Years ago when I was first stepping my foot into the interior design world, I had purchased a couple of Henredon side tables. They were older and I wanted to update the finish. So, I googled around, found a few people who were willing and able to take on my smaller project, and they came over for a visit. I remember the experience well. And not for the right reasons.
One of the businesses that came over to give me an estimate literally laughed at my tables. There were two people and they joked back and forth about the fact that they didn’t even know if the top was wood or laminate, and therefore they didn’t know if they would be able to refinish it for me. Or if the table was even worth enough to do so because it was of such low quality. I remember being shocked, offended, and horrified. It took me a long time to find those tables, and I thought they were a great find. Yes, the finish was a bit out of a date and maybe they weren’t $2k a piece, but I still liked them. And I was proud of myself for reaching out to hire a professional so they could do a professional refinishing job that I knew I wasn’t capable of. And their reaction was to laugh at its poor quality? I couldn’t believe it.
Delivering Advice is Tricky Business
As design professionals your job is to give advice about not only what new items should be brought in, but also what old items should be taken out. And that can be a tough situation. Now yes, granted, they did hire you so they know something needs to change. But handling it with diplomacy is still imperative when it comes to securing the job, and making sure the experience is a pleasant one.
So how do you do that exactly? How do you let clients know what needs to change without offending them? There are a number of ways. And the credit for each one goes to Dale Carnegie. To digress for a moment, if you don’t already know, I’m a huge fan of Dale Carnegie, “How to Win Friends & Influence People,” and the Dale Carnegie training company. I even worked there as I loved the philosophies of Dale Carnegie so much because well, they work and are so incredibly insightful. And if you haven’t yet read “How to Win Friends & Influence People” I urge you to do so ASAP. That book will never, never go out of style. No matter how much the world may change, the way that people want to be treated won’t. And that book is still the best I’ve found on how to navigate relationships of all kinds.
The Sandwich Effect
Anyyyways, one of the many things I learned from Dale Carnegie during the time I worked there was “the sandwich effect.” It’s the idea that you deliver “criticism” between a sandwich of complements. Now not fake complements, but genuine, sincere complements. There’s something to love and admire in every home you visit, if you look for it. “I love your landscaping. It’s absolutely gorgeous.” “This neighborhood is just beautiful.” Or simply, “Your home feels so warm and cozy.”
So it’s complement, constructive criticism, complement. It doesn’t have to all be within the same breath, and again it shouldn’t come across as fake or over enthusiastic praise. We just want it to ease the burden of hearing that something they did wasn’t the best choice. For example, if you’re walking the space of someone’s home for the first time you could say, “I really love that throw pillow you have.” Then a moment or so later, “We may want to consider swapping out the sofa to one that has a curved silhouette.” And then a little later, “Wow, this house gets such beautiful light.” See, that wasn’t hard to hear was it? The recommendation that the couch needs to change didn’t leave a sting at all. Because it’s a heck of a lot easier to hear critical advice, after you’ve heard a complement before, and after. Because let’s face it, hearing that we need to change something isn’t easy. Even if we hired the person to tell us what to change. So it’s important to handle it delicately.
Bring Attention to Mistakes Indirectly
Another great tactic? Bring attention to mistakes indirectly. For example if you’re doing a Designer for a Day consultation, you wouldn’t want to say, “This chair shouldn’t be here. It needs to be over there.” instead it can be, “I would recommend moving this chair closer to the sofa. As it will create a cozy conversation area for the dinner parties you throw.”
So if you notice, you’re not saying that something shouldn’t have been done. Or that it would be better someplace else. Or that your idea is better in comparison by adding “er” to the end of cozy, making it “cozier”. You’re simply saying what you recommend and why. You’re bringing attention to the mistake indirectly. Which is of course much easier to hear, and implement, than a statement of why what they did was wrong, and why what you think is better.
Talk in Terms of the Other Person’s Benefit
And the last and maybe most powerful way to deliver critical advice? “Talk in terms of the other person’s benefit.” Another huge Dale Carnegie recommendation, and one that is extremely effective. You want to make sure that you’re emphasizing why making changes benefits the client, rather than why it’s what you want or like.
For example if we take the sentence above, “I would recommend moving this chair closer to the sofa. As it will create a cozy conversation area for the dinner parties you throw.” you’ll notice that right now it’s about benefitting the client. It will make their conversation area cozy for the dinner parties that they like to throw (which also shows you were paying attention when they were talking).
However if we had said, “I would recommend moving this chair closer to the sofa because I don’t like it when seating is scattered around the room.” the client would be a lot less interested in taking our advice. As that’s just about what we want and like (and comes across as a bit harsh). And although the client is interested in what you think, they want it to be delivered in a way that is focused on them.
Delivering Advice is a Delicate, but Worthy, Task
Delivering advice and constructive criticism can be tricky. It’s one of those things that has to be done, but it also has to be done in the right way. As that’s what you’re hired to do. You don’t want to just come in and be so hesitant to recommend changes that they don’t get the design impact that they need and want. But you also don’t just want to come in and be so focused on the design, that you forget that feelings are involved.
Even in my own work with designers I’m constantly reworking my recommendations this way and that to ensure that I’m not offending. As one, I of course don’t want to offend them. And two, they’re a lot less likely to take my advice if I do offend them. So, it does take some time and practice, but it is a vitally important task to undertake.
And it really is in everything that you do, the words you write on your website, in your contact form, in your Welcome Packet, in your What to Expect documents, during your walkthrough of the space, etc. Clients know they need help, but they also are allowing you into their home. Which is an incredibly sacred and intimate space. So it’s important to tread lightly, genuinely complement any aspect of their neighborhood/home/collections whenever possible, bring attention to any mistakes indirectly, and share why making changes will benefit them.
The torn up avocado green recliner in their living room may be hideous, but it also may have a story. It may be the last piece of their father that they have left. So respecting it and making gentle suggestions like, “I’m wondering if this piece may work in another room of your home. As I’m not sure if it will coordinate the way you’d like with the other contemporary pieces we’re bringing in.” allows the client to save their dignity. And allows you to make the suggestions that you need. You’ll be able to work together in a way that allows both parties to feel comfortable and respected giving and sharing feedback, as you work towards the same goal of creating a stunning space.
If you’d like even more ideas on how to provide the kind of client experience that gets you higher fees and profits, get on the Wait List for the next session of “The Exceptional Experience”!