This week on the podcast, I'm joined by Clara Jung of Banner Day Interiors to discuss what it takes to maintain the highest caliber of client service while scaling your business.
Fun fact: Clara was my first interior design client and really the catalyst to making IDCO Studio what it is today. Her work at Banner Day Interiors has always moved me - particularly the way she injects modern elements of whimsy into San Francisco's historic buildings while keeping the space calm and soothing. I've learned so much from Clara over the years, and she was the obvious choice to discuss growing your team while maintaining the quality of your services. Before we jump into the conversation, I'd love to explore Clara's background a bit further.
Clara’s journey to interior design, like many, was unconventional. Clara left a career in corporate law to start Banner Day Interiors when she realized that legal research and courtroom appearances didn't satisfy her creative desires. Today, she pursues her passion for design by working with both institutional and residential clients. Banner Day is known for their signature balance of playful patterns and a minimal aesthetic, balancing traditional interiors with color, pattern and whimsy. Principal and Founder, Clara Jung’s work with Banner Day has been published in Architectural Digest, Domino, Design Sponge, Apartment Therapy and many more.
I want to start with some BIG congratulations! Clara was just named one of House Beautiful’s 2022 Next Wave Designers. And on top of that, she’s a brand new mom. Welcome to the podcast, Clara!
In this episode, Clara and I discuss:
The transition from working solo to building a team
Managing growing pains as business owners
3 critical steps in her firm's client process
Advice on how to recover and learn from mistakes
The key to maintaining the highest level of client service
An excerpt of my conversation with Clara Jung:
Talk me through how long you worked solo before making your first hire or outsourcing beyond yourself.
CJ: I think it was two and a half to three years into starting my firm, and my first hire was a contractor who's still with me. She's the mom I referred to earlier, and so I shared her with another designer, and she's still with me. So I think it's almost five years later. She's basically my right-hand woman. I've never had an older sister, and I consider her my older sister in a lot of ways.
What made the change for me is when I worked for a smaller design-build operation where it got more into the interior aspects. We were designing millwork, for example, in the studio and then they were building it in the shop right outside. So I learned so much about millwork drawings, and how parts and pieces come together. It's what made me kind of fall in love with interior design and eventually made my way into residential.
When you made that first hire, what was their role?
CJ: That's a really easy question for me. So let me step back a little bit. I'm self-taught, I didn't go back to design school. And so I did dabble in a couple classes at Berkeley Extension, which is a type of a design degree in San Francisco. And I went to a couple classes and honestly, I finished those classes, but I couldn't keep up because I was so busy with clients. So I was talking to a couple of my peers at the school, and they were like, 'the hardest part is getting clients'. If that's your hard part, you can contract a lot of the other work. A light bulb just hit in my head like, 'why am I trying to do these CAD or schedule drawings when there are like a million people who can contract out'. I'm really good at the business side of obtaining clients and the general design side.
So for me, this role was specifically for someone who had amazing CAD and SketchUp skills, and that's who I hired for. So this employee is just really good at it, and she's very technical and is really able to bridge that gap between my design vision and putting that on paper, as far as construction documents or design documents are concerned.
"I always promise clients that I am the creative force behind the firm."
- Clara Jung
We always talk about growing pains as business owners; over the years, what type of growth has resulted in the need to adapt Banner Day?
CJ: I actually don't have a hard time letting go and delegating, which might sound wild to some people–people might envision me as a manager, but I'm not. I am like, 'if I can outsource this, I will, to a certain extent. There are some things I don't. I always promise clients that I am the creative force behind the firm. I will review any design board, and any design presentation that comes their way, and that is still true.
But I definitely had to do a reset. In 2020 when work was absolutely bonkers, and I was working crazy hours and having no breaks and no time off, to kind of reset our systems and figure out how do we streamline. There were so many projects at a certain point that people on my team didn't know who was what and where things were going. And so I was like, I've been putting this off forever, but I just had to sit down and start the process of a handbook and also a pipeline of how processes work. My excuse was always that I didn't have to do this because all projects are different, and that is totally true.
