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Dealing With Friends and Family: To Charge or Not To Charge

Friends, Family and the Creative Industry

For most individuals in the creative industry, one of the major problem areas is doing business with friends and family. Whether you are an interior designer, a photographer, a hairdresser, or a makeup artist, you have most likely been in this situation..

Maybe you have been in a situation where you’re catching up with a friend over a drink after a long day at the studio, and she suddenly pulls out her phone and shows you pics of her living room, and says, “Hey! I’m so glad you’re here. What seating do you think would work in this space?” This scene begins to remind you of the client that you just met who paid you $200 an hour to discuss this very question.

While you are pondering, your friend goes on to show you her Pinterest inspiration board, and suddenly, you are sucked into a dilemma, where your brain is swimming with hourly figures, sectionals, paint colors, old friendships, guilt, and of course, the drink you’re having. When friends and family are well aware of the fact that you are an interior designer, somehow they think that their friendship with you qualifies them to have your creative services for free. And, for the lucky few in the right moments, this assumption may be correct. But for the rest of them, you need a clear strategy in place before it happens.

Things to Keep in Mind While Doing Business With Friends and Family

The most common reasons for being unable to say no to friends and family are a) guilt that you should always help family if you have the skill, b) imposter syndrome–where you are worried that your services aren’t great enough to charge your family and friends, especially when you do not have a degree in design nor high paying clients, c) you are a people pleaser and just cannot say ‘no’ to anything or anyone, d) you are worried that money matters will ruin relationships and you will alienate a lot of people in your inner circle (and it often does).

There are essentially four different ways to go when charging close family and friends for your interior design services:

1. Offer a Family and Friends Discount:

Create a friend and family package for your services. This discount should be clearly communicated along with your usual rates so that they are aware of the value of the services that they are getting. This also means that you should get a signed contract from them, which indirectly translates into the fact that although you are offering a discount, you are in no way compromising on your professionalism and that the quality of your work will be at your highest standards.

One of the ways to maintain consistency with designing for family and friends is to create a PDF stating clearly the terms and conditions of working with them as friends/family. This way, you can ensure that everyone gets the same treatment and it makes it less likely that someone will ask for an exception. It also makes it easier for you to say no, as it simply means “Sorry, but that is outside of the scope of my friends & family policy” or “Okay, I can do it, but it will cost extra as it is not included in the friends and family discount.”

It is recommended that even if you do discounted pricing, you must provide your client with an itemized invoice for services provided along with the actual cost of each, and then write “fees waived” or “no charge to client” or “$0.00” next to each item. This way, they understand the benefits they are receiving, and are able to better appreciate your effort.

An important thing to keep in mind here is that your friends and family clients will help spread the word of your business to their social networks. While this is definitely a great thing for your business, you have to make sure that your friends and family keep the discounts confidential. You do not want a client who is recommended by your best friend to expect your services for the same rates as your friend. Make sure it is in your package PDF and in the contract that the discount falls under a nondisclosure agreement and that they only quote your actual, non-discounted fees when they make recommendations.

2. Do Not Work For Friends and Family:

If navigating a close relationship while staying firm on your fees is a difficult balancing act for you, then have a business policy that states that you will not work with family and friends. Many designers prefer to keep clear professional and personal boundaries. When approached for “advice”, you can be honest and say that it makes you uncomfortable so you do not work with your close friends. If you do not wish to be straight with them, state that perhaps your design aesthetic is not the best fit for them and just refer them to another designer. If you have a studio partner, you can always say that you have an agreement with them to not have close relationships as clients.

3. Working For Free:

This route is best if a) you are just starting out as a new designer. You can design small spaces or corners for your friends and family in exchange for photographing the finished works to be included in your portfolio, b) you are getting some value from your ‘client’ in exchange. For example, in exchange for designing their child’s playroom, they can design your website’s home page. So technically, your service is not free, rather it works more like a barter system. c) If approached by a charity, look at your financial goals for the year and assess whether you have a budget for pro-bono designing. If no, then politely decline stating that you have exhausted the time budget for your pro bono services for the current term. Make sure you have a timeline for pro-bono work and strictly adhere to it. d) You really want to give your work to someone as a gift and want nothing in return, such as a birthday or anniversary present.

4. Working For Full Fees:

Some designers prefer not to give discounted services for family and friends and treat them as they would any other client. The most important reason for this is that servicing at a discounted rate tends to give the perception that the discounted rate is the actual value of your services, or that you’re still making some profit even with your discounted rates, and that means the actual value of your services is even lower. This perception creates resentment and causes strife, which is why some designers go the “all or nothing” way. Also, time put into a family or friend project takes time away from other ones. If your hours can be invoiced at $200, then any $100/hour deals that you offer actually lead to you having less income on the year.

