Training the doers

“The core of our program,” says Sive, “is instilling in architects and engineers a sensitivity that it’s their responsibility to understand how clients perceive them and want to communicate.” This requires getting cooperation from the entire staff. Firm leaders should communicate this, not only through instruction but also by example. Sive and Strong have adopted the motto, “Be a magnet, not a stick.” If leaders show sensitivity to their staff, their “internal clients,” they will, in effect, pull people toward following their example. This works better than “bludgeoning” them into compliance. Care in internal communications also expresses to staff a standard of excellence that should spill over into client communications.

At Mahlum, Strong says part of the staff training involves teaching the architectural staff to speak and write more clearly. He admits: “I know architects are not the best writers in the world, much less spellers. Whether it’s a letter to your client or a quick e-mail, it’s really important to convey the right intention, more important than people might think.”

Maintaining feedback systems

When initiating a client relationship, architects should keep in mind that every client is different. Perhaps the best way to find out how to establish optimum relations is to sit down with them and ask explicitly. Strong advocates what he calls a “relationship workshop” with each new client. He explains: “After working so hard at getting a job, architects are excited and find themselves in an infatuation phase with their client. Then, often the first thing they do is sit down and haggle over the fee. Talk about coming in with boxing gloves on!” Instead, Strong suggests architects organize a workshop during which all the key players get to know each other. He has created a checklist of things to work through with the client to learn how they like to communicate. In some cases, members of his firm will visit the client in their workplace and follow them for a day, not just to inform the architectural program, but to better understand “what makes them tick.”

Touching base with the client in this way is not just something to do at the start of the project. Checking in regularly is important, too. Depending on the client and the project, this might be at regular intervals or at certain milestones. A schedule for checking in, completed early in the process, will make it more likely the client receives the desired quality and consistency in communications. This should not be treated nonchalantly, Strong says. He has heard about architects simply throwing out an off-the-cuff question at the conclusion of a project meeting. “Just before the client leaves, you ask, ‘how are we doing?’ and the client replies, ‘Things are fine.’ But both parties are engaged in conflict avoidance. The firm thinks they’re checking in on their project, and they think they’re confirming things are going well, but they’re badly mistaken.” Instead, Strong advises, you need to be explicit and careful about the checking-in inquiry. “The most important thing is letting a client know: I’m going to sit down with you for X amount of time and hear about how we’re doing.” This special meeting is a signal to the client that the architect is serious about hearing of any problems. And Strong reports that clients invariably appreciate being asked.

That feedback then needs to get back to the office, to inform the staff. If there’s a problem, it needs to be addressed. This is not to say, Sive emphasizes, that the architect must do everything the client asks. “There’s a sales maxim,” he notes, “ ‘The customer is always right.’ That’s not what we’re saying, because the client isn’t always right. Just because they want a particular design feature doesn’t mean that’s best for the building. It’s incumbent on professional service providers to understand what the client wants and then be able to communicate with them. It’s a subtle but important difference. If you think the client is wrong, you need to understand their perception so you can take them in the correct direction.”

Despite the seriousness of good communications, there is still room for fun. Sometimes socializing is the best way to get to know a client. Holiday cards and newsletters are good touch points, but Sive and Strong believe architects should look for creative ways to interact that “go beyond the typical.” One firm, for instance, invites former clients to serve on a jury for in-house charrettes. This ongoing engagement applies as much to former (and hopefully future) clients as it does to current ones.

Implementing improvements

The fourth stage in the continuous-care program that Sive and Strong have developed involves integrating lessons learned back into a firm’s strategy. Improvements in client care require honesty, and this can be difficult. Whenever something is learned, in the earlier stages, whether good or bad, it should be relayed to the entire team working on that project. Strong reports: “The hardest part is the defensiveness that can occur when you get the staff together for follow-up. You may not have good news, but I think the whole staff should hear it because the intent is to figure out where to go from there.”

After a firm has adopted a client-care program, they should reevaluate it periodically. They might decide the staff training needs to be modified, or they might find that the person charged with championing the cause isn’t following through adequately. Don’t hesitate to make changes to fit your firm, Sive advises. “Find whatever works better for you, but don’t just give up and stop.”

He cautions that these programs are especially important during economic downturns. “Many firms become even more focused on getting work in the door as soon as possible,” he says. “While this may clearly be needed to replace work lost, it runs the risk of making architects actually less focused on their relationship with existing clients. Time and again clients note that it is consistency in service and communication — during a project, between projects, in “up” times and “down” times — that they value in architects and other building professionals.” So, Sive and Strong advise, smart firms pay special attention to their core clients during downturns and check in with them even if those clients don’t have any work. This ongoing dedication is what the client values and will remember when the cycle climbs back.