Setting Expectations
Reality 17 years ago No Comments


contributed by Lloyd Princeton [principal consultant / founder of Design Management Company

I was conducting a roundtable discussion group recently when one of the designers commented that she was tired of being “raped” by her clients. While she was not being literal in her word choice, she was sending a very interesting message in her diction. Of course, she was complaining about the amount of money that she, and many designers in the Long Island region, was charging. This designer feels victimized by her clients because she thinks she is not being paid enough money. My response: “There are no victims, there are only volunteers.”

I am reminded of another decorator in Dallas who complained that she was “glared at” by a wealthy client when she quoted $120 to do the woman’s colors. My response to the decorator was that the client was glaring at her because the lowball amount established a lack of credibility. Designers who offer services too cheaply dilute the value of services that other designers can offer.

It is imperative to establish yourself as a design professional from the outset of your communication with a client. If you don’t take the time to set appropriate expectations, they will take advantage of every legitimate avenue to save them money and use your time. While the client has the money, you have the expertise, and they are approaching you to do the job, so go in with a professional perspective.

So, here are a few pointers when dealing with a potential client:

  • Always establish an initial appointment time that is long enough to introduce yourself, but not enough to suggest you have unlimited time. One hour should be sufficient.
  • Do not give them design ideas during the interview, but do let them check your references or review your portfolio.
  • Explain the design process at length so they know that you know what you are talking about (and why you are worth what you are charging).
  • Let them know when the project will be over. It’s very important to have a light at the end of the tunnel.
  • Assure them that they control the process and that you can move as fast — or as slow — as they need, so long as they understand that you are compensated for your design and your time — always. Give them a marvelous design, and they pay you for it! That’s the way it works.

During this stage of interviewing, I recommend using visual aids for potential clients. Remember, they are hiring you because you have vision, so this is the time to start with examples. When explaining your fees, list your duties on two sides of a piece of paper, with design fees on one side and implementation fees on the other. You can show them that a design fee covers the design-related services, while a mark-up covers the implementation. This eliminates the accusation that you are double-dipping with your fees.

Another visual is a timeline of the project, showing the various phases, when certain tasks will happen, and when fees will be incurred. It is a nice overview of a project that shows them that you get it, and that there is an end in sight.

If you want to conduct a power (i.e. truly in-depth) interview, then you need ask about the potential client’s “pains.” This is appropriate as a rapport building device and something that you should use if you feel comfortable with them. In uncovering the pains, you are trying to find out their real motivation for getting a project done. While the obvious reasons may be to have a pretty home or office, the underlying reasons are usually emotional ones that are not superficial.

For instance, if someone is trying to “keep up with the Joneses,” they may not come around and say this. Or if they are not happy with their home, their family life, or themselves, they may be looking for a fix to these problems. Can you solve these other problems” Probably not. But you CAN address your solutions to these types of problems and show how your design solution addresses their concerns. This takes the solution out of the realm of money and into the realm of alleviating their pain — much more powerful!

Last, but not least, be sure to ask: “If you were ready to make a decision today, is there is any reason why you would not hire me.” This will catch them by surprise, and chances are they will answer you honestly. You then have an opportunity to address any concerns they might have before the interview is over. Ask them when they plan on making a decision and when would be an acceptable time to follow-up with them.

By taking the time to let them know that you mean business, you will be one step closer to avoiding unnecessary pain from a client who does not respect your abilities. You must be in control of the process from the beginning.

If you are interested in more interview questions, please send an email to, and I will respond with a full list.

Remember — there are no victims, only volunteers!

Lloyd Princeton is a motivational speaker and business coach who exclusively works in the design industry, guiding professionals to greater profitability and satisfaction through innovative pricing structures and compelling marketing plans through his companies Design Management Company and Communication Design Studio.

Note: An abbreviated version of this article first appeared in the March/April 2004 issue of ASID Florida South Chapter’s Professional Designer Magazine.