It happened again. This past fall we lost an opportunity to make a sale because we charge for our designs. It's bad enough that so many contractors give free estimates, but many also give free designs.

One might argue that giving away design is a part of marketing. But design is so much more — it's an idea, an expression; it is creativity and it's the cornerstone of the project. Design has value to the homeowner beyond what we can reasonably charge.

I don't have a degree in economics, but I do know that you don't profit from giving things away.

CLIENT COMMITMENT We qualify potential clients, meet with them, and send out a letter of intent outlining their project, and the budget necessary to produce it, as well as our design fee. When we sell a design to a client, we are getting a high level of commitment. When someone pays us for a design, we know that there is a better than 90% chance that it will turn into a project sale. Our clients understand that they are buying a quality service, and they equate it with professionalism.

Still, a few times a year we get a reply from a prospective client who had a contractor come in after us offering free design. Their response to our letter is “Why would we pay you for a design when your competitor is willing to do it for free?” We respond that free design doesn't mean great or even good design. We remind them that our designers are experienced, award-winning professionals capable of presenting them with 3-D renderings of their proposed project. Quite often they will see the value of this and sign our design agreement.

Those clients who do retain us have more trust in us and are easier to work with. In short, they're better clients. These clients often lead to long-term relationships and become a great resource for future referrals.

MORE PROFESSIONAL So why don't others charge for design? Are some contractors afraid to do so? Do they see some kitchen showrooms giving away designs and feel that they need to give theirs away as well? Do they feel that they are not worthy of charging a design fee? I don't think so. I know too many remodelers who charge for design and are revered by their peers as respected professionals. Perhaps some contractors just don't know how to charge for design, or that they must. Maybe they bury the cost of the design in all the work they sell. But if that's the case, it is not free at all.

Remodelers who charge for design do a better job of selling themselves since they must overcome an objection. Once they do that and the check is written for the design contract, the salesman has won the client's trust. As long as they can deliver on what was discussed prior to the design agreement, the rest of the sale should be fairly simple.

Once you begin charging for design, you raise your level of professionalism. You set yourself apart from your competitors and create a brand for your company. To give away design would diminish that brand.

RAISING STANDARDS It has always been a goal of mine to help improve our industry's image. We can't separate ourselves from the scoundrels and grifters among us if we use their tactics. The only way we will ever change the way remodelers are perceived by the public is to raise our professional standards and act accordingly — especially in the area of sales tactics and business practices.

If you are not currently charging for design service, try it. As we individuals raise standards, the entire industry, and our clients, will benefit. — Tony Rink is vice president and general manager of Renovators, a full-service design/build company established in 1985 and located in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, Wis.