In this post we’re going to look at ten of the most important general “rules” or best practices when running a virtual interior design business. These are the things that experienced interior e-designers will tell you are a “must” to get right if you want your virtual interior design projects to be a success.
This is not a “how to” on running a virtual interior design job from start to finish. Don’t worry, we will be covering that too in the near future. This article will help you out with the overall strategies and tips to keep in mind when you are planning your virtual work flow and dealing with clients. Think of it as the advice I wish I had been given when I was first starting out!
Here’s what we’ll cover:
1. Nail the Brief
There’s nothing worse than starting a project and realizing halfway through that you and the client got off on the wrong foot. At best, you got a few details or measurements wrong. At worst, your client doesn’t even need a designer; they need a shrink. I’m kidding! Well, almost.
Every designer who’s worked virtually understands that there are some pain points with the virtual process. When it comes to human interaction there’s a lot that you can tell in person that might not translate well in writing. All is not lost!
Not all zoom and doom
My personal advice is to get your client on the phone or on zoom and have a virtual ‘face to face’ or at the very least ‘person to person’ chat before agreeing to take on the project. Voice conveys a lot of emotion that just doesn’t come through in text. Cut to the chase!
Remember that taking on a new client is a responsibility, and before you take that responsibility on, you want to know that you understand a) what their problem is, and b) that you are indeed the right person to help them to solve it. Asking the right questions is key.
Not what you know, but who you know
However you get your programming information for the project, make sure that you’re dealing with the right person: in other words, the person who writes you the check. If your client is a company, you will want to know that the person you communicate with can make decisions. At the very least, they should be able to explain exactly how the decision-making process will work on their end.
We can save ourselves so much time and headache by just making sure that we have all the facts straight before we begin. This includes understanding the scope of the project, the budget, the general timeline, and any deadlines. This is true in the full service world and it is also true for virtual design.
Control the narrative
Working with residential clients has its unique challenges, especially if your clients have never worked with a designer before or are unaware of how the virtual design process works. It’s your job to inform them at the start of the project.
With design work there is naturally a lot of back and forth, and sometimes clients can be frustrating to work with if communication is not their forte. It’s your job to lead the conversation and set the pace.
When there are differences of opinion on the client’s end your job can get a little sticky. You might beed to pick up on any hestitation and get to the bottom of it. If the client rejects an item it helps to know why so that you can make a better selection. As the coordinator and the ‘go-between’ you will need to keep an open mind and be a problem solver.
Always do your best to be professional and courteous, but make sure that you shoot straight. If they don’t answer your messages, pick up the phone.
Designer, counselor, hostage negotiator
It goes without saying that for any design process to go smoothly (virtual included), you need to know that all vested parties are on board with the design. This is harder when you don’t meet them in person. See if you can’t get both parties of a couple to weigh in at the start of the project, even if that’s just having them both fill out the questionnaire.
Sometimes I’ve felt on jobs that I had to play both an unofficial marriage counselor and a diplomat on top of my role as a designer. Remember that everybody has their own personal preferences, and in a perfect world husband and wife would always be on the same page, but the world is not perfect.
With couples, so long as they are both in agreement with hiring a designer, you should be able to work with their individual idiosyncracies and come up with something they both love. Make it clear from the outset that you are all in this together and that you are committed to helping them find their perfect design solution within the reasonable parameters that you set.
Having a good design questionnaire and a good conversation with your prospective clients will save you time and again. Following this, you will also want to write up an actual design brief and design proposal statement. This should lay out a) the scope of the project as you understand it and b) your initial suggestions for how to proceeed. Think of yourself as a ‘doctor’ listening to your patient’s ailments and giving them your diagnosis on their ‘condition’. Your later design solution is their prescription!
Afford to be picky
When you know ‘who you are’ professionally, you won’t be afraid to turn clients away who don’t suit you or your niche. In all fairness, if you aren’t jiving then they might be better off with another designer! Do them and a design colleague a professional courtesy and refer them.
