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Advice for DesignersEvery man should read this one

The Quest for the High End Client

By 09/01/2013February 20th, 201738 Comments

The Quest for the High End Client

It’s pretty much agreed among most designers that the measure for success seems to be to design for the upscale, high-end client with lots of money.

It’s kind of like this, once you get this client, you have hit the pinnacle to some degree. We all know that’s never enough and once you get there, you’ll need the next level of success, building a design firm, perhaps a furniture or fabric line, etc.

Now there is nothing wrong with that model whatsoever. And a big reason it’s out there, is because hiring a designer is still perceived as a luxury instead of a necessity.

But there’s another model and it’s the one I use and teach and that works well for me.

My first design business was called One Day Design. At the time, it was about re-design (before staging had even been invented), ‘We use what you have to create incredible, affordable interiors” was my tag line.

So, no surprise that, fast forward, almost 15 years later, I still mostly do that kind of design.

My niche is knowing how to decorate and pull a room together using colour (not just on the walls) specifying materials and finishes for renovations and putting the final touch on an interior with the right styling and accessories.

I love the instant gratification of shopping with a client for an entire day and how just by using the right accessories and lighting you can suddenly transform a space in just one day.

See how very little has changed from the beginning of my career.

I love the challenge of looking at a space and being able to advise my client, usually with a single glance, whats bothering them about their space and what to do about it. Which order is right for their updates or entire renovation and where to spend their money first.

Where I save my clients the most money, and where my fee gets paid many times over is when I save them from making the wrong purchase or from doing the wrong renovation.

You might be in love with a particular style of house but the one you end up buying is not it. Maybe it’s in the right neighbourhood or it fits your price range and then you decide you’re still going to install that modern, linear fireplace insert in your 70’s brick fireplace, like one lovely client of mine.

As I went through her whole house I inquired “Are you changing out all the traditional moulding?”


“What about the French Country mullions on all your windows? Are they being replaced?”

“Well, no”, she said.

“Then consider that the fireplace insert is probably too modern”.

By the way, this is no different than the romantic image I had of the puddling drapes I talked about for my living room a few weeks ago. I was so in love with that image, I couldn’t see past it to get that my living room was way to clean and contemporary to pull it off.  And it was like you were all my designers then because the overwhelming response was “NO WAY MARIA, WHAT THE HECK WERE YOU THINKING?”

I am convinced this is the reason there are so many odd-ball renovations that do-it-yourselfers get caught up in. Without an experienced colour consultant or designer to give you the reasons why your particular fantasy or trend you’ve fallen in love with should or should not be carried out, you can really go down the rabbit trail of building on one mistake over another. We’ve all been in or inherited houses where there were many different, unrelated renovations that did not work together at all.

I spoke to one client this week who said the biggest reason she was paralyzed from making even a simple decision on a wall colour was she knew if she chose the wrong colour for the walls, she would have to include that in all the rest of her choices as she shopped for all the other items she needed to finish decorating her living room.

So what does all this mean? It means that there is a market for a designer who specializes in short-term colour consulting for the do-it-yourselfer. We have graduated from the 80’s when we just painted one accent wall, to hiring a colour consultant to choose all our colours before we move into our next home.

Colour consulting has come such a long way since then. Before designers started getting trained in the business of specifying colour correctly, people would hire a designer to decorate or they just would go without one because hiring one seemed to fit into the category of purchasing an expensive hand-bag.

The handbag however, is a luxury, a colour consultant who walks you through your house, creates a decorating plan for your living room, consults with you on the order of your renovation to avoid the common mistake of combining yesterday with today. Well that in the end is not a luxury but an absolute necessity.

Can you be a colour consultant and not actually like to decorate? No. Although in the beginning of your career, choosing primarily wall colour will be the bigger part of the service you provide until you learn how to advise your clients on every area of their decorating or renovation.

