Stop blaming just the IDs: Here's the less-talked-about side of the renovation industry

PHOTO: Stackedhomes

I last wrote about the inside track on the construction industry in Singapore.

But as I ended off — it takes two hands to clap, and customers also have to take a fair share of the blame for how rotten the industry has become.

Let me share the struggles from the other side of the coin: The much-maligned IDs.

Here goes:

As someone who has worked in the construction industry my entire career, I’ve always wanted to change the way things are being done in Singapore.

I was well aware of the issues that plagued the industry, and in my mind, it was all about trying to multiply the experience for consumers to create a better and more trusted experience.

And so, how do you go about creating a better experience?

In the words of Brian Chesky, the famed CEO of Airbnb, it’s about “designing something that you would literally tell every single person you’ve ever encountered”.

Here’s how he approached it:

How would you go about creating a five-star experience?

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You book an Airbnb, arrive at the doorsteps, and have a pleasant stay.

It’s not going to set the world alight, but you might tell others that you’ve stayed in an Airbnb before and it works.

Now, what about a 6-star experience?

You enter the Airbnb, and on the table would be a welcome gift. In some cases, it’s a bottle of wine, in others, a box of candy.

The fridge has bottled water, the bathroom has toiletries prepared for you.

The entire experience is great, and some might even say, better than a hotel.

PHOTO: Pixabay

But if that’s not enough, how would a 7-star experience work?

The host should know your taste and preferences in advance. You like surfing? There’s a surfboard in the living room, with lessons booked for you.

You can even have free use of the car in the driveway.

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And to top it all off, seats at the best restaurants have been reserved in your name.

As you may imagine, this exercise can go all the way to a 10 and 11-star experience that may sound like a straight-up fantasy.

In short, the point of this exercise is really to not limit the imagination of what a superb experience would be like.

Now, a 6-star experience may feel tame in comparison, but it also feels that much more achievable.

So we set to work to identify just how to elevate the experience of someone looking to renovate their dream home.

There’s no question about it — it’s an arduous process, there’s a lot that can go wrong. What people really want is hand-holding throughout, and they want to feel assured that the project is going well.

How I started out

With that, I set out to establish a service-oriented interior design experience. I wanted clients to feel treasured, and that we were with them at every step of the process.

PHOTO: Pixabay

I also wanted to make sure that they felt a sense of openness and honesty with us, and a lot of time was spent on each quote, breaking down each line item to communicate transparency.

Before I go into the story, I must clarify that everything was done without a form of a written commitment to work with us — I wanted to see just how much of a value I could provide in the first place.

And so even before they purchased their home, I made it a point to go down to the viewings to help them decide which home would be the better choice — from an ID/contractor perspective.

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Being on-site with them, I was able to point out a few things they could do to the space, highlight technical limitations, and even negative points that they might not have thought of from the layout from my experience.

It made a ton of sense (at least, in my mind), home buying should incorporate the ID/contractor from the beginning, such that clients will be able to make a well-rounded decision with the design perspective thrown in from the get-go.

With that, they were able to feel more assured about the resale home that they were purchasing.

Things were progressing well.

Beyond the purchase, I also brought them on multiple visits to showrooms and sites to take a look at the different materials and choices. This was done across multiple weekends to suit the client’s busy work schedule.

I wanted them to feel like they were getting a consultant that was with them every step of the way.

Where some people may charge for a 3D drawing, I did a 3D SketchUp to allow them to visualise the space better.

PHOTO: Stackedhomes

The amount of attention and time I spent on this project was insane, and ultimately, not scalable, but I wanted to see if utilising the best of my abilities, would this be able to change the entire experience.

And so, just before we were about to start the construction process, I prepared the quote for them.

I wanted it to be as comprehensive as possible, and displayed every single line item, along with an explanation of why things were priced as such.

It was a fair price, to account for the amount of time put in, as a design consultant.

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I expected some pushback, but did not take into consideration that because of how meticulously I displayed each cost, it would backfire on me.

The client actually queried hard about every single cost. Comparisons were made with prices taken from Carousell, without taking into consideration the time and effort to source these trusted relationships with my subcontractors.

