When I was little – kindergarten age or so – I remember making a bouquet of tulips for Mother’s Day from Tempura paints, pipe cleaners and tulip shapes cut out of the bowls of egg cartons. Honestly, it was awful. First of all, the egg carton cardboard is brown and sucks up paint like no tomorrow, so the colors were muddy and the edges of the tulips were rough. And tempura paint is so out of control – it puddles and makes a terrible mess, and the colors are boring and don’t blend well to make other colors.
So here we have terrible tools, a pretty unskilled teacher, a very unskilled student and an end result that only a mother could love. Fortunately it was for my mom, and I’m sure she said everything appropriate. For me – I wasn’t satisfied. I knew I could have done better with the right tools and more practice.
It seems so unfair, looking back, to have bad tools and materials at a time when your hand-eye coordination is also pretty pitiful. You won’t end up with anything anyone would think is worth keeping unless a mom is involved.
Move on to my early 20s and my first apartment. I was lucky to have a one-bedroom in a 50-year-old apartment building with original wood flooring. It was gorgeous and $215 a month including utilities. I had no money for furniture so I had posters on the walls, my stereo and records on fruit crates from my grandfather’s barn. For seating I had an old Oriental rug knockoff of my parents’ with a square coffee table in the middle and floor pillows I made myself scattered around it. It looked pretty good thanks to some odds and ends I’d cadged from relatives.
A friend visited once and commented that it felt like a New York loft, which was the mood I was hoping for. He then said, “My wife and I try to make our place look nice. We’ll buy something that we think will make a difference but when we bring it home it really doesn’t. We just don’t know how to do something like this.”
Until then, I really thought that people had the home and the look they wanted. It never occurred to me that some people couldn’t live up to their taste. That’s why decorators exist: for people whose taste exceeds their capabilities.
Why do people hire you? Is it to rescue them from their own bad taste? Or is it to help them discover what their taste really is? Now, I’m really good at the small stuff. Give me a buffet table and I’ll turn it into something special. Let me arrange flowers and I’ll knock you out. Tackling a Christmas tree makes me happy for days and the tree will take your breath away. Arranging furniture? Not so much.
In my second apartment, I had more furniture thanks to my parents getting rid of some of their old stuff. One piece I loved was a large dark-wood bookcase. I gave it pride of place across from the front door. It happened to be right under the smoke detector. I hadn’t filled it yet, and when my sister walked in the first thing she said was, “Oh, I didn’t know you had an elevator in your apartment.”
Now, there are people I know, like my sister, who can walk in a room and immediately know where the furniture should go. I know some of them and invite them over every time I move. There are others like Nancy Hugo who can take a disaster of a kitchen and visualize how to make it amazing. I know because I’ve seen the before and after pictures. Me, I just know that I like galley kitchens better than U shapes to work in and prefer painted cabinets to dark stains.
Smart consumers know when to handle things themselves and when to ask for a professional’s help. And a smart professional needs to know where those smart consumers need help and where they don’t. How well do you listen to a new client? Are they like me in kindergarten, needing direction, tools and good materials to get where they want? Or are they like my friend Alan, knowing what looks good when they see it, but not knowing what it takes to get there?
Or maybe they’re like me now – wanting help in certain areas while seriously wanting to be left to my own devices in others. If you’re not getting to the bottom of your client needs, ask yourself these questions:
• Who does most of the talking at the first client meeting? (Hint: if it’s you, you’re not doing your job right.)
• Do you take the time to visit the client’s home and see what they love, what they like, and what they aren’t happy with? (How can you take them where they want to go if you don’t know where they’ve been?)
• Are you selling them your good taste or helping them find their own sense of style?
• Do you check back to make sure your clients are happy six months later? Two years later? (Here’s a clue: how much referral and repeat business do you have? If it’s less than 90% of your current business, you’re doing something wrong.)
• How do you think of your clients? Do you respect them? (Be honest here.)
It’s easy for us to get caught up in the tools and materials that make up our business. After all, it’s pretty amazing stuff: colors, fabrics, products, furniture. What’s not to love?
But I’m going to tell you one more story. I had the opportunity to attend a training program at Disney World. It was an exposure to their new employee orientation and customer service program. One of the things they talked about was a reality of their business. They said, “For you, every day at work is just another day. But for many of the families coming here, this may be their only visit to a Disney Park in their lives. It’s up to you to make this day a good memory – one that they’ll treasure always.”
For us, one client may be like another. But for that client, this may be their first and only new kitchen, new home, custom decorating opportunity that they will ever have. A sofa that you won’t think about for 20 minutes they may live with for 20 years. So what can you do, as a designer, to give your clients your version of the Disney experience?
Well, for a start, don’t make them settle for tempura paints and cardboard egg cartons. Give them the best you have to offer. And it will come back to you.
Maria Muto-Porter is one of those odd people who actually enjoys speaking in front of groups. To see her in action and learn more about speaking in public, you can come and sit in on her upcoming free presentation this coming Saturday at the Goodyear Branch Library at 3 p.m., “Public Speaking for Teens, It’s Easier than you Think!” You’re welcome to come even if your teen years are long behind you.
Maria Muto-Porter is a freelance writer and blogger. Her career began in broadcasting as a reporter and producer where she covered local news and features in Toledo, Ohio. Muto-Porter served as editor for two publications including a national design magazine. She has also written and edited books, magazine articles and other business materials. You can contact Maria at