Charging for consultations in freelance projects

Hey all,

I have a potential freelance project coming up and they mention that "if you're interested, we can set up a time to come out there to look at the backyard".  I've been doing this for free and then charge for the design. However, I don't want to do this for free anymore.  It takes up time and gas. 

All of my clients (including this one) have been friends of friends or friends of family (and thus I've been very nice).  I feel that if I didn't know them personally, then I could easily respond to this by stating a price for consultation. However, I'm not a very good salesman and I don't know how to respond to this with proper wording.

Again the trouble here is that I know this client for about a year now (though not very well). She's a friend of a friend. What would you say?

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Also, how much would you charge for say, an hour long consultation by looking at a backyard and providing a wealth of feedback and ideas?

Well, this sounds like a "changing gears" problem more than a person-specific one. My best thought is that you arrange a pause of some kind and on the other side of it, only allow projects to start with a business fee type understanding, to include consultations as well as design work in your fee structure.

In other words, if this potential client was referred by someone who "got it free," she may not understand the sudden turn of events, although the more assertive types among us would just say sorry, the mutual acquaintance didn't realize I have changed my policy. You have a right to do that. But it might be best to float around that knowledge as far as possible, i.e.. on any literature or website etc. and ask new inquiries first if they've seen the site and would like your services as newly described. Maybe also be sure you clarify when someone calls and mentions a referral, that the former plan was done under a different policy at an earlier stage of your practice.

While there may rarely be chances to tell former clients of the change so that they don't continue to refer this way, do that also whenever the opportunity arises.

Are you working on some kind of recognized certificate/license type seal, and could you make a point of getting the extra badge or status?

Thanks for your response.  I'll take your advice.

I do have a bachelors degree in landscape architecture and I'm currently studying to take the LARE. The title of "Landscape Architect" instead of "Landscape Designer" will be clearly labeled on my business card when the time comes. Eventually, I'd like to make a website showcasing my projects and I'll be adding the title there. 

Be straight-forward. Tell them your more than happy to come by and give design advice but that you can no longer afford to give away your time--site visits are charged at $75 per hour (or whatever you deem appropriate to cover your expenses and make some profit). Does this 'friend of a friend' perform their work for free? I thought not, so why should you? Any 'friend' that has to work for a living should understand this. The language I would use would be something like this . . . "Hi, (name of friend of friend), I'm more than happy to design your landscape but I can no longer afford the upfront freebie of not charging for an initial site visit. For a few past clients this made sense but like you I have bills to pay. That said, I think you'll find my fees extremely competitive and you'll get the same great service and landscape design that (other friend) got." Also, don't forget the adage that "you get what you pay for". In some clients' minds if you're providing it for free how good can you be? Last, this advice assumes you can economically weather not having this 'friend' as a client. Oh yeah, I would charge $75 for a 1.5 hour initial consultation but this will vary depending on your local economic climate, competition, etc.

I tell everyone that it is $50 / hour to come out and look and engage in a discussion about a design.  If they choose to hire me for a design, I do the first part for free.  Make sure to account for time and materials spent marketing yourself in your final design fee.

See how it works out for you. I've been doing free initial meetings since 2006. I'm quite busy with projects that I get with these freebie meetings as I get a paid design gig out of almost all of them. Yet I'm not over run or over burdened with so many of these. I also know that I can cut and run if the project is one that I'm not interested in.

You said this is a potential meeting coming up and that you are not a good salesman. That makes me think that you are not over burdened with too many initial meetings that you need to weed them out. If you are not a good salesman, these are opportunities to develop your sales skills.

As established and as busy as I am, I see more potential for losing opportunities for good paying work than I see a need for compensation for this. I can't imagine that someone just starting out is going to gain more by charging for initial meetings than they will lose in potential clients who simply don't want to pay to give you an opportunity to get a design job,

I worked for a very busy well established landscape architecture company with a retail nursery that charged $40 for initial meetings to reduce dead end leads because they would get over 20 inquiries day. That would get knocked down to two or three when they found out about the fee. Can you afford losing a high percentage of your opportunities?

