Picture this: you sit down for a client consultation meeting with brand new clients. They just moved into a newly built home and they want you to completely design their bedroom. You know that they want a unique design with a very different style, color scheme, floorplan, and atmosphere than they had in their previous home. The clients seem eager to get started, but you quickly realize that they have no idea what they want. How do you handle the situation?
Before the meeting
Believe it or not, you can prepare beforehand for clients who don’t know exactly what they want. Enter the client consultation meeting ready to guide clients through the process of choosing colors, styles, and floorplans. This will help you stay calm and organized if you’re met with a blank stare.
Start by asking yourself a few questions:
- What do you already know about the clients?
- What can you ask them to learn more about their needs and tastes?
- What can you ask them to get the information you actually need to begin?
- Precisely what information do you need to determine whether you can work well with them?
You’ll encounter many clients throughout your design career who come to you with little or no ideas. The consultation meeting can still be productive for everyone. Use it as an opportunity to figure out what they like, what designs meets their needs, and whether you and those clients might work well together.
Gather what you do know
Analyze what you already know about these potential clients. Even before the consultation, your initial interactions can inform which concepts you propose first. Think about:
- Their age
- Whether they’ve mentioned kids or family
- Where their house is located
- The size of the space
- Any likes or dislikes they’ve mentioned
Even basic details can set you on the right track for thinking of a design concept. Gathering the details you already have gives you something to work with in case the potential clients have no idea what they expect from you.
Outline what you need to know
You can only go so far with basic details. The consultation meeting is your chance to learn what else you need to move forward. Before the meeting starts, think about the kind of information you’ll need to get from the client in order to consider entering into a contract with them.
Quote a price
Most consultation meetings range between an hour and two hours in length. Clients are charged by the hour, but you should give them an idea beforehand of how long the meeting should take. If the space is simple and small, allot an hour and quote them the price, but let them know that additional fees will apply if they go overtime with you. If the space is large, complicated, or you’re looking at multiple design projects at once, quote the clients two hours.
During the consultation
The design client consultation is an opportunity to exchange information about what you can offer and what they need. Some professionals conduct their meetings at their office and set up a separate time to view the space, for example, if it is still in construction. This way, they can concentrate on determining some details without distraction.
Other professionals choose to visit the clients in their home so they can conduct a walk-through of the space as part of the consultation. Viewing the space while you discuss ideas can help you decide whether you and the clients are a good fit for each other, and whether the project is within your scope. It also helps the clients visualize your suggestions, especially if they don’t know what they want yet.
Ask clear, constructive questions
Asking questions that are direct and to the point helps the clients focus on their wants and needs rather than just agreeing with your suggestions. You want to learn about them but you probably don’t have time to listen to their life’s story, so your questions should be friendly but concise.
Find out the budget right away. You won’t be able to move forward if you don’t know what the clients can afford.
Ask questions about:
- Colors they like or dislike
- What their careers are
- What their other passions are
- What makes them feel inspired
- Whether anything (ex. a color, a painting, a piece of furniture they saw somewhere, etc.) has given them ideas.
- Elements of other rooms they like or dislike
- If they’re not sure what they do want, is there anything they absolutely don’t want?
- What did they like and dislike about the design in their previous space?
Make sure the questions are about the clients and what they want. Keep in mind that learning about their dislikes and the things they don’t need can be almost as useful as learning about the things they do like or need, especially if they’re unsure of what they want.
As you learn more about the clients, let the details jog your creativity. Help them get a clearer picture of what they like, or at least what they don’t like, by using pictures. Visual aids help clients communicate things they’re having trouble describing. Look at catalogues and photos on blogs. Show clients a mix of trendy styles and classic elements and make note of what catches their eye.
Create lists to keep track of progress made throughout the meeting. Make them for:
- Things the clients absolutely want or need
- Things they absolutely don’t want or can’t have
- Potential ideas that develop throughout the meeting
For now, don’t worry if these ideas are vague. Any material is better than what you had when the meeting started! You’ll define ideas further if you choose to work together.
Special considerations can be anything your clients require that other clients might not. Inquire whether there are particular things the clients absolutely need so you can think about how to incorporate those into the design. For example, if one client uses a wheel chair, you’ll have to take accessibility into account.
Make suggestions with confidence
If you choose to work together, the clients have the final say about what the design looks like. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should sit quietly until they’ve made a decision. A large part of your job is anticipating what they’ll like based on what you know from the consultation meeting.
Try not to throw out random suggestions without thinking them through, but be comfortable bringing up ideas during the meeting. In fact, clients will appreciate your suggestions if they’re feeling stuck. Your ideas might help them with decisions and suggestions of their own.
After the meeting
Ideally, you should have all the information you need to move forward by the end of the consultation meeting. You should have an idea of:
- What the clients are like
- What they need
- What they want
- What they don’t like, want, or need
Analyze the information you have and consider the budget. Think about your experience with the clients in the meeting. Ask yourself:
- Is the project feasible within their budget?
- Is the project within the scope of your skills and services?
- Do the clients seem ready to move forward following your meeting?
- Did you feel like you could communicate easily and effectively with them?
- Did they take your advice into consideration?
- Did they provide you with the information you needed and cooperate with your consultation process, answering your questions to the best of their ability?
- Can you see any potential problems or roadblocks to working with these clients?
- Do you feel like you and the clients meshed well enough to complete a project together?
When you’ve come to a decision about whether you’re ready to work with these clients, contact them. A phone call is best unless they tell you they prefer email.
If you decide to work with them, let them know that you’d like to take on their project. If they would also like to move forward, set up another meeting time to discuss the terms of your contract and sign it.
If you decide that working together isn’t the best idea, kindly explain that their project is not within your scope and wish them the best of luck. If you know another design professional who you think might be a better fit, speak with them about the project. If your colleague is open to meeting with the clients, recommend them to the clients in your phone call or email.
Trust your instincts
When it comes to both making design suggestions and choosing whether to work with a client after the consultation, trust your gut feeling. The more experience you gain, the easier you’ll be able to read what people want based on facts and designer’s intuition. Imagine how impressed clients will be if you lay out the perfect idea before they’ve even realized that’s what they want!