Listening to young architectural graduates whine about clients being their only hindrance to doing great work used to really distress me. I began sharing my frustration with friends in other businesses and found that they were hearing the same complaint, “The customer just gets in the way of me doing my job.” Who does everyone think pays the bills?

Listening to young architectural graduates whine about clients being their only hindrance to doing great work used to really distress me. I began sharing my frustration with friends in other businesses and found that they were hearing the same complaint, “The customer just gets in the way of me doing my job.” Who does everyone think pays the bills? Patrons supporting artists in lavish lifestyles to create as they pleased was mostly a myth even when a genius like Mozart was sought after by kings to create that special concerto or when Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Clients drove business then and they drive it today. Not just clients of the enterprise, but the internal customers of an administrative or service department. No other factor should influence the activities of an organization and every individual within it. Philosophizing about client orientation makes good reading but how to you bring it to ground in your organization in real time? How do you get your people to live and breathe a client driven attitude from their very core? How do you define who, specifically, the client is and what they want and need (often two very different things)? How do you avoid becoming proscriptive about how serving a specific client is done, nurturing an adaptive approach to a client who changes on the fly?

It’s important in any discussion of client focus to set the stage for the business you’re in, to establish how “what you do” and “the way you do it” becomes client driven. It also defines the type of clients you’re best suited to serve, recognizing that not all clients will appreciate your point of view. Not all clients are alike and some will be better satisfied working with or buying from someone else. Being a client driven enterprise doesn’t mean you can or should try to be all things to all people.

I was part of a design firm, one in which design permeated everything we did; where design was not a thing that gets added on to a project otherwise well managed to be on time and on budget, but rather one in which design was part of schedules, budgets, and every process we employed in shaping the built environment.

The clients’ program was not just something to be tolerated but was the fundamental shaping force for our design work. Great design goes beyond “for the client.” It’s “from the client.” We know that all design generates an emotional response of some kind, even if it’s a neutral response.

Like art, greatness is defined by your emotions, not an art critic telling you what is great. Architecture is the same way. Great design elicits a response from those using the places we create, reinforcing the purpose of the place itself. To gain the sure hand to bring forth directed, purposeful emotion, great design demands that you be a student of your work and the work of others; that’s the difference between art and architecture.

Start with an “attitude”

What if you stopped talking about the design of your product or service, your metrics, structure, committees and meetings and just focused on doing great work for your clients? It’s time to stop gazing internally at your structure and process and focus 100 percent of our time on your clients. Here are some background thoughts about how to set yourself up for a true client focus.

  • Trust and Integrity: clients will only stretch with you, explore with you, and seek innovation with you, if they trust you. They trust you if you constantly describe what you do in the context of their business issues, their budget, and their schedule. If you haven’t schooled yourself in how to make these connections for your client, start now. This is not about you, it’s about the client who will use the place you make long after you’ve moved on. How have you given comfort to the fears of each of the people who have to say “yes” to the transaction at hand? This is about helping them to see your service from their point of view. And, frankly, it’s about doing work which is responsible and responsive. That’s when trust in you will be most richly deserved.

  • Research: every one of us carries the responsibility of research into the work that we do; not formal, structured, isolated research, but application research into the way people work, learn, shop and play, into how products, services, materials and systems can be applied in new and innovative ways, and into the enduring improvement in your client’s business performance. Don’t do this because you’re given a research grant, do it because you have a passion for the subject, because you just want to know more for the sheer joy of learning and exploring. What are your passions? Are you giving them wings by taking some of your own time to just explore and share your learning with others?

  • Sustainability: how do you shift your thinking about each mundane task you become involved in every day so that it has sufficient meaning that you’d be happy to tell your grandchildren about? The environmental quality of what you do today is shaping the world for generations into the future. The things we make and sell and the services we deliver will affect the culture of the institutions we make them for. Your leadership and behavior affects the entire community with which you’re involved – employees, customers, vendors and suppliers, the entire outside world that supports what you’re doing for your customer. Are you contributing through your actions to a community you’re proud to be a part of?

By living these premises, you’ll build the reputation that will attract the clients you want to be working with. This provides a template framing a mission and priorities for reaching it for which you know there is a body of customers. Defining it for the people in your organization whose charter it is “to become driven by the client” helps them to stay focused.

Engaging the client on the client’s terms

Now let’s get down to specifics about how to get deeply engaged with your client on their terms. An often-repeated question is: “How do I get my clients to accept the great service I’m providing them?” It’s a fascinating subject in that it has little to do with the process of doing great work but everything to do with bringing that service relationship to reality. Do you ever experience frustration with clients who don’t seem to appreciate the value of what you’re doing or get cold feet when it comes time to “sign on the dotted line?”

Being a client focused firm means immersing yourself in your client’s issues to thoroughly resolve all of the forces shaping the relationship at hand: the budget, the schedule, the program, user issues, the community at large, regulations, etc. A great service relationship with a client has reconciled all of these issues, enhances your client’s business performance, and brings joy and inspiration to the people who use the place you create. When you’re at your best, you’ve been able to balance these often conflicting mandates without a lot of either/or frustrations: either I can meet the budget or I can deliver great design; either I can deliver the program or I can deliver the project that will truly enhance their business. At your best, you deal with each issue with a both/and attitude, delivering – in the customer’s eyes – without compromise.