And your fee will reflect the service you provide. What used to take me 2 hours to figure out now takes minutes. Literally thousands of consultations will get you to that place.

A higher hourly or flat rate (depending on how you handle your fees) means someone else paid for the knowledge you now have, at a lower rate of course.

Choosing wall colour is the smallest percentage of what I do. I can pick a colour for the walls in 30 seconds, and in most cases I choose it last. The first part of the consultation is about creating the look and feel of the interior.  And that takes training and experience just like any other type of design business.

What colour will the sofa, chair, cushions, lamps, carpet be?

What colour should the countertop, flooring, cabinets, backsplash be?

What colour should my exterior stone, brick, siding, windows, be?

I work with a large range of clients, some are high end but the biggest percentage of my clients are just like me. Middle class. I have no idea about fine art. Really. No one consults with me on which $16,000 piece of art they should stick in their living room. Unless it’s the same one I want in my house here.

If an $1000 Ektorp Sectional is the one that will fit the budget, I specify it. If a $135 colourful table lamp will suddenly transform the corner of your living room into a thing of beauty and joy to behold, you’ll know about it.

For a long time I was secretly worried that I was not in the same race as everyone else to decorate for the high-end client but then I realized that without even really planning it, I was doing exactly the kind of decorating and consulting that worked for me and that I was really good at and at the same time, made a great living doing it!

Now with the internet it’s easier than ever to reach the client that’s right for us and easier for your ideal client to find you. Not everyone is my client and not everyone is yours.  Instead of trying to do something you think you should do because everyone else is doing it, find your niche instead.

The question to ask yourself is “What do you love to do?” And then figure out how to get yourself trained so that you do exactly that.

Related posts:

The Three Most Important Words in a Colour Consultation

You Don’t Suck if you Don’t Book Every Client

How I Became a True Expert

If you would like to learn how to choose colour with confidence, become a True Colour Expert™. Early bird discount for Vancouver, September 25-27 ends Wednesday.

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  • Jill McDougall says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts on this, Maria. As a similar designer, I’ve come to peace with this over the years as well- I’m cut out for a certain type of client, and it’s where I’m most happy. I help people by diagnosing what bugs them about their spaces, and solve it! My business started out as simply arranging what people already owned, and pulling it all together visually. That quickly branched out to color consulting, designing, furniture selection, etc. But I’m not interested in the higher end clients, or intense project management (which I’ve done and don’t like). Thanks for permission to be happy where I am! 🙂


  • traci zeller says:

    This is such a great post, Maria. We all have different strengths, and I truly don’t feel competition with other designers because we all bring different things to the table. I love being able to learn from and collaborate with other designers who are honed in on doing what they do best instead of trying to be all things to all people. I’m not the right fit for everyone, and that’s ok. Gosh, it’s more than ok; it’s perfect! Our clients get the best experience, and we are more professionally and personally rewarded, when it is the right fit between designer and client. If I’m not your girl, I know there is someone out there who will do a great job for you!
    xoxoxo, Traci

  • Agreed, Right On and Amen!!!

  • Julie S says:

    Great encouragement, thank you!

  • I do mostly redesign/restyling too. The big budget jobs are out there, they’re just going to other people in our area…and that’s OK with me 🙂 Most of my business is very small work—like $1000 or less for an entire project—so I really have to get creative most of the time. Would I love to get a high(er) end client? Sure…but in the meantime, I’m happy helping people with small budgets get a beautiful home. Guess that’s why my motto/tag line is “Love the Home You’re In … Again!” 🙂

  • StagerLinda says:

    Love this post so much Maria. There is so much ‘competition’ yet know one has my years of experience–like you say about picking a color in
    30 seconds. I wish I could get the sellers that contact me to realize experience trumps price.

