During economic downturns, when construction slows and competition for projects intensifies, architects may work so hard at attracting new jobs that they neglect their existing client base. Instead of taking their all-important repeat clients for granted, architects should be doing all they can to prevent them from being wooed away by competing firms. One key to this lies in improving the interpersonal relationships between architects and owners, even when they’re between projects. According to Seattle-based AEC consultant Theodore Sive, design professionals are good at satisfying the technical demands of their complex jobs. However, he says, “When they get focused on a project’s particular challenges, they sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture.” Sive and William R. Strong, Assoc. AIA, principal, and director of marketing at Mahlum Architects in Seattle, have developed a system for envisioning this “big picture.” They call it “continuous client care,” and it takes client relationship building to a new level. In their teaching, via AIA seminars, they advise architects to foster customer loyalty by integrating an awareness of marketing and attention to client concerns with every facet of architectural practice.

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It is tempting to resort to grand gestures to keep client relationships on the right track, but communicating consistently is usually better.

Strong, who has been implementing this system within Mahlum for over a dozen years, says repeat clients are the “cornerstone of successful companies,” but admits that statistics are hard to pin down: They vary from year to year and from firm to firm. “But what we do have,” he says, “are statistics on what makes clients unhappy when they move on. Most of the time this doesn’t happen during a project; it happens afterward, and you discover you’re not getting rehired. Our statistics say clients leave firms for ‘product dissatisfaction’ — like a leaky roof — only 14 percent of the time. But 68 percent of the time, they leave because of neglect, indifference, or outright rudeness.”

Client care, according to Sive and Strong, is more than a general notion of client interaction. It’s understanding what clients truly want and making sure that everyone in the firm keeps that in mind as they do their jobs. Too often, when a new client comes to a firm, the older clients get somewhat less attention. The architects may not notice this, but the clients do. Strong emphasizes: “We need to understand how clients work, how they want to be contacted, and how they want to be kept informed. What keeps them coming back is that they genuinely enjoy working with us.” He notes that even though public-sector clients have more explicit rules about selecting architects, the decision makers are still people, and their decisions will be based, at least in part, on perceptions and misperceptions. Detecting and correcting the misperceptions is part of the client-care process.

With a respectful nod to programs renowned for leading drug and alcohol addicts to recovery, Sive and Strong have identified 12 steps that can guide architecture firms to improving their relationships with their existing clients. Some of these steps are specific to a project and need to be repeated frequently. Others involve influencing a firm’s culture, and they change less often. But all 12 steps can be seen as a cycle that is continually evaluated and modified.

The steps can be summarized as four stages. In stage one, a firm prepares by learning about the issues of a client-care program, documenting what they’ve learned, and generating enthusiasm among the staff. The second stage involves employee training so everyone knows what the firm standards are and what to do in terms of their own jobs. The third stage is implementation in which you establish feedback loops between staff and clients. The fourth is follow-up, taking care to confront any problems that are identified.

Understanding the concepts

As in other undertakings that have the potential to alter firm culture, a key first step is to establish leadership buy-in. Someone, preferably at an upper management level, should become the firm’s “champion” for integrating client care with the rest of the firm’s work. An assessment of the firm’s internal workings can reveal an unexpected number of what Sive and Strong call “touch points.” In addition to the obvious, such as meetings between clients and principals, this can include how a receptionist answers the phone, whether the accounting department makes small adaptations to accommodate a client’s preferred billing procedure, and how quickly the project architect returns client phone calls. In addition to design and construction documents, this can include every written communication, from contract negotiations to holiday cards. Sive says: “Client care is not some separate function that happens apart from project delivery. It’s all connected.” Everyone in the firm should be aware that their behavior, at some level, contributes to marketing the firm for future work.

Part of understanding firm/client relationships occurs through an assessment of how the outside world views the firm. This can be psychologically difficult because it means asking clients to be brutally honest about how the firm’s “customer service” is perceived. Strong notes that the easier, more common route is conflict avoidance, by both architects and clients. If there’s a problem, people would prefer to sweep it under the rug. But discovering misperceptions is crucial for improving relationships.