How much does one do for a fee….

I have just very recently had an unfortunate incident with a client  who seemed happy with the work I had been doing for her ,and it has made me question how I am doing business and in particular, how I am billing clients.

From the beginning of the project, my client was very open about the fact that she did not have a huge budget and I realised  that she would not be able to afford to pay  me to manage the project,so we agreed that I would simply be involved as a consultant …I would help her keep to her budget and to achieve the look she wanted.I also provided her with basic concept boards – something simple to give her the concept and idea with colours , fabrics and furniture.

I usually do not like to work like this as it can create all sorts of complications with suppliers and contractors-generally my contractors and suppliers are tried and tested and if they do not do good work, they simply do not get any more referrals or clients from me. In this case, my client decided  that she would shop around for the cheapest bidder. I warned her against that but she proceeded with a contractor who agreed to do the same job for about 20000Dhs less than my lowest estimate from my contractor.

I had deep reservations because there is a base line cost of fit out in Dubai and I was certain that her quote was lower than that but she would not take my recommendation  so I stepped back and she signed the contract. As you can  imagine..the result was horrific..the contractor was over budget, and the project was severely delayed and when I paid my first visit to site (at her request) the finishes were unacceptable. I made a list of issues and gave them to the contractor in an attempt to try and rectify some of the really bad mistakes-I wish I had taken photos! I also advised my client not to pay any more money until these issues or snags had been rectified. At this point my client was in floods of tears on a daily basis and was stressed beyond belief, and although I was never paid to actively get involved on site, I none the less tried to visit at least twice a week to try and keep things on track and eventually the project was completed. The last week was spent giving the space the final finishing touches…I hung wallpaper and artwork, I shopped IKEA on more than one occasion and also sourced cheap lighting and wall paper ,to save every cent that I could for my client , instead of using our local suppliers who are more expensive but who deliver and install! The bottom line is that I truly did my best to watch every penny, and make every decision being conscious of my client’s budget.

After the completion of the project, I presented invoices to my client for final payment-(not the design/consultant fee but additional items which I had purchased for her ,over and above the fee)….she refused to settle the bills claiming that I had not done enough work, in her opinion, to be able to charge her the original design fee agreed upon at the outset of the project. I was aghast and genuinely shocked as I honestly felt that I had done my absolute best…doing much more than the small fee actually covered.

If I have learned anything at all through this upsetting time, it is that as a designer, I need to monitor my time carefully and be more professional in dealing with clients…by that I simply mean that one has to separate feelings and sentiment from business. This is my challenge every day, because I love what I do and I tend to get carried away, wanting the space I am decorating to really look amazing, yet being mindful of the fact that my time is money…as most people in this business know, the rewards of doing a great job and seeing a client really happy with the job you have done are priceless, but you still have to attach a cost to the work you do.

So, back to my question…how much does one actually do for your fee, especially when a design concept fee  is a difficult thing to calculate other than time spent working on it….where do you draw the line?How do you charge for  intellectual property, like ideas and knowledge which we spend many years training for, yet is not something tangible?