  • leslie says:

    I am the client that Maria referenced above, dreaming of the sleek modern fireplace for my traditional rancher. And that story illustrates exactly why I keep hiring Maria even though she keeps telling me things I don’t want to hear. 🙂 . I was so excited about converting an old rancher into a lovely modern home. I had tons of photographs and 90% of the project already planned. My consultation with Maria was going great. Lots of good solid advice delivered quickly and succinctly. But the conversation kept coming back to the picture of the modern fireplace and Maria finally broke the news to me – my plan was not going to turn out the way I envisioned. Unless I had the money to change all of the design details to “minimalist modern”, the fireplace was going to look out of place with such traditional architectural trim. (Sound of record scratching…)

    Honestly, I am not sure I would have even noticed the mismatch of styles if I had gone forward with my plan. But the eventual results would definitely have fallen short of my expectations and I would have been disappointed. I would have racked up the experience to “well, I guess I am not as good at this DIY stuff as I thought, and that’s that.” But the thing is, I am pretty good at this DIY stuff. I have good ideas and a pretty good vision. I am just not as good as a trained professional with years of experience. When you collaborate with Maria she points out the unintended consequences that you don’t see coming. Consequently, rather than changing my design vision, as I had feared, her advice allows my vision to be realized even more fully.

    I am pretty cheap and initially I thought I could not afford a professional consultation. Maria’s consultation not only pays for itself, it pays for itself ten times over. The money is the most obvious savings but the bigger savings is in frustration. I have put a lot of money, time and labor into decorating projects only to be disappointed and frustrated with the results. Maria allows you to skip expensive trial and error. The pleasure of doing a project once and being thrilled with the results is awesome.

    I am looking forward to my third and forth consultations with Maria. After years of near misses, I am finally getting the house I wanted. Thank you Maria.

  • Farha Syed says:

    Hello Maria

    Excellent advise and a stamp of approval if you will for the type of designer I am. I also, like to help people out with the stuff they already have and just re-arrange it and or give it a new purpose, and face, and it gives the space a fresh look.
    I am now more confident in knowing what I do best and be content with it; instead of worrying about thinking that unless I have the high-end clients, I will not be successful, and this post emphasized it.
    Ever since, I’ve started reading your blog I’ve learned a great deal, and your color boards are the best tool to have for the color consultation.
    I have named you my Mentor, because I truly believe it to be true in many respects. And the one or two times that I’ve spoken to you. it has been a great pleasure on my part.

  • Karen T. says:

    This is really a good post! Great advice. Thanks!

  • Nick says:

    Thanks, Maria.

    I’ve no idea how to begin selling my services. Can you (or anyone)say more about this.

    I am newly located in the maritimes, living rurally. The internet seems logical but I need a plan.

    Thank you to any relies. I appreciate your generosity of sharing your time.

  • Maria, this is absolutely great advice and something I needed to be reminded of. I’m just like you — totally enjoy using what the client has as my starting point. I have never enjoyed starting over from scratch with a new design plan and working the project for months. It’s much too open-ended for me and there seems to be no end to it. I’m still trying to figure out how to go after the “one day” redesign business, but it will come. In the meantime I’m going to do what I do best and not worry about what I “should” be doing based on what others in the design field are doing. Thank you!

  • Beth L says:

    Well-said. I feel the same way. I love the design consults & helping quickly redo a space.

    One of my least favorite jobs was decorating a new condo at the Ritz-Carlton. These “high-end” clients were constantly trying to chew people down on the price & didn’t communicate well with me. I was able to fix a couple of their mistakes in time (they would
    go shopping & order some wrong things), but it sure wasn’t much fun!

  • Beth B. says:

    This is a thoughtful post! I am much more on the redesign side of the business, and most of my clients are neither high or low end, but somewhere in the middle. Generally we use what is on hand first and foremost (provided they don’t hate it), then add new art, accessories, rugs, lamps, often furniture and often but not always a new wall color. What I love is that every case is unique, no two are the same. Your comment “what do you love to do” is on point, and I would add to that “what are your gifts?” i.e “what do you know you’re good at?”. Just the other day a woman called me to ask if I could design her lighting layout in her newly remodeled basement. I know this is not my gift and I referred her elsewhere. Luckily, I have steady work and don’t feel I must take on every person that calls. After almost 13 years in, I know pretty quickly who will be the right fit. I am not afraid of a challenge, but I also think there is danger in overselling yourself. Thanks for reminding us it’s OK to know your place!!

