First, let’s define our terms: what is a consultation?
You are a layperson and you need answers from a professional. Maybe you're planning a DIY project, or maybe you seek advice that you can use to hire other professionals, or perhaps you just need to wrap your head around an overwhelming set of decisions and find out what to expect if you move forward at all. If you’re just chatting with a designer over the phone, that’s probably not a consultation: there's no advice; you're just testing compatibility.
A consultation is by definition an appointment where you obtain concrete advice and information. With a paid consultation, there are clear criteria for measuring the success of the appointment. You should have an agenda and goals for the consultation—and your designer should be able to help set these. For instance, you may say to yourself, “I need answers to my questions,” or “I expect a candid assessment of my home,” or “I want to hear a specific plan for next steps.”
Interestingly, in the 20th Century, an “initial consult” was a key strategy for a homeowner to ensure a businessperson was legitimate. This is no longer necessary (thank you, Internet). Today, you can read online reviews; verify a well-organized, informative website; learn about the professional's viewpoint through blog entries or comments on advisory forums; and engage directly with the firm through a contact form and email. The outmoded "initial consult," however, still points us toward a valid 21st Century opportunity: see what it would be like to work together by actually testing the waters.
If a designer offers this opportunity for free, why is this a red flag?
For starters, a designer should be confident of their own value. If they don’t think their expertise is worth paying for, how confident in their expertise can you be? Also, learning that a designer doesn’t charge for their time is itself valuable intel in screening candidates. Remember that free consultations are widely accepted by the business community as being bad for the brand. So, what sort of businessperson is promoting something that is detrimental to their own firm? More importantly, you might wonder why you should care whether a prospective designer is a good businessperson. Good question! The answers are plentiful, but the top three are:
(1) You are going to task this professional with managing your budget and spending your hard-earned money;
(2) If their business is successful, it’s an indication of their success on past projects and working with other homeowners;
(3) Your designer is going to be your advocate, so you want someone who is going to negotiate the best deals, stand by you when things get tough, and ensure your needs come first when working with tradespersons, the general contractor, or the condo association, co-op board, or municipal agencies.
Ask yourself: what are you really getting?
If you are investing your own time and energy, shouldn’t that be rewarded with valuable service? If there is no investment from the designer, literally anything they tell you is worth the zero dollars you have paid them. And you should ask yourself: “is the designer waiting until I actually sign on to a larger project before giving me the really juicy advice and insider tips?” You want a designer who does not hold back. On the flip side, you should also ask yourself how invested you are in your own home. A consultation fee is a very small amount of money compared to what you’ll spend to implement even a narrow scope of work, so it is worth finding out for yourself if the prospect of paying that small fee makes you uncomfortable. One of the most important responsibilities of the homeowner toward a successful project is financial commitment. If you’re not ready for that, then you should wait before moving forward.
What do you get with a paid consultation?
Interior designers and architects belong to structured professions just like lawyers, accountants, and medical professionals who charge for their time and advice. Paying for services tells the professional that you value their expertise and solidifies the investment you both are making. You provide the designer the freedom to be completely open and honest with you, and your commitment is rewarded with real, candid, and valuable advice. You also get to test out a particular designer and see what it would be like to work together on a larger project, as well as assess their business acumen. When you don't pay for anything, all of this goes out the window (or door...you pick the architectural metaphor).
Simply put, you can’t afford a free consultation.