But at the moment of truth, following the presentation to the client, there is a hesitation. You receive the response, “I’m not sure if I’m going to like it. I’m not sure it will work for us. Maybe we should think about it some more.” What’s going on here? Usually, it’s a subtle failure of client confidence. Sure, the client trusts you and likes you, but there’s something missing. Let’s explore how the highest levels of client confidence are built; the relationship where the client says: “Whatever you say is what I’m going to do because I know it’s exactly what I need and want, even though I can’t read it in the design you’re presenting.”

Most of your clients aren’t able to envision the outcome of the work you do. They have to use it to know for sure. But in today’s world and for most services, that’s not possible. They’re making a leap of faith when they make a commitment along the way to approve a step in the process of a service relationship.

I had a client once for whom we had built a very accurate (and beautiful) model of his building and he was still expressing uncertainty. As I explored further with him how he visualized things, I realized he watched a lot of television and was better able to make a connection between a video image and reality than through a model which, to him, took on the character of a toy. We put the model in another room and scanned around it at pedestrian eye-level in real time with a video camera. He watched on the monitor and directed the action: “No, I’d like to see the building a little more from the left. I don’t like the way the parking structure looks. It’s too industrial.” For him, an image on a television screen connected more easily to reality than a carefully and accurately constructed scale model. It was a revelation for him and for us, and resulted in “yes” to most of the design decisions that day. The more interesting aspect of the exercise was his confidence that we were listening to him and helping him to feel greater confidence in our ability to understand his objectives. Subsequent design discussions began to evolve into conversations of a different character: “You know what I like, just go ahead.”

So how does this kind of relationship develop? It doesn’t happen overnight and it’s not based on a natural talent you happen to have been born with. Clients want to have a “peer” relationship with people whom they need to trust; “need” because they don’t have the skills to understand the work you do in enough detail to make a judgment about that work for themselves, so they must rely on those who are advising them.

This sort of bond starts when the client picks up on your sincere interest in their issues. It means being as involved in their enterprise, their challenges and opportunities, their personalities and politics, as they are. This means research on your part, some social time, lots of questions, and the sense that you care. It means getting to know the people in the organization beyond your client contact. And, it only happens when the client senses your genuine interest in them as individuals and their business issues as if they were your own. When you convey: “I’m making recommendations based on complete empathy with you, your fears and reward systems, priorities and program,” or “I have adopted your complete persona while thinking about and guiding work on your project,” does your client believe it? When the answer is “yes,” you’ll find you have a friend, a peer and better quality work; work which is not only terrific by your measure but completely responsive to your client’s.

So, it’s really not about “How I get my client to accept the great work I’m doing for them?” These are words that indicate a forced action, trying to get your client to buy something that you want to sell. Great work is collaborative, borne of great relationships. You’ll achieve your best work when you approach it with an attitude framed by the question: “How are we going to accomplish great work together?”

Defining your value proposition

In marketing, a value proposition is a statement summarizing the customer targets, competitor targets and the core strategy for how one intends to differentiate one’s product from the offerings of competitors.

The value proposition should answer the question: “Why would I buy this product at all” for the consumer. It is a clear and specific statement about the tangible benefits a consumer receives by using a product or service.

Thus reads the definition for a “value proposition” in Wikipedia ( for those of you who aren’t familiar with this resource). To that, I’ll add the following: it is your approach formed by combining your body of expert knowledge, tools, and talent in a way which is uniquely and individually tailored to a specific client’s needs at a particular moment in time. It is not a list of features, it is completely focused on benefits. It is not generic, it is a unique, once only proposition.

To be able to describe a value proposition in these terms, you’ll need to be able to see the client’s circumstances from their personal point of view. What are their problems, their concerns and their constraints? What are their resources and what threatens them?

For each individual within a client organization with whom you interact, the value proposition must be defined differently. Who above or below the individual you’re dealing with has to say “yes” for a program to go forward? Have you established knowledge of these influencers in order to help the person you’re dealing with define the program appropriately?
And, most importantly, have you presented the benefits of your unique packaging of resources in a way that helps the client to see how to solve their problem – in a way that no one else they’ve spoken with could possibly do?

Bringing the client-driven philosophy to life

Now, I’ll present some ideas about how to breathe life into the client-driven approach for the people in your organization. Begin with a premise that you must add a value to your client that far exceeds the cost of your product or service – but does it far exceed their expectations? This is a fundamental question because clients who have their expectations exceeded are clients that keep coming back, and create new relationships for you through referrals. These are the clients you want to have.

  • Great clients don’t knock on the door very often. They are created and nurtured by the people in your organization.
    • Always remember that your company is an image. Images never impress anyone. People impress people – the people in your organization are your image.