It is only a loss of time and gas if you don't turn many into sales.

Charging a consultation fee helps you qualify the client. If they give you a hard time about the fee then they'll give you a hard time with your design fee. I've gotten to the point where I don't do work for friends or family.

They usually expect to get the work at a reduced price.

"I have a potential freelance project coming up and they mention that "if you're interested, we can set up a time to come out there to look at the backyard".  I've been doing this for free and then charge for the design. However, I don't want to do this for free anymore.  It takes up time and gas." 

One of the things not being considered here is that the prospect may not have any more faith that Ben is going to bring any more value to that first meeting then Ben has in getting a paid design job out of them simply because he is not yet a known commodity. Most of us answering are somewhat a known commodity in our circles. It is different.

A strategy that I used and still use is to get the prospect to match the effort that you go through rather than asking to be paid in this situation. This shows some level of commitment on their part. It may be for them to take time to meet you somewhere else (if there is a reason to do so) or to take time out of their work day .... just something that makes it more than you dropping what you are doing to meet them when they have nothing better to do .... anything that shows that they value your effort.

An un-established designer needs to build a body of work. Opportunities are few, so it is FOOLISH to risk killing off prospective opportunities by charging a consultation fee. It is also foolish to run around the countryside getting your brain picked if you can't get a paid job out of it. However, those are also  opportunities to develop your sales skills.

If you are getting plenty of paid design work and you still get too many dead end leads start charging for them. If most of your leads are dead end and you are not landing paid design work either your referrals are from the wrong market (they ain't buying no matter who you are), or your sales skills need development, or you are not selling what the prospect wants to buy, Charging for your time is not going to solve any of those except save you from participating. Most of those situations are better improved by working for others to learn from them, to network, develop skills, and learn from the market if you observe and study it well. 

All these comments are helpful, IMO. They make sense for the different points in one's career or other normal circumstances. But they may not yet be the best approach for Ben.

Andrew helped move the discussion along by referring to

run around the countryside getting your brain picked

The problem is with giving away your expertise for free.I think it makes sense to visit a client on site to evaluate and better understand the situation, their needs and what sort of client they will be. You must, though have the self-control to not let them pick your brain. Give enough insight to get them interested in what you can do, but not so much that they don't need you. Statements like,"We'll develop that when we do the design." or "I'll be better able to answer that after I study the situation" can be bridges to getting the job. When the conversation gets off topic into "Oh while you're here, why are my roses doing this?" you have to steer it back to the job at hand.

It can be tricky walking that line. But it avoids the problems of requiring a fee just to look at the job, on the one hand, or losing the job by giving it away for free. When you have a successful, growing practice you can play it differently.

I would tell people "the first hour( or half hour) is free-the next is 100.00 an hour". It gets you in the door to sell/assess the job. At times, you may want to do up front work. You can make it up on the material or if its a long term job, your money is made on the time you don't have to spend selling. If you know what your doing, people will pay for your time. If people don't have 100,00 to spend-there is no job in it, but the free hour might get you the best thing-a recommendation from that person to someone who has a great job for you. I had nightmare customers who paid up front a deposit for design work. I gave them the money back just to get them out of my hair so I could work on pleasant customer's jobs. Working up front can be better for your thought process because you don't have someone pressuring you. If you don't do cookie cutter landscapes- it takes more effort to design.You can put the fee in with the rest of the job, price it into materials cost or tell people they can pay when your done-but give them a price for the design. For new customers, write up a quick contract for them to sign or you have no recourse if they don't pay. If they say "I don't need a contract-I trust you" don't trust them, the ones who do this -think they don't have to pay for anything and they get away with it unless you are just as smart as they are. Conversely if someone just does not like what you did-I wouldnt charge them and would take back the design.

