"People are smart shoppers, and so designers tend to focus on price. But most customers' decisions are not price oriented, they are value oriented," Michele adds. "Moving forward that will become even more important. People know there's a big world out there and there's a lot of choice, and if you can't bring it to them, they will look elsewhere.
"Going into the next 10 years, and perhaps beyond that, our world will be expanding. People no longer are satisfied with what's just around the corner," Michele continues. "That's where tools like the Internet will be important to designers. It will give them a more global approach to design. You need to be able to communicate outside your general circle of friends, whether it's with your trade group or with the people that you network with. People expect more from their designers, and we as a design industry need to get better at that."
Although DOTI now has high-end design studios established in four states, Michele says customers everywhere tend to have the same desires: "In today's market, they're really looking for more service, more value, and the ability of having a wide selection of merchandise. They really want somebody to help them with whatever project they have, big or small. They all take pride in their homes and the way they feel about their homes. That's the underlying message all of our customers send back to us. We can meet those needs wherever we are."
Michele and Jim Evanger have identified three personality types common to most interior design customers. They are: analytical, expressive and amiable. By quickly identifying a customer's general personality type, designers, decorators and salespeople can better prepare their approaches. "For example," Jim says, "if a client is identified as analytical, the approach should be reserved, but decisive; detailed and well organized; and should allow ample time for processing new ideas."
"Expressive personalities," Michele says, "want to hear informal and fun presentations with big-picture concepts including personal observations, supporting stories and testimonials, and presentations that allow for their input."
Jim advises, "Avoid pressuring amiable clients and give them time to consult with friends, explain their needs and reveal what may be hidden agendas. Dialog with amiable clients should be low key and informal and establish a trusting relationship."
Among the most notable interior design trends the Evangers see is the increasing inclusion of home offices in residential interiors and the growing importance of color. "Color is really important because of all the time people spend in their homes," Michele says. Because in the recent past most interior color schemes have been so neutral, more customers now are looking to add some excitement to their environments, she adds.
Under the Evangers' leadership, Designs Of The Interior has evolved into a network of high-end residential design studios from what once was a single, sole proprietorship in Barrington, IL, one of Chicago's higher-income northwest suburbs.
Michele Evanger first became involved with the company as a designer just starting out. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in interior design from the University of Wisconsin 11 years ago and, after a starting job at a design firm she later decided "was not for me," joined DOTI under its original owner. From there she learned the entire business and grew to love her work. When the owner decided to sell the company, Evanger saw a chance to own her own business. A business plan was put together and a loan secured. Today, she runs the three company-owned design studios, all in Chicago's North Shore and northwestern suburban locations.
Jim Evanger's involvement in DOTI began as an investor. Outside DOTI, he held a full-time cooperate position with marketing, sales management and global business development responsibilities. He became more involved as Michele's business grew, and when DOTI became licensed in Illinois to offer independent studio ownership in 1998, he joined in full-time. He now runs DOTI's franchising arm.
Today, DOTI design studios can be found in Barrington, Lake Bluff and Kenilworth, IL; Denver, CO; Austin, TX; and Milwaukee, WI. But throughout this growth period DOTI has remained essentially the same—offering full-service interior design including everything from furnishings to window treatments, from wall coverings to accessories.
Individual DOTI locations range from 1,200 to 2,000 square feet and are set up as ideal workspaces for designers. The studios are full of samples from DOTI's long list of vendors. "More than anyone should ever need," Michele admits. "We've worked hard to establish contacts with national vendors," she says.
"It's a workroom, really, for designers to come in and work on their projects," Michele says. "All of our work with customers is done in their homes. Because we're full service, we really believe we need to go to them."
Michele explains that once a DOTI designer can meet face-to-face with a client, that's when he or she can begin to establish the value of service. "Value can be a relative term. That's why, at the very beginning of the process, we work very hard to understand what the customers' needs are, what is it they actually are looking for and what their budgets are so we understand all the items that come into play when they are trying to buy a window treatment, for example," she says.
"It becomes being not about the price of that shade, but about the whole project, the whole window put together," she says. "Most of our customers, when it comes right down to it, don't want just a shade. They probably want a shade and something soft over it. It's about the whole process: doing drawings, putting it on the computer, making sure it's going to look like they want it to look, showing them what it's going to look like if it's purple and if it's red. All those things they can't do on their own, we do for them."
The Evangers combine their talents and experience to market DOTI in creative and effective ways. For starters, they urge all their designers to belong to different lead generating groups. "Our designers are members of and active in all the Chambers of Commerce where our studios are," Jim says. "We do a lot of direct mailing to our customer base, and we belong to a lot of different local organizations in order to get out there and meet people face-to-face."
"That's how people decide to use a designer," Michele says. "They get to know you, they trust you, they're comfortable with you. It's not so much about the money. It's about the company and the people they are dealing with."
The Evangers also work to create alliances between DOTI and other businesses. The Barrington, IL, studio has an alliance with a high-end kitchen and bath showroom. DOTI did all of the decorating in the showroom's newest display, which includes a sign identifying DOTI as the designer. "We know that their customers and our customers are really the same people. When people redo a kitchen, a lot of times they need interior design," Michele says.
