This quantum leap in business savvy does a great deal for us in at least three ways. First, it reinforces positive self-esteem. It is hard to feel you are really worth something when you are being paid nothing. Some of us are known for doing a lot for little or no pay. It is the way we were brought up. Being giving and nice are wonderful attributes for family, friends and community, but when it comes to running a business they can quickly put you out of business.
Second, the bottom line will increase! Isn't that what being in business is all about? Truly this is a great change. Now you will be paid for virtually all of your efforts, and when you are not with a client you should be out getting more clients who will pay you or out working on a project for which you are getting paid. When this happens your income has to go up.
Third, your stature as a professional will increase. Other professionals, such as doctors, dentists, etc., would never think of doing work for nothing unless it was an unusual case. When you work for free and give away your ideas for nothing you are telling your potential clientele that you are unsure of your own value and abilities -- or that you don't know how to run a real business. Either way your image suffers.
There are several ways to get paid for your time and efforts. Let's start with the hourly charge.
My Fee Is . . .
Many of us have to take a big gulp right before we ask for money for our services. How much is enough? How much is too much and will turn off the prospective client? What will the market bear? What level of clientele are you cultivating? All of these questions should be considered before deciding on the final hourly amount.
To start, you must be able to say your hourly fee in a confident manner and with a straight face. If you grin or giggle after you say "I charge $50 per hour," you will tell your clients you are not confident about that amount and they will not take you seriously or trust you with their projects. You may have to start at a lower amount, say $25 per hour. After you have built up your self-confidence you can bump up your fees in $5 or $10 increments.
Fees in every part of the country are different. In San Francisco, CA, the range is $75 to $150 per hour. In rural America, the acceptable amount may be $25 to $75. You can do a little research in your area by asking your design friends what they charge or by calling a few decorators out of the telephone directory and asking what they charge. Again, whatever amount you decide upon must be stated with a confident voice and a straight face.
If you are aiming for a clientele with more discretionary income, you can charge at the higher end of the fee scale. Remember, however, that there are fewer clients at this end of the spectrum and all the other designers and decorators may be targeting the same group. You must make sure you have the ability or self-esteem to interact and service these customers. A less-than-fabulous job will only generate a lot of bad press and make it difficult for you to get any other clients in this group, much less the ones with big bucks to spend.
How the Client Wants to Work It
While you are qualifying clients over the telephone, it would be helpful for you to find out what their histories are with designers and decorators. Why not ask them if they have worked with professional designers before and, if so, what were the financial arrangements? Then ask whether this arrangement was comfortable for them, or if they would like other options. You can tailor the payment arrangements for each client based upon their needs and financial wherewithal.
Regardless of the arrangements you agree on, it is good to indicate to the client that there will be an hourly "investment" of . . . You then may choose to tell them that you will waive the fee or apply it to their order if they choose to go ahead with a project during that appointment. This puts both of you in a win-win situation. You will be giving out information and ideas while getting paid for your time and knowledge. They will be getting more for their money by stepping forward with the design plan immediately.
You may lose some appointments over the telephone while you qualify potential clients. People may get very quiet when you mention your fee. They also may brush you off by saying they need to discuss it with significant others or give you some other excuse.
But what have you lost here? You've lost the opportunity to give away your knowledge and expertise for free. You've lost the opportunity to spend your money on gasoline and other resources to go to a prospect's home only to find he or she wanted free information, wanted another bid or was "just looking" and not ready to buy yet anyway. By eliminating such prospects on the front end you will have more time to spend servicing clients you know will pay for your efforts or looking for qualified prospects willing to make the investment in your time and expertise.
By the way, while on the telephone mention to clients that you will expect a check for the consultation at the end of the appointment. Tell them you will send them a paid statement for their records. And make sure to get the check before you leave. It is very difficult to collect funds from individuals when there is no contract and no evidence that you did anything for them. Remember, this appointment may be all about ideas with nothing written down.
You may want to add an additional fee if the customers want you to send them formal, written outlines of the things discussed and decided upon. That will take you extra time outside of the appointment so you should be paid for that time, too. Of course, the clients can take their own notes if they like. Doing this will save them money and save you time. It is an option you can suggest to nurture your relationship with the prospect.
Should you ever do free consultations? Yes, there are times when it could be appropriate. Family or friends should definitely be considered, but be careful they don't abuse this privilege. You may choose to offer a consultation at a fund-raising event that can be auctioned off. The organization will get the money raised and you will gain good will and some prospective clients. If you are a member of an organization you can choose to give other members a free appointment. Let them know what you normally charge and then indicate you will waive some or all of the fee as a courtesy to another club member.
As mentioned, there are numerous ways to charge for your time. The hourly fee can be the easiest because you charge for any and all time that is spent on the client's project. However, an hourly fee requires good record keeping. Statements to the client should indicate the amount of time spent doing what things along with the fees being charged for them. But an hourly fee gives you an accountable income for all of the time and effort put forth, and it is definitely more bankable than a complimentary appointment.
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.