Ask Maria: Help! I Just Had My First REAL Colour Consultation

I recently received this question from a new colour consultant:

“Maria, I need some advice, this encounter was a doozy:

I had previewed the house with my realtor friend before the buyer closed, so I already was familiar with the ‘boss’ of the living room — a rock fireplace with a mostly gold undertone. And, because of some other factors in the connecting dining room, I was prepared to offer a solution of Seashell (BM-OC 120) to start with. The end of the living room had a beautiful Palladian window facing south.

The existing slanted (not too high) ceiling was painted a ‘custom’ fleshy, orangey undertoned ugly color. The existing wall color was an aqua, which related to nothing whatsoever in the room.

The new homeowner insisted that the ceiling color was her choice and that I should colour-match it, take it to the paint store and find out what color it was.

Her outdated baths had plaid wallpaper that she also insisted had to stay as she was primarily going to use the house as a vacation rental and only occasionally stay there herself. She gave me samples of the wallpaper and asked me to find a dark green to match for the cabinets. No problem finding that. Hunter Green was perfect.

At the end of the call I told her my fee schedule is $250 for the first five hours and $20/hour every hour after that if I need to supervise her work while she’s away. Her response was to tell me she would check with a designer friend of hers in Orlando, to see if my fees were appropriate. Hmmm. After getting home I knew that the ceiling color would be totally wrong and emailed her to let her know that the color was just too fleshy, outdated and ugly (I guess that was a bit too direct).

She emailed me: Please come back to my house on Monday (tomorrow), so I can approve the green and PLEASE bring your fan decks!

So I haven’t been paid and here’s the kicker — she’s a VP of Sales for a Fortune 500 company, never married and extremely wealthy.

I am so not wanting to return to her house tomorrow. What would you do?”

Here was my reply:

“Your first calls are just going to go like this until you learn — mine went exactly the same way.

First of all, you’re 100% responsible for how this whole thing went down.

You didn’t collect for your time that day. Your client should always be clear what your fees are in advance so that there are no misunderstandings and you should ALWAYS ask to be paid at the end of the consultation.

If you had done that you wouldn’t be cranky right now, and she wouldn’t be acting like she’ll pay you when she’s good and ready or if she feels like you’re worth it.

The value of services always declines after the services have been performed (the Call Girl Principle) and as she wasn’t left with confidence in your colour choices, she wants you to come over AGAIN.

You clearly let her talk over you (she sounds like she’s either over-confident or a bully) so you did not get a chance to position yourself as THE expert. If you had, you would not have been emailing her after the consultation to let her know that the bad orange colour had to go. She would have been very clear about this during your time together.

And you made the classic error of just doing whatever she asked (trying to make her happy) rather than telling her what would be right for her house and what would be wrong and telling her WHY. Telling her that, actually, you can’t and won’t choose Hunter green if your life depends on it because it’s dated.  And if she goes ahead and chooses a Hunter green on her own she can’t tell anyone you were there.

Seriously.

But you didn’t have the experience to have that conversation in the moment, so now I would just tell her that somehow, in your conversation, you failed to establish your expertise. You won’t be collecting for your time and you’re not available tomorrow to come and help her.”

Paula thanked me for my feedback and good-naturedly chalked this up to a good learning experience.

Ask Maria: Help! I Just Had My First Real Colour Consultation

Paula’s not the only one this kind of thing happens to. Here’s an experience I had approximately seven years ago.

I wasn’t new to decorating or specifying colour, but this totally put me out of my comfort zone.

I received a call from a woman who told me she and her husband had just finished building and furnishing a 10,000 square-foot house and it needed styling, art and accessories.

Perfect for me, right?

When I drove through the gates and down the long driveway up this $20-million home, I started to feel slightly intimidated.

Ask Maria: Help! I Just Had My First Real Colour Consultation

The billionaire husband and his wife both greeted me at the front door and, as we toured the home and they talked about what they were looking for, he immediately started telling me what a big job this was and how much time it would take. He spoke to me with a condescending lilt in his voice, fully confident that I would immediately lower my hourly rate just because he said so.

He then walked out leaving me in the house with his adorable five-year old son, the nanny and his much younger wife while I walked around, took pictures and fantasized about how this job would turn me into a very sought after, high-end, luxury designer.

The very next day, he called and asked me to meet him downtown at his new luxury condo in a high rise building that he also owned and said to be prepared and show up with some ideas for finishing and styling for the condo.

