Ten architect blind spots that get in the way of great client relationships

I’ve been involved in the RIBA Client Liaison Group for a few years now. Altogether, the Group has consulted over 1,500 clients of all shapes and sizes, and so its findings are fairly robust.

In the course of this research, I’ve come to suspect some architects of having a few persistent blind spots in their dealings with the people who pay their fees.

The list below highlights forgivable tendencies that lead to friction, damaging your chances of repeat business and referrals.

  1. You do not sell designs; you sell promises. Unless you offer a money-back guarantee, hiring you is a leap of faith and trust for clients.
  2. The product of architects’ service is usually a design, not the building built using those designs. A portfolio of pictures of finished award-winning buildings does not tell the client what you are like to work with or whether your designs contributed to their commercial success. You need different evidence – meaningful client feedback and post-occupancy evaluations – for that.
  3. Clients are much less interested in architecture than you are. Especially at the start of a project, volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity dominate their thinking until the knowns outweigh the unknowns – possibly only when the build is nearing completion. Only then will they see the value in – and thus care about – your art.
  4. The fact that the building you designed won an award does not make it a good building. Impressive as they are, very few awards honour the things that most clients want: value for money and/or a good return on investment.
  5. Completing a project without following up is like playing golf in the dark: you cannot see where the ball lands. If you do not investigate the success of your designs, how can clients trust claims you make about the value you add?
  6. A building is usually only ever a means to an end for the client. If the industry deems it ‘good architecture’ too, that’s usually a secondary or incidental bonus. Passion is good, but understand that it is not always shared by the client.
  7. Arguments for ethical design are best won by framing them in terms of the client’s self-interest. Persuasion is more successful than tub-thumping and shaming.
  8. Whatever your risk in undertaking a project, it is nothing compared to the client’s. Treat the budget, programme and brief with the respect you would if the risk was all yours.
  9. As a group, architects have a reputation for arrogance, profligacy and being expensive. Unjustified as it may be, it is a barrier to winning work, so don’t reinforce it.
  10. If you profess knowledge and competence in a given field of expertise, it is unfair to expect clients to pay for your learning or mistakes in that field. If you genuinely innovate, make sure the client agrees, and expect to share some of the risks with your client.

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