After 30 years in the design industry, business coach Melissa Galt is fluent in the language of wealthy clients. In conversation with designer Kīyonda Powell, the two discuss Galt’s book on the topic of finding and connecting with members of the upper echelon.
For the first five years of her career as an interior designer, Melissa Galt kept her head down and focused solely on her clients and projects. When she eventually emerged and began circulating with other designers, she was surprised to find that she’d been outperforming her contemporaries— and she knew exactly why. “When we started to compare numbers, my results were five times the average, and it wasn’t my talent,” says Galt. “It was my systems, marketing and how I ran my business.”
Galt began sharing her tactics with fellow designers as a friendly gesture before deciding to make her expertise a central tenet of her business. She soon launched her career as a business coach (today she conducts 95 percent of her business in coaching, 5 percent in design) and centered her practice on one of the most frequently asked questions from her fellow designers: How do you secure affluent clients?
The answer has a lot to do with designers indulging in personal lifestyle choices they genuinely enjoy, and taking that involvement a step further where those activities intersect with affluent groups. She offers one example of a coaching client who’d given up her horseback riding hobby when her design business became too busy. Galt pointed out that many of the designer’s favorite clients originated as fellow riders, and within two weeks of that conversation, the designer leased a horse named Ernie. A year later, her business was so successful that she was able to buy the horse. “She was not only infinitely happier riding Ernie two to three days a week but it generated that steady flow of ideal clients [while] doing something that she loved,” says Galt. This and other case studies from Galt’s 30 years of industry experience help demystify the act of connecting with affluent clients—a process documented in her 2020 book Marketing Luxury Design: Attracting Affluent Clients, which also identifies nine archetypes of wealthy clients and explains how they think, how they want to work and how they measure value.
For Washington, D.C.–based designer Kīyonda Powell, the book came along at an opportune time. After a successful run in hospitality design, Powell started her own firm nearly four years ago and decided to focus on residential work. She started working with Galt nearly two years ago—part of a small-group cohort of designers looking to fine-tune their business practices. “The design itself has never been a problem; for me, it’s about making sure that I’m going above and beyond to give clients an exceptional experience, but not burning myself out in the process,” says Powell. “Overall, it has required a mindset shift in how I think about luxury and affluence, and how I communicate with the client to build that experience.”
Kīyonda Powell and Marketing Luxury Design: Attracting Affluent Clients author Melissa Galt discuss defining your ideal client, adopting the right language, and how to network effectively without inviting burnout.
Kīyonda Powell: This book was just what I needed—especially as I’m going through a process of trying to revamp my marketing to attain more affluent clients. One of the things that came to mind [as I was reading] was how intimidating the word “affluent” can be. For me, not coming from that background or traveling in those circles, I never considered that there would be levels to affluence, but the categories and personas you describe helped me see it differently and made it less intimidating. It also brought to mind how much I struggle with understanding and identifying my ideal client in some of our coaching sessions. How do you help designers commit to their ideal client, and how often do you see that profile changing over time?
Melissa Galt: I think it’s somewhat fluid. There is a space where you want to get clearer on identifying one to three [profiles of your ideal client]. I think many designers tend to start from a place of trying to serve everyone, and that’s a fast path to burnout. Also, knowing clearly who your ideal client is enables you to speak directly to them in your marketing, website and social media. All of that is incredibly powerful and tends to keep ill-fits out of your business.
Powell: I had redone my website during the COVID lockdown in 2020, but I wasn’t necessarily thinking about who I was speaking to. It was more about what made me feel comfortable and seemed to fit with me right now. Changing my approach was powerful. It meant getting more specific with, “Hey I’m talking to you, you’re my person,” versus something more organic and happenstance.
Galt: Organic is great, but the challenge becomes that we are bombarded by so many tens of thousands of messages a day that we only pay attention to the ones that grab us, speak to us and say, “Hey, I’m for you”—where we feel that instinctive connection. That’s what you want to create in your website and social media channels, rather than speaking to the world. Speak to your ideal clients, and they can hear you, because they’re listening. Among the din and the noise, they’re like, “Who’s here for me?” They want to be able to have that Red Sea part and glorious moment of, “There she is!”
