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Reader Questions: How do you get people to pay you for your time and talent?

On my Facebook page last week Christine asked me:  

“I would love some advice on the business end of what you do. I have graduated from an interior design program and have been charging student prices in the hopes of attracting some clients. But it’s difficult to find people to pay you for your time and talent … Any advice?”

(This whole post is pretty much for any creative field — graphic design, landscape design, illustration, art, even music, so don’t tune out just because you aren’t an interior designer.) 

Well you are NOT alone, Christine. That is the million dollar question. I have a design show on HGTV; I have a “name” and a pretty big portfolio, and it’s still really hard for some people to want to pay me for my time and talent, so don’t feel bad. It’s not you, it’s the world we live in.


So, I guess my advice is twofold:

1. Raise your rate.

In order for others to value you higher, you have to value yourself higher. (How very self help-y, I know.) But you should raise your price to what is competitive (obviously, only if you feel your talent is competitive) and see what happens. Don’t go to the high end, but if the student rate is $75/hour and high end is $250/hour, maybe raise to $125. (This might be way different in your city, so do the research). Someone that is wealthy enough to hire a designer might wonder why you are $75 and doubt your abilities, then decide to work with the $150/hr designer because they assume they’ll be better. Unfortunately, part of being taken seriously is taking yourself seriously — I’ve learned this the hard way. By projecting this and raising your rates, your clients will stop nit-picking the invoices and second-guessing your decisions because you are a designer that works at a competetive rate. Obviously, this is contingent on your experience and talent. If you’ve only been out of school for a year, then you can’t charge high prices, but if you’ve been charging student prices for three years, then it’s time to up your game and rate.

I actually do this with services that I hire. For instance, when I looked for a QuickBooks tutor/consultant, I got three quotes — $160/hour, $80/hour and $120/hour. Because of the huge discrepencey between $160/hour and $80/hour, it made me think that maybe the $80/hour one was not very good and I might waste my time and money instead of getting a pro at $120 or $160. It may not be the truth, but it made me doubt them. Make sense?

2. Market yourself to the right clients, and often this means clients who can afford luxury services like interior designers, or people who have saved enough money and really value the service of interior designer. It’s like having a personal chef or a live-in nanny; it’s someone that you get to help you with your life when you have the money to do so. It’s not healthcare. It’s not education. It’s not a right of all Americans. Design serivces are for people with more disposable income. I can’t afford an interior designer and I’m OK with it. Luckily, with blogs and Pinterest many people can decorate their own homes without dying.

I know this sounds snobby, and it’s a bummer that it is this way, but it gets frustrating constantly defending your rate because people think it’s kinda “fun” and “just shopping” so it shouldn’t cost a lot. I don’t think people understand the amount of work it takes and the amount of knowledge (of design, resources, etc.), plus the level of taste that interior designers have to have to be good at it.

Creating a really beautiful home that is functional, organized, and represents the personalities of the clients way better than the clients could themselves is VERY difficult, and interior designers are worth every penny they bill for. (I mean, of course I’m saying this …)

The right clients WANT you to feel valued because they know that when someone feels valued they’ll do a better job and they’ll be more creative with less parameters. The right clients WANT to pay you what you deserve because they understand that as a designer they get an artist and a laborer in one — the vision and the execution is done and done well. I’ve had many of these clients and it makes the job just so fun, and all of us end up sooooo happy at the end. I feel so proud and satisfied of my work; I get new beautiful photographs that represent my style; I get paid so I can pay the bills, AND they get a house that they love — a piece of art that is full of unique moments representing their personalities and their style. Plus, every day when they come home they feel happier because of it. When it’s the right fit, it’s just so satisfying for everyone involved.

But I’ve had a couple clients who mid-job have tried to get me to not charge commission or lower my fee or go behind my back and buy something that I showed them (and therefore I don’t get the commission) or not want me to mark up things up, etc, and it’s a bummer for everyone involved. They’ll spend thousands on a piece of furniture, but then question the two hours shopping it took me to find it. I feel undervalued so I start caring less and prioritizing jobs above them. I feel insulted so I kinda avoid meetings, and then they pick up on that and are bummed that I clearly am not giving it 100 percent. My reaction isn’t intentional, obviously, and a really professional person would probably not have such emotional reactions, but I have — and I’ve learned from it.

I don’t want to make you feel discouraged, but just know that you aren’t alone; we all have this problem (especially in all creative fields). It’s just really difficult to qualify and quanitfy your creativity and talent.

So the trick is finding the right clients, and often this means wealthier clients that want this luxury of a real designer and want to pay the proper rate.

So here’s how you do that:

1. Hire a professional photographer to shoot your work after each project. You probably already do, but if you are just doing the photos yourself, then you are missing such a great marketing opportunity. Your work is inside the homes you design and your future clients don’t get to tour those homes, so your pictures need to really tell the story as beautifully as possible.

2. Use  I actually don’t do this (although I’m registered for it), but I hear it’s a really great way to market yourself and to show people what your tastes are, and it hooks you up with people in your region. It’s interior design meets social media, and I’ve been told by a lot of people that it’s paired up a lot of clients with designers, as well as contractors and other vendors. So it might be a great way to get new clients.

