no free lunch

 free lunch

I started thinking after posting on a recent discussion board on the CRAN Knowledge Group Web Site regarding an architect who was asked to provide free design services to a wealthy client for a large project. Many shared their opinions and most applauded the architect for not giving away something for free in hopes of “landing the big one.” I’m not even going to touch that one today.

However, this lively online discussion went on to explore the topic of whether an architect should charge for initial client visits. This blossomed into a few tangential discussions, but I was surprised at the strong opinions for both sides of the argument. I was also intrigued at many of the variations of how architects deal with this subject. I sat idly by reading each day and then I had to comment. Aren’t you surprised?

So I’ll take my response and edit it a bit to circulate my thoughts on the matter and invite your thoughts too.

First of all, it’s not my place to tell you how to run your business other than to make general comments on how I believe the profession of architecture ought to operate. Therefore, we can debate all day long with vastly different opinions on whether we ought to charge for an initial visit. I am okay with that and we can gladly agree to disagree. However, unless you can afford to ‘dabble’ in architecture, the rest of us must look at it as a business.

Throughout this discussion the critical component to be clarified is the difference between meetings where both parties are getting to know each other (to confirm if they are compatible like a first date) and a consultation.  For the “meet and greet” meeting, I try to keep them brief and the topics should be broad and more about the architect’s process. I can’t see charging for this type of meeting; I consider it overhead or marketing.

When the architect is called out to meet to discuss a specific issue, give practical advice or solutions for a question asked, then there is an “exchange of value.” The architect has offered solutions or some level of expertise for a specific condition or aspect of feasibility. In that case, the meeting has gone from “meet and greet” to a consultation. Professionals charge for consultations. Otherwise, clients will continue to want to pay you the same amount as you charged before…nothing. They’ll also value it the same amount. It’s not arrogance or any other negative trait, it’s just business. This applies to any income level and project type.

No one sits down at a restaurant and eats for free. It’s well-known that people will value what they have to pay for out-of-pocket.

I don’t expect people searching for architectural services to initially understand this distinction. However, I try to make this difference known before the first meeting. I actually have a consultation brochure that I ask to send them. Nevertheless, in some cases it remains unclear. When that happens, I keep it to meeting type #1. At that meeting, I try to demonstrate to them why they need my services and endeavor to instill a sense of confidence for how I can help them. The success rate is overwhelming if don’t try to sell but demonstrate my capabilities and knowledge. People don’t like to be sold and I try to treat people the same way I like to be treated. People are capable of making informed decisions without a sales pitch.

To my architect colleagues, what do you do in these situations? To my non-architect readers, what would you expect us to do in this situation? I am interested in making this an ongoing dialogue.

Remember, there is no such thing as a free lunch and yes you get what you pay for. Cliché, but true.

photos are from Alan / Falcon’s  photostream on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

no free lunch

14 thoughts on “no free lunch

  1. william finnerty says:

    hi lee,

    i have come across this in almost all residential projects and think one of the sticking points for the ‘new’ client is they don’t know if they’ll like what you design, and so, want some kind of preview of your ideas.

    my response, similar to yours, is to explain the process and that we don’t have a bag of solutions we just pick from.

    this situation and lack of understanding of what architects do, how they do it and how they can help you can and should be part of the screening process. because, sorry to say, it very rarely changes as the architect/client partnership moves forward.

  2. Rob says:

    I have a client who is a design/builder with a client base of high end residential additions and remodels. The client is an architect also, but I work with him on construction documents etc. He has a novel approach to this issue. He frequently sends out mailers to his target neighborhoods and includes a “coupon” for one free hour of design consultation. This works on several levels. He reaches clients he might otherwise not get to meet, they get to know him, and even though he does not charge them for an intial meeting, they understand that his time has a value, and they will expect to pay for that value. Win, Win.

    1. I think there are many ways this can be handled successfully as the discretion of the person offering the time and service. I think we have all given up too much free time. However, there really is a difference between me willingly giving up my time for free and the client expecting it for free.

    2. william finnerty says:

      the mailing and 1st hour free is a good idea. i’d love to do it, but for me the ‘cold’ call success rates are way too low for the return of time invested. nothing says serious client potential like a monetary commitment even as low as $100. that initial big picture consult could easily save them thousandssssssss! the first steps and what not-to-do is as valuable as what to-do.

      the mailer is a very good mktg strategy, personally i’d just ask for a nominal fee

  3. I don’t charge for an initial meeting. However, that meeting is to see if we get along, have similar values, thoughts about the project, etc. I rarely talk about specific solutions, it’s a discussion of the process and the client’s goals. If I land the project, my fees will cover that time; if I don’t, it’s looked at as marketing.

    1. william finnerty says:

      i think i feel diffently depending on how much work i have on the ‘boards’. i know it’s not possible, but i look at the likelyhood, the size and will it be photographable? as my skills and compensation have gone up i am not as ‘competitive’ on the smaller projects that i used pick up regularly. i try to refer those now to my younger colleages. also, if i had 2-3 people back in the office cranking out dwgs i would feel better abou the ‘marketing’ (is that too many air quotations?)

      1. I’m not trying to draw a line in the sand and tell architects where they should draw it either. Sometimes clients will ask questions at meetings not knowing they’ve crossed the line into “consultation mode.” Some will get as much as they can for free. We just need to exercise wisdom and be careful that we don’t hurt ourselves and ultimately the profession with a pattern of giving it away.

        One day my father-in-law and I went to Sam’s Club and ate enough samples to have lunch. They were giving it away for free and we gladly accepted.

      2. william finnerty says:

        i do feel bad (and can only imagine what they may say about me) when i tell a potential client i can’t meet them in person. a majority of my residential clients have never worked with an architect before and that’s a good thing. the best i can do sometimes is refer them to younger colleages just starting out. at this point it’s a matter of running the business and staying in business. a sole proprietor’ s pov

      3. William- always good to hear differing opinions. Thanks for sharing.

        I look at the initial meeting as a job interview- myself and the client are just getting to know each other and see if we can develop a working relationship. I don’t offer design advice/solutions, but rather, explain my experiences and how I can be an asset to the project. I can quickly determine if a working relationship is feasible, the first meeting never lasts more than an hour.

        With that being said, if I had a substantial backlog of projects I might bill for those meetings.

      4. william finnerty says:

        i actually agree with all approaches and opinions (so far?)
        as hard as i try to standardize the process each and every project is unique and the process is tweaked. i have collected some good articles on how to work with an architect and how to afford an architect i pass along to try to start off on the same page. thanks for the conversation, always a learning expirience!

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