Better the right client and a smooth process and great referral than the opposite. Ideally, you want to find the type of client who will work with you again in the future, and also refer you to their friends. For many designers just starting out, good referrals are enough to get your business off the ground. Don’t be afraid to wait for the right one.
2. Streamline Your Process Before You Accept Clients
Virtual interior design takes work to set up initially
So you got yourself some shiny new apps and you’re ready to start accepting virtual interior design jobs! You might even have a few client leads you’re keen to follow up on.
Not so fast. Before you sign your first virtual client you’ll want to make sure that you have your virtual ‘design ducks in a row.’
But wait, you think. How much could there be to know? Isn’t the goal with virtual interior design to have simpler and easier process? How hard could it be?
How virtual design is different
True, the virtual interior design process is simpler than full service, but it follows the same general sequence. The biggest difference is that as a virtual designer you are focusing primarily on the design and specification side of the project, while leaving the other aspects you would normally be responsible for to the client.
While this sounds easy in theory, if you haven’t run through a virtual project before you might be in for some less-than-welcome surprises. The secret to success lies in knowing how you like to work personally, and doing all the preparatory work that you can ahead of time. You will also want to set the communication side of projects to be as automated as possible.
You can accomplish this with a) a welcome package that explains your process to the client and b) clear instructions for what they should do when you turn the design over to them.
Help your client to help you
In a full service role designers manage the job from discovery to turn key. In the virtual setting, a major piece of the virtual design puzzle is helping your client to help you do what you used to. The trade-off for the client is that virtual interior design comes at afraction of the cost of a traditional design project to the client, beause they are doing their own project management. We are of course talking about the site survey, product ordering, purchasing and installation!
Here’s a typical example that comes up at the start of projects: measuring the space –or what most designers know as site survey. You don’t want to have to explain to each client individually how to measure their room every time you run a project, but you do need it to be done right! The smart virtual interior designer has a well-illustrated document prepared which thoroughly explains all of this to the client. You will also need to prepare instructions for how to install the design elements and arrange the room on their end in the later project phase.
Be prepared for bumps in the road
Make sure you’ve considered each step of the way and are prepared for how to handle potential problems. What will you do if your client’s provided measurements aren’t right? What if the client wants you to incorporate existing furniture?, and so on.
The best way to know if your instructions are clear and that your client knows what to do is to try your design service out on someone who isn’t a design professional.
In my case, I asked my sister (who lives on the other side of the world from me) to be my ‘practice client’. She helped me to run through a few small practice jobs, and in the process I actually found a lot of little ‘bugs’ and areas that I could improve that way.
3. Use Time-Saving Tools
This is an important one. The right tools for virtual interior design can cut your work in half. At the different stages of the project, you will have different software needs. Project management, organization, design, communication and product management must all be considered. Don’t forget payment!
Ditch the clunky design programs
Generally speaking, the design side of things can be done the same way you’ve always done it if you come from a full-service background, but it’s good to know that if you’re switching from commercial design to residential your software needs might change. It’s possible that you might not need programs as robust as Autodesk’s Revit or 3DsMax and other BIM software.
For my virtual residential projects I mostly use a combination of SketchUp, Coohom and a 2D moodboard maker. Some virtual designers produce construction plans if they are trained in creating construction documents and are comfortable with the process, virtually speaking. Many jobs related more to decoration, simple space planning and furniture specification don’t require such detailed plans.
For this reason, once you’ve made the decision to get into virtual interior design you can start considering simplifying and refining your process with some new tools! This brings us to our next point.
Use dedicated virtual interior design software
There are some great virtual design platforms you should consider to help you in your new role as a virtual interior designer, like Design Files, Studio Designer or MyDoma. These programs combine a lot of the functions related to running projects all in one software package, some with your own client-facing custom branding. Sound too good to be true? It almost is!
The best virtual design project management software now makes it possible to onboard clients, source products online, lay out 2D mood and product boards and guide the client through the selection process all in one place. All client communication and revisions can be done locally on these software platforms, and they generally have product libraries available. They also offer you the ability to collect and curate your own product collections.