One side of the equation is the designer. Our worth is one aspect, .... what is our time worth, what is our expertise worth, ...  Another aspect is how well positioned we are to have opportunities to get paid work .... who is contacting us, where did they find us, who is referring us, WHY are they contacting us. A third aspect is how do we convert an opportunity into paid work ... charging for consultation, showing what we did for other clients, .... and that balance between the paranoia of giving away too much information prior to being under contract and not exploiting the opportunity to its fullest by freely telling the prospect what you might do and why you would do it that way. I used to be in the paranoid camp with most other designers. When I left that camp, I closed on at least 90% of the proposals that I wrote.

The other side of the equation is the prospective client. First and foremost is whether they are committed to hiring a designer or just fishing for ideas. They either are or they are not. If they are not, there is nothing you can do to change that. If they are, there is nothing that you are going to say that is going to make them decide they don't need a designer anymore.

Many designers believe that if you charge for the initial "consultation" it pre-qualifies the prospect and you know they are serious. It absolutely does. However, it does not disqualify everyone else from being a viable prospect. Think about it. There is zero value in paying any designer other than the one who is to be hired  to come out and audition for the job. Who is going to take the ideas of one designer and hire a different designer to design it instead of the one with the vision?

If you have more prospects than you want to deal with a consultation fee will absolutely reduce that to only those valuing design. Depending on your reputation, who referred you, and why YOU were selected by the prospect will determine whether a consultation fee will benefit you or reduce your opportunities to little or none.

A lot of potential clients view it this way. "I have a big opportunity for someone to make a bunch of money. I hold the value. What are you going to do for me that is going to make me want to give you my money?  .... and you want me to pay you so that I can see if I will want to pay you more?" I have worked for people in modest homes and ones with homes worth over $10m. None of them want to pay for something they don't value.

I differ from the paranoid designer segment in that when I meet a prospect I have a lot of discussion with them to develop their program. This is all done verbally. Then I often walk them through what it is that I'm going to do in general. I don't worry that they'll build it without me or that they'll have another designer try to implement my ideas. Good luck to them if they do. What have I lost? An hour and a bunch of talking? What have I gained? I have a prospective client who knows that I understand them, that I understand the site, and that I understand things in the landscape that they don't. Put that up against someone that is a little mysterious and only gives them bits and pieces of what they'll do or someone that wants $100-$200 to talk about what they'll do and who do you think they are going to hire? They are likely going to hire me or they probably were not really prepared to hire anyone in the first place.

My trick to pre-qualifying potential clients is to minimize who can find me. We are often taught that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but this problem we are discussing is directly due to exactly that. If you don't want bottom feeders finding you, don't put your name where they can see you (Angie's List, Craig's List, bulletin board at the senior center, yellow pages,....).

You simply can not make a living in design if you value design more than your potential client. Your potential as a designer is not valued. Only your track record has value. That can be your portfolio of built work or it can be who your referral network is and what they say about you. Too many of us expect that we can jump right into this without that network or with a weak portfolio of built work.

Whatever built work gets produced from your designs is going to beget more of the same and maybe slightly better. This is your baseline referral network. If it is bargain work, the prospects referred are most likely looking for bargain work as well. Once you go discount, you'll always be discount. I know, I've been there and done that 30 years ago. If the only work you can get is discount work, stop until you can work for others who are already working in a more viable demographic. Become identified with them and their market. Become connected to their network and THEN do your freelance thing from a better position. That is what I did after learning the hard way.

PS. If you don't charge for "consultation" you can bail out at any time if you think you are wasting your time.

I agree with your last line completely-except that I never see helping people or getting them excited about their landscape-or educated about environmental landscape issues, as a waste of time. They might not be ready -yet. I also had one of my longest running jobs that paid my business expenses for six years, working for the CEO of a top ad agency in NYC, come from a classified ad.


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