Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Such a Nice Guy Chump

For the past four years since I opened up my own architecture firm [happy anniversary to me, BTW!], my firm's website has made the offer of a "free initial consultation" to introduce myself, meet the prospective client, and talk about "the process" of working with an architect to build or remodel a house.

The cynical among us might imagine that lots of people might try and take advantage of such a nice offer by meeting the architect, sucking his brains dry of ideas and recommendations, and then setting him loose without any intention of ever hiring him.

Unfortunately, those cynics would be right. But isn't this the price of doing business?

Well, yes and no. Because a lot of people with real projects want and need to meet a couple of architects before deciding whom to hire. And going through a couple of meetings with people who just want free advice from a licensed professional is worth it if it means meeting real homeowners with real projects who wish to hire an architect.

By the way, it's more than just a few. I've met over two dozen people who, in hindsight, never intended to hire me... or any other architect. They just wanted that free advice.

But if I devised a never-failed-me-yet system for determining the real project people from the free advisees, then how might I handle the meeting once I got 'em pegged? If the people are clearly in the latter category, can I find an excuse to cut the meeting short, shake their hands, and walk away? Or do I still answer all their questions, and be glad I got to get out of my office for an hour-and-a-half to meet some nice new people?

Here's the never-failed-me-yet system: The brain suckers don't really know what they want to do, and they're hoping I might offer wise, valuable, and free suggestions, as well as a road map to getting from where they are to... some place else. They've done no legwork and are all pretty much clueless. The worst offenders are those who are thinking of buying a house, and want me, the free architect, to come by and help them evaluate it "for future additions and renovations". They all say that, thinking I'll salivate at the possibilities.

The people with real projects who are looking for a real architect always have a clear idea what they want done and what their roles as owners in getting it done will be. They're just not so sure of the design process, construction milestones, and the architect's responsibilities in all that. For example, will I help them find a contractor? Yes. Will I help them with permitting and bidding and during construction? Yes. And what kind of phases or steps would we go through during design? Three -- schematic, design development, and CDs. If these questions come up, we have a real project on our hands. If the questions are more like, "what would you recommend we do with this kitchen?" then it's brain sucking time and I'll never hear from them again. Nor will I ever receive a dime from them.

My best girl thinks I should stop offering a free initial consultation. She may be right. As for those people who don't even own the home yet, I've learned to tell them right up front that I charge $75 an hour for that first meeting... because I secretly know I'll never hear from them again whether they buy the house or not. Only one person took me up on the offer. $75 later she bought the house. Then I never heard from her again. We both walked away happy.

I probably don't need to offer a free initial consultation anymore. I'm beginning to get recommended by past clients, a word-of-mouth reputation, as well as a couple repeat customers. So the work load is definitely picking up.

What do you think?


Blogger John said...

Unpaid consultation is a "problem" for me as well. Since my company is so new (about a year old), I am almost forced to give free estimates and consultation. Most times, I manage to close the deal (I don't usually get the job that first meeting, though).

I can imagine that after a few years (and having all the work I can handle) that I might scale that back a bit and start charging a fee to come out to the prospective client's home.

One final note. In my business, the "job" is fairly well defined (hence easier to estimate precisely and quickly). In your case, the options are nearly limitless. Your "opinion" is clearly worth something. You are a professional. Perhaps there is a difference between "bidding on a job" (which I would have a hard time charging for) and "being solicited for your opinion" (which I would charge for).


10:42 PM, January 16, 2007  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

You're exactly right there, J. Lots of businesses such as in the building trades are expected to provide free estimates, which often includes lots of free brain-picking. And this chews up lots of hours.

I asked a good friend/contractor to bid on a custom house a few years ago, which required a tremendous investment of time for him to prepare. He didn't get the job when I really thought he would. That's why I asked him to bid. I felt pretty bad for him since he did it partly as a favor for me. Of course, it would have been a great job for him as well. So I bought him a 12-pack of great imported beer, knowing that he was a domestic guy all the way. Most building contractors are. I'm pretty sure he still drank it.

11:45 PM, January 16, 2007  
Blogger John said...

I have observed over the years that one of the most reliable currencies in the building trades is beer.

8:06 AM, January 17, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Tough call. Certainly you were wise to do this at the start, when your firm was relatively unknown and you personally were an unknown quantity. But what you describe is also not unprecedented in many fields - for instance, our lawyer allows for a free half-hour consultation, but after that his fee kicks in. Our accountant charges $150/hour.
Now, there's two ways to address this. One is to build that sort of freebie time into your pay structure, i.e., the $75 or $100 per hour you charge to payign clients covers in part those hours you spend with nonpaying clients...part of the overhead costs of the business, along with such things as advertisting, telephone, software licences, copying, yada, yada, yada.
The other way, if you have sufficient work already, or a stellar reputation that you can afford to pre-screen, is to tell people upfront that your consultation charge is $75/hour. The serious ones will pay it, the slackers won't, and it'll also appear that here's an architect who's so great, so in demand, that to even speak to him costs money. Certain cachet there.......

8:52 AM, January 18, 2007  
Blogger HRlaughed said...

Howard's all about the cachet! And what you put into words so nicely is what was bouncing around inside Howard's echoey noggin. It's my guess that all my clients who became real clients would have gladly paid the $75/hour for the initial consult. Still, there's that nagging doubt...

Attorneys who offer a free half-hour initial consultation are careful not to offer any legal advice, but just to review the "case" and determine and suggest if there is a "case" to begin with. Attorneys screen clients the same as clients screen attorneys. Same goes with architects. I've told plenty of folks that I wouldn't be the appropriate choice for their project when most of the time it's the other way around.

I'm just getting tired of brain suckers but don't want to take a chance at losing a real client.

11:09 AM, January 18, 2007  

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