~ 6 minute read
It’s just like dating.
Unlike many other professional service providers, architects sell services that routinely tie them to a client for multi-year projects, often taking one, two or even more years from kick-off to occupancy. Such long term relationships eventually move past the honeymoon phase to settle into a routine, a more casual association where each party gets to know the other more intimately. Much like a romantic relationship, the qualities, quirks and annoying behaviour traits of the other naturally rise to the surface, as people get more comfortable with one another.
There is nothing inherently good or bad about this, but it does beg the question: How do we ensure that one chooses the right kind of clients? Much like one should probably not get married on a whim, designers ought to spend time ensuring that the clients they take on are a good fit, both from a service provider perspective, as well as on a personal level, as the two eventually become intertwined as the relationship evolves.
A quick sidebar on residential architecture.
I’ve personally heard many an architect say that their relationships with residential clients are way closer to a friendship than strictly a business exchange, because in order to design a suitably customized space, the architect has to know their client intimately on, or even beyond the level that a close friend or a family member would. Boundaries become blurred and the relationship becomes a hybrid that can at times lead to awkward situations, because the architect is both a friend and a service professional, a confidant as well as accountable for the work they do.
While the architect has the moral obligation to behave professionally and be on the ball when it comes to dealing with issues, working with carefully selected clients through a vetting process ensures that, when the shit hits the proverbial fan, there is enough trust and confidence at on personal level to maintain a good relationship. A poorly-suited client would be more likely to use problems as an excuse to drag the relationship into adversarial territory, due to lack of rapport and trust. Something to be avoided at any cost.
How does vetting work?
A few weeks ago, we looked at what to do when dealing with unreasonable clients, and briefly touched on the idea of vetting clients. Many professionals are all too willing to subject themselves to client interviews, but few do take advantage of the opportunity to flip the interview on its head and interview their prospective clients in return, the prospect of more business being too tempting to risk letting go.
In the sales process, once a fitting prospect has been identified, the first step in establishing the relationship is to demonstrate value of your expertise and quickly win the polite battle for the control and get some face time with your prospect (a topic for another article). The following step is to move on to the the qualifying conversation where prospective clients are interviewed to determine if they’re a good fit. A number of questions need to be answered in order to do so.
From objective questions, like:
“Do the client’s objectives align with ours?”
“Can we confidently deliver on what they’re asking for?”
“Do they have a budget and timeline?”
“Have the decision makers been identified?”
To the more subjective ones, such as:
“Would I happily go have a drink and shoot the shit with them?”
“Am I able to uncover their deepest fears in order to address them?”
“Do I understand their aspirations and can I help them achieve these goals?”
“Do we share the same values?”
It can be accomplished by spending a bit of time with the prospect, asking a lot of very specific questions aimed at uncovering the needs, fears and aspirations of the prospective client and listening intently to the answers. Letting them answer each question as they see fit. Mastering interviewing clients is a rare skill, but the good news is that it’s something that can be learned through practice. Since this is a qualifying interview, it should be clear to both parties that the intent of the meeting is to determine fit. The next steps being discussed and mutually agreed upon at the conclusion of this discussion.
The art of shutting up and listening.
In a previous article, we covered the art of humble inquiry. I personally like to start with very general questions so the prospect can tell me in their own words what they think they are about. Since I am looking to work with people who share similar cultural traits, I usually ask them to tell me what their company culture is like. From there, we move on to goals, aspirations, challenges, successes and failures. Getting these questions answered should paint a pretty accurate picture of what that firm is about.
From there, more aspirational questions can be asked in the form of spontaneous visioning exercises, for example, asking about where they would like to see themselves three years from now. Which will reveal as much about what they aspire to as it will also reveal the gap they have to bridge to get there. This is gold for the rest of the conversation, as now there should be a pretty clear picture of what the clients goals are and from there it can be determined if our services are suited for them.
Your gut is right (most of the time).
If there is a good fit, your gut should tell you by now. Conversely, if there is no fit, now is the time to politely say so and make a graceful exit, as it’s a very bad idea to force a relationship where there shouldn’t be one. Like other areas of life, it’s better to accept that we’re not meant to get along with absolutely everyone. With that being said, with a good lead generation process, most of the prospects knocking on the door should be somewhat pre-qualified at the very least interested in what is on offer. If that’s not the case, then it’s time to review your lead generation strategy to find out where the breakdown in communications is.
Where to go from there?
Now is the time to co-define the next steps. A fit has been established and the last thing that should happen is to leave the prospect without pre-determined and mutually agreed upon next steps. Depending on where that conversation ended, you should be somewhere between a verbal agreement to proceed and an interest in pursuing the conversation further, but whichever case you find yourself in, the next steps should be crystal clear to both you and the prospect.
I want to conclude with this thought: throughout this vetting process, it is by gently taking control of the conversation that you can lay the foundation for good communications and give prospects a glimpse of what it is like to work with you, simply by acting and being a certain way, which should be congruent with who you are. As an expert in your field you want to create and maintain said expertise and it shows in huge part in the way we interact with one another.
Talk is cheap, actions matter.
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