This is an ongoing challenge with designers and decorators. We do so much of the regular work without charging, then we do all the extras to maintain and satisfy our clientele and end up not charging for that either. What's the end result? We earn less than the minimum wage guaranteed by law! Something has got to change.
There are quite a number of choices when it comes to charging a client for your efforts: You can charge an hourly fee. You can sell product at retail. You can combine these two options. You can charge cost plus a percentage. You can specify only and charge hourly.
Basically, it comes down to charging for time and/or charging for product. If you are not charging for your time then you must make sure the time you spend will be paid for by the products you sell. This brings up one of the most frequent client approaches: the free consultation.
Of course everyone loves something for free, especially decorating advice. If this is your preferred prospecting style you must make it an effective sales and marketing tool that will generate a regular income.
The New Professional
There are definite reasons for offering a free consultation. Here are two:
1. You are new to the design business. You need to meet and see as many people as possible to start building your clientele. You must overcompensate for not having any clients to start with and everyone at this point is a potential client, or at least will provide you with reason number two.
2. You need practice. I have never met a designer or decorator just out of design school or who just put up their shingle who has known everything needed to do their first jobs well. You need practice. Practice on the telephone getting the appointment. Practice with the clients gathering information about their needs. Practice measuring and computing drapery designs. Practice doing floor plans in the real world. Practice on everything.
The most effective practice is to get out there and do it -- and do a lot of it. You may not close many sales or make a lot of money at this time, but you will learn a great deal and what you will learn is seldom available, if ever, in the classroom or from books. Learning is doing and you can't do too much at this time in your business.
As your skills improve the sales will come. When you are selling enough to make a living you will find you do not have enough time during the course of the day for appointments that don't generate sales. You can then consider going to the next option or a variation on payment. Right now you are on commission. If you don't sell, you don't get paid. It's the incentive plan -- and you need a lot of incentive to make it in this business.
The Seasoned Professional
If you've been in business for some time and you still are doing free consultations but not making a lot of money (or any money for that matter), you need to change the way you expect payment or modify your approach to the free consultation. If you'd like to continue to offer a free consultation, read on.
What usually happens? You are so excited to get the appointment that you have no idea if the client is ready to buy or if you are going on a wild goose chase. You definitely want to avoid the latter situation in all cases. This means you must learn to qualify.
When you meet the prospective client or call them on the telephone you must be prepared with a series of questions that will help you determine whether this client is ready to move forward or just wants to see what information they can get for free. For example:
What is the client looking for, what kind of products or services? Why do they need a particular service? What are they using at the present time? Why are they looking to replace this product? (Is it too old? Is it out of style? Is it not their taste? Has it been damaged?) How old is the product and what did they pay for it when they bought it? How much are they willing to invest now? Who will be making the decisions on the selection and the investment that will be necessary? When do they want installation? Are there deadlines that are critical such as Christmas or an upcoming wedding? Who else have they received bids from? When will they make a decision?
Of course you can't ask these questions in a row like this or the clients will feel they are being interrogated and may shut out the possibility of working with you. However, when you take the time to chat and get friendly with the prospect on the telephone it is amazing how much they will share with you. They want to trust you, and you want to make sure they are ready to move ahead. It is a win-win situation.
It takes time and practice. Writing a script to follow will help at first, eventually it will come naturally. The point is, if they are just looking at the distant future or they want free information, you don't have the time to spend being their resource. It costs you time, gas and other resources, so going on an unqualified appointment actually loses you money! And there is no one to blame but yourself as you did not take the time to find out on the front end that it wasn't worth your effort. No wonder you are frustrated.
Now you can take control. Now you can use your skills and talents to their best advantage. If you still want to offer free consultations, do it. Just make sure you are giving them to those people who are likely to invest in your services and products so you can make a reasonable living. After all, they wouldn't expect their mechanic to work for free.
Profits Watch Decorating professionals need to concentrate their efforts where they will net the highest rewards: Determine the best method of charging customers for your efforts (by the hour, cost plus percentage, etc.). For new design professionals free consultations can build a customer list and provide real-world practice. Seasoned professions should qualify potential customers to find those likely to invest in your services.
Susan Dudics-Dean is owner of Celestial Designs and an interior designer who has worked in the San Francisco Bay area of California for more than 11 years. She also is a newspaper columnist and seminar speaker.