I can’t remember how the conversation went that day but I I’ve never felt more patronized in my entire life. He said this was a big job and they had big expectations that I may not meet, but he will try me out. He told me I should work really hard and then show up a week from now with my suggestions for him to consider.

He would give me a list of items to source, the style of art he prefers and how I will be reporting in and updating him.

Every sense I had went on full alert. Mostly it was dread and doom from his dominating passive aggressiveness. I just couldn’t shake this icky feeling so when I got home I talked it out, went over it in my mind too many times and then promptly sent him an email and declined to take the job.

Ask Maria: Help! I Just Had My First Real Colour Consultation

And after all that, I did not even send an invoice for my time.

Back then, I remember feeling indignant considering how much money this client clearly had, but looking back now, because of steps I missed in the initial phone conversation, I ended up vetting the client when I arrived instead of on the phone, in advance of the meeting.

Because this was not my ideal client, I was unable to provide any value during the call  which is why it was right to not have billed for the appointment anyway.

Who they needed back then would have been one of the recent Interior Designers, Richard Rabel, who attended my Toronto Specify Colour with Confidence training.

Ask Maria: Help! I Just Had My First Real Colour Consultation

Richard Rabel (above) was Senior Vice President of Christies for 10 years and now has his own private art consulting and interior design business in New York City – Richard Rabel Interiors + Art

And Richard went through his own learning experience when he first started charging for his art consulting services, this is his story:

“I know that the art advising component could take an immense amount of time and have little rewards (but when the rewards were there, there were huge), so when I started I charged a commission per transaction and nothing else. 

But then I had a client who was requesting I find a Picasso with specific colors and subject matter.  

After close to 8 weeks of prying dealers and private collectors all over the world, I finally found one that fit the bill. 

When I showed it to the potential client, they capriciously said they didn’t want THAT tone of pink color and were not interested in the painting. 

Never again. 

Finding the Picasso had me burn bridges and waste people time (including mine) so that was a turning point in the way I charge for art advising. 

Now, serious clients pay me a monthly retainer to cover all the foot work and an agreed commission for any piece of art that is purchased. My time and skill is properly rewarded.”

Charging for services is challenging no matter who you are or when you start in business.

Every client and house is different, so after you’ve been in a few situations that you haven’t been in before, you learn how to handle them.

At the beginning of your career, you need every possible chance of work that comes along, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of making yourself or your client wrong when you end up in a situation where you are clearly not working with your ideal client.

That’s when you need to learn that not everyone is your client because we all have an ideal client that’s perfect for our skill set.

Bottom line, if you’ve had a similar situation and ended up just being mad at your client because you didn’t get paid?

Look at it again from a place of being responsible.

Because that’s where all your power comes from anyway.

Over to you my lovelies. Do you sell a service (and it doesn’t have to be design) and can you relate to any of our stories? Please share in the comments below!

In my Specify Colour with Confidence™ training I teach how to take the lead like an expert in your consultations and how to explain to your client WHY your selection is the best one for their space.

My courses in the US are almost ALWAYS sold out!

If you would like to transform the way you see colour, become a True Colour Expert.

Here’s Richards comments about my course:

“There are so many things in life that we think we know just for the mere fact we are breathing beings. One of them is color. Correctly understanding and specifying color is a learned skill and understanding the almost invisible color nuances that make or break a space is a priceless skill as a designer.  This is why I loved Maria’s course.  It developed me into a more skillful specifier of color.” Richard Rabel

Related posts:

The Quest for the High End Client 

The 3 Most Important Words in a Consultation

What Should you Charge for the First Consultation

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  1. Maria, What a fantastic blog! I can so relate to what you are saying. Sometimes however you forget who is the professional and who is the client. I think we (I) sometimes feel subservient because we need the job. It seems like a lot of my very wealthy clients like to tell me what to do or what they want like the client in the first scenario. I hate to say it but what your telling us is our own fault for not making things clear up front.

    I will keep this advice and read it often.

  2. Wow – what phenomenal advice Maria – spot on! It’s funny how easily we as designers can get intimidated by people with money and power – in the beginning. However, yes, we all make mistakes and we also do learn from them. I especially love your line ” The value of services always declines after the services have been performed.” I’ll never forget that – thank you!

  3. Great post. As a client, I really appreciate when the professionals I work with are upfront about their method & fees. It makes everyone’s expectations so much more reasonable. Sitting in my newly updated family room, the money We spent for a professional designer was so worth it!

  4. Excellent post Maria. No, I did not have a similar experience (yet), and now I am sure I will not have one thanks to this post!