  • Debbiecz says:

    Wise words for all..designers & clients! Years ago a local wallpaper store advertised a $25 consulting fee to walk thru your house & give decorating advice. Yes, $25…that’s how long ago this was. I felt SO grown up (just married, first house, etc) and invited these nice ladies in. I didn’t agree with everything they said but just their advice to be careful of the pink tones in my granite has steered my decorating ever since and was well worth the fee. I’ve used their paper services many times since because of that initial $25 consult. They’ve been in business for more than 30 years.

  • Kambridge says:

    Thank you, Maria. As a new designer, I was beginning to question my humble expectations of clients. While all of my classmates are all about high end, I focused more on the the realistic expectation of our midwest area. Budget savers, amazing prices on a lamp or art that I thought could work within the space and allow possible savings to be allocated for an additional spaces to be worked on. I appreciate knowing that a beautiful room transformation is still what design is all about – no matter what the cost. Thank you, again.

  • Diane G. says:

    This makes perfect sense and is a great post.
    I am ‘the client’ looking for your kind of design input in Houston Tx. Most of my friends are in the high-end category, so their so their designer recs are of no help to me. So afraid of hiring the wrong sort of consultant, that I suffer from design paralysis. Like your fireplace client, I have good instincts but no confidence. At this point it feels like I’m destined to never love my home.

    • Leslie says:

      I did not know what to expect the first time I consulted with Maria, she is in Vancouver and I live in Pennsylvania, but somehow she is able to do a really effective consult over the phone. I started with paint color but have moved on to kitchen finishes. Eventually I plan on asking about furniture and accessories. You can really do an entire project with Maria from long distance. I really encourage you to give it a try. Seriously, I can not say enough how thrilled I am with the results.

  • SandyCGC says:

    Such a wise post, Maria. I’m not a designer (though once thought about it decades ago) but still very interested in all aspects for myself and very critical of what I see. Yet I always need/want another eye. What’s so great about your service, Maria, and other designers who choose to work this way, is that you become “my best girlfriend who I know will be absolutely honest about my potential choices or decisions”. In this case, “my best girlfriend” has specialized knowledge and experience which comes for a fee, but it’s will be worth every dollar every time. I’m looking forward to becoming a client like Leslie above who is looking forward to a third and fourth consult with you. In fact what I thought would be my first consult on my kitchen update has taken a back seat to decisions about new flooring for my very, very open floorplan house (even though that won’t actually HAPPEN for a while). It’s great to know you’re there, Maria.

    P.S. The “staging in place” concept has worked very well for my good friend in Portland who works with a friend who has a staging busines there. It may take a number of small jobs to equal one large one but then one doesn’t have the overhead of a large warehouse/inventory and the need to haul (or have large bodies to haul) big stuff back and forth. It’s perhaps more of a challenge for a designer, but I think any avenue that makes you more approachble to clients is worth a shot as DebbieCZ illustrates above.

  • Paula Van Hoogen says:

    This is, in a way, related to what you are posting about….yesterday we attended a local designer show house. Lunch was available, so we sat at one of the outdoor tables to wait for our salads. Four ladies randomly sat down & joined us. One was a very high end designer from Washington, DC. She clearly was a total snob. Any discussion of interior design was met with not too well disguised disdain.
    Maria, I am so glad that you never act in any sort of arrogant manner, though with the level you have achieved, you certainly could. Thanks for always being gracious and caring….I really do appreciate that about you both personally & professionally.

