How to handle that first meeting with a client is a source of contention with many designers. How long? When? Where? What information should you get? How much information should you give?
Like running any business, there is not a single best answer. Everyone does it a little different and you can too. In my experience, it is best to get to know the client's needs before meeting with them in person. I have a lengthy client questionnaire that potential clients are required to fill out before I have an in-person meeting with them. Reading their answers gives me a better idea of what they are looking for and what they need. At this point I can also let them know if I don't think I am the right designer for them - all without ever meeting them in person. If we decide to proceed with an in-person meeting/ consultation, I set up their expectations from the very beginning. I tell potential clients that this is a 30 minute meeting to see if we can work together, to go over any questions and to review the contract. I let them know that I don't go over design ideas or concepts during this time. At the end of 30 minutes, if they would like to move forward, they must sign the agreement and provide my initial deposit fee. If they do that and the project is small enough I let them know I will photograph and take measurements at that time, otherwise we'll schedule it at a later date.
So, in essence, I provide a 30 minute free consultation. However you may want to do things differently and here are a few things to think about when crafting your new client experience.
What is the purpose of the design consultation? Is this a time to see the house and/or get to know the clients? Sign your agreement? Decide if you want to work together? A first introduction? I believe that it is a waste of both your time and the client's time if the consultation is the first contact. Some screening should be done prior to the first in-person meeting.
Are the clients getting to know you? Do you have enough information on your website to give the clients are clear view of who you are and how your business is run? This is like online dating, the more truthful information you have about yourself online the better match can be made.
Do the clients know what to expect for the consultation? If you want happy clients you need to let them know what to expect. I cannot stress how important setting up clients expectations are in the beginning. This will help eliminate heartache down the road. People are let down when their expectations aren't met, so make sure that you tell your potential clients exactly what you are giving them. Walk them through the process: I'll arrive at 9:30, we'll take a quick walk through your house and then talk about x, then we'll x, finally I'll answer any questions to close out our 30 minutes together. As a reminder I don't provide any design ideas during this first meeting.
Will you give design advice on the first consultation? If so, you should require payment for it. Your ideas are valuable and that is why clients will hire you. You've heard the expression: Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free. I typically offer an idea or two to give clients a taste during my consultations, but anymore and they should be charged. If this is something you want to do and your clients have a desire for it, create your initial consultation to include a little design advice - but charge for your time and ideas.
Are you going to charge for travel time & costs? It's a good idea to think of your limits in relation to your travel time. This may depend on how densely populated your area is, if you don't live in an urban area and will need to travel 60-90 minutes to get enough clients you may not be able to charge as much as someone who can travel to most of their clients within 30 minutes. I charge half my hourly fee for travel outside of 60 minutes and will turn down smaller projects that aren'r close to me.
It always helps to put yourself in your client's shoes when crafting your client experience. But remember, this is your business and no one else can tell you how to run it.