  5. i loved this post Maria. Especially the part where you talk about being responsible. I have taken on clients when my gut was telling me – no, screaming at me, no. I didn’t listen to my gut and ended up dreading the entire project.

    That being said, I learned a ton that I probably wouldn’t have learned if I hadn’t gone through it. I’m older and wiser ( with a few more grey hairs) but have the confidence to say no if I have to.

    I’m hope your readers love this post as much as I have.

  6. It is easy to find oneself in that situation with people of ‘means’, in any profession. Often to the detriment of the client. Can you imagine someone coming into your PS office with a picture of a nose they want and you instantly realize it would destroy the balance of their face? You are the expert, the professional and have to establish yourself as such. If they don’t like what you have to say they can go elsewhere. No one wants their work poorly represented and the job has potential to do more harm than good when your talented name gets attached to their poor choices.

  7. As a free-lance graphic designer, I have also had this issue. And chalking one up to experience is so much better than following through with a job that is less than your best work.

    I met with a set of clients three times while working on a logo for them. They brought an entirely new logo idea every time I met with them. During the third meeting, I realized this was never going to be finished. I did not get paid, but was happy not to go through 10 more versions. Being credited with their logo was not going to help my portfolio.

    • I got similarly great advice when I did freelance public relations work. Because professional services aren’t tangible (like a chair or house), everyone thinks they should get it for free or at a big discount. Know your worth and stand your ground, it will save you a lot of headaches and build your career in the long run.

  8. I had one woman whose husband had died, his dog started peeing on the carpet then her dog started doing the same then they started using the whole place as a litter box. She needed to fix the floor, obviously, and update the master bathroom. I was to work with her on the bathroom, the guest bathroom fixes and a little retrofit in the kitchen. Then something happened in the master with my tile guy and the job looked like it was going to blow up. I asked my flooring guy to work with her and he salvaged it with his over the top charm. She later came and apologized to me, I can’t remember for what, but bottom line, she spent a little over $100,000 with us. My main concern on her master bath was not slipping and falling because she’d fallen at least twice. She sold the place for a lot of money and moved. It was one of the nicest ones in the development and we got other jobs from her neighbors. Sometimes, the team screws up, other times, they save you. A lot of people got work from that job, and I’m proud of how we salvaged it and turned it around.

  9. Why is it that the most difficult clients are the ones who are least likely to value a professional’s services and pay an appropriate rate? I have found that when I try to adjust my pricing to meet client expectations, the services (finance) I provide are valued less. It’s much better to say no to a prospect or goodbye to a client, rather than try to work with someone with unrealistic expectations. It’s my reputation on the line, and that’s much more valuable to me than whatever fee I might earn.

  10. This is an awesome post and lessons here I keep learning. You are brilliant and I adore Richard. We went to London together on Blogtour. He is the nicest gentleman! So talented both of you! ox

  11. I’ve had a couple of these experiences over the years as home stager where I feel I’m not the right person for the job. I’ve had to turn down lots of money because I knew I couldn’t meet the expectations of the client without killing myself in the process. I work best when I feel energized, organized, and excited about a potential job. Maria, I think you passed on a quote not too long ago..something like “If the answer isn’t hell yes, then it’s no”. This is so true and I refer to
    this quote all the time!

  12. Whew.. such a relief to know we aren’t alone with our ego bashing, experiences. I’ve been lucky so far and have been paid for my consulting time, as invoiced after the fact. I have not asked clients for my consultation fee to be paid on site, but, I will start asking for it from now on. My last client was confrontational and demanding, but I was able to handle it with directness and a sense of humour. Good post with valuable lessons.

  13. Great advice Maria. I think we have all made that mistake starting out. It is good business practice to qualify clients before accepting them. Not every client will be one that will suit expectations. I don’t feel the clients that I chose not deal with as lost, as they would not be my ideal client in any event.

    I have known you for many years and you never fail to amaze me with your knowledge and business sense.

  14. A friend of mine is an outstanding residential interior designer. The tenor of her first meeting with potential clients completely changed when she started explaining beforehand that the purpose of the meeting would be for both her and the potential to decide if they would be a good fit for working together. Since then, several potential clients have asked (more like begged) her to work for them.

  15. Valuable post, Maria. Thank you. A friend of mine is an outstanding residential interior designer. The tenor of her first meeting with potential clients completely changed when she started explaining beforehand that the purpose of the meeting would be for both her and the potential to decide if they would be a good fit for working together. Since then, several potential clients have asked (more like begged) her to work for them.

