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Her outdated baths had plaid wallpaper that she also insisted had to stay as she was primarily going to use the house as a vacation rental and only occasionally stay there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knew that the ceiling color would be totally wrong and emailed her to let her know that the color was just too fleshy, outdated and ugly (I guess that was a bit too direct).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.


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



leave aREPLY

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

        • That’s a great point Catherine, something to consider for a future post for sure! Thanks for your comments! Maria

  3. 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!

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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!

  8. 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 🙂

  9. 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!

  10. 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!

  11. 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.

  12. 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

  13. 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.