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Selling (Your) Style

MoenOnSiteJune2014 Selling Style

Pablo Solomon restored an 1856 state historic site, Moses Hughes Ranch near Austin, Texas, blending the home’s original beams with more contemporary furniture and fixtures. Photo courtesy of Pablo Solomon.

How to connect with clients upfront.

Before you can build, you first must connect with your customers and make sure your styles and designs fit theirs. Yet, many builders, eager for a sale, fail to get this fit right from the start. Asking the right questions in the beginning can not only eliminate problems down the road, it can help make sure a project gets off the ground in the first place.

For top builders and designers, the best approach is always honesty. If you're at a place in your career where you're pitching customers to build a home or undertake a major renovation, you almost surely have developed a style all your own. Flaunt it — it's what got you to where you are. Don't try to hide it or bend it to a customer's perceived preferences just because you think it's what they want to hear.

Use personal style and design style

One designer, Austin, Texas–based Pablo Solomon, makes sure he knows what his customers want first. "I don't steer clients toward my style. It's more important for me to provide them what they want than to steer them toward something else," he says. "At the same time, I am just myself. I have a very strong personality, and people either appreciate my enthusiasm, insistence on quality and attention to detail, or they think it's a pain in the butt. It's good to find out upfront if we are going to rub each other the wrong way."

Once you've communicated your style, look and listen to figure out the preferences of your client, even if they can't readily articulate it.

"All clients have a style, but not all of them realize it," says Ana Roberti, owner of SoulScape Interiors in East Windsor, N.J. "It's our job, through the questions we ask, to help them identify it."

That means speaking their language. People communicate and understand best when you talk about concrete things. So instead of asking them about "modern" or "French country," probe them about things they know.

"I like to ask them what their favorite restaurant is in town, not in terms of food, but for ambience," says architect John Hrivnak of Hrivnak Associates in St. Charles, Ill. "We all know things like that, but we rarely ask ourselves why. A question like that gives you the opportunity to do just that."

Looking around their current home helps, too, and not just for what they may have in it. What isn't there can speak volumes. "Sometimes clients like color but don't know how to balance it correctly," says Jennifer Schweikert, owner of Just My Style by JMS in Burke, Va. "Rooms totally devoid of color usually speak to a client who is unsure what to do, so they do nothing. That's an opportunity to help right there."

Clip and click examples

Of course, the tried-and-true method of asking clients to clip magazines for styles they like is still a great way to get a feel for what you want to present. So is the more recent method of having a Pinterest or Houzz.com vision board. Asking for a link to those things before you meet can make the difference between a real connection and coming in cold.

"If they tell me that I was referred to them by a friend, then I have to dig a little deeper and figure out why my name came up as a good fit for them," says Nashville, Tenn.–based architect Ryan Thewes. "Looking at a Pinterest or Houzz.com board is the perfect way to do that."

No discussion of closing and styles would be complete without addressing costs. Because cost is a function of making decisions on what should and shouldn't be included, Hrivnak asks questions that force potential clients to decide.

"We'll give them multiple choice, but tell them they can only choose two of the following: cost, quality and size," Hrivnak says. "We can make it work with whatever variable is left out. If low cost and size are the priorities, you've got to address quality of materials upfront."

Doing just that, and making sure you're a good match from the beginning, helps ensure the success of a proposal, and project, before you even get started.