Making Money Through Design Work

We have all experienced the frustration of investing countless hours with a client, only to learn that he or she has decided to go with another contractor, or perhaps tried to act as their own contractor for the actual execution of the project that we designed. With the advent of the big-box home improvement retailers and the Internet, the typical homeowner has much more information available and many more options as to how various home improvement products can be acquired.

To develop a strategy for dealing with this, we should evaluate our strengths and weaknesses. We need to determine how we can protect ourselves by emphasizing those strengths and minimizing the impact of the weaknesses.

As an independent design/build firm, you can offer several distinct and unique services to a homeowner who wishes to remodel. Most important in this are the design services of certified kitchen and bath designers. While we do not have a monopoly on hiring these designers, the independent dealer can provide a setting for them that can lead to stability and depth of experience not usually found in larger retail organizations.

It's important that your firm reinforce the experience of your design professionals with ongoing training. If the ability to design and specify kitchens and bathrooms is to be a real advantage, your firm's designers must be superior to those working for the large retailers.

Most large retailers are less dedicated to the design aspects of the business, as they try to be all things to all people.

In addition to "in-house" training, exposure to the actual job execution process will give your designers a depth of knowledge not gained through classroom training. Make sure that this is part of their experience.

A second advantage that an independent design/build firm has is that the client is normally dealing with the owner(s) of the business. Because the business is relatively small and agile, attention and services to the client can be personalized and responsive to their needs.

As a relatively small, independent remodeler, a further advantage is the ability to take on complicated projects that require the combination of various products and construction elements to create the end result. As the complexity of these projects increases, so does the time invested in designing them.

Further, since your business is local, you are better able to focus on the idiosyncrasies of your local market and tastes; you are not locked into "national" sources of supply. You can, instead, specify the products best suited for your client's project, regardless of source.

Protecting pluses
The reputation your firm has earned as a designer of kitchen and bath projects is the one thing that a potential client cannot get anywhere else. Here's how you can convert this advantage into project sales.

The first step is to make sure that your designers do not give this advantage away. While this seems obvious, there is a tendency in all of us to want to impress a potential client with our knowledge and abilities. It's important to guard this talent until you receive a commitment from your client.

It's also important to make sure your potential client understands that your firm requires a retainer before beginning substantive design work on a project. The best time to explain the process is the very first time you interact with a client. There will normally be an opportunity to explain how the entire process works from the client's first showroom visit until the punch list is complete and the final payment collected. If this process is clear from the start, your client will be more likely to understand when you later are unwilling to get deep into the design process without first receiving a design retainer.

Your description of your design process should also include a discussion of the normal dollar amount of retainers. While you may worry that covering such costs and agreements up front may discourage a potential client, it's better to focus your efforts on clients serious enough to invest money up front for quality design.

While it's unlikely that you will collect a large enough retainer to actually cover the cost of your design work, it does begin a process of the client actually doing business with your firm and signing a contract for the design work. This will make actually signing a construction contract later seem less threatening, since the person has already done business with your firm.

Minimizing flaws
When clients are considering a remodel project, there are several things that they will probably consider important in making their decision. They will want to deal with a firm that can design a project that meets their needs and tastes, perform the work to high quality standards, be reliable and be around when warranty issues arise.

Keeping this in mind, remember that image and first impressions are extremely important. To bolster your design credentials, enter your projects in design competitions, send press releases and photos to local publications and make your staff available to local groups for presentations on topics where they can demonstrate their expertise.

Stress professional appearance with your staff and field personal. This includes vehicles. Likewise, your showroom and offices should provide a good first impression. Make sure that your showroom is indicative of the quality of work that your firm does.

Finally, really work at making every client part of your marketing effort by striving to wind up with a satisfied client who will be a strong referral. In as little as a year or two, it is not unrealistic to have 60% to 80% of your business coming from referrals of past clients.

However, this only happens if you make sure the clients are happy with your firm and the work that was done for them.

Getting paid for your design work is the result of creating demand for it in the marketplace. If you have created a reputation of superior design and remodeling work, people will be willing to pay for it. But, they won't pay for it if you are willing to give it away.