How Not to Do Business With Friends

There is an old Middle Eastern story about a camel and its owner. Once, while resting on their long journey through the desert, the camel looked tired from the harsh sun. So the owner let the camel put just its head inside the tent. Before he knew it, the camel had taken over the whole tent, leaving the owner out sweltering in the scorching heat.

Many designers recount their experiences with doing business with friends being exactly like that. First, it begins with a paint suggestion for the doors. Simple, you’d think. But soon, you’re designing their entire home, and to top it all, your friend is unhappy with your suggestions and is demanding that you show her more options. And before you know it, she has become “that friend you used to know”. To avoid such a scenario, here are some points to remember:

1. Do NOT be the ‘yes’ girl/guy. If you are struggling to say ‘no’ then first you need to work on this. Learning to say ‘no’ is an art you need to master in this business, whether it’s with close friends and family, or with clients who expect a mountain when they only want to pay for a molehill.

2. Do NOT work for free. If the job demands your creative energies, you need to get paid for it. Working for free makes them think that your job is a piece of cake (which might be the case for you, but it still eats up your time). This takes away the value you attach to your profession and it lowers your income. Exceptions are when you are just starting out and you need some projects to show in your portfolio, or if you’re doing work for charity (or mom).

3. Do NOT consider all your relatives as close family. You have to decide exactly who falls in your inner circle and which family member does not. For example, your parents versus the brother-in-law’s step sister’s niece. Pricing will depend on who you consider as “close family” or “inner circle”.

4. Do NOT compromise on your confidence as a professional. Stand firm on your fees and your process and state your terms clearly. When you do this, you affirm the respect you have for the work you do, and your clients will see it the same way.

5. Do NOT give in to a ‘friend’ that does not see the value of your profession and badgers you for discounts. Keep in mind that someone that does not see the worth in your work is not deserving of your friendship.

How to Handle “favor” Situations

Chances are that as you grow personally and professionally, you will continue to get these requests from friends and family. But keep in mind that there is no reason to get angry at someone for asking for a discount. Always give them the benefit of the doubt that they are unaware of the pricing of your services, or that they just haven’t thought about it that much, and found it comfortable enough to just ask you for a “favor”. More often than not, a little bit of educating your friends and family will solve the issue. Many of these friends really want to support you and will refuse any discounts and offer to pay full fees.

All of this depends on the situation, the person, and the context. For example, if you think you can just give a piece of friendly advice / if it won’t cost you too much of your time / if you can afford it / if it is not keeping you from doing work you can get paid for / if it is not keeping you from spending quality time with your family, you can go ahead and offer your advice. But, if you sense that they are trying to get a free lunch off of you, you should be prepared. Here are some scripts that could be handy, if you’re caught off guard:

  1. I’m glad to hear you’re interested in getting deeper into this. The next step is my one-hour consultation. I have time to discuss this next week. I can send you the link to book an appointment.
  2. I’m happy you reached out, sounds exciting but I am at capacity and can’t take on a new project, but let me recommend another designer who would be perfect for you.
  3. This is my usual fee, and this is my discounted rate. I’ll give full service, BUT, I need you to understand that if another full-paying client comes along, then your project will get pushed to a lower priority. If you’re ok with that, we can start work! If you’re in a hurry then I’d suggest you take the full paying option. I’ll be happy either way!
  4. This sounds like such an awesome change you are making for your home. Let’s sit down and chat about how I can help you. You are welcome to go to my website and see which service you’d like, and purchase a consultation. We will have 2 hours to talk through your ideas and how I can best help you! It will automatically take you to my availability so we can get it on our calendars. If you need more assistance after our chat, we can put together a contract!”
  5. Why don’t you look at Pinterest for inspiration? And then if you are really stuck then we can book a consultation which would be $ /hour.
  6. I’d be happy to process this with you gratis one-time, but anything beyond that will require a contract.

In the end, it all boils down to how much you value your time and how you want to be compensated for it. The basic philosophy is that friends and family who really care about you will respect your work and appreciate your worth, and pay for the value that they are receiving from you. (Although character issues can challenge this assumption). Keep in mind that your friends and family are often not your ideal clients. So by doing them a “favor” you are doing yourself a disservice by not spending that time focusing on working with or marketing to your ideal clients. There is no shame in saying “no”, because if your family and friends really value the relationship, they will respect your decisions and stick with you. If they don’t, well, good riddance!

What is your policy on working for friends and family? Is it worth it, or is it just too complicated and risky? Please let us know in the comments below.

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