Hello, Redbook? Send me an interior designer!
The last two months have been challenging for all sectors involved in property, but at RedBook we have seen some unexpected benefits and numerous efficiencies in new approaches and technologies we have adopted. These will shape the way we help our clients launch their property projects over the coming months and beyond. Most importantly, clients stand to gain from the streamlined and online way of working that is emerging. During this period we managed to enable a new client to source and appoint the most suitable interior design firm for their project and get the project fully underway. What is unprecedented is that we have not yet met the client face-to-face, nor has our client met the interior designers—or the other candidates we introduced.
Below, step-by-step, are the adaptations and technologies that have worked for us:
The First Meeting
We have always held our first meeting with new clients in person, unless they live abroad. Had you asked me two months ago if face-to-face meetings are important, I would have said they are essential. Eyeball-to-eyeball meetings, getting a sense of personal chemistry in physical meetings, and a tour of the property led by the client: these were taken for granted. However, over the past few months we have had to hold those initial meetings as video calls on Zoom instead. Zoom will forever be known as the antidote to COVID-19 social-distancing, professional and social, but for our purposes and for our client base, it has suited us down to the ground.
‘It is the informal repartee that you miss when you are on a video call,’ one new client explained. ‘Because you can’t talk over each other in the same way as at a face-to-face meeting, and you can’t decipher facial expressions on a small screen.’ So do clients get less of a sense of us, and we of them, as a result?
Quite the reverse: there is a small unexpected benefit in the shift to video calls. While we have been unable to enjoy the same conversational to-and-fro with clients in that first meeting as we would normally, we have been able to enjoy many more subsequent meetings with them thanks to the ease of video connection.
As a result we find we have generated a greater depth of engagement with new clients, and done so much more quickly, than would be possible if we had travelled to every meeting. We think this promises to improve the quality of our service, and the benefits clients derive. Less is more, it turns out.
New clients of ours in the north of England presented us with a challenge: we could ‘meet’ them easily enough for the first time on a video call but, if we could not travel north, how could we look around their house and get the feel for the spaces in their home and its character that we need in order to advise them accurately on the ideal interior designers and architects for their project?
The answer was obvious and unexpectedly effective. They FaceTimed us on their phone from their home and, with their permission, we recorded the tour they gave of each room. The result was in fact very little different from a physical tour, but now we can revisit it and with their permission share the recording with our shortlist of designers.
Again, an unforeseen benefit is that we were able to capture more of their comments about the details of their home that they liked or wanted to change—richer information, in other words—than we would have if we had been walking around beside them and taking written notes. We expect this way of working to become common.
Relax, darling, I have chosen all the new curtains. I told them just to copy this old dress I am wearing.
Understanding clients’ taste
One of the most important aspects of getting to know our clients, and essential when we are aligning them with the optimal architects or designers, is for us to understand their taste fully.
Some clients have Pinterest pages showing images of new houses or decorated rooms they admire. Others keep cuttings from interiors magazines. But many of our clients have neither, so to explore these clients’ taste we show them dozens of carefully selected photographs and invite them to comment off-the-cuff on what they are drawn to, or, equally loathe about a particular design.
Usually we do this face-to-face, but again we have had to rely on video calls recently, having sent them our image portfolio in advance of the call. Unexpected benefits?
First, they have been able to include family members and partners in far-flung parts of the world in this virtual ‘taste-exploration’ exercise. Secondly, we have again been able to note their comments and asides more comprehensively than usual. And by noting all the nuances of their visual responses, we are able to calibrate our analysis of the most promising candidates for their project team even more precisely. This will become the new normal.
Meetings with designers and architects
Once we have made our recommendations to clients of the ideal candidates for their project team, how can the clients gain a strong enough sense of an interior designer’s, architect’s or project manager’s personality to enable them to choose just one practice from the two or three we typically introduce after carefully analysing the best ‘matches’? Judging personal chemistry is absolutely critical if clients are going to enjoy a project that may last a year or two and get the best results.
We have found in the past two months that a single Zoom call is no substitute for a meeting at the designer’s studio or at the client’s home.
So we have followed that first Zoom call by arranging a second and then an additional one-to-one phone call—even more intimate than a video call, strange as that seems—if the client still felt they did not have a completely rounded feel for the potential personal chemistry.
Just as important, clients often think of questions after a first meeting they wish they had asked. Now that video calls have become so acceptable, we will be facilitating and encouraging follow-up ‘meetings’ in a way that convention previously prevented.
Starting the project
What happens when it comes to a designer or architect starting work on a project while travel or personal-distancing restrictions are in place?
Now this may make your eyebrows twitch. ‘We only need to see the property once or twice at most during a project,’ says one veteran interior designer. All the other designers and architects we have been working with during lockdown—on a range of projects from new-build houses in the country to refurbishments of period houses in town and country—agree strongly.
But what architects and designers do need without exception to start detailed work on a project is accurate measurements of elevations, ceilings, window heights and other key dimensions of a property.
All these can be obtained easily, without the client or designer going near the property, by engaging a surveyor equipped with specialist laser equipment to record the myriad micro-measurements that designers then use to create 3D models and construction drawings on their computers.
The right surveyors will, if asked, also add video recordings and photos of key items such as ornate plasterwork on ceilings, giving architects and designers a comprehensive understanding of a home.
So we have arranged this type of survey for clients during lockdown–in empty properties and in line with Government recommendations. So their projects have been launched without delay. In future, we expect essential measured surveys to be commissioned more often at the very outset of projects, streamlining project launches and potentially cutting weeks or more off project timelines.
Doesn’t a client need to meet a designer or architect face-to-face in order to refine designs and give feedback?
‘We can do almost everything without ever meeting the client. In fact, we have completed a number of projects where we have never met the client because they remained abroad. All the fabric samples went to and from the client via courier or in the post,’ says an interior designer who has been working flat out and on schedule during lockdown to complete the design and purchasing for a large refurbishment project in central London.
And during a Zoom call we shared with one of our clients and an architect, who is working on the client’s new build traditional house in the South, we saw how easy it is for an architect to demonstrate design changes and to explore ideas using ‘screen share’ while drawing with an e-pencil.
An incidental by-product of a move towards video meetings will be that costs for some projects decrease by a small yet significant margin: many professionals charge for travel time to meetings at hourly rates, and these add up over the course of a long project in a distant corner of the country.
And a few more things
‘We have found clients are much less distracted than normal. They are making swift decisions because, if they are a couple, they have time together to discuss choices. One of the worst causes of delay in any project is not the builders being slow but clients holding up progress by failing to respond to our questions quickly,’ explains an architect who is about to embark on another of our client’s projects, a penthouse in central London. So until daily life returns fully to normal, clients may find that at least one obstacle to project progress is no longer such a problem.
Video calls in themselves are proving an accelerant, too, for projects. We at RedBook are far from alone in noting that meetings on video tend to be more focused than face-to-face meetings, provided there is an agenda. ‘From now on, I am going to be having as many site meetings as possible on video because they have turned out to be far more efficient,’ a project manager reports.
A final product of lockdown, which will be to the advantage of clients for some months to come, is that the capacity of even the best and most in-demand architects and interior designers is likely to be slightly greater than usual, simply because a proportion of their projects have been delayed. For a short time, we expect something of a buyer’s market.
RedBook is a specialist consultancy that helps clients and their advisers select the perfect creative and technical team for significant property projects.
For further information, please contact us on 0207 060 6222. Or email: firstname.lastname@example.org