Part of an architect's work entails offering advice, but at what point should you be paid for your work?

As a professional architect and as an engaged member of the local business community, I’m often involved in discussions about charging for time and services.

Clients contact me looking for a proposal and wanting to know at what point they will start incurring charges. Other business owners sometimes lament the amount of time they spend giving free advice that never leads to paying work. Others still will say they don’t get out of bed, so to speak, unless the client is paying a call-out fee.

All this got me wondering: when is it acceptable to charge a call-out fee, when do clients expect to pay, and when do they think a consultant or tradesperson’s time is an investment in potential new business development?

Call-out fees and obligation free quotes

In many industries, it is standard to charge a call-out fee. Many tradespeople, like plumbers, electricians, and appliance repairers, to name just a few examples, routinely charge a call-out fee just to come to your home or office and assess your problem. As customers, we usually expect this fee and don’t blink an eye. Similarly, in the professional services area, people know that when they make an appointment with an accountant or a lawyer they will be charged a fee for that consultation time.

Yet, for many other services there is a client expectation of a cost-free – and obligation-free – quote. Builders being asked to quote on a project is a prime example of this scenario.

The cost of advice

In life, and in business, there is advice and there is advice. Some advice is general and generic to many situations, so it is often given away freely and clients resent it if they are charged for this type of service. Then there is consultancy that is applied to a particular situation.

The more individualised and tailored the advice is, I think the more justification there is for charging a fee. For example, on my website I have a growing library of articles to help clients understand things such as whether they can build a granny flat, how to navigate council approval processes, and tips for selecting and fitting out commercial spaces. These articles provide generic advice that I would happily provide clients with via an introductory meeting or phone conversation.

Striking a balance

In most cases, I am happy to provide an initial consultation to clients to assess their project requirements and to see whether my skills are a good match. This meeting also allows both myself and the client to determine if we will understand each other, communicate well, and get along – important elements in any architecture project which may carry on for months, or even years. At this stage, we’ll provide an informal overview of ideas for the client and thoughts on the various options for achieving their overarching project objectives. However, beyond this point, I think it is more than reasonable to charge a fee. Once we start developing concept drawings or researching council requirements and restrictions, for example, our advice becomes individualised and clients should be charged appropriately.

I’m not sure that there is any one answer for knowing when to charge for services and advice. There are many variables to consider based on your business and your client portfolio, but what I do know is that if we want clients to value our time, we need to value it first.

At what point do you charge for advice? Have call-out fees worked for your business? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments about what pricing models you’ve tried in your business and how clients have responded.