You did not have them at “Hello”
by Arnaud Marthouret
Imagine you’re looking for a lawyer to help you with a legal matter. You do some googling (surprisingly none of your friends and family know a good lawyer to recommend to you) and you find a few eye-catching firms. Looking at their websites, three out of four say more or less the same thing, along the lines of: “We’re licensed professionals, in good standing with the law society and we’re good at what we do, look at all our awards and testimonials. We’ll get you the most money in court. Hire us!” The fourth one catches your attention: “I only work with clients who are interested in trying different ways to solve their legal issues. I believe in an alternative brand of justice that aims at trying every possible solution and only litigate when no other option is left. This saves you money, time and aggravation.” Which one would you hire? More importantly, which one do you think commands a price premium?
Your positioning in the architecture and design industry is the foundation of your business. Build it on shaky grounds and it will crumble. It is an absolute necessity for architects to position themselves well in a marketplace rife with competitors and clients whose first instinct is to price-shop. For an architecture firm without a clear positioning, or worse, a bad one, they will often be weeded out by clients early because they found someone cheaper elsewhere.
For anyone who’s been “interviewed” by clients more than their share, we will explore how to position yourself as an expert and purposely drive the conversation towards the value you can deliver to them and your ability to solve their problems. This applies to all kinds of prospects, as one should strive to lead in a similar fashion with every potential client.
You did not have them at “hello”.
A common mistake architects make when they look for work is to think it will speak for itself. It’s never been true and it is even less so today now that anyone can literally find thousands of designers at their fingertips with a few clicks of the mouse. While it was the case that back in the day, it was easier to be stumbled upon by prospecting clients and as a result, more architects would be hired due to sheer luck as they were either found in the phonebook or seen in the media as these platforms had the monopoly of attention, so all one had to do to ensure at least moderate success, was to make it into these channels. By the same token, word of mouth may have worked quite well in the pre-digital days as word of a quality architect could spread through tight networks locally. However, these paradigms have lost a lot of their luster now that Google, SEO and social media reign supreme and your potential clients have access to more choices than they can handle, literally anywhere in the world.
When prospects reach out because they’ve come across your work one way or another, it is very tempting but also very risky to treat them like a secured client, when often they’re merely shopping around for price, a clear indication you’re being perceived as a commodity architect. Prospects already familiar with your professional expertise and interested in the value your business has to offer will be easier to deal with as they are already pre-qualified by the time they reach out. But it is also equally if not more common, to deal with prospects who know they have a problem they need to solve, but have no idea how to go about it and therefore start with the lowest common denominator: pricing.
And so they approach you and your competitors only with pricing in mind as a way to differentiate you from the competition. You can tell them apart by their strict focus on how much your services cost and their unwillingness to discuss much of anything else. While minimal time should be spent on these low-value clients, there is a small but tremendous opportunity to turn the conversation away from the finances alone and dig deeper, if they’ll allow you into what is the problem they’re trying to solve.
A commoditized architect will happily jump through whatever hoops the prospects ask them to, in the hopes that this will look good and increase their chances of getting the job. It does the exact opposite and positions one as a low-value commodity, not valuing their own expertise, as you will appear to try and do just about anything to get the job. In your client’s mind, it’s an extremely unappealing character. Think about that one ex of yours that would never leave you alone and be extremely needy. You’re basically displaying the same behaviour if that’s what you’re doing.
Conversely, an expertly-positioned architect will already have had client partially vetted via their carefully designed business development process. Clients who have interacted with the content they’ve been putting out have a decent idea of who they are dealing with, greatly simplifying the vetting process. An expertly positioned architect is one who is very clear about what it is that they do (specialty) and who they do it for (niche market). They avoid at all costs to try and be all things to all people, as architects are more often than not, wont to do.
The key objective in this initial conversation with your prospects is to determine fit, and if fit there is, prove that you have the expertise to do the job and deliver above and beyond expectations. The way to do it is to lead the conversation, to work on winning the “polite battle for control” and establish credibility early on. Prospects will often jump to their burning questions like:
- “How much does it cost?”
- “How do you work?”
- “Can you submit an RFP?”
- “I want to see some of your ideas for this project before we hire you.”
