Embrace change: the secret to better client relationships

No need for hatchets – get to the root of the problem by asking for feedback.

Evidence suggests that the relationship between architects and their clients is not consistently respectful. As mutual misunderstanding hardens into unreasonable positions, tensions are rising. In some quarters, the ominous and unhelpful sound of axes being ground can be heard.

Since they stand to suffer more in any fight and as the professional party, the onus is on architects to restore civilities.

It is time to bury the hatchet by seeking client feedback using the Listenback system. In doing so, architects not only extend an olive branch to the people who pay their fees but actively dispel the know-it-all, won’t-listen stereotype.

And that’s before all the other benefits kick in.

Here are the common complaints that architects and clients have about each other, learned over the last few years working closely with the RIBA Client Liaison Group.

Architects about clients:

  • Until planning consent is secured, they expect us to bear risk in the form of low fees.
  • They don’t appreciate the long hours we invest or the complexity of our work.
  • They don’t understand the consequences of late changes.
  • They don’t give us enough time to prepare tender documents.
  • They agree to value engineering that damages quality.
  • They withhold budget, cost and other critical information.
  • They allow parties working on the same project to have clashing objectives.
  • They don’t understand that the capital cost of the building is a mere fraction of its long-term operating cost.
  • They don’t want to pay for quality, which damages our reputation and that of the industry.

Clients about architects:

  • They have no understanding of our business needs.
  • They arrogantly refuse to speak our language.
  • They are poor time managers and bad team players.
  • Their poor grasp of business priorities saps our confidence in them.
  • They overstate their resources, experience, abilities, skills and competence.
  • Their working drawings are inaccurate, not buildable, delivered late and in an unhelpful order.
  • They can’t be trusted to stick to the budget.
  • They can’t be trusted to stick to the programme.
  • They can’t back up their claims about the value their work adds or define what they mean by quality.
  • Far from sharing our risk, they expect us to cover theirs.

Like all human groups, architects and clients are tribal, which accentuates differences, and that’s partly what’s going on here. But the extent and ubiquity of the complaints indicates a deeper rift.

That wouldn’t be half so threatening if the law of supply and demand didn’t put architects at a power disadvantage. As suppliers in a crowded market, architects cannot afford to voice their complaints to clients. There might be a labour shortage in construction, but the same is not true in architecture: clients can more or less have their pick.

Upshot? Clients get rare professional skills at bargain-basement prices and have no motivation to question it. For their part, architects can’t afford to rock the boat. They bite their lip and take what work they can get. This stretches resources to snapping point, leaving them no time to breathe let alone reflect on the causes of the deeper rift.

Resentments fester, and so the biases are all reinforced in a degenerating spiral known as the marginalisation of architects.

It is down to architects to patch up the relationship out of a sense of professional duty, if for no other reason. But how?

There’s no smoke without fire, the old cliché goes, and the smoke here is blinding. If we can find the fires, both parties will be able to see more clearly.

Look again at the list of complaints. The root problems all fall into a few major categories.

Architects’ complaints about clients are almost all to do with being unfairly undervalued, mistrusted, or the client not appreciating the importance of built quality.

Clients’ complaints about architects are almost all about their devil-may-care attitude to cost and process management, with a soupçon of distrust of both their executive delivery skills and their overall value.

Asking for client feedback is the sophisticated, professional approach to finding and extinguishing the threatening fires. Far from a weakness, it’s a grown-up acknowledgement of the tensions and a mature invitation to your client to find the root causes. And in this day and age, it’s expected.

Architects who actively acknowledge that there can be misunderstandings and do all they can to head them off at the pass are unusual. Practices who can do it well will steal a march on their competitors.

Seeking client feedback won’t define what is meant by quality or prove the value of good design. (The answer to those is probably in post-occupancy evaluations and the Internet of Things.)

However, it will demonstrate that you understand clients’ deepest concerns about risk, money and process, and it will prove the value of good architects.

And using the free Listenback system, it won’t break the bank or distract you from your fee-earning work. That’s a pretty good start.


Listenback is a free web-based client feedback benchmarking tool and consultancy for UK architects.

We are currently looking for practices willing to partner with us to test the tool’s use and functionality.

If you are interested in participating, please get in touch with Matt Thompson at matt@listenback.co.uk

#savvyarchitect #clientfeedback #clientexperience #racetothetop #clientsatisfaction #keyperformanceindicator #buildtrust #valueofdesign

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