Dupont was on to something in the 1930s when they coined this tagline. But they probably weren’t thinking of it in the context of evaluating prospective clients.

I do.

In fact, chemistry is the most immediate of the three criteria that any solid working relationship requires. The other two—trust and ability—are equally important, but they take longer to prove themselves. I’ll talk more about them in another post.

In my experience, these three things—chemistry, trust, and ability—are the foundation of every successful client relationship. Without exception, if one of these is missing from either the design firm’s or the client’s point of view, the relationship doesn’t last.

Chemistry, trust and ability apply right from the very start. Consciously or unconsciously, they’re part of both the design firm’s and the potential client’s decision of whether or not to work together. They tell you if the fit is right, which is what the initial conversation is really all about.

On the face of it, most people looking to hire a good design firm will consider the same check list: What kind of experience do they have? What’s their process? What results can they demonstrate for their clients? Who will we work directly with—the people doing the work or some layer of account management?

Underlying the overt answers, though, are the defining questions: Do I like these people? Can I trust them? Do I think they’ll do a great job for me?

Most people think these are questions the prospective client asks. However, they’re equally important—and sometimes more important—to the design firm. They are so important, that they drive my decision about whether to take on the client.

One example of this happened several years ago when I had a referral from a good client of mine. A well-known and accomplished interior design firm wanted to do their first website. As I often do, I suggested asking a few questions to see if it was a good fit for both of us. They were so taken aback by that idea that they just didn’t want to answer any questions. They became stand-offish to the point that I finally thanked them for the opportunity while declining it.

What they perhaps took as an insult was really intended to see if there was a good foundation for success. It was about the fit—the chemistry, trust and ability. And it was clear from their reaction that the fit wasn’t there.

There are a couple of clues about the chemistry between you and the client. Of course, there’s the immediate reaction you have to each other as people. In addition, there are broader aspects to chemistry that are based on shared values and aesthetics.

There has to be some shared value, some common ground on which you can build. That could be common interests in reading or traveling, food or drink, or simply an educated awareness or a thorough understanding of their business.

On the aesthetic side, when you meet a potential client at their place or yours, each of you ought to see something of interest to you. It could be the environment itself, or just a simple picture on the wall, a desk ornament, a bag they’re carrying, a magazine… If there’s nothing that indicates a shared aesthetic, that’s a pretty good indication that it’s probably not a good fit.

Finally, an important part of chemistry is some kind of mutual respect. Since one goal ought to be establishing a long-term, mutually rewarding working relationship, respect is important. If you don’t have that, you’ll never like working together.