Like construction projects, you really can't anticipate what comes up, and what will need help with troubleshooting. It varies so much depending on client/contractor/project, but it's really good to have a baseline, and I've realized that.
I would say the key solution, not overall solution, but key component is hiring my studio manager who is really helping me. I have the thought in my head, but I could just email her or Slack her and be like, 'hey Michaela, can you make it official and put it in our materials?' or 'how do we record it in a way that is translated to not only the clients but the team?'.
How often do you revamp your client process?
CJ: A lot. I would say there's always something we are trying to implement and try to write it out and see if it's working or not. I would say that we get feedback–I kind of interpret all emails I get from clients as a type of feedback mechanism. So they're like, 'why isn't that like this?' 'why isn't that like that?' And the problem is I have to be careful of not tailoring the experience so uniquely to one client, as you know all clients are different. So it's like, 'what is the way to implement it in a way that is applicable to most people'? As you probably also know, some clients require a higher touch, so there are those clients. We might not revamp the retreat materials or like core materials every month. We are always experimenting with 'how can we improve communication,' 'how can we improve the overall experience'–pretty much monthly, if not weekly.
Mentioned in the episode:
House Beautiful’s 2022 Next Wave Designers
Berkeley Extension Certificate Program in Interior Design and Interior Architecture
Thanks for reading an excerpt of The Interior Collective Season 1, Episode 4: Client Service Quality with Team Growth with Clara Jung. You can listen to our episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or access the full episode transcription below. You can follow Clara on Instagram and visit her stunning portfolio of work at Banner Day Interiors.
If you're enjoying season one of The Interior Collective podcast, we’d be so appreciative if you'd take a moment to share, subscribe, and leave us a review. Ratings help us reach a wider audience as we provide insight and inspiration to the entire design community. Your support means the world.
Hi, this is The Interior Collective, a podcast for the business of beautiful living presented by IDCO Studio and I'm Anastasia Casey.
Today's episode is all about how to maintain the quality of your client services as your team grows. This is a very personal topic to me. It's something that I have worked on over the years, struggled with, made big mistakes and have since learned from. Today's guest, Clara Jung was my first interior design client and really the catalyst to making IDCO what it is today. She was, and still is, my dream client and I grew so much through working with her. If you fast forward a few years, Clara came back to work with us on some website updates and a few client communication documents. In full candor, I let the refresh project slip through the cracks during her updates because we weren't following our established client process that we provide for our full service clients.
She totally called me out on it, super graciously, and she reminded me that while growing has pains, client experience should always come first. I've learned so much from Clara over the years. She was the obvious choice to discuss growing your team while maintaining the quality of your client services.
Clara's journey to interior design, like so many of us, was unconventional. Clara left her career in corporate law to start Banner Day Interiors when she realized that legal research and courtroom appearances just did not satisfy her creatively. Today, she pursues her passion for design by working with both institutional and residential clients. Banner Day is known for their signature balance of playful patterns and the minimal aesthetic, balancing traditional interiors with color pattern whimsy. Principal and Founder Clara Jung's work with Banner Day has been published in ArchDigest, Domino, Design Sponge, Apartment Therapy, and so many more.
Clara grew up in LA and chose to stay in California for college. Shortly after graduating from Cal Berkeley, Clara spent some time in Nepal, teaching English through the Peace Corps. After surviving a couple of winters in Michigan, while attending University of Michigan law school, she returned to the Bay Area where it felt almost balmy.
I want to start with some big congratulations though. Clara was just named one of House Beautiful’s 2022 Nextwave Designers. And on top of that, she's a brand new mom! Congratulations on your newborn Clara, and welcome to the show. I'm so grateful to have you.
Thanks Anastasia for having me, I feel super, super honored and excited to talk to you.
We have, as I mentioned before, personal experience and this exact topic, which I'm sure is not unique to me, probably wasn't unique to Clara and I'm so grateful for the opportunity to grow from it. But as you start to add people to your team, your process changes, you do not necessarily have eyes on every single step of the design process. Clara's methodical, former lawyer brain is gonna walk us through how we can adapt, how we can grow, and how we can maintain that superior level of client experience throughout.