To tell you the truth, I did want to stop the project there and then. I knew from experience that the expectations were already mismatched, and that the value I was providing was being overlooked.

My time was not being fairly compensated.

That said, I still wanted to finish the project, just to use it as a testbed to see if the experience would be worth a sharable story from the client.

I caved, and accepted a price that had thin margins.

However the next day, the client came back.

He started by saying that we had been by far and away, the best experience so far.

But.. he had another quote, which was $5,000 less. And he asked if we were able to match it.

PHOTO: Pixabay

It was the last straw for me, and I knew that I had to call it quits here.

I told him that I was unable to continue at that price, and if he felt that was a better option, that he should take it.

And so, despite my best intentions and all the time and effort that was put in so far, it seemed as if it was still not enough.

The start of the downhill spiral of bad service

It’s a virtuous cycle.

Everyone (almost) starts off with good intentions of changing the world.

But reality hits. You push a new ID to take better pricing, they earn less, feel pressure to pay for staff, etc, and then they get desperate and push for more clients.

Quality suffers, and before you know it, you are stuck in a cycle that you can’t get out of.

As such, as someone that has walked the mile, here’s my take on the other side of the fence — here’s what good interior designers face in Singapore — and why it’s also been a huge contributing factor to the problems in the industry.

Taking quotes for granted

While it’s expected to have a guideline of pricing to move forward with a project, clients often turn a blind eye to the amount of time taken to do a quote.

Having an accurate quote is important because you want to set the expectations right from the beginning.

In order to have a good experience, you’d want to ensure that each item is catered for, and well thought through before presenting it to the client.

You don’t want to underquote, and then face issues later when you don’t have enough buffer in the case of contingencies.

PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Having to push for multiple VOs is never a good thing even if necessary, and can mar the experience when not communicated properly.

A good ID will know how to price, with enough buffer adequately.

But getting an accurate and well-researched quote takes time. In my experience, I can spend a good five to six hours doing a comprehensive one.

So imagine what happens when you do nine of these in a row for multiple clients, only to find out that your hard work has been hawked around to get 'better' prices from competitors.

It’s exactly how young, well-intentioned IDs get disillusioned quickly.

Welcome to the real world, they say.

Undervaluing time

PHOTO: Pixabay

Like my story above, there are clients who do not appreciate the amount of time that some IDs dedicate to a project.

Accompanying you to various site visits, going to see materials, seeing fixtures and fittings — these can be a huge time drain that is often overlooked.

Add all the time taken on a project, and you’d realise that if divided on a per hour basis, an ID really isn’t making as much as you may think.

Undervaluing experience and connections

Many people look at quotes, and the comparisons will be done directly with other quotes from different IDs.

These are done based on comparing line item to line item.

But if you compare in such a manner, you really aren’t taking into account the experience of an ID.

In what was now a viral tweet,

From the likes and comments that ensued after, it’s pretty clear how many people have resonated with it.

You might have also heard the well-known business parable about a broken engine, an old man, and a hammer that goes like this:

A giant engine in a factory failed. The factory owners had spoken to several 'experts' but none of them could show the owners how they could solve the problem.

Eventually, the owners brought in an old man who had been fixing engines for many years. After inspecting the huge engine for a minute or two, the old man pulled a hammer out of his tool bag and gently tapped on the engine.

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Immediately the engine sprung back into life.

A week later the owners of the business received an invoice from the old man for $10,000. Flabbergasted, they wrote to the old man asking him to send through an itemised bill. The man replied with a bill that said:

Tapping with a hammer: $1

Knowing where to tap: $9,999

This story is an immensely relatable one that I’m sure a lot of you can resonate with (in your own respective industries).

Let me explain.

When it comes to problems on-site, a new ID or an inexperienced one may not know how to solve them immediately.

They could, with time, eventually solve it.

But this could also happen with much fumbling about and it may end up dragging a project longer.

For example, for the first house visit, an experienced ID would first and foremost check the DB box, while an inexperienced one probably won’t.

(You check the DB box to find out the electrical load capacity of the unit).

