I’ve been in the interior design—not decorator—business since 1975. And there’s a big difference between the two: I design entire homes or kitchens and baths, not just do froufrou.
When a client suggests my design fees are too high and I need to sharpen my pencil to get the job, I tell them sure, I can do that. It’s simple: The pencil has two ends, the lead and the eraser. I just turn the pencil over and start erasing something on their wish list, which immediately cuts the price. That usually gets them to stop and think.
Expertise for Nothing
I got a call from a woman who had seen my work at a Design Showcase House and wanted to know whether I could stop by her house to give her some ideas. I said I’d be more than happy to make an appointment for a consultation, but that I don’t do drop-bys. She said that was fine and asked when I could come by.
I asked about what kind of design work she was interested in and she said that her kitchen is old and maybe needs tearing out and expanding; the bathrooms are also in terrible shape; and she needs some updated furniture in her overused family room.
I said I could help with all of the above. I then pointed out that I charge an hourly consultation fee, so I asked her to make a list of wants and wishes so we could use her hour wisely. And then the conversation turned: “Oh, you charge?” she asked. “Yes,” I said, “I give you a lot of information in that hourly consultation time.” “Well,” she said, “I wasn’t expecting you to charge me. I’ve had four other decorators out and they didn’t charge.”
It was time to set things straight. “Mrs. Smith,” I said, “first of all, I’m not a decorator, I’m a designer, and second, if you’re making a fifth call by contacting me, I assume you got what you paid for from the other four decorators.”
I told her that I give each consultation as much time as the client needs to ask questions, and I offer suggestions and advice that the homeowner can take some time to think over, but that you’re paying for my expertise.
“What if I don’t like your advice?” she said. “Do I still have to pay or do I get my money back if I decide not to use your services?”
In response, I provided a similar example from another profession: An attorney friend of mine had a client who hired her for divorce proceedings. But a few months later the client called to say she and her husband had gotten back together and she wanted her money back. The attorney did the work asked of her, but the client changed her mind about the divorce. To which Mrs. Smith said, “Are you comparing what you do to what an attorney does who went to college?” I said, “I attended UCLA for five years in architecture and interior design and, like the attorney, I perform services and get paid by the hour.”
A moment of silence, and then ... “Let me speak with my husband and get back to you,” she said. “I don’t think he’ll want to pay for just ideas.”
I found out early that I don’t have to take every job. And, in the beginning of my career when I charged very little, I found that clients didn’t take me as seriously as they did when my fees were higher. I’ve gone from charging $35 per hour in 1975 to charging $350 per hour. And this year I’m charging $400 for the first hour and $375 for each hour after that, and clients can apply half of the first hour toward the last payment on a completed job.
You need to be paid for your skills in order to be taken seriously as a professional.