Friday, September 28, 2012

What is an initial consultation, and why should I PAY for one?

JOI Blog fans:
I was planning to post an article this week outlining the process of working with an interior designer.  I found when writing, that the "Initial Consultation" step was rather extensive, so I am dedicating this post to that topic.  Enjoy!

The first step in acquiring interior design services is scheduling an “initial consultation”.  A proper client-designer relationship should not take place without this step, whatever one should choose to call it.  An initial consultation is basically what the name implies---a first meeting between the client and the interior designer.  It is usually at the client’s home, and extends for a period of between 90 to 120 minutes.  My fee for a first consultation is $150 per hour.  Charging for hours spent should be consistent among all professional interior designers, at least when that designer is billing the client directly.  Today, people are reluctant to pay a single penny for anything unless it is absolutely necessary.  The investment, whether big or small, needs to be fully justified.  To many, a simple initial consultation does not seem worth $150.  However, in the case of MY company, it is a highly necessary part of the process.  Not to mention that charging for product and/or services is a given for companies that wish to remain in business.  Sadly, since people will take what they can get for free, it is common for clients to take advantage of certain designers that choose not to charge for the initial consultation.  They ask for opinions on colors and room layout, and once receiving what they need, proceed to not hire that designer, hence cheating the designer out of their time and mileage spent.  The charging of a fee for an initial consultation is necessary for the services provided, time spent, and insurance for the designer should the client decide not to move forward.  In the case of my company, should the client decide to move forward and purchase a design package from me, I then credit the consultation fee towards the design package (depending on the size of the project this may not be applicable).  So in a sense, the design consultation IS free.  Nevertheless, clients have the right to know the functional value in the “initial consultation”.  I will take the opportunity to explain in this post.

During the initial consultation, I first get to know the client and their personality by having relatively general discussion---chatting.  General social discussion may seem irrelevant to a design project but that is entirely untrue.  Discussion on various topics such as the client's job, family, pets, and regular recreational activities helps enormously with getting to understand the client’s personality and lifestyle, which in turn helps with creating a space that is perfect for them.  A good design is one that is attractive and livable.  A great design is one that harmonizes with the client’s inner self, and enhances their lifestyle.  To achieve this, “chatting”, while sometimes brief, is critical.  While listening, I can formulate in my mind the sort of design that is compatible with the client.  Not to mention the fact that I love getting to know my clients and connecting with them as friends.  A job is not enjoyable and may not go as smoothly if a designer has not established a friendship/compatibility with the client.  I usually set aside 2 hours for an initial in-home consultation, because the “listening” takes just as much time if not more than the design input itself.  After chatting, I then address the space in question with the client.  Hypothetically, lets say the kitchen. 

I listen to the client's concerns about the current functionality of their kitchen.  Lack of functionality is usually more of a problem than aesthetics, but both are discussed in great detail.  In the words of famed 19th century architect Louis Sullivan: “Form ever follows function”.  Another phrase commonly used is “the kitchen is the heart of the home”.  If the kitchen is the heart of the home, then it MUST be personally pleasing to the client---not just some cherry cabinets and a slab of granite.  Those materials, while attractive and popular, have been used now to the point where a client’s newly updated kitchen looks just like every other updated kitchen on the block.  This is the design aspect where general contractors tend to fall short.  See my post Contractors Prefer Designers .  Sure, the now standard cherry and granite combo tends to have good resale value.  But resale is not the ONLY important thing when remodeling one's kitchen.  
What is now a rather generic cherry and granite kitchen--- it lacks warmth and personality
In the initial consultation for kitchens, I collaborate with the client on how they currently use their kitchen, and how they would prefer to use it if they changed it, assessing what tasks they would like to perform that their kitchen does not currently accommodate.  One common issue with kitchens is poor traffic flow.  For couples that enjoy cooking together, a certain layout and alignment of appliances is required so both users are not constantly bumping into each other.  Another major problem is entertaining compatibility.  A client that entertains groups regularly will tend to need a larger more open kitchen layout, with plenty of seating capacity.  Also, if a client hosts Thanksgiving dinner for instance, they usually desire double ovens, as well as a prep sink.  Homes built in the 1990's and prior do not tend to comply with this need.  The list goes on and on.  I listen to all their current problems and wishes, and from that information I am prepared to deliver an ideal design.  Outstanding kitchen remodels cannot be performed in a period of 2 hours, but without the 2 hour preliminary consultation, a project can become rapidly discombobulated. 