    • Recruit people who are givers, not takers. There are two basic types of people in this world: those who give of themselves freely and those who take all they can get. Takers try to surround themselves with givers. Giving takes maturity, patience and faith. It is never easy. But giving creates loyalty and trust, two essential elements in building great customer relationships.

    • Spend some time every day making your client look good. Most of the client counterparts that your employees deal with are not at the top of their organizations. Many are responsible for multiple relationships. Most have to answer to someone else. If you spend time making them look good, they are much more likely to bring you into other aspects of their business. Time spent proving yourself right is more than time wasted, it is time spent burning bridges.

    • Let others take credit. Everyone knows that nobody does it all by themselves. Successful people surround themselves with successful people. When you hear someone else receiving praise for your work, don’t get upset, take it as a compliment. People know who actually does the work. The better they look, the better you look.

    • Give your clients ideas they never considered. This is essential in exceeding your client’s expectations. Spending a client’s money more wisely than he could have imagined is only part of the solution (and an impossible task). Helping them think about things they otherwise never would have, should be part of the experience that comes with a relationship with your enterprise. They will then come back with ideas you never dreamed of. Be open to these ideas. Clients that believe they “own” a piece of what you’re doing together are more likely to be ecstatic about the results.

    • If you can’t impress them with your knowledge, impress them with your questions. Clients love to talk about what they are doing. Ask good questions and then be a good listener. “What is going to make this a successful relationship for you?” and “What can we do to help you accomplish this” are rarely asked. But the answers will give you an entirely different perspective of why you’re doing business together.

    • Be prepared. Do your homework. Clients are incredibly impressed when you’ve anticipated them and can respond to anything they throw at you. It’s a great sign of respect.

    • Don’t tolerate finger pointing. Everyone loses. Propose solutions before blame. Everyone has an excuse, only the best people have solutions.

    If someone in your organization wrote something like this would you feel like you’d gotten the message across? I adapted this from a letter I received from a young architect several years ago. He’d written it to be sure the many new people joining the office he was in understood what was expected in our culture. What a demonstration of how deeply instilled a client driven focus can become in your organization!

    Continuously monitor your relationships

    It’s easy to get complacent about success with a client of long standing. But their world continues to evolve requiring you to evolve with them. We were feeling pretty good about the depth, breadth and duration of our relationship with one of our long-term clients. We’d been doing work for them for nearly 30 years. We had recently completed a highly successful facility for them and had another under construction across the street. We were designing the interiors of their new headquarters in another location and our total annual billings to them had increased every year. One of the facilities had won a prestigious design award and the new building promised to be a winner as well. Not bad: design to be proud of and an increasing amount of business for a number of our offices.

    This is where the risk of smugness sets in. In a meeting with their facilities group, we asked what percentage of their work we did. We assumed we were the their largest supplier of services by a wide margin. Not so. In fact, we found, much to our chagrin that our “market share” of their work had been shrinking. Now, they commission a lot of work every year and there is no way that we were going to get all or even most of it, but to learn that we were winning a diminishing percentage served as a strong wake up call, leading to a wonderful discussion of how they rate their consultants and what characteristics they look for when selecting a consultant for an assignment, or, more importantly, a series of assignments – in other words, a “relationship.”

    They perform a regular evaluation of their service providers, reviewing the results to help guide that service provider’s performance and priorities. In the case of architectural and interior design firms, they synopsized their evaluation criteria as follows (in their order):

    • Speed – Not only how fast are design and construction documents completed (although this is certainly important), but how responsive is the architect. Do they return phone calls immediately; do they find answers to client and contractor questions quickly; do they convey by their demeanor a sense of urgency? Opening of a new facility is enormously time sensitive and it takes more than just finishing the drawings on time to meet a schedule.

    • People – The quality of the people assigned to a project and a relationship is critical. No assignment should be seen as a training ground for junior staff or filler work for someone who’d really rather be doing something else. They expect to have seasoned, committed, knowledgeable professionals assigned to their work. This is a very important issue for us to remember as we take on more and more extension or multi-assignment work with our global clients.

    • Business – They expect their architects to know both how they do their business and why they do their business. Intimacy with a client’s business issues, a theme we’ve talked about for a long time now, comes out loud and clear as a key issue in sustaining a long-term relationship.

    • Seamless – They expect their architects to be a seamless extension of themselves. This does not mean rolling over and playing dead when we see something that could be improved or simply being a drafting service. It does, however, mean embodying a genuine empathy for the client’s processes and internal issues and playing by their rules. It means learning how they do things, not telling them “this is the way we do it.”

    I suspect most of your clients, whether you’re working with them on a single assignment or involved in a sustained global relationship, would concur. How might you gain similar insights into what your best clients really expect of you?

    Former President of Gensler Architecture Design & Planning Worldwide, Ed Friedrichs presents a model for sustainable and effective business design in the 21st century in his book Reach Higher: Long-Cycle Strategies for a Short-Cycle World. Now an independent consultant with Friedrichs Group, Ed Friedrichs looks at new opportunities for the design professions driven by today’s client needs and demands.