Drawing the Line on Free Meetings

After one or two meetings, professionals charge for design work. August 7, 2006

I have a prospective client who asks a lot of questions, to the point that it seems he just wants the info so he can do the job himself. I have been to his house three times and he now requests a fourth meeting. Do you have a cutoff, or a way I could nail the contract without all this prolonged waste of gas and time? The job is just installing new factory cabinets, countertops - the basic small job. It's not a complicated job with a heavy load of drawings.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum
From contributor B:
I would end any more meetings without a deposit, as your schedule is very full and the deposit would ensure his place on the list. He's milking you for info. Drop him.

From contributor L:
Tell them it is customary for your company to offer two meetings before you start to charge for your time (insert shop rate here), and that you have been courteous and allowed three meetings without charging them. After they hear the shop rate, they may want less meetings.

From contributor F:
A friend of mine went to work for a builder/remodeler recently. They do a good number of upper end kitchen remodels. In January, a high end frameless kitchen came up in a 15 year old home. There was an arch and a homeowner, who is a semi-retired pro chef. This was to be the kitchen to beat all kitchens, pullouts everywhere, extras, etc. One or two meetings at most.

I had the job, so I supplied drawings. No less than 6 meetings (each 3 hours), numerous redraws on the computer by me (not the arch, who charges most likely $90 a hour). Endless phone conversations, trips to the finisher to get samples done (at my expense), and still no deposit. I figure I have 60 hours of my time in that one job, plus a full tank or two of gas. So I referred them off to another cabinetmaker that does high end frameless. Well, they're working him over too, and baulking at his bid. They want what they want, but at a bargain price, plus there are now last minute changes. What gets me is that they're running all over town with my drawings to get bids, and they haven't paid for them. Of course, I said I would never do this, but a new builder, one that does good work… it's easy to cave in.

From contributor S:
There is no free lunch. We have one meeting with the client to initially go over what they are looking for, budget constraints, etc. At that time, if they wish to engage us, we ask for a retainer to begin drawings and do samples. We let the client know that the retainer goes against the deposit when they go forward with the project. If for any reason the job does not go forward, we calculate our drawing and meeting time, subtract that from the retainer (at an hourly rate) and return the balance to them with the drawings, should they decide to go elsewhere (which happens perhaps 1% of the time). If we get into numerous meetings with arch's builders, etc, we ask for further funds to cover our time, again with the same caveat as above. We rarely need to return a portion of the funds, but will if the situation gets out of control and we do not wish to continue or the customer goes elsewhere.

From contributor M:
What type of retainer do you request? I currently don't do this. I go out, meet with the client, get all the necessary info, leave, do a simple front view sketch and return for it to be reviewed along with a ballpark estimate. Should I charge for this, the initial drawing and quote? I have learned to give some clients a ballpark for my built-in work prior to meeting, to weed out window shoppers that don't realize the cost of this type of work, but have never charged to do the estimating.

From the original questioner:
Sure, after the first meeting I gave him a ballpark price. Then, after the each conversation, he would say let me think about it and check my finances. Then he would call for the next set of questions.

From contributor J:
When I first started out, I got caught in the same situation as contributor F. I was designing and bidding for a reception desk at an upscale hair salon. Wood, stainless steel, and glass countertops. Very slick and very expensive, but he wanted the best. I can't tell you how many hours I spent designing, meeting, and traveling back and forth for the promise of a great portfolio piece. Well, I'm sure most reading this are chuckling about now, and already know how this story ends. The bid was too high, I was trying to take advantage of him, etc. Didn't get the project.

With a few years behind me now, I am glad I didn't get the job. Yeah, I lost all the time, but I now realize a had seriously underbid it! Also realize the guy would have been a genuine PITA to work for.

At four meetings, it's time to ask for a deposit. This is the way business is done, and if he's serious about hiring you, he should not hesitate to write you a check. If he stalls or asks for anything else, it may be time to quit while you're ahead. I generally give a client two or three meetings. As a small shop, I try to convey the personal commitment as opposed to a bigger operation. I will have some type of estimate by the second meeting and I find that if they are interested, the deposit is no problem, even before the final details are worked out. If it's too expensive for them, either I don't get a callback, or they will ask if there is anything they can change to lower the cost.

One last thing specifically for installs. It may be too late now, but I always stress how there is a lot more behind installing boxes than people think. I play up the need for an experienced installer, and how dangerous it can be to have someone inexperienced hanging the cabinets. Sometimes it will be enough to dissuade them.

From contributor T:
Doing any design work without getting paid is just wrong. It's bad business. Realize first that building or installing the cabinets is only a fraction of the services you offer. You are essentially doing half the job for free with no contract at this point. Never do drawings without a contract.

Is install what you do for a living? Are you to design, purchase and install the cabinets? Why do you want this job? It sounds like he needs a GC and a cabinet installer. If you are a cabinetmaker, this makes no sense. Let's say you were a GC. You would have a contract by now that would spell out what you are doing, when you are getting paid and a timeline for the project. Design meetings can happen after this contract is signed and money has changed hands.

Send him to Home Depot. They do this all the time. He has no reason to go through you. If you need the money, get a contract so you can get paid. It's up to you. He can't jerk you around like this without your consent.

From contributor K:
Never, never, ever leave your drawing with a prospective client without charging at least $500.00. I learned that the hard way. Now if a customer wants to keep the drawing overnight and think about it (copy them), I inform them that "yes, you may, but there is a $500.00 deposit, which will come off the job price." This might have cost me a few jobs, but I got tired of providing the information so that Uncle Elmer could do the job for less. No money? Sorry, but I cannot leave these prints, and yes, I charge that for only one page, too. Get paid for your work – that's the name of the game.