How an interior designer is using tech to overcome today’s challenges
Sydney-based Interior Designer, Fiona Shakespeare, shares how she’s overcome COVID-19 challenges and her tips for developing a brand-new business strategy.
After ten years of working as a corporate psychologist helping companies to restructure, Fiona Shakespeare decided she wanted a change in career, so re-trained as an interior designer.
At around the same time as she had her first child, Shakespeare launched the start-up from her home and slowly it grew into a flourishing, full-service interior design business.
Since then, Shakespeare Design has consistently graced the pages of style magazines around the country.
“I’ve been operating for 16 years now and I mostly love it. I’ve had employees in the past which was great for business growth but I’m now happy with the flexibility and low overheads of working as a sole trader,” she says.
But in the past few months, life as a sole trader has been challenging. Shakespeare Design’s business revenue during the months of March and April 2020 dropped 50 percent from where it was last year.
“Luckily business has started to pick up recently with three new jobs coming in. Hopefully it’s a sign that consumer confidence is beginning to improve. I guess people are less anxious about having people in their homes to discuss design ideas.”
Fiona’s key learnings from the time of coronavirus:
Developing and managing relationships remotely is critical for engaging suppliers and customers in a no-contact environment
Moving elements of the business strategy away from traditional practices to digital ones quickly means less downtime and more sales revenue
Digitisation also means more access to useful data insights to help grow the business faster
Being mindful of mental health and wellbeing improves productivity in the long run
Slow suppliers and no in-home meetings: the key challenges of COVID-19
Shakespeare has faced her fair share of business challenges since COVID-19. Some of her suppliers have had very slow or no freight at all due to lockdown in countries such as New Zealand, the UK and Spain. So, she needed to find alternatives, some of which weren’t as cost-efficient.
"I’ve had to pass these extra costs onto the client or avoid using these suppliers all together if I’ve had a very urgent client deadline.”
Shakespeare explains that open communication is key to dealing with these situations. When she was informed in March that fabric supply from the UK was going to be delayed by up to three months or possibly not arrive at all, she instantly called her client, explained the situation, and gave her the option to either cancel the order and receive a full refund or wait an additional six weeks to see what happens.
‘I think the experience strengthened my relationship with the client and the supplier, as we worked together to solve a difficult problem and tried to protect each other as much as possible,’
Entering people’s homes to discuss renovations and look over swatches and samples has also proven difficult. Generally, Shakespeare would visit a rug or fabric showroom with a client to choose samples, and then together they would review the options back in the client’s home.
“The best way around this has been to work with suppliers to have samples of rugs and fabrics delivered directly to clients’ homes with pre-paid courier bags for them to return them when finished, rather than me bringing them to a meeting”.
Shakespeare has found that this solution has worked best with clients she knows well and whose homes she’s familiar with.
‘Suppliers are normally quite protective of lending out their samples as they don’t always come back. But in this climate, they are more willing to lend them out if it increases their chance of making a sale.’
But Shakespeare has found her main challenge has been maintaining a positive attitude.
“The biggest challenge has been keeping up my spirits and enthusiasm, so clients feel reassured that I’m still open for business and optimistic about the future. That’s infectious and encourages people to be confident about spending money”.
Shakespeare has struggled with whether she should reach out to clients via email and explain how they can work together safely. In the end, she decided to veer away from email, and rather focus on Instagram posts which she found was a more personable and visual way of showcasing her earlier work, as well as her ideas on how to make the home cosier during lockdown.
‘I think Instagram communication with clients has worked well because a lot of clients are talking about changing paint colours or having new cabinetry built to give family members room to store things and places to work, and seeing these ideas visually helps them to imagine what their space could be.’
A new world means a new business strategy
With so many changes occurring in the past few months, Shakespeare knew she had to implement a new business strategy, and fast. Her approach is to be ready to help clients with services that require less contact time in their home by promoting design ideas through her Instagram and Facebook pages.
“I also know that because clients are spending more time at home, they are likely to be thinking of changes they want to make such as creating a new home study, introducing a change of paint colour or having new cabinetry for storage installed. So, I’ve promoted these services in my marketing to help clients make good design decisions”.
Shakespeare has also contacted old clients asking for Google reviews and testimonials to update her website. She explains that she has contacted 9 existing and past clients to let them know that she’s updating her online reviews and website. To make the barrier to entry low, she sent them links to where they could write the review, as well as some information about what they could include in their review. Her clients were very responsive, and these reviews even directly led to a new job with an old client who had been thinking about making some updates to her living room.
‘I tried to make the process as quick and painless for them as possible. I made a point of not saying I was quiet or asking them to keep me in mind for projects because I think we’re all feeling that pressure from businesses we deal with.’
Similarly, Shakespeare has also added temporary shots of current projects on her website before she can get them professionally photographed. She has also spent time learning to use Photoshop to improve her digital presentations and has even reviewed her pricing model by revising the time she spent on jobs and making cuts to the amount of time she spent on admin and paperwork.
‘At a first meeting with a new client I now loosely follow a list of set questions and make notes directly into a table. I type this up quickly when I get back to the office and then use it to send quotes or to calculate fees for my proposal. This saves time re-reading and arranging my notes.’
Shakespeare also adds that she’s even increased her fees during this time, which she says hasn’t stopped her from making new sales.
‘If anything, raising my fees during this time has helped me to focus on where I can add value to a client’s project and to promote my experience and knowledge to clients. I probably didn’t explain this enough to clients in the past.’
Using data to drive smart business decisions
Shakespeare’s secret to success, and her ability to pivot so rapidly, is her access to data.
“I’m using data from MYOB to calculate the percentage of my annual income generated from billing consulting time and seeing the impact that a higher fee rate would have on my bottom line. I use the profit and loss reports and look at income streams and expense streams. I then marry that up with my timesheets, so I know where I spend the most hours.’
She also attests that MYOB helps her to determine which products she should promote on Instagram by helping her to analyse which products yield the best profit margin.
‘I compared this year’s figures to last years to see where there were significant differences and why. I always maintain a very close understanding of where my biggest profits come from, as everything I say to a client effects what they buy from me. For example, items such as floor rugs yield good returns to me and are a single, relatively easy purchase for a client that also creates a lot of wow factor in a room, and a cosier environment for a family living under restrictions”.
Managing your mental health during a pandemic
There’s been a lot of talk about mental health in recent months. Shakespeare has been trying to manage hers by enjoying time with her family and reminding herself that this pandemic won’t last forever.
“The situation is evolving so quickly that improvements in the economy should hopefully come soon. I’ve felt quite emotional and down at times, but I think everyone has”.
Shakespeare has also been reaching out to fellow interior design friends and has found it reassuring to hear that they’re experiencing the same lows and fears for their business.
“We try to encourage each other and predict when the market might start to pick up. It’s also good to be able to share with someone who understands the horrible feeling of having no purpose when I get up in the morning because I don’t have a day of work ahead of me”.
Advice during unprecedented times
Shakespeare says her biggest learning during these strange times has been her realisation that self-worth and purpose is very closely related to your work when you’re a sole trader.
Her biggest piece of advice is to know where to find your drive and to quickly understand what is and isn’t profitable in business.
“Working on my own I have to be very self-motivated and it’s important for me to know how much money I’m making on each job. If any aspect of a job isn’t profitable, I find it kills my motivation and my ability to do my best work. With MYOB I can check which aspects of a project are most profitable and plan how I can use my time accordingly.”
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