Hug Your Clients Well

from Trade Secrets in New England Home Mar/April 2014 by Louis Postel

Steve Nobel at The Boston Design Center
Steve Nobel at The Boston Design Center

How do you market to the affluent? In the old days, according to residential marketing maven Steve Nobel, people hired designers and architects to achieve a certain look. No longer. Today, it is all about listening to the client — “really getting inside their heads and hearts.”

Come on, Steve, we say – doesn’t every firm say this very thing? We listen to the client. We listen to our clients. Our clients appreciate the fact that we listen to them in addition to getting inside their heads and hearts. Check any design site and you’ll see what we mean.Steve Nobel

“Today the designers who are winning projects earn their clients’ trust from the very beginning. They respect their time and money — being transparent about the process—what it will take to achieve the results they have agreed upon — and never saying ‘now let’s get started and see how it goes.’ “

Nobel was glad to see designer Sharon McCormick of Durham, Connecticut who had taken one of his “Design Trust” trips to Paris, a week of devoted to making that hub of luxury more accessible and transparent, while improving business at home. “Indeed the streetscapes, dining, fragrances and shopping can be pure inspiration,” says Nobel, “though the underlying theme is helping improve a designers’ business — through discovery, culture and entrepreneurship.”

Donna Terry of Boston Design and Interiors notes a cultural shift world-wide: different kinds of families are forming — more extended and less nuclear — a shift which calls for far more adaptive spaces. And as a former set designer, Terry is no stranger to changing a scene. “Kids are returning home after college, she says. “They can’t afford to rent a nice apartment, much less buy one. Meanwhile, elderly parents are moving in. One couple I work with is looking at upsizing rather than down. Right now we’re remodeling a powder room we just did into a full bath to accommodate this changed situation. We’re adapting a dining room to double as a study with library shelving and a higher seated sofa. In living rooms we have been adding storage with secretaries – Hickory Chair has a nice one. And we adapted a studio into a bedroom with customized chaises and matching ottomans that can become a giant bed – a new twist on modular.”

Does anyone remember the windows of Cashmeres of Scotland at the Ritz on Arlington Street before it became Chanel back in the 80’s? Kimberly Merritt did the styling.  “Now I live in the woods,” she says from her home in Peterborough, New Hampshire where she teaches and writes about design. And even there among the birches, Merritt hears the same call for multifunctional spaces as Donna Terry hears downtown. “People can and should use their homes in any way they like, as opposed to what’s expected — a chandelier doesn’t have to be in the center of a dining room. That space can double as a home office with the chandelier over some banquettes closer to the wall. Instead of matching chairs, we’ll mix things up with different end chairs, wing chairs and benches, adding a sofa or settee on the opposite side. After all, a dining table is the perfect space for spreading out — just as you would always take the corner booth in a restaurant.” Like at the Ritz.

Lindsay Parnagian
Lindsay Parnagian

After graduating from Parsons, designer Lindsay Parnagian didn’t return home to Manhattan, bucking a trend. Rather, she set up what is now a successful practice in the Northeast Kingdom of Bolton, Vermont. One thing she noticed troubling the heads if not hearts of her clients: the growing number of cords and adapters encircling them like snakes. “There are just so many devices. People need a convenient and centralized area to charge them. We’ve been dedicating a section in the kitchen, a small desk space, a charging station and extra outlets. You can even get plugs today with USB ports already in them.” One such charging station advertised on promises class with grass: Finally, a private place for your mobile devices to rest and refresh. The charging station has faux grass that cleverly disguises pesky cords and cables while also adding a touch of style to your space.

Transparency in working with clients is one thing — sticking to contractor white on every ceiling another. “We’re stenciling on ceilings, silver and gold leafing, and using grass cloth. A beautiful ceiling can transform a room and make it very special,” says Michael Cebula whose design studios are in Newburyport, MA. “One house we just did looks positively ecclesiastical after stenciling between the coffers on the ceiling. We’re also doing a lot of houses with TMS Architects. The rooms look so much taller after we have wrapped the wall color up to the ceiling, or even using not the full color, but just a tint.” No matter how affluent a client is they want to learn how to save money on energy. For that reason there’s a lot of coaching involved around the latest energy saving technologies notes custom home builder Tobin Peacock of Bar Harbor, ME. “They are willing to pay extra for a tight envelope, the details involved over the last few years are like comparing apples to oranges. There’s a surge in innovative products, as well: Nest thermostats, touch faucets, geothermal heating.”

“But here’s the downside to the marvels of innovation – it’s an assumption  people have that answers to every building question are no further away from their smartphones,” says Peacock, “Clients call us Saturday night for an estimate on changing the kitchen layout and get rid of one of the wall ovens and expect an estimate on Sunday morning.” Memo to Steve Nobel: – how do we educate clients that some things just take time? it represents an area where additional coaching could help.

Given that the stock market’s up 30% from last year, the affluent are in a mood to celebrate. It’s understandable then that accessories are glowing inside the head and heart of many a client these days. But what about the risk of too many dust collectors — isn’t clutter the new enemy no. 1? According to designer Meryl Santopietro of Lincoln, RI, “People are having trouble understanding scale when accessorizing. They buy objects are just too small — especially online,” says Santopietro who works with daughters Alessandra (selections and sourcing) and Joy (spreadsheets and finance). “Naturally dust and knickknacks fill up the spaces between all those little pieces. My advice is to ‘buy big’ — just a few large, meaningful pieces to bring life to minimal, toned down spaces: animal prints and crystal, luminous silk velvets, turquoise and other jewel tones, gold and silver. Webster & Co in the BDC is a good resource. We just found a Ron Dier charger plate there. It was finished in gold and looked perfect on a stand on a client’s bedroom armoire.”

In addition to accessories “trim, fringe and contrasting details such as nailheads are becoming popular,” according to Elizabeth Benedict, a designer based in Chestnut Hill, MA. “I use trim to link different patterns and bring in new colors. My favorite vendors for this are Houles, Paris, Samuel & Sons, and Old World Weavers. By using trim from the later, I married fabrics in blue and white from Kravet with a pink, geometric from Schumacher. And it’s the trim that makes the whole scheme make sense. Sometimes a nice trim can also drive the accent colors throughout an entire room.”

“Our clients are focusing on quality, rather than just getting a bunch of stuff,” says designer Cynthia Driscoll whose studio is on Charles Street in Boston. “And frankly everything online is beginning to look the same — boring.” Having listened to her clients Driscoll travels the world in search of quality and uniqueness. “I often fly to Brussels and then head northwest for Bruges and the countryside. Right now Belgium is a fabulous place to shop. It just hasn’t been cleaned out like the rest of Europe. Though in Paris I did find some old balustrades I am having made into lamps. Old accents like these reclaimed architectural pieces add so much character to modern homes. I also have a container of artwork and sculpture on its way from a shopping trip to South Africa. One piece I’m keeping for my own foyer — a Lionel Smit bronze of a native woman — her head alone weighs over four hundred pounds.”

Steve Nobel mentioned three keys to marketing high end residential design: listening to the client and let her understand just how you are going to get into her head and heart, coaching her to make better decisions, and transparency about time and money.  There’s one other — a fourth element of successful luxury marketing — a trade secret we’d like to add, though by virtue of which it no longer qualifies as a trade secret). Call it the positive energy effect. Positive energy attracts positive results. Clarity, creativity, a human connection and sense of fun and adventure, all make for that hug Nobel used to introduce his talk last December.

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