When was the last time you went to your doctor or your lawyer or your dentist and negotiated the fee? Never, right?
You don’t do that, because these professions have established precedents for how and what they charge, and people’s expectations match that. In contrast, the services interior designers, and to some extent architects, provide are often seen by the public as luxuries. So we can have a difficult time convincing clients of the value of our talent and skill, and that makes it very difficult to advocate for our established fees and pricing structure.
It’s our job, then, to educate clients so they understand that A) hiring us is necessary, B) our rates are fixed and based on the very real value we provide, and C) these rates earn us an appropriate profit after our overhead is taken out.
When someone is trying to negotiate with you, your value and the value of your talent are under attack. You need to protect those things, and to do that, you need to be confident and to project confidence, standing firm in the belief that clients need you, that you can give them what they are looking for, and that your fees are entirely apt. The more confident you are about your talent and its value, the less you should actually have to negotiate, even if a prospective client’s negotiating skills outmatch yours.
Not long ago, one of my clients was having a meeting to discuss a potential project with a major real estate developer. The developer’s office featured a chainsaw attached to a plaque that said something like: "Congratulations for cutting fees and costs to get this building built." My client stared at that award, dumbstruck. And then he started talking about negotiating his fees. "Clearly I’m not going to win," he said, gesturing at the chainsaw. "And, quite honestly, maybe I’m not the right fit for you. I know you like my work, but you know my costs, and you know my fees don’t earn me millions of dollars on every project. They’re fair and honest, and they are what they are."
With those few sentences, my client tipped his hat to the developer’s negotiating skills and appealed to his ego. Doing so defused the entire situation, and my client walked out with the fees he wanted. The moral of the story is: Even if you’re outgunned—or, in this case, out-chainsawed—never let them smell fear. Never let them think they can negotiate.
As you become more well-known and admired for your work, you’ll find you have to negotiate less and less, as your reputation—and your value—will precede you. But even the most talented and sought-after designers may find themselves negotiating when they want to win a project they really covet. This is dangerous, however, as it gives the client the upper hand. Even if you really want a project, you still need to remain in the driver’s seat.
Here’s an example of something one of my clients, a talented and in-demand Los Angeles designer, does when meeting with a prospective client. Before the meeting is over, he will ask, "What other designers are you talking with?" Even if the answer is, "We’re only talking to you; you’re the one we want," his approach is, "You should look around. Here are three names; go meet them."
Designers think this is risky; they worry they’ll lose a client. But 9 times out of 10, that client will return to you—probably without even having talked to anyone else. Clients want you more if you seem like you’re not all that interested. It’s the old playing-hard-to-get trick. It suggests that you’re operating not from fear but from strength, the strength to say, "No, please, go look around; make sure I’m the person for you," and that you have the confidence to know they’ll come back. (And if the prospective clients do end up going with a colleague you recommend, they probably weren’t right for you anyway.)
Get into the other person’s head to find out what she wants. To negotiate, you have to understand the prospective client’s desires and goals, as well as her concerns and fears.
A client once asked me to sit in and observe a meeting with a potential client. Halfway through the meeting, I noticed that his client, a well-known actress, was getting restless, and she soon excused herself to use the restroom. Once she was out of earshot, I turned to my client and said, "You are not listening to her. She has said four times that she wants this project to be fun, and you’ve made it all sound like logistics." He responded that he’d never heard her say that. (Like I said, he wasn’t listening!) When she returned to the meeting, the first words out of his mouth were, "I hope you know that once we deal with all the little contract details, this is going to be a really fun process." The actress slammed her hand down on the table and said, "Finally! I was waiting for you to say that—I really do want to have fun with this." The result? My client got the commission and the fees he wanted.
As much as you can entice clients to work with you by discussing your background and your ideas for a project, you also have to tailor your talking points to your clients’ needs and desires. This builds a convincing case for the value your talent has for them specifically, and they’ll be that much more willing to pay for it.
Of course, it isn’t all about the client, and you will want to talk about your past projects and successes. But do that in the context of your prospective client's project, to help them understand what you can do for them and why that will cost what it does. Take them on tours of different completed projects you’ve done—ideally in person or, if need be, through photos—explaining why each had its own cost per square foot, so they understand what their money gets them; present examples of budgets, timelines, and team structures your office has created for past commissions, so they see the organizational acumen you bring to the table.
Clients bring all sorts of concerns to the table. It’s your job to draw these out, and then make clients understand that you’re there for them, that you’re on their side and will not take advantage of them.
People often think that an architect or designer is going to push them into buying something expensive or spending some amount of money that they’re not comfortable with. You should remind them that they can always say no—every decision is truly the client’s own.
A willingness to make adjustments—in scheduling, in materials, in staffing, but not in rates or fees—will allow you and the client to arrive at a signed contract.
Clients can get caught up in thinking that our primary motivation as designers is to make money. But, in fact, we’re here to be the agent for our clients, to give them the best project within their budget. We have to explain that to clients and make sure that they don’t lose sight of that.
This article was adapted with permission from The Business of Creativity: How to Build the Right Team for Success by Keith Granet, published by Princeton Architectural Press, 2016.