DOTI also has an alliance with a real estate firm that provides a concierge service. The real estate company teams with three different businesses in each of several home improvement categories. When a customer needs any type of service, they can call the real estate firm's 800 number and get a pre-qualified referral.
And, of course, DOTI makes good use of the Internet. "In the most basic sense, the first thing our Web site does for us is communicate what we're trying to achieve with our customers so when a potential customer is looking to hire a designer they can go to the Web site and see the breadth of products, services, programs and affiliations DOTI has," Jim says. "It gives the customer a level of comfort and assurance that they are getting involved in a company that isn't going away tomorrow, that isn't a one-person show," he adds.
The idea of franchising DOTI design studio ownership grew out of the Evangers' success with their first three company-owned locations. They wanted to grow their company and believed in their system of doing things.
It began when DOTI opened its first out-of-state studio in Denver, CO. "That was difficult to manage from Chicago," Jim says. "We decided to let people have an ownership stake in the business. It took another year and help working with consultants and lawyers to get the program going. We figured we could help designers elsewhere," he says.
"It's a vendor-driven industry and very hard for independent designers to make it and remain independent," Michele says. "We can offer people the opportunity of growing into a management position in DOTI or to grow into their own businesses without having to do it on their own."
To help an independent designer establish a DOTI studio, the Evangers begin by first providing 70 hours of training that covers customer service, design and running a business. "That's a long time. They write a business plan, they learn about our marketing strategies, they learn about how to deal with customers. We can focus in on where they are lacking," Michele says.
DOTI designers also have the Evanger's continuing support as well as that of other designers. The company's various studios are linked via Internet and a password-protected intranet site. There they can post questions in a bulletin board format or e-mail each other with questions, help and advice. "What a great business tool that is," Jim explains. "When one of our vendors has a new line coming out. The intranet is a great way to broadcast that news to all DOTI designers and tell them to look for and ask for the new line," Michele adds.
"As we evolve, we envision our Web site, and some of the programs we are putting together, as really helping not only DOTI designers but also some independent designers who may not have the expertise or the money to create their own Web sites and maybe help them in their businesses, too," Jim says.
Similarly, DOTI as a company will continue evolving and trying new programs. "We're a rapidly growing organization attracting all kinds of designers who have different dreams for their businesses," Michele says. "Some of the people we're talking to right now have an interest in having, perhaps, a small showroom space or small boutique in conjunction with a design studio. That's definitely an opportunity in the future."
D&WC: What do clients consider first when choosing interior furnishings: price, function or aesthetics?
Catlin: Function, blended with aesthetics. Price matters only if it isn't going to make sense. If they think a shutter is more expensive, but in the end the shutter is going to be there for 50 years, they will understand the expense and understand it has value. As long as price has value, that in the end it is going to add to their lives and to the value of their homes, we haven't seen a lot of sticker shock.
But function is first. If something is just beautiful, but does not work they don't want it at all. Usually you can tell when they've been that route. You can tell some of their frustrations. You have to find the marriage of the two best ways to accomplish something.
D&WC: Are clients more or less knowledgeable about interior design than in the past?
Catlin: They definitely are more knowledgeable about interior design. I think there has been a shift in the last three to five years. We're getting called first probably on 75 percent of our jobs-we're called before the architect, before the contractor, before anyone and we're asked to help put the team together. That's a huge change. Many times now we're considered by clients as the ones who will really worry about their problems, worry about the details and bring that human touch that designers can provide. They say, "Now help us find the contractor, the architect and the rest of the team that will have the same philosophy that you do, which is our comfort and overall design."
Clients are comfortable at this point with investing in their interior design. They seem very knowledgeable about what things costs. There seems to be a need for things to last and work so let's do it right. I would rather them not do anything for a year, than to do something poorly, but clients seem to feel that way also. They would rather schedule a project to complete slowly but in the right quality than to do something quickly and then regret their decisions.
D&WC: What advice would you give to today's design students as they prepare to enter the field?
Catlin: They will need to have a good handle on technology. Now it's normal to have your architectural firm say, "Let me e-mail you the drawings." We used to have couriers take the drawings. Those days are over. Firms have to adjust their technology. At ASID we are working very hard at offering and helping designers get help with their technology issues.
I would prefer to hire someone with a broad-based education, then let them get a feel for the different specialties available. Each specialty has so much information a practitioner would have to know that I can't see how a design school could teach all of the specialties.
If I had to give advice to a design student, I would tell him to take business classes. Excellent designers go out of business every year because they are not good at the business skills that it takes. It is a business, and it is a business that requires servicing your clients and understanding the finances of your business and the myriad issues that face us. I think design students should take some business law classes, some basic accounting classes and anything that helps them understand marketing themselves and going into the business of design. Talent is only half of the story.
At ASID we have been offering a business skills series of seminars for interior designers, but we're further developing it so they get a full understanding of the practice of interior design. We tell them, "Your clients want work done with all of the aspects from the professional side of design that you bring to the project, but if you're not able to manage the project properly you've failed them in a whole other way." There's much more frustration at the end of a project than there is at the idea stage. Everybody can sit down and have great ideas, but it's the getting it there-the completion and follow through-that some designers find a challenge.