Designer Series: Susan Shulman

April 1, 2013

Featured designer: Susan Shulman
West Newton, MA |

Susan Shulman

Jody: I have enjoyed knowing and working with Susan for several years now.  When I asked her to participate in the Designer Series, I was pleased that she included how we met and enjoyed reading her perspective on that time.  Since then we have kept in touch and speak regularly about the challenges facing the industry and the designers and how to best use them as opportunities for growth and success.  As I am, Susan is a straight shooter who is always looking to make things just a little bit better.  I hope you enjoy her as much as I do.

Susan: When Jody Seivert invited me to contribute to her selling design, I was truly honored and excited.  What better way to show my appreciation to a woman who has immeasurably impacted my business and it’s bottom line with the most useful and insightful business practices of any single person in my more than 20 years in the business.

I first met Jody in 2002.  As a charter member of the Boston Design Center‘s Designer on Call program, the design center management brought her before us to improve our individual businesses which would reflect back to the DOC bottom line as well.  Upon completion of the BDC’s program I saw the value of staying on and investing in myself by earning a certificate after completing one x one’s “build your own business” program.  The return on my investment, and then some, occurred with my first client and continues to this day.  My association with Jody has flourished all these years.  She’s been an invaluable resource for solutions to present day issues.  She is my best sounding board and most trusted confidant, lending an ear and marvelous “Jody speak” when I need it the most.  Jody’s understanding of all aspects of the business from every sector in the marketplace is nothing short of phenomenal.

Susan Shulman

1. What are the biggest changes you have seen to the industry and to your business in the last 5 years?

When the markets tumbled in 2008 manufacturers ceased stocking as much product as in previous years.  Many fabrics were suddenly unavailable without a firm order and still offered longer lead times to produce and deliver.  Even with less demands for goods,  lead times were no shorter for case goods.  Manufacturers had laid off much of their skilled workforce.  Those retained employees were left to keep pace with fewer new orders.  Hence, it took slightly longer to produce a fully furnished room from start to finish.  It still does take longer for some product but lead times have bounced back some in the last year or two to where it was prior to 2009.

In the meantime, we saw a rise in user friendly manufacturer websites making it easier than ever to search for goods and manage our own accounts online.

While this was occurring in the manufacturing sector, our clients took much longer to make the decision to buy.  Often I was paid for my time to design rooms, source product and provide proposals yet the client was now sitting with these proposals making no clear indication when they would initiate the purchase.  This lag time put the skids on the bottom line for 2009.  By 2010 things were looking better and I truly think people got tired of waiting things out and got back to the business of spending money.  There is a large psychological factor to justify that people do want to spend money and want their homes to be a reflection of who they are and how they want to live.  There is still a strong desire among many to have a beautiful home with high quality furnishings but the realization is that the events of the last several years have left far fewer who can afford the luxury experience of hiring an Interior Designer.

The Internet has opened accessibility of more fine product to everyone.  Our clients may no longer need us for access to certain high end goods.  Television shows have given rise to the notion that tackling an interior design project yourself is easy, fun and fast.  Notice I did not say cheaper but they also think this is possible.  But more on this later.

Susan Shulman

2. What have you done in your business to respond to those changes – and how is that working for you?

In order to find these fewer qualified clients I have sought to increase my presence on the web by redesigning my website, twice in the last two years.  The most recent update made the site compatible with the iPad and iPhone.  This really is a must with the ubiquitous iPhone.  I also committed to a multi-year print campaign in a highly respected shelter magazine in the Northeast.  Additionally, my sales strategy has been to reposition myself as a curator of all elements that comprise good design while delivering an experience for the client that can only be achieved by hiring me for my expertise and execution.  I explain that it is the client who chooses to go it alone who will achieve entirely different results even with the same goals and vision in mind for the same project.   I let prospective clients know that although they may be able to purchase beautiful furniture on their own, much of it will not be the right size or scale for the space.  Worse yet, there is no guarantee that their results will be harmonious or function well over time.  There are still plenty of designers that do not know how to specify the right fabric for a particular application.  So how can a client be expected to do this correctly?  That’s a good thing!  They need us.  It’s not just the ability to buy beautiful objects, it is that we know how to combine them in a space to produce the superior results they expect.  Compare two people with similar ingredients making the same recipe.  I would place my money on the professional chef to produce the better tasting results.  The prospective client doesn’t know what they don’t know.  This is simply a matter of what I call  “Jody speak” and, perhaps, good old fashioned trade secrets.  Left to their own devices, their mistakes will be costly ones.  I also emphasize that my tradespeople are a dedicated team built through years of close collaboration and repeat business, committed to producing superior results for me and therefore them.

This is often a clear benefit that comes in tandem with hiring me.  I think there has to be a healthy realization that the prospective client will not be as successful in reaching their ultimate goal when going solo.  The results will speak for themselves.  I also try to help them understand that investing in their homes and doing so right now is always a good decision.  More than a few times I’ve received the same phone call from a client who wants to renovate a kitchen or bathroom followed by an admission that they are doing it so when they sell their home (next year!) they will get a higher price.  My thought is, “Where were you five years ago when you could have done the same renovation and lived your life in a beautiful space you’ve always dreamed of having?  Why wait to renovate and then give it all away by move out so soon after living through the process of a renovation.”  Creating a compelling reason to act now can help a client feel good about not waiting to initiate a project.  They get the space they want, their house improves in value and you get the job.

Susan Shulman

3. What do you predict for the future of the interior design industry – and how can designers prepare for that?

The future of the business will evolve with the Internet continuing to bring us the world at out fingertips.  It’s never been easier to find and purchase new product.  Technology has made a huge impact in the way I source, buy and make presentations for work.  It has also advanced the launch of new and innovative surface materials for walls, flooring and kitchens.  Technology is making advances in manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing which also allows forms and models to be built.  Led lighting will continue to break new ground as this is a true shift in the industry and not merely a passing trend.  I have steadily increased setting up wholesale accounts with internet sites and direct sales associates.  This allows me to stay competitive with client expectations.  I want a wide variety of places to source items from whom my clients may not be able to purchase.  Best of all, most of these sites will protect the designer by requiring business credentials and tax ID verification.

Getting our individual messages out online and through other chosen means of communication will continue to be important.  More than ever, we need to stay focused  on our role in the industry as service based providers and never forget we must always deliver outrageous customer service.

15 Minute Coaching….

For salespeople and designers

I had a great conversation with Erika Ward of Atlanta today.  She took advantage of the free 15 minute coaching opportunity that is posted on my blog and came prepared to discuss a couple of specific things that are impacting her business.  She was looking to get feedback on a second revenue stream that she is considering that will dovetail nicely with her design business, offer her additional income, and be a resource for other designers and a destination for retail customers.  Excellent choice!  Plus, she was looking at how she is charging and pricing – from the design fee on an initial visit that is really a deposit if they continue to work together but not quite enough if they don’t.  They were great issues and common among designers everywhere who are really paying attention to the profitability of their business.  And we only needed 15 minutes!!  And it’s freeeee : )

If you need a second set of eyes or ears on your business or your sales process, please drop me an email or pick up the phone and call me.  We can accomplish a lot in a small slice of time.


Webinar: How to Price Yourself Competitively and Profitably

Next Thursday, May 24 at 3:00 Eastern, noon Pacific time, I will be the featured speaker for Interior Design Pros webinar….and the topic “How to Price Yourself Competitively and Profitably” is a peek into the data I am compiling from my recent survey of designers across the U.S.  Please join us using the link below to register.  Thanks!