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Here’s Why You Should NOT Charge for Your First Client Meeting

I talk a lot about how important it is for interior designers to value their own time, keep a close eye on finances, and take themselves seriously as professionals.

So, you might be surprised to learn that I advise interior designers not to charge any money for initial meetings with potential clients.

The reason I advise keeping money out of these meetings isn’t that they’re not valuable, or that they’re not time-consuming. On the contrary, these meetings can take up a considerable chunk of your day, from the hour or so spent in the potential client’s home to the time for preparation, travel and follow up. That’s all time that could theoretically have been spent on paid work.

So, why shouldn’t you charge? In short, because the front-loaded effort will result in more income in the long run. In fact, I’d argue that skipping the Discovery Meeting for the paid Consultation actually hurts your sales potential. I’ll explain.

The Difference Between a Discovery Meeting and a Consultation

First, let’s get the terminology straight. I suggest that interior designers start out their client relationships with a “discovery” instead of a “consultation.”

Discovery (aka Meet-and-Greet) and Consultations might seem similar at first. They both take time, and they both discuss the possibilities for a specific area or project. However, the aims of each type of meeting are actually very different.

A Discovery Meeting is exactly what the name suggests: A general introduction and a chance for the designer and prospective client to start to get to know each other. The goal of this Discovery Meeting is to get a sense for whether there’s potential for a more serious, longer-term working relationship.

A Consultation, on the other hand, is a paid service. You as the interior designer are selling your expertise and insight, usually at a fixed fee. (Related: Free Yourself From Hourly Billing Now.) A Consultation must provide value in and of itself. You need to be ready to deliver an experience that’s worth paying for.

Both types of meetings have their place in your business, as we’ll discuss.

However, it’s the Discovery Meeting that should be your go-to for kicking off most client relationships. That’s because it’s the best choice for connecting with clients who are looking for a full, customized interior design experience — and are willing to make a significant investment to get it.

Understanding The Investment

As you know, getting a serious inquiry from someone who wants to hire you for a big design project is huge. Landing the job could result in thousands of dollars in revenue, weeks of steady work, and an amazing addition to your portfolio.

This is not the time to fret about whether you’re getting a fair rate for a few hours. This is the time to do everything you can to assess if there’s a “fit”, nail down the scope and get the sale, which could bring in 10x the amount of money that you might charge for an upfront consultation.

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You’ve already spent plenty of (unpaid) time cultivating a good social media presence, updating your website, and building your portfolio in the hopes of this exact result. Now is the time to make all of that effort count.

By choosing to schedule a less formal Discovery Meeting instead of preparing to send your first invoice, you’re setting the stage for a more meaningful connection. Such a connection will improve the odds of your landing the best projects for your business. Here’s why.

The Power of the Personal Connection

When a client is paying for your time, the feeling of the meeting changes. As soon as there is money exchanging hands, there are different expectations.

As you can imagine, Discover Meetings almost always have a more casual vibe. By contrast, Consultations feel more formal. Discovery Meetings feel like a conversation, one in which both you and the potential client are contributing equally. Consultations tend to be more one-sided, with the interior designer in the spotlight.

That’s why it’s more difficult to connect with clients personally during paid consultations.

A personal connection is important at the beginning of a client relationship for several reasons:

1. You are evaluating the potential client as much as they are evaluating you.

Being selective about who you work with and what you work on is one of the most important things you can do for your business. Committing to a project that you don’t like or that isn’t a good fit can turn into a big distraction from other, more important projects. It can drain your energy, too. A meet-and-greet ensures that you will be able to devote the attention required to look for red flags and make sure that you have the same general expectations.

2. A personal connection will eventually lead to better design work.

Interior design is a very personal service. The best interior designers strive to connect with clients deeply so that they understand why and how the client will love to use their space. Kicking the relationship off in a more intimate way will get it started right, and improve communication, which can make the entire project run more smoothly.

3.  A personal connection will help you close the sale.

People are much more likely to want to work with you if they like and trust you. As I wrote in my post How to Land an Interior Design Sale in 5 Steps, winning any potential client’s trust and respect requires connecting with them personally. The designers who can easily chat with potential clients and find common interests, likes, and dislikes are typically the ones who will win lasting business relationships. That’s much easier to do in a casual meet-and-greet than it is in a consultation.

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Now, in Defense of Consultations

As much as I have been talking up the benefits of Discovery Meetings, Consultations have their place, too.

In fact, Consultations can make a good revenue stream on their own. They can help diversify your income and quickly inject some cash into your business, such as when you have a few weeks of slow time in between projects.

Consultations are usually the best fit for clients who don’t need or want any extensive design services, due to simpler needs or smaller budgets.

Here are a few scenarios where they can be perfect:

  • Tackling specific design dilemma that don’t require a regular, full-service project.
  • Creating an option for people who want help getting started, but can’t afford the typical price of your full services.
  • Updating or refreshing a design you already did for a client, or working on a small project for a repeat client. (If you’ve already met the client, established trust, and have a sense of their style, popping in to help them with smaller projects via consultations can be the best way to help them).
  • Lending a hand on a project that isn’t a great fit for your portfolio. (Some designers like to occasionally consult outside of their usual aesthetic just to get a change of pace.)

To sum up, a Discovery Meetings should be part of your Sales process to land bigger projects and new clients. A Consultation is its own service, ideal for projects that don’t fit your go-to service model.

With any marketing effort, there are risks. It’s true that some of these clients you meet with won’t go on to purchase. But the efforts are almost always pay off if they’re done well and consistently.

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