The initial consultation is not just an opportunity to sell future services, but it is a critical part of the overall success of a project.  There is one exception.  You will see many ads promoting “free initial design consultation” in home improvement publications and online.  In these instances, the “designer” is a salesperson whose goal is to sell a room's worth of product--- not to offer free design advice.  Spending a complimentary hour with one of these sales reps usually does not provide any significant information, other than rough price estimates, that are never accurate in the long term.  It is a method of converting a client’s inquiry into a sale.  See my past article on this: "Is Free Design Service Really Free?" Professional interior design services are, for most, a worthwhile investment.  But of course they are not necessary for everyone, and for some the expense is just not an option.  In the case of homeowners that are truly at a loss of how to approach their room, I offer a new service called “Concept Design”.  "Concept Design"  For homeowners who are curious about interior designers--- their process and value, I will be featuring another post next week on the other stages in a project beyond the initial consultation.  Stay tuned, and be sure to contact me if you have any questions!

A warm, inviting, and personalized kitchen

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


To my fellow home improvement professionals:

I recently invested in an ad with ServiceMagic (now HomeAdvisor), a search engine similar to Angie's List.  They pitch the idea that they pre-qualify the leads they send you, making sure they are serious, and ready to hire.  They admit that the lead will also be sent to a few other contractors, but you have a much better shot if you contact the lead the minute they inquire.  Plus, they also screen the contractors that they advertise by performing a background check and legal US citizen check which requires providing a social security number that is allegedly encrypted when entered into their system.  The screening process also includes verification of insurance, licensing, and references.  I passed the screening process with flying colors, and gained the "ServiceMagic Seal of Approval".  I found out later on (after I had been approved) that they had not bothered to contact any of my references. 

Having discussed the plan in great detail with the phone sales rep, I agreed to $30 per kitchen remodel lead, one lead maximum per month, with the option of turning off my leads when I did not want to be charged or if I was too busy to take new jobs.  The first inquiry I received was an empty lead.  I could not reach them by phone or email, even after several tries over the course of a week.  I was not expecting a miracle, but this one incident made me uneasy, so I thought I would check outside reviews from past ServiceMagic users.  I was stunned when I read what people had to say. "Scam" is a fairly extreme term, but it seemed to be a common term used in HUNDREDS of reviews.

Those few (and I mean FEW) that had good things to say about ServiceMagic seemed to all have the same story, using the same reasoning and phrasing.  Hmmm.  Based on my research, the general formula for these positive reviews was as follows:

"I have been with ServiceMagic for many years, and they have sent me tons of business. The leads they send are pre-screened, but ServiceMagic will not hand you the sale/job.  You have to work for it.  You have to follow up with the leads, and sell yourself to the client.  Only the best of the best salespeople will benefit from ServiceMagic".    ---John Doe

I personally am WELL aware of the process of selling one's self to a customer--- explaining the advantage that my company has over others.  I understand the need for follow-up and have been doing that for years.  However, with this empty lead, I was not given the chance to speak with the customer at all.  Yet, ServiceMagic denied my request to credit me back on this particular transaction.  I did not turn the internet upside down documenting millions of victims, but I did not have to read much to become very scared and concerned for my identity and my money.  I will give some examples of comments that appeared over and over again in hundreds of reviews:

1.  ServiceMagic's "Pre-screened & qualified leads" most often are empty leads. If a designer/contractor is unable to reach the lead issued to them, they should not be charged for it. 