Powell: I want it to happen just like that, by the way.
Galt: And it can!
Powell: You mentioned that the process of identifying your perfect client is kind of fluid. If you’re getting another less-than-ideal type of client, do you abandon ship with those people, or do you attempt a rebrand or change direction, or stay the course?
Galt: You want to follow what makes you feel good in your business, and a lot of this comes down to honing the client profile so that it’s nice and tight, and you really understand the interior of their lives—their motivations, priorities, life stage and interests. Clients are rich in their personalities and lifestyle, and they’ve got all these layers to them. The more you drill down, the more you can find. You can look at a whole section of affluence, say, “I like this segment over here,” and pick the ones that you want to work with. If more of a certain variety are showing up and you enjoy them, go with it. That’s a positive sign. If you’re not loving them, you should go, “Wait a minute, why are they attracted to me? What’s the signal I’m sending out?”
The other thing is, you’ve got to align personality traits because every now and then you’re going to hit a rogue. A coaching client of mine is about to throw the baby out with the bathwater on her [affluent target demographic] because she had one really phenomenal male entrepreneurial client, and she’d only worked with him on his commercial side. But when she did his home, his wife got in the mix and was incredibly difficult to work with. The client was like, “Melissa, I don’t ever want to work with these people again.” I was like, “Hold on, you weren’t able to meet or vet the wife in advance, she’s not the one you like—he is. Don’t throw the whole category out because you got one bad apple.”
Powell: Designers and decorators are increasingly using the term “affordable luxury” to reach more potential clients. Does this marketing strategy apply to those designing for the masses?
Galt: The term affordable luxury is almost an oxymoron because if it’s luxury, it should be unaffordable to most people. And affordable is a slippery term, because what’s affordable to one person is unaffordable to somebody else. I try to steer clear of words like “affordable,” “cost,” “expensive” and “cheap” because they require a great deal of context. There are people for whom having a pen and paper and a glass of water is a luxury. Identifying your ideal clients is necessary at every level of design. The other piece that’s really critical here is establishing either a minimum client project investment or a minimum design fee, below which you will not take on the project. Because otherwise you get swayed emotionally by the needs of the client, as opposed to their ability to step forward and invest appropriately in your expertise, experience, education, talent and all of those pieces.
Powell: You just hit a nerve—I’ve been there, and it’s not fun. It feels like you’re giving away everything because you’re so invested in making them happy and comfortable, and you look up and it’s like, Man, did I just work for free?
Galt: It’s a slippery slope. It can be difficult to remember that this is a business; you’re not a nonprofit, and you need to keep a level of profitability in all projects. That’s why affluence is important.
Powell: Throughout the book you discuss the mindset shift that needs to happen to dig into the strategies of the luxury experience, and understanding that the overall experience plays a major role in this process. I always [used to] associate luxury with the finer things in life—the emphasis being on things—so thinking about the experience was an important new insight for me.
Galt: One of the greatest luxuries is time, and being able to use your time as you see fit—focusing your attention where you want to, and having time untethered and undistracted by technology. One of the things that we as designers do is deliver more time to our clients by taking design off their plate. That’s a huge luxury, and when we deliver it as part of a journey, they get to experience the craftsmanship and creativity of design along that path. It takes it to a whole new level. If you’re going to have a custom sofa made, that could mean getting a video of the craftsman making the piece for your client and then putting a little nameplate for your client on the sofa itself, much like they do for the Aston Martin, the Bond car. That’s that extra level of, “Wow, this is not only mine, but I saw the journey of making the sofa, and now I can tell you all about it.”
Powell: Let’s jump to talking about your advice on networking. You mention placing yourself in a new networking opportunity each week, and I got kind of exhausted at the thought—especially after having a baby [about a year ago]. As a relatively new business owner, how do we make sure we can maximize our time and not burn out?
