Clients will overlook shortcomings in the people they hire in a bid to access the best brains and, they hope, the best solutions.
We’ve all seen this in Hollywood movies: a government agency calls in the maverick genius to save the world despite his or, less frequently, her disdain for convention and/or authority.
It’s romantic. Idealistic. Heroic. But also improbable, and only really accepted because the fictional need is dire and the fictional powers-that-be have run out of better options.
How much simpler would life be if the genius wasn’t maverick? There’s a movie I’d like to see:
“Aaargghh, the meteor is about to end humanity!”
“Fear not: my Government-approved, quality-assured, regulation-compliant and rather nicely designed Savetheworld-o-matic has averted the problem.”
“Oh. Right then. Pub?”
The same kinds of things happen in the construction industry.
Construction clients will put up with, for example, a bit of sloppy project management or disrespect for the budget from their architects in exchange for brilliantly creative solutions to difficult development conundrums.
As one client put it in the research I’ve been involved in, it’s ‘a necessary evil’.
The research was conducted by the RIBA’s Client Liaison Group over the last couple of years. It shows that generally speaking clients are pretty satisfied with their architects’ design vision and technical skills (with some exceptions).
However, across sectors and building types, clients of all types see inconsistent performance in the way architects manage themselves and their projects.
Clients take for granted that architects are good at being architects but distrust that they are as consistently good at project management, cost control, learning from experience, and a few other overlapping competencies that have an impact on project viability.
This distrust has by now hardened into a persistent bias.
In short, clients anticipate that they will get good architecture, but it’s risky. And what good is good architecture if it is not also viable?
So clients control their risks in other ways. Money that could be spent on architects is spent instead on hiring design managers and cost consultants to police the stuff architects either can’t or choose not to do.
In the process, they pit consultants against each other, giving them different briefs and restricting access to information, making it harder for architects to do their jobs well.
This trend, which has been going on for decades, is described as the marginalisation of architects and as things stand, it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The suspicion that the architect will not perform sure enough prevents them from performing, to the point where the architect role is in danger of receding to designing concepts as second- or third-tier suppliers.
This says two things to me.
1. To even begin to de-marginalize, architects have to overcome the bias that makes clients distrust them.
2. Architects need some way of proving their competence in managing the risks that clients fear.
If I’m right, the fact that so many architects compete for business on the grounds of their technical design competence is doomed to be a bit of a damp squib.
I accept that a fortunate few successfully trade purely on their signature design panache. The majority, though, rely on experience and track record, evidencing their appeal with a clutch of awards and a bunch of case studies and photos showcasing their work.
Practices are weakest when they claim – without evidence – to be ‘good to work with’ and to have ‘robust project management systems’. Even when they are ISO 9001-certified, acknowledging it is apparently deeply uncool, like that close relative who became a health and safety inspector or – shudder – a Tory politician. (It’s not just clients who have biases.)
When thousands or millions of pounds are at stake, and the welfare of a business, enterprise or family is at risk, clients usually don’t want romantic, idealistic, heroic (i.e. maverick) designer-artists. At least, not just that. They also want to know that they are in good, safe hands.
It’s time to confront clients’ distrust and back up claims about what you’re like to work with with evidence.
The new, free Listenback system for seeking client feedback aims to do just that. Easy to implement, it satisfies clients that you understand their need to mitigate their fears in the face of uncertainty.
By becoming a ‘listening’ practice, you ally yourselves to your clients and set yourself apart from the competition.
By actively seeking meaningful feedback during projects, you reassure them that you’re not just a great designer but concerned about the issues that matter to them.
And by acting on the feedback, you convince that you are indeed that rarest of beasts: a genius with great professional habits and a healthy respect for the client, worthy of being recommended and given more business.
How’s that for marketing value?
If this sounds worth a shout, join Listenback today. It is a 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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