When Talking Budget, Explore Boundaries, Not Limits

By Gail Doby, ASID
CVO & Co-Founder, Gail Doby Coaching & Consulting & Design Success University

Establishing a budget can be one of the trickier negotiations when working with a new client.  More often than not, the client will not have a fixed figure in mind.  They probably have a sense of what they feel they can afford but may be uncertain as to what things cost or how much they are willing to spend for a particular item or result.  You, on the other hand, can’t design in a vacuum.  You don’t want to lose the client by under-delivering or over-delivering on their expectations.

I find the most effective way at arriving at a budget is to have a conversation with the client about how they want to spend their money rather than how much they plan to spend.  Even if they have a figure in mind, they may be willing to spend more once they are presented with options.

You want to find out first of all what their tastes are.  Do they lean toward the high end or more toward the middle?  Next, determine their tolerance level for particular items.  How much are they willing to spend, say, for a designer sofa or gourmet range, if that’s on their wish list?  What items are most important to them?  Many clients are cost-conscious these days, but they will pay more for the things that really matter to them.  Lastly, probe to find out if they prefer to spend more on appearance or function.  Some clients want a design that will impress while others want a design that will improve their quality of life.  Of course, you want to deliver a solution that does both, but it helps to know if the client has a strong preference for one or the other.

Once you have compiled the answers to these questions, you can begin to rough out some estimates for furnishings, materials, accessories and design costs.  As best as you can, provide the client with options.  At this stage you are not trying to set a limit but explore boundaries.  You want to get a feel for what is an acceptable spending range and if you can deliver the desired result within that range.  Now is the time to discuss possible trade-offs or upsells, not after you’ve spent hours researching products and creating preliminary designs.

Before closing out the conversation, confirm with the client that they are comfortable with the range you’ve discussed and that they understand what you will provide them within that range.  This allows both of you some flexibility while avoiding the vague indefiniteness of “I’m not sure” or “I haven’t decided.”  You can get on with the work you need to do, and the client can feel assured that they have a clearer idea of what they are committing to.

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