All these questions are consciously or subconsciously designed to trip you up and let the prospect control the conversation, which positions the professional architect as an order-taker, a good soldier ready to execute on command. This is where one has the opportunity to flip the conversation around by either saying “no” to any unreasonable demand or answer questions with other questions of a strategic nature, in order to get the client off their price-shopping mindset and see that you have the ability to reframe their problem in a way that they have not thought of.
By doing so, the conversation is now more likely to be on an even keel and you can work on establishing expertise and gaining control of the conversation. For example, if someone calls and asks how much my services cost, a fairly common occurrence, I almost always try and steer the conversation towards their underlying reasons for reaching out and the problem they are trying to solve. Usually one of two things happen:
- They are completely hermetic to the idea of discussing their needs, an indication that they are only price shopping and therefore are likely to be a low-value client I do not want to work with.
- They are open to the idea and I now have the opportunity to seize control of the conversation and determine fit.
This part of the architect-client interaction is the do-or-die opportunity that designers have to flip the conversation in their favour. Say the wrong thing and the client will continue to treat you like a commodity. Conversely, if you manage to reframe the problem at hand and get them to open up to having a conversation about the value you can deliver to them, as opposed to the cost of your services, then you stand a decent chance to continue the vetting dance and hopefully sign them, provided they are a good fit for your firm.
A side note on procurement
For those of you who deal with procurement people, it is imperative to realize that you are dealing with people who are trained and experienced in negotiating and squeezing every penny out of their consultants and vendors. These people are not your friends as their mandate is directly at odds with your business objectives, and sometimes even at odds with the long-term objectives of their employers. They are tasked to save every penny they, often at the detriment of quality, whereas your job is to make as much money as you can through the delivery of maximal value. The problem with procurement is that it rarely takes the value of creativity and problem solving skills into account. Because dealing with such professionals is an enormously unfavorably asymmetric interaction in their favour, it is critical to educate yourself on how they work and learn to counter their tactics with some of your own so you can avoid being squeezed for every penny you have. Better yet, if you can derail or bypass the procurement process by gaining the inside track, do so, but always make sure that you don’t run afoul of your client’s procurement policies or worse, the law.
Having a solid, rational vetting process for clients enables architects to avoid the Derek Zoolanders of the world. As an expert practitioner you should leave that to the designers who don’t have a clear idea of the types of clients they want to work with and let them bear the cost of dealing with pathologically difficult clients. Refining the vetting process takes time but it will get better with practice as it’s an ongoing process. As you become better, this step in the sales process will accomplish the following:
- It will allow you to lead the qualifying phase and naturally position you as an expert in your field, giving you the confidence to politely decline working with the wrong clients (e.g. price-shoppers) very early in the vetting process.
- By weeding out the bad prospects early, it will allow you to work with the best clients, while spending less time putting out fires and more time doing what you do best: being an awesome architect.
This vetting process and qualifying process is really a reciprocal interview of designer and client, each assessing the fitness of the other and the ability to work together. Pandering to clients like Mugatu is akin to presenting a dressed-up front that is not representative of the reality. What do you think will happen once the honeymoon phase is over? Not to mention that it is incredibly condescending to the clients.
Even if you are exceptionally good at finding and getting hired by the right kind of clients, you should still say no to them when a situation arises that warrants it throughout your working relationship. This is where the true value of your positioning as an expert practitioner during the vetting process will come handy. Sometimes people just don’t know better or are fixated on one idea that does not serve them. After all, we all have our irrationally idiosyncratic quirks and behaviours. Because the foundation of your expertise has been previously laid out, it will be a lot easier to recommend something that seems to go against your clients’ desires, even though they may perceive it as going against their interest, when you know that this is the right solution for them and they just can’t see it.
This will lead to two beneficial outcomes, either your client will realize that you’re not a mere order taker and water-down their tendency to be unreasonable or they will fire you (or you will fire them) and you will have avoided major headache. There is enough business to go around for good designers to not have to put up with troublesome clients. Don’t be a Mugatu emotionally compelled to work with a Zoolander.
What are your thoughts on the vetting process? Please comment below…
Arnaud Marthouret is the founder of rvltr and leads their strategy, visual communications and media efforts. He has helped numerous architects and interior designers promote themselves in their best light – pun intended – in order to help them run more effective practices and grow in a meaningful way.
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