Transition from Free Estimate to Paid Design

A conversation about communication: how do you let a client know that it's now time in the sales process to start paying for any further design work? February 16, 2012

We usually have to do a certain amount of designing to give an accurate initial estimate. I don't have a problem with that. What I do have a problem with is how to tell the client that free design time is over and it's time to pay a "design fee" or something like that to continue. I would like this information to be presented either verbally or in writing at the first meeting so they know what to expect.

I am trying to minimize getting burned and designing jobs with our software, just to have the job go to a shop who has no software. These shops can't show the client the finished layout and the client knows this so they "use" us for design by leading us on, only to burn us in the end. The small fee we collect for drawings does not cover all the design time involved. If the client doesn't get the drawings they still get away with a lot of good ideas at our expense. There is probably a fairly simple way to present this to a client but I am having a hard timing figuring it out.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor R:
I have found the best method is to inform the client prior to the meeting. Tell them the "sequence of events" ahead of time. For example, if you typically need to spend an hour of time in order to get enough information to provide a quality estimate, inform them of this information. Also, tell them what to expect after this hour. If you find you are exceeding your "listed" time limit during a meeting then cut to the chase and try to give them an approximate cost before proceeding any further. Then flat out ask for an order or additional design time, fee based. Again, they should know the fee ahead of time. Then there are no surprises or additional expectations.

From contributor J:
Why are you printing the design to show the customer? Invest on a second monitor and show them the design on the computer. They want the design without a deposit or work order they have to pay full design price, if they balk at this then you know they were shopping you so they could get a free design. This is a common practice here in Mexico. The serious people will give you a deposit, those who want freebies will walk away. In my opinion I did not sit through hours in front of the computer learning the software so that some guy with a hammer and nails can underprice me with my design.

From contributor K:
My policy has been to tell the customer what they get for and estimate ($125 and will be applied towards the job if we receive the contract up front. Exactly that a rough estimate with me measuring space and quick no frills price, and only after deposit do we do details (two hour allowance) and no drawings of any kind until the job is finished. If they should need specs for appliances we provide sizes.

Usually we take the responsibility to work with trades needed and keeping the customer out of thepicture to keep focused on an overall outcome and less stressed. It kind of gives them one stop shopping and we handle from start to finish anyone needed for us to accomplish the finished product. Remember why you’re in business - to feed yourself and family, not waste time with wishy-washy price kicking people. I wish you the best in these tough times and understand not wanting to charge up front estimate fees but this will bring in real shoppers and eliminate 95% of price kicking people.

From contributor M:
I give a proposal (you can call it an estimate as well) with detailed materials and hardware but not so much design. I will include a couple of wire framed 3D images make using my "generic finishes and door schedules." This way I hope they understand this is a kind of starting point for their kitchen and the doors and finishes are to come next. I generally quote this layout with two finishes (laminate/veneer and wooden shaker style). Another shop would have a hard time using my proposal as a plan. They might as well be copying out of a magazine. If the client wants to continue we take money down and proceed from there.

From the original questioner:
I am trying to focus on how to let the client know when the free stuff ends and it's time to put their money where their mouth is. I couldn't find much, if any info that addresses this directly.

From contributor U:
My opinion is that the design fee comes between the estimate and the proposal. An estimate is typically based off of drawings, sketches, blueprints, etc., that have been provided to you. A proposal is typically the result of you field measuring the project and providing a proposed design and the cost of that design based on those measurements. Estimates are just that, an estimated project cost based on the current "known" information. Proposals are legal, binding contracts between a buyer and seller, with the seller specifying what it is he will be providing (i.e., drawings), and should always include terms and the conditions of those terms. Both should provide payment expectations (terms).