3. Charge a consultation fee.  This weeds out the people that truly can’t afford the luxury service of having a designer. If they balk at a $500 consultation fee (mine is $400 right now but I should probably charge more), then they are certainly going to fight you on every purchase. If I meet with them and decide they aren’t the right fit for me, often I give the money back because I feel bad, although I think I shouldn’t because it was still my time. If you charge a consultation fee, they’ll take you more seriously. You can waive it for friends and family. I’ve waived it for referrals from other clients, although I regret doing that now.

4. Choose clients wisely. Christine, you know as well as I do that each client is soooooo time consuming, so if you’re charging student prices (therefore not making a ton) and not getting portfolio work from the project, then you aren’t really progressing your business. YES, of course you are paying your bills which is necessary and I don’t mean to be all self-righteous about it when I know that sometimes that extra $500 a month is super needed, but that time and effort might be better served on a project that really reflects your style and you can sell as your best work to get higher-end clients. Which brings me to …

5. Work for free. I know that it seems counter-intuitive, but if you have a friend that has great style and will let you do whatever you want, then use them as a portfolio builder to create a really beautiful piece of porfolio work for you. You need to have a few standout photos in order to get the clients that can afford to hire an interior design service.

I still do this. I’m doing two projects right now for trade for friends (no payment, they are just paying for the goods without markup) because I want to have more creative work in my portfolio and I want to create something that I love, as well as something that they love. Of course my situation is different because I need these projects for blog content, which is another revenue stream so I’m still kinda getting paid.

It’s not a secret that clients dictate so much of how the designs turns out that often it comes out looking pretty, but not really representing us and therefore not helping us get the work that we want. If they have bad taste, then it looks like we have bad taste. So you have to have some portfolio work that really represents you. The easiest thing this could be is your house, but any friends would be good, too. Just set it up with them beforehand that they have to really trust you and let you do your thing since you are giving them such a big break on services and labor.

6. Take bad “before” and good “after” photos. Make sure that you are taking before photos (at night, bad lighting preferred, even :)) and then BEAUTIFUL after photos. It helps people imagine their transformation if they were to hire you as their designer.

7. Start a tumblr account. This is a blog that is mainly a stream of photos that you can add to all the time — whilst shopping, at a client’s house, or perusing a magazine. It could be a great tool in addition to your website. Obviously, starting a blog is a great idea as well, but it’s a LOT of time and such a commitment, whereas a tumblr account is easier and more of a collection of your inspirations.

8. Offer E-design services. This is the best way for people that can’t afford the full luxury service of design to still get a well decorated home. I get requests for this all the time, but don’t have time to do it. (I know what you are thinking — why not hire someone? But I’d still have to manage it, advise it, etc. and right now I just don’t have the time.) An E-design service includes a mood board, layout, product recommendations, fabric swatches, paint recommendations, etc. It might be a good way to pay the bills in between the big clients. Also, they might like what you came up with so much that they’ll hire you to implement it.

#9 and #10  are suggestion from the comments. Thank you guys so much for those suggestions — they are spot on.

9. Do a lot of work up front — and assume your client knows nothing. By that I mean when someone asks you for a quote, walk them step by step through the process when you give it to them, and break down the details so they know exactly what they are paying for. This helps them understand exactly why you are worth that “high” price; better than just tossing them a number and hoping they’ll accept it. (from Alison)

10. Have confidence. While in general I’m a big fan of not being cocky, there’s a level of confidence you have to project to get people to hire you and pay you a high rate. You don’t have to lie. This means explaining you haven’t done something before, but saying it with confidence so they’ll trust that you’ll do your research. Let the client know that you’re someone that can get any job done, even without being able to predict any problem that arises. Experts in every field don’t have the answers to everything, but as long as they are confident, their clients are comfortable with letting them figure it out. (from Alison)

OK, so those are all the marketing tips, but here’s my general criteria when thinking about a new client:

1. Is it fun? Will I look forward to meeting with them weekly or avoid it?

2. Is it lucrative? How is their budget? Will I be paid my worth and then some?

3. Will it help build my portfolio and be press worthy?

Now, very few clients are all three — VERY FEW. But that’s OK. For me, as long as it’s two of those (strongly), then I’m happy. Since you are starting out, you should at least have one of those things for each client. If a potential client won’t really pay properly, doesn’t have good taste and style (so you won’t want to show future clients your work), AND the personality doesn’t gel with yours, then PLEASE don’t waste your time. Instead, use that time making your space so beautiful that you’ll get the clients that are a better fit.

All of this is so easy to say and I’m sure so much of it depends on your financial situation. Plus, it can be frustrating to hear if you live in an area that just doesn’t have higher-end clientele. But my advice to someone that is a great interior designer, but undercharging and looking for more/higher paying clients? Raise your rate and market yourself to get better clients.

Anybody else have any advice to contribute or can relate to this post? Do you find it difficult in your field? And I’d love to hear from people that have hired an interior designer to get their perspective as well … Let’s dish.

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