The huge untapped potential of client feedback for architects

Clients’ feedback helps you to manage relationships and track your reputation. © Matt Thompson, 2017

 

In a world where what people say about you is increasingly out of your control , it makes good strategic sense to counteract it by inviting feedback and then acting on it. That is why businesses in all sectors and industries use client feedback tools to make better products and services, which by definition make them more commercially successful.

Architects are slow on the uptake, though. It is just not in their make up to do it. As professionals, they’re already experts at understanding client needs, so why do more. Right?

Wrong. Guesswork is no substitute for real data, and not inviting feedback is to leave yourself hostage to fortune. That feedback leaches out into the world regardless. Worse, it leaves money on the table as you neglect all the good business intelligence that comes from a savvy feedback strategy.

There is a new system – Listenback – that takes advantage of the full potential of client feedback.

Recent RIBA research shows that, all else being equal, simply following up with your clients impresses them. For a business that relies on referrals and repeat business, this fact alone looks interesting.

If you can do it well, you gain control. You’ll get an edge over your competition and boost your project win rate. It primes you to pre-empt problems, which frees up design time. More importantly, clients are reassured, which builds trust.

If you ask the right questions at the right time, in the right manner, you’ll gather valuable market-differentiating data that you can use in recruitment, training, business planning, and marketing. It will also give you an early heads up to changing client expectations, intelligence that can be used to gain market-share.

So what is client feedback, and how do practices currently do it? (To be clear, it is not post-occupancy evaluation, which as an indicator of your service is distinctly fuzzy, since it measures building performance and not just the design.) There are two broad types, each with their downsides.

Standard: project management feedback

Most architects engage in this kind of feedback whether they know it or not. It is the inevitable by-product of managing a project. If something’s going wrong during a project, you fess up or the client eventually notices anyway. You respond, and the problem is usually patched up. That’s how architects progress to a conclusion, satisfactory or otherwise.

The trouble is that projects are generally infected with optimism bias, with few built-in safety valves (other than those enshrined in the dispute resolution clauses of your appointment contract, which is a whole different ball game).

While this positive mindset motivates people, it is also unrealistic. It comes as a surprise when things, as they inevitably do, go wrong. In this context, constructive feedback can seem like criticism, provoking defensive behaviour that can escalate into a blame game. This is a massive problem for clients, who want smooth management and who believed you when you said everything would be ticketty-boo.

Benchmarking: structured longitudinal feedback

The other kind of client feedback is formal benchmarking generally demanded by quality management systems such as the RIBA’s Chartered Practice QMS or ISO 9001. You are meant to do it at the conclusion of projects to find out what your clients thought of your service. The resulting intelligence should give you a benchmark against which you can improve the quality of your service for the benefit of future clients.

However, architects rarely know what questions to ask or how to act on the findings. The system is prone to becoming a box-ticking exercise, and, at best, any responses are merely cherry-picked for marketing endorsements.

Seeing that it’s asked of clients out of the goodness of their hearts, response rates unfortunately tend to be low. Also, clients are exponentially demotivated for every additional minute they are asked to spend giving their feedback.

Listenback – client feedback reinvented

After a year in development, lots of consultation, and based on RIBA research with over 2,000 clients, Listenback has devised a better way.

With a quick, plain-English web-based benchmarking feedback tool at its heart, the Listenback system avoids the usual pitfalls to open up a universe of benefit for you and your clients.

The Listenback system recommends that architects promote themselves explicitly as ‘listening’ practices. A few simple measures ensure that each new project has appropriate safety valves in place. The system integrates smoothly into your existing workflow, minimising disruption.

Best of all, the benchmarking factors are known to matter to all clients, regardless of what sector they operate in or type they are. This makes it possible to compare feedback across the board and gather a critical mass of data, giving you a reliable key performance indicator to inform business decisions.

The business of architecture is at a crossroads. As client expectations rise and digital technology transforms the industry, architects’ value is being marginalized. In a bid to win work, there is a race to cut fees in the hope of compensating returns later. A strong client feedback strategy can help to heal these uncomfortable trends. The Listenback system articulates your worth and helps you build trust.

 

Listenback 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 matt@listenback.co.uk

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