Clara as the Principal Designer and Founder of Banner Day, can you tell us a bit about the current size and organization of your studio?
Sure. I would say we're still what I would consider a small design firm. So, there are six employees, including me. So that's me plus five employees and that includes three designers, and a studio manager, and a design assistant. I would say our broader team also includes an accounting firm and a PR agent. So I would be remiss in not including those people ‘cause they definitely help flush out the strength of our team.
Does your team currently… Are all those people on the team full-time employee or some contractor, besides those external people like your PR and your accountant? Is your team fully employed?
Yeah, mostly fully employed. There is an exception–there is a mom on my team who has an adjusted schedule, but she has been with me the longest and we have an understanding. She can read my brain essentially, so it works both ways. But as far as the rest of the team, they're all full time. And I would say the one employee that has that adjusted schedule, she basically works full time hours. She just has more discretion than them.
Anastasia 00:04:19 Got it. That's super helpful. I'm also curious are all of those team members, ‘cause I know our listeners are probably wondering as well, is everybody in-house with you, like physically in the office with you, or is anybody doing work remote?
Such a good question. For us, 'cause they're so hands-on in terms of project management and we really advertise ourselves as full service, all the team members are in the Bay Area and that's a requirement for employment at my firm. That is largely because we do a lot of site visits. There are things that can't be done virtually–unlike like your industry Anastasia, where maybe you have a contractor in like Finland, I don't know where–but it doesn't really work to go check out tile and grout and stuff like that. So we require two days a week in the office and for the other three days, it's flex. So if you happen to come into the office, that's great. And if not, you're free to work from home.
Oh, that's awesome. Are those two required days, are they the same days for everyone each week or is it like just, ‘you need to be here two days a week, whichever days work’.
Great question. So we experimented a little bit during the pandemic largely because of COVID protocols and concerns about like being around other people, but we've really landed on the idea of two days a week, Mondays and Thursdays. Everyone for the most part, to the extent possible, should be in office, especially Mondays. Mondays are like holy for our team. That's when we go over that week's agendas, the priorities, any troubleshooting that occurred over the weekend. And the point of being in office for us is really, you know, sometimes, putting things on Slack or Asana takes way more time than just turning around and asking your coworker a question. So that's really important to me. So that's the purpose of having everyone come in on the same days.
I would say another thing that I would recommend if you have a similarly sized team is I've always paid for lunch for my team on Mondays. I've gotten a lot of good feedback on that. They say that just helps them on Sunday. That's like one less thing to worry about. And it's just a nice time to bond, and talk about what we did over the weekend. That's not always the case, sometimes somebody's like ‘I have to just work through lunch’, but I hope to kind of develop a culture where that's something that we do.
I love that. It's interesting you say that. We have also, especially since COVID… You were right, we do have employees all across the country and then we do have contractors in Paris, London and two in Croatia. So we are a very remote team, but we've grown our Austin studio where there's eight of us now, locally, that come into the studio. We also have, everybody needs to be in on Mondays, Wednesdays. Tuesdays and Thursdays people can work from home or if they wanna come in, that's great too. Usually they opt not to <laugh> it's just me.
And then we've actually just established this year will be the first year that we're doing Summer Fridays. And so from Memorial day through Labor day, every other Friday will be a day off.
And so we get to have three day weekends. We also do it between Thanksgiving and Christmas which ends up only being an extra two days off. But I'm excited for that. I've just really found that our team produces more quality work when they have a little bit of freedom. So I love to hear that you have something similar set up in your firm.
That's amazing. I love to hear that. I mean, Summer Fridays I've always associated with the New York kind of a work culture, but I love that you're implementing it in Texas.
I am somewhat selfish because we did just get a lake house and I want to have Fridays off, but I am always one that if I want or expect something, then I wanna make sure my whole team gets the same. So yeah, I try to lead by example that way. So we'll see how it goes. I'll report back this fall and see how Summer Fridays worked out.