2.  ServiceMagic has an option to credit the contractor back for these empty leads, but I was denied that. This was the excuse I GOT:  "We cannot credit your account because we have no way to know why the customer is not responding to you".  What???  Refusing to credit a contractor for an empty lead that for all I know is a fabricated identity is at the very least shady.

3.  Many contractors attempted to close their accounts, only to find it re-activated in 30 days with an automatic charge to their credit card STILL ON FILE.  Several remarked that they had to call customer service repeatedly in their attempts to cancel, and were still being charged.  Some even went through the hassle of cancelling their credit card so that their card on ServiceMagic's records could no longer be charged.  Wow.

4.  Some contractors who were able to cancel their accounts had a very interesting report:  When doing an online search for their own company, they found that ServiceMagic was still advertising their company name, but referring the customers inquiring to S.M. operators, who would then provide the customer with DIFFERENT contractors' names and contact info.  This is probably the worst of all the offenses committed by ServiceMagic---charge contractors for empty leads, and then use the contractor's own name to gain business for other paying companies.  That is pretty bad.  See this video for one man's story:

Having read so many horror stories, I cancelled my account (or attempted to) right after I got my first lead.  I had a relatively tight budget to start with, and I did not want to repeat the situation even once. That was weeks ago, but while I was working on some new advertising for my company yesterday, I came to find that the fore-mentioned man's story was TRUE.  My name and photograph appeared on ServiceMagic, along with a phone number that was not my own. They had "de-activated" my account, but had not removed me from their website.  I immediately emailed them saying "I need to be removed from your system or I will take legal action".  Sure enough, today I received an email back saying they had completely removed my name.

It may be true that ServiceMagic has had some success stories.  However, after finding them guilty of the online accusation through my own experience, I want to issue a warning to my fellow designers and contractors:  Do your homework.  Before you get sweet-talked into signing with any ad company, do research and read every letter of the fine print.  I had to actually look up ServiceMagic's terms and conditions on their website, and after the fact, determined what a joke their system is.  I don't actually remember the phone sales rep mentioning these terms and conditions when she signed me initially.  Maybe I'm forgetting... maybe I'm not.  I take responsibility for myself being suckered into this scam (OK I said it-- SCAM), but I want other designers and tradespeople to learn from my mistake.  Maybe its a scam, maybe not.  Do your research, and draw your own conclusions.


Sunday, September 2, 2012

Follow Me!

Hello J.O.I. fans!  Apparently my blog audience is starting to span the globe! I would like to become more familiar with my fans.  Readers now have the option to "Follow me", and follow via email.  "Follow" my blog, and SAVE 10% on your first J.O.I. design package.  Happy Labor Day to all, and I look forward to writing more articles this fall.    :)

HGTV - Good Versus Evil PART 2

                Part 1 of this article summarized what I believe to be some of the worst HGTV series', from a professional interior designer's perspective.  Of course there are always exceptions.  More recently, I believe that HGTV has integrated some slightly more realistic shows that expose the public to the professional aspect of the industry, and not just the glamorous aesthetic side---shows that do not discredit legitimate industry professionals, and fail to address the more technical and difficult sides of home improvement projects.  In Part 2, I address the more positive side of HGTV from my professional perspective.


