I suspect that your experience is similar to mine. Clients never do their homework. In fact they rarely realize they they have homework.
After they hire you they just wait for you to tell them what they need. As far as budget they remember a friend telling them to count on $60/SF. Timeline? "Six months is how long it took to build my house."
So if your experience is similar to mine, no planning has been done before you were hired to design their project.
For my first years in business I didn't think this was unusual because I didn't have anything to compare it to. The client expected me to take care of whatever was needed, and I welcomed taking the lead.
The dawning happened during a parochial school project, an addition to an elementary school. Technically the client was the pastor of the parish. But he didn't know how the school needed to function, and he didn't want to delegate his role to the school principal.
We started Schematic Design with unresolved issues about everything.
If I had insisted on a program, a budget, a survey and a soils investigation, our loss on the project might have been a lot less. In hindsight, I doubt that a profit was ever in the cards. Nevertheless, I was sure there was a better way of handling projects like that.
What I eventually worked out was that projects like that were missing a planning phase, a Pre-Design Phase. During this planning phase you need to determine what a successful project will look like.
This planning phase is the client's responsibility. That's good news and bad news. The bad news is that the client won't do it, and will expect you to do it. The good news is that you can do it - and get paid for doing it. Every standard contract for architectural services that I have ever seen says so.
An even better idea is to package this service and market it. You can't find a better reason to talk to prospective clients. There are a multitude of ways to be helpful to a client who is just starting to put a project together. You can easily become the person with the understanding of their needs and the person they have the strongest relationship with. All without asking to be hired to design the building. That will 'just happen'.
Here’s how I look at the planning phase. I start with the Six Key Issues. This was originally written with a prospective client audience in mind.
I think my list of issues originally came from the AIA Handbook Of Practice. That inspired me to write a 40 page booklet about it. [downloadable] Feel free to borrow anything you find useful in it.
Much, much later I developed a website to promote planning as a service. I called my approach The Project BluePrint. The link takes you to the archived website. Once again, feel free to borrow anything you find useful.
You will notice that I reduced the number of issues to five. I found that it was really hard to talk about Character with non-architects. That left me with Space/Needs, Context, Constraints, Budget and Schedule.
What I am suggesting is that you do two things.
1. Make sure there is a plan.
Be aware that your client owes you a description of their goals in these five areas. If that isn’t forthcoming, then offer to help them figure it out - for additional compensation.
2. Consider using Planning to find clients.
Develop some standard processes for leading a client through the decision-making in these five areas. This will make you more efficient. It will also give you something to offer prospective clients. That in turn will get you into a helpful relationship with them before your competitors know there is a project.
This is a lot of work, but it also has a lot of potential. Select the Key Issue you are most comfortable with to focus on first and add the others later. One by one you will have new services to offer, and new ways to cement early relationships with your prospective clients.
Other ideas that might be helpful:
Trello-PM - project management system
FeeCalqs - fee estimating system
OFFPLAN - work load projecting system
MyCorbu - timekeeping and project bookkeeping system