Galt: I would recommend that you choose one or two [networking] activities [that speak to you], and drill down and focus on those. If it’s once a month, make it worthwhile—instead of just going and networking, go and move three people into a next-steps conversation. That’s the goal. It’s not just going and glad-handing, showing up and having face time—it’s going and saying, “I want to make enough of a difference that they’re interested in having another conversation.” So you maximize the value in any given event, and if you drill down into two particular types of events, you’re going to start seeing the same people over and over again, and that will create a comfort level for them, saying, “We can look forward to seeing Kīyonda here again. What does she do? Oh, she’s a designer. My sister is looking for a designer, I’ll have to connect the two of them.” There’s real value to that, and finding the [activities and people] that resonate with you—don’t do anything that feels like chewing foil. If you were just starting out and wanted to leap in, and didn’t have family, I would say I want you out at an event every week, but that’s a rare set of circumstances—you need your business to serve and support your life. I don’t want you sacrificing your life to your business.
Powell: It’s been a struggle for me, on a personal level, trying to figure out how to juggle my 14-month-old and those time commitments while getting better in business and marketing.
Galt: On one level, you created your bundle of joy to put balance into your life. I know it feels like you lost balance, but you had less balance before, so I think he’s the best thing that ever could have happened to you. And the clients that don’t understand that are not your fit. What’s going to be interesting is, I guarantee that he’s going to be an asset in your business, which seems impossible right now, but you’re going to have clients who have young kids, and you’re going to relate on a whole other level now. And it’s going to shift how you design also. Your ability to design has never been in question, but this adds a layer of, “Now I understand firsthand what it’s like to design with children in mind, and still have it be bold and edgy and sophisticated and worthy of entertaining your friends, and still kid-friendly.” That’s kind of huge.
Powell: When it comes to social media, we were on Facebook, then Instagram, and now there’s this whole TikTok phenomenon—I don’t want to go down that rabbit hole, but I’m hearing that maybe it is a rabbit hole worth going down. What are your thoughts on jumping on the bandwagon every time there’s a new platform to explore? Or do we stay on Facebook and Instagram if that’s where we know our ideal clients are already?
Galt: I think you have to survey your clients on that. And survey the clients who you want to have—put the question out and see who responds—but I would be very hesitant to jump on a new platform. I think video is incredibly powerful and TikTok is a video tool—but do you need to do video on TikTok? Not necessarily. If you’re going to go down the video path, your business frankly would be better served by building a YouTube channel—that’s going to have a lot more longevity than TikTok. Ask your clients what they want. One of the most powerful things you can do is, among your ideal clients, create an unofficial board of directors, and an odd number of them—a minimum of three, preferably five or seven—and anytime you want to pursue a new initiative, particularly around marketing, hand it to them first and say, “I would really value your insights and feedback on this. It’ll just take 10 minutes.” Because they’re who you want to serve, so you want to know, would this attract them? And if they go, “Oh, yeah, we all love TikTok,” well, then, you might want to explore it. I’m going to be very surprised if you get that feedback.
Powell: It’s also a time thing. The energy and preparation and work that goes into social media is immense. That’s why I’ve been a little silent on mine lately—it just seems like it’s so much more to give on top of everything else.
Galt: That’s the key—ask your clients where they hang out online. Not just where they have a profile, because lots of us have profiles on platforms even though we’re not active, but where do they want to see you? Is it on Instagram posts or just stories? From personal experience, I post far less often now than I was before, and I do stories with rare exception every day. That keeps me top of the feed and keeps people following me on a routine basis. I think it’s going to take less time if you just do it organically because you’ve got moments all day long that are picture-worthy. Remember, nobody’s looking for perfect. Perfect is intimidating.
Your business has to work for you. What I’ve outlined in the book and the strategies I’ve shared are meant to be bite-size, simple to implement—I don’t want to use the word “easy,” because that’s a misnomer, but certainly simple to implement— and they will have a profound, powerful, positive impact on your [work-life] balance and bottom line when you’re consistent and persistent enough. But always run what you’re doing past your unofficial board of directors— your ideal clients—because you’re doing this for them. Why not get what they want straight from them?
Homepage image: Powell designed the offices of the Oakland, California–based nonprofit Black Girls Code. | Sen Creative