  16. Standing! Cheering! I was so glad to hear you say what you did about no hunter green and if she chose it, to not tell anyone you’d been there. I actually had to do that once, and I don’t know who was more taken aback; my client, that I stood up to her bullying, or me, that I had the “audacity” to stick up for myself and what I knew was right.

    A long time ago, an acquaintance called me to come help her choose paint colors. When I got there, she very proudly showed me the ghastly orangey-pink beige carpet that she had installed throughout the house. Yet she wanted greens and yellows on the walls. I wish I’d had the confidence to go by my knowledge and instincts and put my foot down. Ah, we live and learn.

  17. I think anyone that has dealt with the public has had a few “learning experiences” (as I like to call them) until they feel confident.

    I just count them as part of the cost of an education — in your class they learned what TO do, now out in the real work you learn what NOT to do ;-).

    Thanks for posting this –we all had a chance to learn something.

  18. You nailed every single point. This is why I avidly read everything you post even tho I am not a designer and never will be. Your values apply to every endeavor!
    Thank you!

  19. Thank you for such a helpful post Maria. And I am thrilled that you featured Richard . As a distinguished and extremely talented art expert and designer he is nevertheless the most kind, down to earth, and gentle man. With his great sense of humour and soft spoken manner I am sure his clients adore him!

  20. Very interesting post. As much as I love design, I could never do it for a living. Stories like this show it would suck the life out of me. By the time I had gained enough confidence to handle these type of situations, I would be ready to retire. My hat’s off to anyone that deals with the public.

  21. A new client, wealthiest address area in Atlanta, phoned as I was driving to her home. Said she felt uncomfortable paying for an initial consultation.

    I told her my value and fee structure. She still did not want to pay for initial consultation. Fine, I said, I am not the designer for you and will not come today.

    Oh please come, she said. I did, got paid, and she hired my team to install her new garden, driveway, terrace, outdoor kitchen, carriage house, and she hired my interior decorator.

    I know my worth.

    Pure grace.

    Garden & Be Well, XO Tara

  22. Sarah Hepburn-Smith

    Maria – what a fantastic post. Saying no or identifying what isn’t a good fit is so hard in the beginning. Fantastic learnings and examples!!

  23. I recently had a “potential” customer ask if I could canvas wrap my art rather than prints on high quality artist grade paper. I told her that wasn’t something I offered because I would have to send it out to be done, which would greatly increase the price. I did some research on the cost, quoted her a price, and told her that the amount would have to be paid in full prior to me having the work done and that there would be no refunds or exchanges because I could not guarantee that the colors would be right since I was not printing them myself and had not used that service before. I knew I wouldn’t hear from her again, and I was right. However, I felt good that I stood my ground and didn’t let her talk me into undergrading my service or my art. I never felt so good about not making a sale.

  24. I also believe women are more likely to allow someone to devalue their work because they don’t want to be in the position of upsetting someone. I work with interior designers and home owners, creating custom art for their homes. It’s very personally rewarding, but someone has to pay the bill and communication is key. However, It’s a conversation I’ve had MANY times with other female creative service providers; When it comes to the billing, they don’t want to make someone “mad” so they lower their rate or worse yet, give it away to keep the peace. Best advice I’ve received from another artist was:”Don’t give your work away. If you don’t value it, why should anyone else?”

  25. As everyone is saying, great post Maria!
    Accepting a client or worse firing a potential client is one of the hardest thing anyone in the design field does…especially as all of us in this profession are people pleasers, and our job is to take the clients life and style and translate it into their home! We are not autonomous, and it is their home…but we are the experts in our own field and therefore the first thing we need to respect is ourselves. Without that, everything becomes devalued! (I am a big believer that young designers really benefit by having at least one mentor who can help us by modeling how to behave in such circumstances.) The power struggle is that for the most part our clients are much wealthier than we are and that immediately makes us feel vulnerable. Again great post!

  26. I am a consumer of design services. I had one very good experience with a designer many years ago and then many bad experiences with designers who were not clear about their fees. The upfront direct approach is the only way to go. Customers need to know when they are being charged, not be surprised by a bill later because the designer called to check on your family and make small talk.

    • I am also a design consumer. I have had several bad experiences with designers. I had a designer who specified a whole-house paint color from a teeny tiny paint chip (never again!). When the color looked horribly wrong on the wall, I told the painter to stop immediately. I could not reach the designer to save my life! Another designer would charge me her full hourly rate to go the post office to mail me samples! For all you designers out there, please know that we are not all monster clients. Some of us have been burned!