  • Tristan says:

    Maria, Could you talk about remodeling rentals? For instance, I am working on my home with future renters in mind. I won’t replace wood floors with wood because one careless renter can do thousands of dollars in damage to the floors. I’ve had it happen before. With that in mind I may have to go with Spanish tile flooring throughout. Could you talk about designing for both long term durability and style?

  • Judy says:

    Applause, great post Maria.

  • PRyan says:

    Ohhhh…did I need this post! You couldn’t have said it more eloquently. I just had a friend say you should do a show called coming out of the 90’s (or late 80’s) I feel like that’s all I have been doing lately. But I love seeing the after and seeing the clients reaction to the after. I feel like slow and steady wins the race by knocking off one ugly 80’s house at a time in the midwest!

  • Robin says:

    Throughout history people of all cultures have decorated their living spaces. In our contemporary life, some expertise is required to do it well. Access to expertise should not be viewed as solely the right of the rich and famous. A beautiful and functional home should be possible regardless of one’s economic status. Maria’s democratic approach is appreciated.

  • Ana says:

    Hallelujah to this! I am so happy that I hired you for an Internet consultation. When I buy a house someday I hope you are still serving the “little people” like me because you brought a lot of every day happiness to my home.

  • Betsy OShea says:

    Maria, great post per usual. It is so so true that hiring a redesigner or color consultant saves the customer from making expensive mistakes but how does someone who is new in the biz convince people of that? You no doubt hv great before/after shots. Without connections it is tres difficile to start ones own biz….

  • Sharon Charboneau says:

    This is one of your best columns by far. Addresses all the issues stagers, designers, stylists & colour consultants struggle with. Well done! and thanks for sharing.

  • What Maria neglects to mention here, is through her guidance, she saves marriages, and other relationships…After my sister, and her partner asked me for the umpteenth time what colour they should paint and where they should start, I handed over Maria’s telephone number and firmly said phone her! Well ten years later the work is now all done and their house is gorgeous! Even better they do not look at me and tell me I screwed up! Nor do they look at each other with that thought in mind! (I don’t love the sofa they just bought though!!!) Thank you Maria!

  • Soma Pradhan says:

    I promise you have a 6th sense for what I need to hear at the moment! Thank you for being the type of designer that you are, and for bringing to my awareness that I’m ok to do the type of designing I do best!!! 🙂

  • Hi Maria,
    I am not a designer and I do understand why people told you no about the puddling drapes for your living room. I know you have many modern pieces and that’s the main reason. But I do saw a picture from designer Sara Tuttle and she used them in a home and it looks great, here is the link
    isn’t something like this good for your home too? I think that you can make it work. Sara is using modern pieces there too. Is just a question.

  • Wendy says:

    My least favorite clients are the high-end ones…the ones who are used to being catered to, who won’t go and actually SIT on the sofa before purchasing and then complain about the comfort later, who can’t be bothered to be on time for our meetings, who penny-pinch on minor issues but waste money on flashy extras they have seen in a hotel once, and who are redecorating to impress their friends not because they want a lovely home! Many of these sought-after clients treat me like just another service person…they lack respect. And they most always believe they could make these decisions THEMSELVES, since they are so “sophisticated.”

    Well, I guess I needed to get that off my chest!!

    The clients I can laugh with, and respect what I do, are the ones I LOVE…no matter how small the project.

  • Meger Anski says:

    The courage to hear the different drummer and be true to is is beyond words.

    Being true to oneself is what it is all about.

    It is why your words resonate and we listen.

    You are undoubtedly one of the most authentic people out there.

    Keep setting the bar.

  • Meger Anski says:

    I have always said, “I may not have good taste, but I have expensive taste.” There is no correlation between the two.

    Listening and learning from you, I (and I am sure I speak for others) are learning GOOD taste!!

    Just having a high-end client does not mean your work is quality. On the other hand, attention to details and loving life somehow always end up in good design.

    Carry on!

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