Great question!

In the old days, you would have simply asked to speak with a couple of satisfied clients by phone. Today, there are as many ways to communicate as there are clients (well almost!)!!

Of course phone contact still works, but you can also email, FB, Tweet, Google, look for Yelp reviews, check for on line reviews on sites such as Thumbtack & Houzz or ask for recommendations within your own building or neighborhood.

You can also look for Testimonials on your candidate’s web site, however, this is my personal “least favorite.”  I mean what is a designer going to post?  A bad or mediocre review?  A made-up review?  While it may look nice, you’re never really sure…unless you actually speak with the writer…how accurate or recent these postings are.  I also find them a bit too self-congratulatory; but to each their own.

That said, in the designer’s defense, it’s a tricky business getting a former client to be supportive without their wandering off into other territory.  They may love their new space, love working with the designer and love the compliments they get; but it is interesting how they find the ONE thing that went wrong to focus on.  Or, they zero in on what it cost them and how irritating it was to actually have to pay a professional!

It’s also extremely difficult, once you’ve exited a project site, to get back in.  Potential clients who want to see actual work you’ve done are making a reasonable request.  Former clients don’t often recognize that.  They’ve lived through demolition, construction, installation, endless invoices for materials, time and advice and just want you out of their lives so they can enjoy their home.  Letting you back in, even for a go-see when they’re out-of-town may feel, a year or more later, a bit intrusive.

So what is reasonable to ask for?  Well, certainly you can ask to speak with a satisfied client…and you ask to see a space; but if the designer seems hesitant, don’t immediately feel that they’re trying to put you off.  Phone calls and emails must be exchanged, schedules coordinated, pleasantries offered and drop boxes full of more recent pictures of children and pets reviewed.  And still, you may get a gentle rebuff: “sorry we have house guests that week,” or “the housekeeper is in that day” or “the new puppy isn’t used to people yet.”  Certainly these are plausible reasons and you may mesh schedules a week or two later…but sometimes…not.

The designer’s second line of defense is the written recommendation.  Sometimes a client is happy to provide this if it keeps strangers from storming the barricades.  Other times, they’ve written one and posted it to LinkedIn or another site and feel they’ve done their duty.

So what’s a client to do when they only get approval for one in-person (i.e. phone conversation) contact?  Well, you should feel free to ask to speak to vendors that the designer works with, i.e. contractors, suppliers, painters and the like.  After all, you want to know that the designer is a “fair dealer,” that s/he met the vendor’s deadlines for ordering, wasn’t unfairly demanding while fighting for the best for the client, was attentive to the job site and reported issues BEFORE work was completed.  These folks can also tell you how the designer treats their personal staff and if they pay their bills on time.  Good references all!

In short, if offered a variety…or even limited…references, remember BETTER to have two really positive appraisals in any form, rather than four from cornered, harried former clients.

And, failing that, trust your gut!  Does the designer follow-up?  Are they taking care of you during the interview process?  Are they making you feel valued?

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