When I was a new designer I tried my best to avoid anything that remotely resembled onboarding. I doubt I even knew that there was an onboarding phase, never mind understanding its importance.
Even with an education in design I didn’t understand operations or systems. I was running on intuition and when it came to business there was very little intuition.
The typical scenario was I had a call with a client who booked a consultation. If that went well and they wanted to hire me for their project, I would dive right in. I’d schedule a time to start the site measure, get a deposit and start work. Zero onboarding process.
There were 3 things that happened over and over as a result of not having an onboarding process:
- I jumped into the work before the client was ready.
- I jumped into the work before I was even hired.
and the worst mistake of all was this:
- I hadn’t gathered enough information. And I hadn’t shared enough information. This always resulted in a breakdown in the project as well as a breakdown in the client’s trust.
Here are just a couple of the disasters that occur when we skip any formal onboarding and go straight to design work:
- we jump in without a thorough understanding of the scope of work and feel overwhelmed when the client expects more of us.
- we spend too much time on revisions because we haven’t explained our policies (we may not even have any).
- we end up working on spaces we aren’t being paid for because we misunderstood what the clients wanted.
For me, these mistakes resulted in a loss of money but more importantly, they created in me an overwhelming feeling that I wasn’t cut out to be a designer.
It took me a very long time to understand that onboarding is the MOST important aspect of a project.
When we get that right, the project can move ahead. You know exactly what the client wants and they know exactly what they’re going to get from you.
Here are a couple of the most common things I see designers overlook during their onboarding phase.
📌 ONBOARDING ISSUE #1: AVOIDING DISCUSSIONS OF MONEY
Why do so many of us desperately want to avoid the money talk? I’ve learned in speaking to so many of you that there are a few common answers:
1/ We are naturally uncomfortable talking about money.
2/ We have asked and the client seems uncomfortable talking about money.
3/ We don’t want to scare them away with our fees or our budget projection.
This will always result in issues down the road. There’s absolutely no way to avoid this conversation and still manage to meet the future expectations of your client.
STEP ONE – Create a policy for your business regarding money. Make a commitment to discuss it first during your onboarding meeting.
Present your client with a Contract and Scope of Work that outlines exactly what services they will receive and during what period of time, along with your fee structure and payment schedule.
STEP TWO – Address the client budget. If they’re being evasive you need to communicate the importance of a budget for moving forward.
There’s a whole world of options when it comes to materials and furniture. Without a budget to guide you it’s just a guess. You’ll be sourcing and resourcing endlessly.
📌 ONBOARDING ISSUE #2: YOU HAVEN’T DISCUSSED YOUR POLICIES
It’s so common to hear designers complain about clients who have crossed a boundary. Yes, this does sometimes happen but often it happened because you didn’t adequately explain your policies.
Use the onboarding meeting to discuss anything that’s important to you regarding the operations of your business. These are a few of the most common examples:
1/ Number of revisions included in the fees.
2/ Milestone dates.
3/ Office Hours.
4/ Methods of Communication.
So many of the issues that come up during the project could be avoided through outstanding communication during the onboarding phase.
Just remember that this is your business and you can choose to run it anyway you like. But in order to run a successful business it’s imperative that you share those policies with your client.
📌 ONBOARDING ISSUE #3: YOUR CLIENT DOESN’T UNDERSTAND THE DESIGN PROCESS
Your clients don’t need a lesson on the entire design process but they do need to have a basic understanding of the order of events as well as some general timeframes.
Often we move so quickly into design work and we forget that these are not design professionals. For a lot of our clients this may be their first design project and it’s overwhelming.
If you don’t give them some information at the onboarding phase, you’ll end up with nervous clients who are left out of the loop and who call and email you endlessly.
Give your clients an overview of how the project will unfold, including:
1/ The stages of interior design and when each phase starts and ends (approximately).
2/ Presentation dates.
3/ How many meetings you’ll have and when they’ll take place.
4/ Your method and timing around communication, ie “you’ll hear from me every Monday morning with an update about the status of your project”.
I learned that most people are reasonable. When they understand what to expect, they act with less stress. They feel more confident that you’re working even when they don’t hear from you. And most importantly, they trust in your ability to deliver what you promised.
Just remember that this is your business and you can choose to run it anyway you like. It’s imperative that you share those policies with your client though.
📌 ONBOARDING ISSUE #4: YOUR CLIENT DOESN’T UNDERSTAND YOUR ROLE
If you’ve ever experienced a client who seems demanding of your time it’s tempting to say they’ve crossed a boundary and scream red flag to your designer friends. You can read more about red flag clients here.
The truth often is that we’ve done a poor job of explaining our role. A client may not know the difference between the role of designer and project manager.
They don’t have a clear understanding of your role as a designer. They may assume you’ll be part of the project team until the very end while you may be just creating the design and passing it off to the contractor.
Use the onboarding meeting to discuss your specific role. That includes your commitment to the project and when your role is complete. Be sure to discuss:
1/ What services you’ll provide as well as what is not included.
2/ Presentation details. How do you present your design concept? All at once or in stages? Do you present fixtures in one meeting, flooring in another, etc.? This one is crucial if you want to prevent never-ending phone calls.
3/ How many meetings you’ll have and when they’ll take place.
4/ Your level of involvement with trades, site inspections, meetings at suppliers, etc. Be specific about what’s included and what’s an extra fee.
We have to remember that our clients don’t understand our business. It’s part of our job to explain it to them. When we handle these topics during onboarding we can eliminate a lot of the unnecessary stress and expectations that we may face later on down the line.
Can you see how being prepared in your business, particularly your onboarding phase is so important to your success? I hope this helps give you some clarity on your own red flag client.
If you need some additional documentation to support your operations, visit the template shop.
Thanks for reading. I appreciate you and your time.