                Alright, I guess I’m a sucker for Divine Design.  Why?  I believe that Candice Olson (show host and interior designer) consistently delivers superior quality work.  She actually did attend and graduate from a CIDA accredited interior design school, which I can appreciate.  I myself graduated from a CIDA accredited program (Council of Interior Design Accreditation), so I can appreciate the grueling process and requirements of going through this particularly challenging caliber of study.  I believe that her commitment to formal education separates her from many of the other hosts on HGTV, which have obviously undergone no specialty education in the industry (or at least exhibit no trace of decent training).  Candice’s professionalism and sense of humor make the show enjoyable.  The excellent quality of her designs is a credit to the profession, and if I had to encourage viewers to refer to one designer/series on HGTV, Divine Design would probably be it.  While she never verbally addresses/acknowledges budget when developing her designs, the amazing end product I believe compensates for the lack of disclosure on the part of the network.  The series takes on more of a "perfect world" design approach, where there is no budget.  Candice stars on the show, along with three contractors, one lighting specialist, one painter/wall finisher, and one general contractor/builder.  Of course there are behind-the-scenes contractors and assistants, but this is fiction after all.  Again, if I needed to choose a designer on HGTV that would act as a representative for all professional interior designers, she would be the one.  She is friendly, easy to work with (or so it seems), and immensely talented.


                 “Holmes Inspection” is a show that addresses a very much overlooked aspect of home improvement projects:  BUILDING CODES AND PERMITS!  When homeowners are excited about demolishing a part of their house and rebuilding it from the ground up (or remodeling an existing structure) one step they often fail to address is getting permits.  On projects involving any sort of alteration to walls, roofs, or foundations, there is typically at least one permit that will be required, along with a building inspection to validate that the homeowner and builder have complied with all necessary building codes and standards.  Mike Holmes (show host and contractor) shoots each episode with a homeowner that has completed a home improvement project and later discovered that the conditions are not up to code (or they experience a failure of some sort, like a leak, or an electrical fire).  Often this is a result of their employment of a less than qualified contractor.  The show is constantly discouraging the use of cheap and under-qualified contractors.  Of course no one willingly employs someone under-qualified, but today, people have more of a tendency to hire CHEAP.  And as with all things, you get what you pay for.  While this is not the main premise of the show, Mike seems to get the message across that contractors are not all created equal.  They must be hired based on qualification, not price.  If the homeowner does not have the funds to hire a qualified contractor or specialist, then they should not pursue the project.  It is important for the client not to be ignorant about this because it is a question of not only taking care of their home, but complying with FEDERAL AND STATE LAW.  If a house does not meet certain codes, that is at the expense of the homeowner, not the contractor (depending on the contractor's agreement and insurance).  It is the homeowner’s responsibility to make sure their home is constructed legally, or there can be VERY heavy fines, and potential incarceration.  The client must also arrange inspections at the necessary stages.  A qualified builder/contractor should be able to recognize the stages that require this.  Some contractors consider these laws to be flexible, but when is the law flexible?  Naturally, it is the responsibility of the homeowner as well to do their homework, and not be ignorant about the required steps and codes for home improvement projects.  This is one major advantage to hiring an architect to do the job instead of a general contractor.  Architects must always be updated on the California Building Code (CBC).  A contractor may only be familiar with select codes that were changed 15 years ago.  In the end, the homeowner is responsible.  To conclude, as a professional, I appreciate the fact that Holmes Inspection stresses the importance of attention to the nitty-gritty details in home improvement/alteration. 


                This was probably my favorite series on HGTV, which regrettably was cancelled in 2009.  It doesn’t surprise me though.  It probably lacked the upbeat fast-paced humor that is found in less than professional shows like Design on a Dime.  It definitely lacked the encouragement of DIY.  Designer’s Challenge featured 3 professional interior designers in competition with each other to gain a client’s business.  Each designer consulted separately with the client to address their style, project parameters, and budget.  Once that was completed, they each assembled their own design, and presented it to the client.  The client then decided based on the three different design concepts which designer they would use.  The show followed the design development and execution, covering details such as structural adjustments (and the potential roadblocks involved), ordering of custom furniture and draperies (and the lead time involved), and the specific methods utilized by the designer to accommodate functional needs such as storage, lighting, etc.  Unlike the shows mentioned in Part 1, this show exposed homeowners to the practice of interior design as it applies in the REAL WORLD.  It showed various advantages of hiring a professional interior designer--- dedicated customer relations, functionality in the end product, and budget management.  The show also starts off acknowledging the details behind the qualification of each designer (education, affiliations, experience, etc.). As far as “real world” television series’ go, I believe this was definitely among the more dignified.

