In today’s erratic economy, landing an interior design project often is a matter of timing — and available money, of course — especially for sole practitioners and smaller firms. Effective marketing can help increase one’s chances of finding, or being found by, the right client at the right time. But, according to surveys, most single-person and small firms invest little time and money in commercial forms of marketing, preferring to rely on networking, referrals and the occasional showhouse to acquire new clients.
Another common strategy is to cast a wide net by offering a broad range of interior design services across a spectrum of interior environments, including residential, office, hospitality and medical. During and in the aftermath of the Great Recession, when demand for residential and hospitality design services steeply declined, some designers began to look toward more specialized areas, such as healthcare, education and government, where the grass appeared to be greener, only to encounter a considerable learning curve, fierce competition and a scarcity of budgets for new projects. Most, however, kept themselves afloat by taking on smaller, less lucrative projects from a broader customer base and providing consulting and/or shopping services to their now-thrifty clients — thus continuing to market themselves as all things to all clients.
Now that the housing and commercial markets appear to be rebounding, designers will once again need to grapple with one of the perennial choices facing not only interior designers but those providing professional services of all stripes. To specialize or not to specialize, that is the question. From a sheer volume standpoint, the odds would seem to favor the generalist (i.e., cast a wide net) approach. Why limit oneself to serving just one type of client when there is potential to serve many? But in practice, do generalists actually do better than specialists — that is to say, do they attract more business and earn higher profits? Each designer and design firm is different, of course, but on the whole, it seems not.
A few years ago, at the depth of the post-recession trough, the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) brought together a group of its most illustrious and successful practitioners, some of whom were themselves generalists at one time or another, to gather their thoughts on how designers could best survive in the so-called “new economy.” Among their top tips for designers was to specialize: “Don’t try to be all things to all clients. Determine what you are good at, select a niche and become the best at it.”
There is a corollary to this axiom: “Focus on an area that demands technical or regulatory expertise” — that is, an area where there is likely to be ongoing demand and fewer competitors. Their reasoning? Over time, specialists evolve into experts, and as an expert you are likely to be in higher demand, garner higher fees and gain greater exposure to potential clients or contacts who will refer you to clients. As an expert you also have other income-earning possibilities, such as publishing, speaking at conferences, consulting and teaching.
Career specialists give similar advice to young professionals, and some research demonstrates the power of specialization. A study published in 2003 by a team of researchers at MIT’s Sloan School of Management found that, as a group, the Hollywood actors who allowed themselves to be typecast (i.e., specialized in a particular type of character) had overall higher career earnings than actors who sought a variety of roles.
The study concludes that the same dynamic operates in the business world, too, where headhunters and human resource specialists tend to “typecast” candidates for particular roles within an organization. Applicants may boast about their breadth of experience, but the recruiter is looking for the “right fit.” Clients, too, want the right fit. A designer may proudly display a portfolio of projects from a range of environments, but most clients want to know one thing: Does the designer have the skills and expertise to successfully accomplish their project?
That all sounds good, but do the numbers add up? Analysis of the firms participating in ASID’s Interior Design Business Performance Panel for the years 2011 and 2012 shows that, as a group, firms that specialized, whether in residential or commercial types of projects, performed slightly better than those that generalized. More than half the firms identified as “top performers” for the year had specialized practices, whereas only 38 percent of “top performers” were firms that diversified.
Of course, many other factors influence a firm’s business performance, but it stands to reason that in tight markets projects will more often go to “the best” designers, and because they can focus their energies and their learning, specialists are more likely to earn a reputation as the best.
Michael J. Berens is a freelance researcher and writer with more than 30 years of experience in association communication and management.
This article was provide by Multibriefs.