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And so from there, you’ll know the max capacity and what to propose in terms of electrical appliances, lighting, etc.

Inexperienced ones who fail to check prior to commencement will only find out later on in the project (when the client wants to have more appliances like an induction hob, combi oven, or more AC units) — sometimes it might be too late.

Do also remember that it is also about the connections that an ID has within the industry too.

A good ID will have a solid list of subcontractors that they have worked with in the past.

This would have been garnered through years of trial and error, of cutting out the bad and harnessing a good working relationship with those that have passed the test.

Because they are proven, you will almost be guaranteed to have a positive experience.

And because you wouldn’t normally have access to such in-demand subcontractors if not for the ID, this is something that you can’t determine by comparing line item costs.

Unrealistic budgets

There is a disconnect between your wish list and financial reality. This has often been exacerbated by watching shows like Selling Sunset, or celebrity home tours on Architecture Digest.

Or the client has done little to no research, and has a huge laundry list of wants with minimal money to spend.

It’s a very common issue faced by IDs, where clients have a certain look and feel they want to achieve — but at a particular budget that is just not feasible to achieve it.

PHOTO: Pixabay

As a result, because of the mismatched expectations from the beginning, it sets a bad tone for the rest of the project.

There needs to be greater education on what can be done in a house. There are certain types of renovation jobs that just do not make sense to do — unless you have a big budget.

While you’d want a place to look as pretty as possible, there has to be a good balance between what is aesthetically pleasing and what is practical too.

Remember the iron triangle — cheap and fast and quality just don’t go together.

PHOTO: Stackedhomes

There will always be a trade-off:

  • Cheap + fast = lower quality
  • Fast + good = expensive
  • Good + cheap = wait a long time

Indecisive, changing designs halfway

This is probably related to undervaluing time, but as many of you can probably identify with, a project never usually goes according to plan.

Many a time, clients will change their minds halfway or feel unsettled about a certain decision.

Sometimes, an interior designer might comply with the first few requests for change.

But clients often forget that this can come at a cost — and expect changes to be done free of charge.

Remember, if changes are done before the commencement of construction, design plans and the dependencies have to be altered as well.

If changes are done during construction, sub-contractors and suppliers have to be briefed and timelines have to be adapted. This also puts the project at greater risk of mistakes.

All these take time to coordinate, and it isn’t as straightforward as “just changing the SketchUp model”.

Take quotes and designs to shop around

As mentioned at the beginning, I faced this issue with one of the first few clients that I met.

It’s really a lot of work to put together a detailed quote, and it can be very demoralising for the ID when that work is taken advantage of.

How many times have you put in effort and time into customising a quote, doing a detailed first meetup, only to be met with radio silence a week later when you ask for updates?

PHOTO: Stackedhomes

Some clients don’t even have the decency to reply and choose to plainly ignore.

While you could say that’s just part and parcel of the sales industry, this is now the consequence of clients abusing it.

IDs are now less willing to share and be open about their scope of work and structure, and this is to the detriment of the whole industry.

Final words

As the saying goes, you pay peanuts and you get monkeys.

You cannot expect a business to survive and thrive on low margins, not if you want businesses to improve and general quality to get better.

And there are other intangible things you should always consider. Such as trust, ethics, and experience that cannot be seen when you compare line item by line item.

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To wrap up, as much as many of the problems in the ID and construction industry has been brought about by rogue IDs, unreasonable and overly demanding clients have also a major part to play.

The fact is that IDs have a huge role to play because they directly impact the biggest purchase of people’s lives.

They aren’t just designers, they often have to play the roles of an accountant, a project manager, a customer service representative, etc.

More often than not, customers can’t tell you what they need.

Like Henry Ford’s famous words: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

It’s the nature of an industry where people have wildly differing tastes.

I do hope that this has shed some light on the experiences from both sides of the coin, and that from this, more education and awareness can be brought about to create a better working relationship between the ID and the customer.

READ ALSO: Avoid a renovation nightmare: 6 screening tips to filter out terrible designers and contractors

This article was first published in Stackedhomes.