                Property Virgins features a couple/individual that wants to buy their first home.  In most cases they have a relatively tight budget (as do most Americans today).  The premise of the show is for a realtor to take a property virgin around to 3 recommended homes based on their budget and criteria.  I appreciate this show because it helps viewers realize that you cannot get everything you want unless you are willing to spend the money.  With restricted budgets, you need to be flexible in your requirements.  Details such as wood flooring, cherry cabinets, granite countertops, walk-in closets, stainless steel appliances, walk-in multi-jet showers, large yards, and large master bedrooms come at a price.  Many guests on the show come in expecting all of the above, turning up their noses at all three properties because they aren’t perfect in every detail.  They are exposed to the reality that with a limited budget, one cannot have the world.  One needs to make compromises, or be prepared to spend more money.  When touring homes, often prospective buyers will see a wall color that displeases them, and automatically rule out that particular property.  Paint color is ridiculously easy to change, and at a minimal price.  When it comes to larger projects like kitchen and bath remodels, sometimes you just need to compromise and take the maple cabinets instead of cherry, or the laminate counters instead of granite, OR purchase a fixer-upper at a very low cost, and be willing to put in the extra elbow grease to make the house EXACTLY the way you want it.  In California, if you go out with 100k to spend, and want all the luxury details that you find in Architectural Digest (in a ready to move in home) you will be looking for quite a while.  Property Virgins features young couples who make compromises such as settling for the house with the smaller master bedroom based on their preference of a gourmet kitchen---or a bachelor who settles for small closets because he wants a large yard for his two dogs.  Among the shows on HGTV I believe that this is one of the most educational for younger viewers that want to buy a home. 


                Income Property, as the name implies, features a homeowner who wants to rent out all/part of their property, and needs to make architectural adjustments to first make the space legal to rent, and second appeal to renters and increase profits.  I appreciate that this show educates its audience about the different building codes that apply, and how some homes may not be compliant (similar to Holmes Inspection).  It encourages viewers to see the hidden potential of an outdated space, and how a few extra investments can reap great rewards.  Investments such as: re-facing some cabinets; removing wallpaper and painting instead;  or replacing older light fixtures with ones that are more modern and energy efficient.  Replacement or alteration of heating/AC units can be immensely helpful to profits in the long run.  Any revisions made to a home on this show, whether structural or not, are described in detail as to how they comply with codes and how the revision will increase the rent cost/profit.  I appreciate how this show goes into detail about the REASONS behind the chosen revisions.  Some shows feature a homeowner painting a room without specifying why that color will benefit them, if at all.  Color can effect an inhabitant psychologically, so it is important to give thought to the color chosen.  Other shows may feature a contractor replacing someone's carpeting with wood floors, but they neglect to mention the cost involved, or the wood chosen and why it is appropriate for that particular client.  For instance, in a rental property, it is always important to make sure that the home's elements are DURABLE.  Someone who rents versus owns will be less inclined to make extra efforts when it comes to the maintenance of the space.  Therefore, the precaution must be taken in advance by the owner to make sure the space is low maintenance.  When it comes to flooring, maple is an excellent choice for rentals because it is very durable and low-moderately priced.  Such details exposed on this show I believe help homeowners get in touch with reality before they tackle a huge project that requires a huge amount of responsibility, and a significant investment.

               In conclusion, I believe there are some shows to avoid and some to take more seriously.  Those listed in Part 1 are ok for entertainment purposes, but are inadequate resources for those actually hoping to improve their home.  Part 2 lists shows that while maybe not the MOST exciting, are more realistic and educational.  HGTV is supposed to be an educational network, but like all networks, has its highs and its lows.  To HGTV fans, I hope my article has been helpful.