new customer base.

    Stay involved with the community.

    By volunteering to do lectures for local service groups and nonprofits, designers can get face time with a variety of people. “They are always looking for ways to bring in speakers,” says Hanby-Robie, who has spoken to hospital auxiliaries, women's sororities and high schools. “It only takes an evening or an hour over lunch.” In addition, consider volunteering for a cause that's close to your heart; not only is the work fulfilling, but “you're putting yourself in a position to be in contact with the more affluent people in the community who serve on these nonprofit boards,” Hanby-Robie notes.

    For more information:

    Marketing and Client Relations for Interior Designers by Mary V. Knackstedt. (Wiley, 2008)