What about CAD?
Generally speaking, higher quality 3D rendering and construction plans need to be done outside of these programs, but otherwise, you can pretty much ‘do it all’ with one software suite.
Getting started with one of these types of virtual design software programs is a turning point for many designers new to virtual interior design. If you’re like us, once you start using a dedicated virtual design program you won’t want to go back to using multiple design tools again.
4. Get Paid Up Front
Should you get a retainer fee?
Now that you’ve gotten your design process streamlined and are using the best tools for virtual interior design, it’s time to talk about starting on some virtual interior design jobs.
You might have used retainers in the past, and the truth is that every professional has their preferred way of working. However, based on what I’ve learned myself, as well as observing how other designers in the virtual space do this, this is my best advice on getting paid: don’t use a retainer.
Get paid in full.
Are they even serious?
When it comes to getting paid for virtual interior design jobs it’s always advisable to get paid upfront. Even with the best clients, you’d be surprised how much beating around the bush can happen before you secure your fee upfront. There is often a lot of back and forth with new clients and before you know it, you’ve spent a lot of time trying to onboard the client and giving advice. All this, and you often still don’t know if the project ball is truly rolling or not.
Here’s a simple rule that will save you a tons of stress and second guessing as a virtual interior designer: No payment, no project. Don’t open your design program, start looking for furniture, or play around with color mock-ups until you’ve received the design fee. Too many designers have wasted hours of their precious time working on a project only to have the client change their mind or back out of the deal for any one of many reasons.
‘Consultation’ is a grey area
When it comes to the “discovery” part, you don’t have to charge for the initial consultation, unless of course, if consultation is essentially what you do.
The type of consultation I’m talking about is figuring out if you and your client are a good fit for one another. Unless this is a big job with a lot of unknown variables, this should only take you about fifteen minutes to sort out! And once the client has said they want to move ahead with the project, make it clear that you will need your fee before commencing with the project.
This is for your own sanity, as well as for the ultimate success of the project!
The right client will pay you to take the project on
It’s wise to remember the advice of a veteren designer who famously admonished new designers not to act as their “client’s bank”. In other words, don’t extend yourself on the client’s behalf or buy anything you expect them to pay you back for later. It’s not your job to offer lines of ‘design’ credit.
The beauty of the pure virtual business model is that clients are responsible to buy the products themselves at their own convenience and also risk. As the designer you are paid solely for your design service. So much simpler.
Learn this valuable lesson: Don’t do any design work before you secure the payment, or you are potentially working for FREE with no guarantees. Your professional time is valuable, and if the client can’t see this, then the sad truth is that you don’t have the right client.
5. Use a Contract
Fasten your seatbelt, look both ways before you cross the street and don’t forget to use protection.
I know, I know. You’ve almost certainly heard this advice before, but it still needs to be said: you should always have a contract between you and your clients which states what you are responsible for and what your service includes.
Equally important is what you are not responsible for and what your service does not include.
Make sure that there are no misunderstandings and that you and your client are on the same page. Don’t be a dick. Make sure your contract is fair and that it also takes your client’s needs into account. Make this document something they are happy to sign because they undertand that it protects them, too.
Improvise and customize
You might need to research a bit to come up with the right contract for your business. A common method of coming up with a good contract is to sample several reputable ones online and combine them into a document which reflects the needs of your practice.
The library is another good place to find examples of interior design contracts used in the broader industry. Remember, though, that virtual interior design businesses have unique needs. Don’t be afraid to have yours drafted by an attorney if you need it.
6. Become Your Client’s Guide
For many clients virtual interior design is uncharted territory
Your client is likely not a designer. Chances are, they haven’t worked with a designer before, either. Rather than be put off or unduly challenged by this, see yourself as a patient, wise and gentle teacher. Take them on a journey with you as their guide. Remember all the reasons that you love design, and see if you can’t infuse a little of that magic into their experience. In the virtual design experience, this means being a creative “storyteller”.
Who are they?
Where are they going?
How will they get there?
