Marketing to Professional Designers

Can a furnituremaker succeed by selling primarily (or even only) through professional designers and architects? The question sparks a thoughtful discussion in Woodweb's Business Forum. July 2, 2005

I'm aspiring to start a small (1-2 man) custom furniture business in the Northeast. My marketing plan consists of getting in contact with interior designers and architects, and offering to perform design and woodworking services for pieces that might fit into their overall designs.

I'm curious about what experiences anyone might have had working with professionals in the design field or going down this road. Is it a good source of work? How does the division of labor usually work - i.e. how much actual design gets sent your way vs. just implementing a fully formed design?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor T:
I have worked with a lot of both, and the best advice that I can give is to work to the trade only, meaning, that you only work with registered designers. If both groups know that you are selling to the public, they will avoid you in fear that you will take their designs and sell them to the public.

If you get in good with this group, you will get significant and very large orders, and if you meet their expectations with good prices and on time deliveries, then you will receive a lot of work. It will be enough to make your to the trade only policy worth you while to not sell to the public, and you will assume a reputation of being high end.

From contributor J:
One thing to keep in mind when dealing with decorators (some architects also) is that they do the design of the job and charge a hefty fee for it. You do the engineering. I made the mistake of submitting an invoice for design, fabrication, finishing, delivery, and installation and the decorator's client wanted to know why she was being billed twice for the design.

From contributor E:

On the surface, the idea of having someone bring customers to you sounds great, but you not only take a hit in the profit margin, you’re also relying on the actions of others to bring money into your business. I stopped working with designers and decorators for that very reason. Do yourself a great favor and learn to market your products to the end user yourself (that way you get to keep all the money).

You must plan for success and plan to have a profitable business before you do anything else. No plan = no Success, or in the case of your custom furniture business - no money. If you take the time upfront to acquire the marketing skills you need, then you can write your own ticket and be proactive about bringing prospective customers to your business.

From contributor A:
We market ourselves to everyone. The needs of architects and designers are really no different than the needs of the individual clients. Each is looking for a solution for a given space. If we are working with a designer, we make sure that we determine up front if they want us working through them only, them and the client, or simply the client. Either way, we give let them know we have a standard 10% that we give to the trade if they bring us the work.

We have several clients who have gone on to give us additional commissions long after their relationship with a given designer has ended. We simply present ourselves to architects and designers as a solution for unique designs that they might want to accomplish. Often, when we see a particular design, we recommend that they can probably find a solution in ready made. It's not uncommon to be supplied with a picture of a piece that they want made. This may come from the fact that they simply can't find one like that, or, more often they want one similar but 2" shorter with a different leg, different wood, longer, etc. While we don't get a great deal from architects in the way of furniture (more in the way of custom built-ins), we do get more from designers.

From contributor M:
To Contributor T: What exactly do you mean by registered? I have done some research on my own, but there are so many organizations that it is tough to nail down the exact search parameters. I have a friend at a large marketing firm putting together direct marketing lists for us, and I just need to get her a narrowed list of factors for designers. I already have my list of specific architects. Are there any particular organizations that good designers belong to, or what other search parameters you would recommend?

From contributor T:
To Contributor M: We all know that architects engineers are all registered with their respective organizations, and this is reflected by the registration number on their business cards and correspondence. It is the same for interior decorators. When I meet them for the first time, the first thing that I do is ask for a business card which by state law (FL), they must have their registration number on their card.

Their top interior design organizations are ASID (American Society Of Interior Designers) and IDG (Interior Designers Guild). There are also others. Mostly the registration number verifies that they are registered in the state to practice interior design, and that they have passed the NCIDQ test, which is the national interior design competency test and that they are covered with at least $300,000 in liability insurance.

By having them register with you when you first meet them, it gives you proof that you are working with a professional and not somebody's cousin. It was a much more professional time which has gone by. In FL, you must have a registration number in order to call yourself an interior designer, and not seeing that number on their business card is a tip off right away (at least for me).