Talk me through how long you worked solo before making your first hire or outsourcing beyond yourself.
I think it was two and a half to three years into starting my firm and my first hire was a contractor who's still with me, and she's the mom I referred to earlier and so I shared her with another designer and she's still with me. So I think it's almost five years later. She's basically my right-hand woman. I've never had an older sister and I consider her my older sister in a lot of ways.
Oh, I love that. Can you tell us, when you made that first hire, what their role was? A conversation that I have a lot is hiring for a role, not a person in the sense that I have found bringing someone on I need to have a very clear understanding of what they're gonna own top-to-bottom instead of someone who's gonna look at my to-do list and cross things off. That ends up being a lot of micromanaging and just time coming up with what this to-do list is that you're gonna hand off. So talk me through what that first employee for you looked like and if there's anything you would do differently.
Yeah. That's a really easy question for me. So let me step back a little bit. I'm self-taught, I didn't go back to design school. And so I did dabble in a couple classes at Berkeley Extension, which is a type of a design degree in San Francisco. And I went to a couple classes and honestly I finished those classes, but I couldn't keep up because I was so busy with clients and I already had clients. So I was talking to a couple of my peers at the school and they were like, ‘the hardest part is getting clients’. If that's your hard part, you can contract a lot of the other work. A light bulb just hit in my head like, ‘why am I trying to do these like CAD drawings or schedule drawings when there's like a million people that can contract out’. I'm really good at the business side of obtaining clients and the general design side.
So for me, this role was specifically for someone who had amazing CAD and sketch up skills, and that's who I hired for. So this employee is just really good at it and she's very technical, and is really able to bridge that gap between my design vision and putting that on paper, as far as construction documents or design documents are concerned.
That's such great advice. I so often see our clients at IDCO say that they're ready to hire someone. And they're like, ‘oh, I want a design assistant’, like ‘that's who I need’. And my question to them is always, what is the part of your job that you don't feel fully qualified to do? Or you just don't enjoy doing as much because that's what you should be hiring for. And in your case, you didn't have those technical skills. You obviously had the vision and the design eye. And so I'm so glad to hear that you went that route and I so encourage anybody listening to focus mostly on what the role is that you're bringing in and not necessarily just the extra body.
That's such great advice. Yeah, Nailed the head. Exactly.
We always talk about growing pains as business owners, or maybe we should talk about it more often <laugh> but over the years, what type of growth has resulted in the need to adapt Banner Day?
It's just a hard question. Cause I thought I was growing like three years ago and now it was accelerated growth the last two years in an insane way. I actually don't have a hard time letting go and delegating, which might sound crazy to some people–people might envision me as a manager, but I'm not. I am like ‘if I can outsource this, I will’, to a certain extent. There are some things I don't. I always promise clients that I am the creative force behind the firm, I will review any design board, any design presentation that comes their way, and that is still true.
But I definitely had to do a reset. In 2020 when work was absolutely bonkers and I was working crazy hours and having no breaks and no time off, to kind of reset our systems and figure out how do we streamline. There were so many projects at a certain point that people on my team didn't know who was what and where things were going. And so I was like, I've been putting this off forever, but I just had to sit down and start the process of a handbook and also a pipeline of how processes work. My excuse was always that I didn't have to do this because all projects are different and that is totally true.
Like construction projects, you really can't anticipate what comes up, what will need help with troubleshooting. It varies so much depending on client/contractor/project, but it's really good to have a baseline and I’ve realized that.
I would say the key solution, not overall solution, but key component is hiring my studio manager who is really helping me. I have the thought in my head, but I could just email her or slack her and be like, ‘Hey Michaela, can you make it official and put it in our materials?’ or ‘how do we record it in a way that is translated to not only the clients, but the team?’.