Design can be a joyful process
Designers don’t have to be serious to be professional. Have fun with your client! Be real. Put them at ease. Take on the role of their ‘guide’ and show them the way to the “promised land”. Remember that when you’re enthusiastic about your process it shows. If you’re excited about the possibilities, that’s contagious.
No need to be fake or go overboard but allow some of that natural charisma you have and the joy you have for your work to show through. If you received the design proposal package you sent to your client, would you be delighted?
If not, here’s an opportunity to improve. What can you do to remedy that?
Build upon the client’s foundation
After working with you your client should have learned something. Charm them with your insights into their style and taste and praise them for what they have done right with their space so far. Write little notes under their photos in the programming phase. ” I love the proportions of this room. The way you’ve set your living room seating up is on point! I wonder if we can work a better focal point into this arrangement to really maximize it. Do you guys like art? How do you feel about a little more color?”
The more “design savvy” your client is the more they will want to know that they have good taste. Praise them for coming to you with their vision. A vision which you are committed to helping them to bring to life.
‘I’m really glad you came to me with this project. This is right up my alley. I think our design aesthetics are really similar.‘
Design is collaboration and leadership
After working with a good designer many clients come away saying how impressed they were with how much their designer knew and how insightful they were.
Many people don’t appreciate the many moving parts of a design project or the expertise and knowledge a good designer brings to the table until they experience it for themselves. When this experience is virtual, a little extra personal touch goes a long way.
As designer ‘guide’, think about subtly demonstrating to your clients that you know what you’re talking about when it comes to design work. Don’t just show, explain. The objective is to make them feel good about hiring you to lead the way!
Although this principle can be more challenging with virtual design, don’t be afraid to use a zoom call to walk them through your proposal. Even better if the final walk-though is VR!
7. Plan Your Packages
Why you need to offer design packages as a virtual interior designer
Virtual interior designers swear by their packages. Most designer who work in the virtual space have roughly three to four different packages that they offer, each a different price point.
Having packages up on our website is a very user-friendly way to showcase your abilities, and helps you advertise the types of design work you do. I think about this as a virtual interior design ‘menu’. Most of us find a menu an easy way to navigate multiple choices at a restaurant, so this familiar formatting helps your client to feel more at ease with the process of ‘ordering’ a design service.
Package give people options and make you look more professional
Your full-range ‘all the bells and whistles’ offering is likely not what everyone wants, so it’s helpful to have ‘levels’. These can ranging from color consultation through updating the style of a room, complete redecoration and on to deeper design or renovation work.
When you give your prospective clients thoughtful options you impress them with your attention to detail and knowledge of the different types of design jobs you most frequently encounter in the business. This sets you up to look more professional. Also, when you make several options available you also make it more likely that future clients will find something that suits them.
Don’t hide your prices for virtual interior design
One more point on packages is that you should advertise these right on the front page of your website, if at all possible. Some entrepreneurs question putting pricing on their website, but research shows that prospective clients are more likely to make inquiries and follow through with booking when they already know clearly what to expect.
Think about it this way: Most people don’t like surprises, and plenty more feel awkward just inquiring about the price to begin with. This might stem from the fear that they find themselves priced out of the equation, and they end up feeling stupid. On the other hand, if they have seen your packages and prices and still reached out to you to start a project, this means they are likely good to go.
By viewing your packages and prices before initializing contact your new client has essentially already vetted themsevles as being good candidates for your design services, and you won’t have to waste time on those who aren’t.
8. Start Loose and Refine as You Go
Work from the ‘outside-in’
This advice is more for new designers. I personally find it easiest to design when I focus on the largest components of the design and consider the broadest needs of the project first before working inward and narrowing things down. What does this mean? Well, don’t start with the trivial things like decorative items before you have done your space planning, for example.
Every designer has their own way of working, but outside of building services, HVAC and lighting considerations, the space plan is usually the biggest pressing order of business to take care of before anything else. Who will use the space and how, what actitivites it needs to accomodate, what the focal point should be, etc. are all things which should be hammered out before decor, art and what prints you will use on fabrics and wallpaper.
