How To Avoid The Cost of Free Design Services!
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How To Avoid The Cost of Free Design Services!

Today I want to show you how to avoid giving away free design services by using a strategy called ‘The Principle of Reciprocity’.

Let’s start with the basics – what is ‘The Principle of Reciprocity’?

Free Design Services and the Principle of Reciprocity:

The Principle of Reciprocity comes from the bestselling book called: “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”, by Dr. Robert Cialdini.

The book teaches readers about seven different ways in which human beings are influenced by others. One of those ways (the Principle of Reciprocity) suggests that, as human beings, we have an innate need to give back to others the form of gift or behavior we’ve received.

For example, when a friend compliments you in a social setting and says “… hey, I really like your new hair cut” how do you typically respond?

If you’re like most human beings (emotionally driven), then you’ll respond by giving back the form of gift or behavior you just received. You may say something like, “… thank you, I love that dress your wearing” (even if you’re not so fond of the outfit!).

This reflex-like behavior may seem innocent enough until you realize just how powerful it is.

For example, if one of your neighbors invites you to one of their social functions then you’re more likely to respond by inviting them to one of yours (even if you’re not so close).

… and likewise, if one of your coworkers buys you lunch on your birthday, then, once again, you’re more inclined to buy them lunch on their birthday (even if you don’t care to).

You see the principle of reciprocity doesn’t stop with compliments, it extends to all forms of behavior and gift giving. 

Interestingly, we’re not alone in this reflex-like behavior, according to research presented in a book called “Stone Age Economics” by Marshall Sahlins, while reciprocal relationships and responsibilities vary, the innate desire – in fact, cultural obligation – to give back, crosses the boundaries of age, culture, and gender, and is a foundation of human interaction.

So, “what does this have to do with free design services?”, I hear you say.

Architects & Interior Designers offering Free Design Services:

Unfortunately, armed with the concept of “give and you shall receive” many Architects and Interior Designers choose to adopt the principle of reciprocity in their own business transactions, believing that it will bring them more work and more Clients.

For example, how many times have you offered to meet a Client at their home or office free of charge? Or how many times have you agreed to enter a design competition without requesting adequate compensation for your time, effort and (most importantly) your ideas?

In each situation the concept is the same: by giving away free design services we all hope to win the favor of our potential Clients and stand out from the competition.

There is however one big problem with this approach – when we give our time, effort and ideas away for free, we devalue ourselves and the industry we serve.

Although giving something of value (for free) may seem like a logical approach to winning new business, this approach has left many Architects and Interior Designers struggling to survive.

However, it doesn’t have to be this way. The principle of reciprocity can be a very effective communication tool, but it’s only effective when you truly understand how it works.

Principle of Reciprocity Rules:

To demonstrate exactly how the principle of reciprocity works I’d like to share a very famous research study with you called “Sweetening the Till: The Use of Candy to Increase Restaurant Tipping”, by David B. Strohmetz, Bruce Rind, Reed Fisher, and Michael Lynn.

The study looked at the principle of reciprocity by examining the amount of tip patrons left at a local restaurant. 

There was however one twist to the study – every check was accompanied with a small gift and the waiters were instructed to vary the format and delivery of that gift.  

Round 1: 

For example, in the first round of the experiment waiters were instructed to leave just one mint with the check and then walk away from the table. 

Now you maybe thinking that leaving one innocent mint with the check would have no influence over the amount of tip that patrons were prepared to leave… but you would be wrong! 

When waiters left one mint with the check they found that on average, tips increased by 3 percent.

Free Design Services

Intrigued by these results researchers questioned what would happen if they increased the magnitude of the gift.

Round 2:

So, in the second round of the experiment waiters were instructed to leave 2 mints with the check and then walk away from the table. 

Now you may have though that doubling the gift may help double the reward… but you’d be wrong! 

On this occasion the average tip didn’t double, it actually quadrupled to an average increase of 14 percent.  

Free Design Services

Delighted with these results the researchers thought they’d try one last experiment.

Round 3:

They asked all the waiters to leave one mint with the check, to walk away from the table, and then to quickly return and say, “for you nice people here is an extra mint”.

When they approached the process in this manner, they found that tips went through the roof with an average increase of 23 percent.

Free Design Services

Free Design Services Lesson:

So, what this research and other similar research is teaching us about the Principle of Reciprocity is that it’s not what you give your Clients for free, but how you give, that matters!

Golden Rules for the Principle of Reciprocity:

Researchers are telling us that there are 3 golden rules to the Principle of Reciprocity. For reciprocity to work effectively you must:

  • be the first person to give in the relationship,
  • the gift must be personal, and
  • the gift must be unexpected.

These golden rules help explain why many Architects and Interior Designers fail to reap any benefits from providing free design services.

The next time you are thinking about offering to meet with a Client at their project site (free of charge), or the next time you are considering entering into a design competition (without requesting any compensation), give some thought to how the Principle of Reciprocity works.

If you’re not the first to give, a personal, and unexpected gift, then you’re not likely to receive the benefits that you’re hoping to achieve by giving your time, effort and ideas away for free!

Instead, when trying to win the attention of new Clients, rather than starting the process with a (predictable) free service that won’t be valued, try starting the process by offering Clients a series of different service options.

One of the options will be a free service while the others will attract a small fee, and then you let the Client choose the option that’s most suitable for them.

Example of how to offer free Design Services effectively:

For example, as explained during our previous post (Episode # 029 Marketing for Architects: The Most Important Rule!) the person who educates the market owns the market. So why not make your free service option an educational product such as a useful publication (Guide) that answers relevant Client questions and concerns.

This approach will help you achieve three goals:

  • Unlock the principle of reciprocity, by allowing you to be the first person to give a free, unexpected and personalized gift.
  • Provide an opportunity to educate the Client and demonstrate your expertise in the market.
  • Efficiently turn a cold lead into a warm lead.

How is this gift personalized I hear you say?

Because most Design Professionals don’t provide useful guides with case studies to potential Clients. At best they only offer a brochure highlighting their work.

However, your free guide will directly address your Client’s questions and concerns.

This resource will be something your Client will truly appreciate and value because it speaks to them and their needs. This guide will help you set your services apart from the competition while placing your brand firmly in their sights. 

What does the Free Guide look like?

For a list of free guide examples and case studies please refer to Episode # 029 Marketing for Architects: The Most Important Rule!

This has been a quick look at the Principle of Reciprocity and how Architects, Interior Designers and Design Professionals can benefit from being the first to give a free, personal and unexpected design service.

Tell us what you think:

Let us know what you think about offering free design services in the comments section below – if you agree with Design Professionals offering free services say, “I agree” or if you disagree say “I disagree”

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Ready to improve your Fee Proposal Strategy?

Here are three resources that are available right now to help you win more projects, better fees, and happier Clients.  

Writing Effective Fee Proposals (eGuide):

Episode # 029 Marketing for Architects: The Most Important Rule! (Blog):

The Ultimate Fee Online Training Course (CE/CPD points available):