One thing that we've recently implemented–and I try to tell people as we scale, cause we're up to like 22 people now–whenever I have something I need to train someone on or whenever I'm like, ‘oh, we really need to document this’. I like to use Loom and I screen record myself as I'm doing the task so that someone can watch it and rewind it as many times as they need to follow along. Now that said, it's a lot easier, 'cause everything we're doing is digital. So pretty much their entire role is happening behind a screen. What are some of the ways that you implement training materials or tutorials or that handbook in your own firm?
We definitely have a retreat at the beginning of the year. We go over, like down to like the nitty gritty, of how do we treat proposals, or invoices, or how do we do procurement? The retreat is not just to transmit information, but it's to really solicit feedback from the team. Because honestly, at this point I'm not doing the purchasing, I'm not doing a lot of the things I started out with. So I'm not the best person to actually be dictating on how things should go. So it's always asking the broader team ‘what are the changes you think we need to make?’ ‘What are the mistakes we made the past year?’ And then, we're gonna have a mid-year retreat to kind of take all that stuff that we talked about at the beginning of the year and see how we can finesse it even further.
I hate to say it, but for us, a lot of it is day to day mentoring. And because we have two relatively new employees, it is incumbent upon one of the senior members and my team to mentor junior employees and mentor them through the processes because there are so many exceptions. For example, trade vendors–all the trade discounts are different. How you transmit orders are different. How you specify things are different. So we can have a universal protocol, but it is not equally applicable. And it's just unfortunate that that's the case, but that's why clients pay us a higher hourly rate to deal with like 20 emails about door hardware, because that's what it is, you know?
Totally, Yeah. Let me back up a little bit. You mentioned how much you've grown during the pandemic, as many studios have. How many employees were you at, February 2020?
We were at two and a half, so it was me, one full-time and a part-time person.
Wow. <laugh> Okay, and then now you're up to six plus your two external regular contractors.
Before then pre March, 2020, how many projects were you juggling at once? If you had to pick an average.
Mm-hmm, I would say around 20.
That was before pandemic?! Oh, OKAY!
I know it's a lot, but there's a spectrum. You know, some projects take two to four years if it's a new build, so the momentum is different. Then we have the larger projects of maybe full home renovation. But we also have so many repeat clients. I say, once you hire us, we’re your designer for life usually, and that's true. And so we have the client we did the nursery for four years ago, and now their kid is turning into a big kid, so we are changing that room up. So there's all of that. So it's a spectrum, but it is quite a bit, yes.
So now when you've added four more bodies, how many projects are you managing now?
I'm scared to say, ‘cause I might get a bunch of emails, but we're at around 40 to 50 projects right now.
Wow! I am so in awe of you and so proud of you and so excited for myself 'cause that's 40 or 50 projects I get to see of your work and that is a win.
So we mentioned earlier your new mom, I know that your daughter came earlier than expected. How did you plan your client process to shift with your team as you were getting ready to be on leave, if you're even on leave?
Yeah, so that kinda went out the window when my daughter came seven weeks early. So we had a plan set in place, you know, I was gonna write that email to all the clients and extended team members, like the contractors. And that never even got sent out. So it was just, you know, it was kind of a [fiasco]. Maybe you have to edit that out, but basically that's what it was. And so, what happened was we literally had three days of notice that she was coming in early. It was honestly a mad scramble. I just wanna give kudos to my team. They just performed like crazy–they filled in all the gaps that I would have. They also said we didn't realize how much you facilitated communication. So I'm like, ‘I'm glad I needed’ <laugh>.
Then also my clients, they were amazing. Without exception, they all understood what was going on–had no problem leaving me off emails, working directly with my team. And I think it also speaks to our system.
For each project we have a lead designer. Additionally, we have a secondary designer and the secondary designer operates basically like a substitute teacher. If the lead designer is on vacation or out of office, the substitute designer steps in. So for any project in our firm, for the most part, you have three people that are kind of in the details of your project. It would be me, the primary designer, and then the secondary designer. As a team of six, that's half the team knowing what's essentially going on or can catch up really quickly on what's going on. And so that was really clutch.