Best practices for ordering design phases
I generally work first with the basic space plan (zoning), next with the architectural shell of the room including light fittings, next with the general color scheme and wall and floor finishes, followed by the window treatments, furniture, art and decor last.
You can separate these phases by boards or combine some of them, depending on the scope of the job. for small jobs, you usually only need a couple of boards. For bigger jobs I like to have the client approve the project in phases.
9. Be Clear On the Number of Revisions You Offer
Revision is part of the design process
If you weren’t expecting to have to change anything about your final design, you’re bound to be disappointed. No matter how amazing you think the design is or how well everything works together, it’s rare that you don’t have to change anything about the final deliverable to the client on the first ‘pass’. We designers know how much revision happens in-house, so it’s only natural that some of this will involve the client when we hand it over.
If you find you don’t have to change anything, consider yourself lucky. You might have a really easy-going client, or you might really have knocked this one out of the park. Good for you!
Curb revision overload
But what about those times you have the client who can’t seem to make up their mind and keeps wanting to change things?
To avoid bad feelings or frustration on your end make it clear in your client onboarding document and in your contract how many free revisions to your design you are hapy to do. A revision should not usually be a complete do-over. Rather, it is often just changing some details of the design like individual items of furniture, wall colors or fabrics.
How many revisions should you offer? The standard is no less than one and no more than three. After this, the project moves to overtime and your time is billable by the hour.
10. Charm Your Client by Under-promising and Over-delivering
A winning client relations philosophy
We end our list of “10 Rules for Running a Successful Virtual Interior Design Business” on a positive note that will keep the business coming in and the clients flocking to your virtual door. This applies to every business and not only virtual interior design, but its a great one.
The philosophy of underpromising and over-delivering works two-fold: On the one side you have the conservative philosophy of not promising too much. On the other, the liberal philosphy of giving more than was expected.
What does underpromising look like? Remember that we discussed playing the role of an enthusiastic guide. Being enthusiastic doesn’t have to mean making big promises. It’s actually got much more to do with helping the client enjoy the process of discovery than hyping up the end result. The real magic of design is that we don’t necessarily now how it will end up until the end and that’s the exciting part: watching the magic unfold!
Gift the personal and unexpected
With traditional full-service interior desgn it was always easier to end things off on a great, unforgettable moment. Think of that final moment in every decorating show on TV when the client arrives at the door and sees the finished design for the first time. Ah yes, the great reveal!
With virtual interior design the only way to come close to the great reveal is to use VR for that. If the job is a substantial one you could include an animation or walkthrough of the rendered space with music where you walk the client through the house, maybe playing their favorite song. But barring something quite so elaborate, how do you consistently over-deliver?
One way is to do something extra for your client which shows that you know them and appreciate them. Perhaps something personalized just for them, like photoshopping a personal item or two into the final rendered image, or some other “extra” that they weren’t expecting. Use your design empathy and creativity!
By under-promising, it is easier to over-deliver. Think of some aspect of the job that would be nice to include, but is not entirely necessary. By not promising this extra, you are able to include it at the end as an extra touch and a nice surprise.
I like to offer a referral commission if my client recommends me to a friend who becomes a paying customer. You might offer a coupon for 15% off a future project. Another thing you could consider is refunding a small planned amount (meaning you factor this into the total cost of the project a the beginning) or giving a freebie in exchange for a positive review, or photos of their finished space for your portfolio.
As a counter to the “underpromise and over-deliver” model, one successful designer I encountered on social media and who has been in the business for years explained that she always told new clients that it it is her goal to provide outstanding service and that if they felt that she was living up to her end of the bargain she would love a great review from them.
At several points throughout the process she would remind them about her mission to excellence and ask how she was doing and whether they were happy so far. She claimed that 99% of clients gave her glowing reviews at the end of the design process.
I’m sure you have plenty of ideas. Now it’s time to gear yourself up to running your own amazing virtual design business. I believe in you!
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