      • BTW… I am an attorney. I do intellectual property contract work. I have worked for myself in the past, and I know the tendency to discount work for a variety of reasons. I also know the value of paying someone for their time and intellectual / artistic expertise. It can be a tough thing to place a value on. I only added the other side of the story because I think it is one that is often (most often!) left off of decorating /design blogs. Perhaps another valuable topic for discussion would be to solicit input from design clients – that might be of equal value to all of you.

  27. Maria, you’ve done it again! You are so generous with your advice and tales of “lessons learned” I just keep returning over and over to read your blog. And I also learn a thing or two from the readers’ comments! I am not a designer but posts like this one remind me how important it is to have enough confidence in my own expertise to fire clients that are not worth the aggravation. Excellent post and you bet I’ll keep logging onto your website!

  28. ditto on the great post Maria. I do little on site colour consulting now but apply the same attitude with helping customers choose colours in my store. I have the advantage of being a supplier so if a customer wants hunter green – it’s all theirs. If they truly look at me for advice, I’m happy to come up with the best ideas and colours I can. Same thing with sticking with your fees and pricing. One of the first things the staff has to learn is never apologize for the price of our paint!

  29. Thanks for this Maria! I ran into an identical type of client, also building a 10,000 square foot home. When it turned out he didn’t actually want to pay for my services (I would be able to put pictures on my site! Maybe magazine coverage! Wasn’t that enough?!) it was the end of our working relationship. He did end up paying me for some of my time – but it was a hard lesson, and it threw me for a loop. Reading your experience has made me feel better, even a couple of years on. Such good points here.

  30. You’ve really hit a nerve with this one by the looks of all the comments.
    I am getting better at deciding who I want/need for a client. The tendency is to want to take everyone. I keep a price list on my wall – for myself! It reminds me every time that I am experienced and valuable to the client. Thanks for such a great post. I think one of your best.

  31. While not a designer, I never forget the former student and his quite financially sound parents who expected me to provide twenty hours of private tutoring without compensation. This student had been in my class three years before!

  32. You have so much great experience — and perspective — to share. More posts like this one: building client relationships, growing your business … the soft skills of entrepreneurship that are so valuable to business success.

    Bravo, Maria 🙂

  33. I am so glad you not only stood up for yourself , you’re teaching other service professionals to do the same. My husband would always try to get me to ask designers for their ideas, then tell them that we weren’t interested. He wanted me gather up all their ideas and then somehow magically make it all happen. I’m no designer, and more importantly, I regarded it as theft of services. Funny thing is, he’s a doctor, so not only can he afford to pay a designer’s fee, he wouldn’t like it if everyone suddenly started asking him for free advice! Go Maria!

  34. I had a similar experience when asked to decorate a brand new condo in the Ritz-Carlton. I told the husband my fee, and he said fine. Nope, I didn’t give him a contract or get a retainer. Plus I would buy things, take them to the condo, and then when he saw how much they were, I would have to return them! I did get paid for most of my time, but it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

    Thanks for sharing this common lesson that we need to hear again and again!

  35. Thank you, Maria. I am a teacher, not a designer, but your point that the most difficult (parents) are the ones that don’t value my professionalism rings the same. Also, the same is true about establishing tone and expectations and sticking to them in any profession, I think. This post helped me with a difficult situation last week.

  36. Great info Maria!! Love it!!! ONLY Work for your idea client…be the expert…charge what your worth! Would love to come to your class…but think I should wait until the summer- this TX girl can’t stand the cold! Ha

  37. After may years in this business, I have encountered a little of all of these many things mentioned. I usually chalk it up to tuition…and do my best to avoid making the same mistake twice. I now use a form prior to a meeting to gather additional address info from a client, ask them a few questions about prior experiences with design professionals, and most importantly, to have them check a little box saying they have read and agree to my terms and conditions. This is in effect a contract, though it is worded in a more casual, friendly way, so as not to seem too “legalese!” The peace of mind I have experience since adopting this is immeasurable.

    One thing I cannot help but mention, regarding the devaluation of professional design services, is that the original writer is charging an embarrassingly low fee, IMO. Clients expect to “get what they pay for” and I am disturbed to know that anyone in our profession is charging $50/hr and then $20/hr. This is a sure way to lower the perceived value of one’s own services and the worth of the profession as a whole.