I mean, I probably shouldn't say this, but I also worked while I was in the NICU. There wasn't much to do. I did what I could, but I was sitting in the hospital like 10 hours a day. When I was needed, I was obviously spending time with my daughter, but other times we were just literally sitting there, so it was a nice distraction for me. And I know part of owning your own firm is like, you know, I don't have that really long, nice maternity leave or a parental leave that my husband has. And I'm okay with that. I have the flexibility to work from home now, when I need to, or schedule my meetings in a certain way. So I might be working on an afternoon on a Saturday, but I can spend Mondays with her.
I think a key thing you mentioned there is that you are never assigned the lead designer on a project. And so there is that opportunity when you need to be pulled somewhere else, there's someone else who's in charge, even though you're the last set of eyes that sees everything before it goes out. That's definitely a lesson that is so costly to learn before it becomes a lesson that costed you to learn.
My right hand at IDCO, Lexi had her baby seven weeks early we had planned, prepared, hired, six months in advance. Right before she actually went into labor we had to make a shift in who was taking over her role. It didn't work out and we brought in someone new and I was sure we were closing shop. I was like, ‘Lexi's out. 1000% we are gonna close the shop and we'll pick it back up when she gets back’.
And I was terrified and it was so amazing to see how the team just rallied and filled in the gaps because everyone does understand every project to a certain level and certainly there was some extra explanations. She's literally getting her C-section, texting me about what client needed to go out that day and I'm like, ‘Please stop. We'll figure it out’. So it's funny that your daughter came seven weeks early, cause that's like a trigger for me to hear that we thought we were so prepared. And as Quinn and I continue to family plan and see what that looks like, I really appreciate you sharing how you set up for that. And also how all plans just go out the window anyway and you just need to be okay with that.
Yeah. I mean flexibility, like most people say, is clutch for parenthood but also work life balance.
In an ideal world, you would be spending all of your working hours, designing beautiful spaces. We created our client email template specifically to give you back time to design and get you away from your inbox, our copywriters crafted 30 emails that fit into every step of your design process. Do yourself a favor and visit idco.studio and get those hours back in your day.
How do you document your client processes internally and externally? This would probably go back to what kind of documentation and client education are you providing as well as, do you have Google docs of step by step processes for everything, or is it in spreadsheets, or is it like you talked about–is it literally just in person, showing live tutorials as someone works through things?
I would say for the client process specifically, we have three material booklets, I would say. So we have the investment guide, which we send for potential clients that we would be interested in potentially working with. Then we have the welcome guide and then the client guide. So with all three of those, they go into further detail depending on how far down the process this client comes to us with. It is our overall philosophy, but also very, very specifically step by step how the process usually works. Then also things that come up in terms of project management, invoicing, even stuff like, what is an FF&E sheet? So they know why they're paying us, what these documents mean, and how they serve a purpose. For most of our clients there are some that have done construction, but a lot of them haven't, so they don't understand why certain drawings are needed, why we're doing the things that we're doing. And I feel like the big gap is often educating them on why you're paying us to do this.
Can you explain a little more the difference between the welcome guide and the client booklet?
Yes. So the welcome guide, the scenario is like, okay, I already met the client for initial consultation, they love me, they wanna hire me. And I'll be like, okay, here is our welcome guide. This is what the process in broad strokes would look like. So stuff that normally wouldn't be in the investment guide, such as our sliding scale of hourly rates, depending on seniority, more detail into how we deal with trade, discounts,stuff like that and how our invoicing calendar works. So it just goes into more detail versus the investment guide, it’s a little bit more fluffy. So it's more kind of like a marketing material of like, ‘Hey, this is all that we've done. Here are the great things clients have said about us. Here is our flat fee versus hourly fee design process’, stuff like that. And then in going back to the client guide is very technical. Like I said before, it goes into the names of documents, why we're using them, how it serves their purpose and why they're important, essentially.
So do you send your welcome guide before a signed proposal and contract or after?
We send a welcome guide usually after the initial consultation. So that usually means that I've met these people in person. They pay me for the initial consultation and it's clear that there is chemistry and we want to work with each other and then send them the welcome guide.