Student Success - Gail Zinn

By Sarah Van Arsdale on November 16 2002

NYIAD students are out there in droves decorating clients' homes, serving as consultants in department stores, and re-designing everything from metropolitan penthouses to lakeshore cottages. If you've started your own business, if you've been hired by a decorating firm, or if you've achieved success in some other way in the field of interior design, we want to hear from you! Click here to let us know about the waves you're making!

© NYIAD Graduate - Gail Zinn Some people are drawn to work in interior design out of a love of style and aesthetics, but Gail Zinns story shows that having a good head for business is equally important as knowing how to match wallpaper to paint.

And it was her career in business that led her to a new life as an interior designer – and to taking the Course at NYIAD. After earning a Masters in Business Education at Western Michigan University and teaching business for 10 years, Gail left the education field and started her own Human Resource Training Company, which she ran for 19 years, working with large corporations as well as small businesses and school districts.

It was through this work that she slowly became involved with the construction industry, working with contractors, architects, and other businesses owners on partnering.

Partnering is a process I facilitated to make sure the projects were completed on time, within budget, and safely. This introduced me to the world of design.

When Gail moved to Florida, she started her training at the NYIAD School of Interior Design, planning to complete the course in six months. It took her a year instead, and for a very good reason: during that time she served as treasurer for "Rally for A Cure - Breast Cancer." As in her business, here too her hard work has paid off: her community has been the fundraising leader in the country for the past 3 years, collecting over $54,000 in just one year.

As happens with many NYIAD graduates, Gail landed her first job through word of mouth, when a real estate agent recommended her to a client who had just bought a new house.

© NYIAD Graduate - Gail Zinn

That is how I began, on a referral, and it has continued to this date with 35 different clients with 35 different needs – I love it! I have since had referrals from two real estate agents, one rental agency, and others via word of mouth.

Obviously, Gail isnt a shy person, and she's even picked up a few clients while she was shopping for fabrics, rugs, and artwork for clients. She finds that people will just walk right up to her and ask her if she's a decorator and if she can help them.

Always have a business card handy, Gail says. You never know where the next client is.

With Gails head for business, she quickly developed thre ways for the clients to choose to work with her.

First is I shop, in which Gail selects items for the clients approval, passing along her designer discounts and charging a per/hour fee plus 15% of purchases. The second choice is "You shop, in which the client shops and calls Gail to consult on the purchases or potential purchases. For this, she charges a consulting fee on an hourly basis. The third choice is a combination: "We shop, in which the client and Gail will go shopping together. The client can bring a friend or spouse, and for this Gail charges a per/day fee. She then charges another fee for taking and printing digital pictures of the potential purchases.

This has been very well received, Gail says. It gives the client choices. Many times it is a combination of all three: "I-You-We Shop". Since we live in Florida, many of my clients are here only 6 I am conducting business through e-mail and fax – that is why a digital camera is a must! Probably 75% of my clients are out-of-state.

© NYIAD Graduate - Gail Zinn

While most interior designers run their own small businesses and work as consultants, there is also a tremendous team effort involved in each job. One reason for Gails success is that she took the time to create a team of professional contractors to work with on her jobs. She interviewed business owners, asked for referrals, and had some work done on her own home. And then she put the contractors to the test.

In putting the trades together, I had them do some work for me to see the quality of their work, the value of their pricing, and their timeliness and customer service. I have an excellent team –and I am keeping them very busy, she says.

When I need additional trades, I ask my team for recommendations, and then I meet with them personally and "qualify" them. I am a stickler for details and quality. Working in the construction industry for 7 years helped me establish the guidelines, she says.

Most important in making the team work well is treating the contractors with respect, Gail says. The key with a trade team is to make sure I take good care of them, paying them fairly – on time, and scheduling the work with advance notice. Surround yourself with good people, she advises.

© NYIAD Graduate - Gail Zinn

Another trick of Gails is to come up with an Action Plan for each client. The Action Plan is in table form and lists what, who, when, and notes. This helps my clients because they want to be a part of the process – and may choose to do some shopping on their own. It also helps me to check off what has been done, establish priorities, etc. It makes an excellent summary of a completed job to demonstrate all that was done.

As readers of Designer Monthly know, the little things matter a great deal in interior design. Gail knows this as well, and so has a policy of working with clients on accessorizing as well as on completely re-doing a house attic to cellar.

One client was referred to me by a local art gallery owner. The client had worked with an interior designer on the large items, but he dropped her when it came to accessorizing. She had company coming in one week, and wanted to pull it together. So after meeting with her, identifying her needs, taking field measurements, and establishing guidelines for a budget, I put together an Action Plan,'" Gail says.

In that one week, I spent 3 days shopping, purchasing over 100 items. I took one day to stage the purchases while the client was golfing, and the client purchased 95% of all the items. It has since led to a wonderful working relationship and a great friendship. I am now working with this client on window treatments, faux finishes, custom painting, upholstery, and more accessorizing.

By developing this close relationship with her client, Gail has gained not only an interior design job, but also a very close relationship in which she knows that her judgment is trusted.

There is such a level of trust and understanding of the clients likes and dislikes, that she has given me the authority to make the final decisions.

© NYIAD Graduate - Gail Zinn

Sometimes a client will want to redecorate without necessarily going out and buying a lot of new items, and Gail is ready to help with this as well. In fact, she recently met another designer who only does staging with the customers own furnishings, and the two designers are thinking of teaming up on some future projects.

Of course, any designer finds challenges, and for Gail, these include dealing with unrealistic budgets.

For example, I had a furnished condo that the new owner wanted to get ready to rent. He felt it was "fine" and his wife wanted to make it like home. We assessed needs over the phone, I met with the rental agent on a walk through, took digital pictures, and sent an Action Plan with recommendations. He had estimated $2,000 for tangible goods. I worked hard to purchase quality products and meet their goal. With their approval on purchases, it cost us $3,800.

But the client continued working with Gail, and both the husband and wife became part of the project, and in the end, the husband said he likes it so much, they want to stay there! He even invited the previous owner over to see the changes, and that owner gave rave reviews which may lead to another client.

© NYIAD Graduate - Gail Zinn

Another challenge Gail faces is dealing with clients personalities. She once had a client who could not make a decision, and even though they were paying for Gails time, Gail began to feel she wasn't doing much for them. When I first met this couple, he said "if you can work with my wife, and that should have been my first clue. I think the major problem was that his wife didn't like the house they purchased, so not much would please her.

Despite the challenges, Gail wouldn't trade her education at NYIAD and her work as a designer for anything. I love the people, challenges, interacting with local businesses and most of all, when at the end of the project the client gives you that hug and says it is just what they wanted and they are so happy. That's the reward!

The factors that Gail has found lead to her success are being a positive person, being a good listener, following up, and using an action plan. Take pride in your work and, most of all, have fun doing it!

And thats a bit of solid business advice thats good for anyone.

Come learn at our interior decorating school and become a success just like Gail!