January 9, 2018
by Sharon Vanderkaay
“If only we could educate the client about the true value of architecture,” goes the wistful narrative, “then they would have greater appreciation for architects and what they do.” It is clear to many members of the profession that this painfully slow enlightenment process needs to be accelerated. What if architects used an evidence-based approach to design a better way to transform their client’s thinking? What if these initiatives made use of research on experiential learning? What if more clients engaged in interactive experiences that generate exceptional value?
The shift to transformational experiences
Transformational client-architect experiences are based upon mutually beneficial exchanges of knowledge and aha’s that occur before, during, and after the project. In contrast to fee-driven transactions, these two-way engagements bring out the best in both entities. They are built on empathy and the trusting relationships that develop when the architect and client think through possibilities and constraints together.
“I love my clients,” says Gregory Henriquez, Architect AIBC, FRAIC, managing partner of Henriquez Partners Architects and a leader among a new generation of ethical, activist architects. “We decline one or two project requests a week because we choose our clients. Rather than being reactive, we decided to take control of our careers and surround ourselves with people who have a reciprocal relationship with us. Clients are attracted by our commitment to doing something meaningful and exceptional together. We provide them with a positive experience.”
“Like a lot of architects, I used to be fearful of showing clients my work in progress,” Henriquez continues, “then I experimented with sharing the design as it evolved and discovered to my surprise, the more I did that, the more excited they got about the emerging ideas.”
More architects are taking the initiative to shape project opportunities and the selection process. They are using fresh thinking, meaningful interaction and empathy for clients to be the proverbial firm that has the inside track.
What is empathy-driven marketing?
Empathy is the ability to put yourself “in someone else’s shoes” to understand how they see things. For architects this involves being attuned to a client’s concerns, hopes and fears—both spoken and unspoken. When framing communication and marketing strategies for your firm, an empathy-driven approach can more clearly distinguish you from the many firms that vaguely claim they listen and collaborate. Empathy also means caring enough to interview clients long before they create their selection criteria and being in a position to influence those criteria.
Use empathy to triumph over apathy
When I conduct interviews with clients to understand why they choose one top design firm over another, they tend to talk about the working relationship. For example, they cite “someone who cares about my obsessions as a client, not just their obsessions,” and they praise the architect who “has our best interests at heart,” or the firm that “shows they really care about us.”
Overwhelming research on how people make major buying decisions indicates that emotions rule their choices. Typically, the purchaser’s conscious and unconscious feelings are then justified with logic (such as assigning point scores in the case of public work proposal evaluations).
In other words, an excellent way to build greater appreciation for what architects do is to communicate that you recognize the demands, risks, pressures and primal fears of being a client. Often when spending large sums of money, clients must justify their decisions to others, some are under hostile public scrutiny, and some may even fear losing their job if project planning mistakes are made. Also, clients are frequently asked to quickly digest concepts that may have taken a design team days or weeks to evolve back in the studio. So you can set yourself apart by integrating clients into your design and planning deliberations so that they can proceed with confidence.
Every project begins with a conversation
“From my experience, thought leaders in the profession begin the design process with the premise that we must seek first to understand,” says John Stephenson, OAA, MRAIC, partner, FORM Architecture Engineering and current president of the Ontario Association of Architects. “This involves not just passive listening; it requires insightful questions that are ‘designed’ to achieve an exceptional level of understanding before leaping to a hypothesis. It poses design ideas not as solutions, which presume that the architect has all the answers, but as a series of ‘what if’ questions that challenge both designer and client. This quality of interaction brings real craft and greater perceived value to the design that emerges.”
Where are you on the empathy spectrum?
A doctor can be dedicated to the medical profession while not appearing to care that much about patients. Likewise, on one extreme of the marketing spectrum we find architects who describe themselves as passionate about architecture without explaining how their passion translates into benefits for a client. Marketing profiles that neglect to mention the client’s role may unintentionally convey a message that clients will be viewed primarily as a means to expand portfolios, win awards and fulfill a need for self-expression.
On the other side of the empathy spectrum we find architects who see a common cause with clients, serving their own agenda as well as client needs, fears, hopes and priorities. These architects build trust and enthusiasm with clients through interactions that demonstrate they truly care.
From the client’s perspective, how can I tell where you fall on this empathy spectrum? Many architect profiles are written in a way that appeals to other architects, rather than speaking to the client as reader. If your clients would truly say you “care about us” this is a crucial differentiator that should be conveyed through all your written and verbal communication.
Caring does not mean compromise
If you practice principle-centred negotiation you know that in order to get what you want, you must first discover what the other person wants. Finding common ground—or agreeing on a common cause—does not need to involve compromise. So when we talk about a client-centric, empathy-driven marketing strategy for architectural services, it does not mean that design quality will be diminished. But it does require asking astute questions that reveal where your interests intersect with your client’s.
Bryan Croeni, AIA, director, B+H Advance Strategy immerses his clients in a rigorous participatory design experience that sparks animated dialogue about what’s truly important and meaningful to stakeholders. This empathy-driven approach has multiple benefits that serve to differentiate the firm. “In addition to enriching the value of our interaction with clients,” Bryan says, “our process saves time by surfacing challenges and opportunities early on in the project. In a rapidly changing, complex planning and design environment, our clients can’t afford to settle for easy conclusions and untested assumptions. Status quo mindsets are destined to yield status quo outcomes, which is risky in an environment of accelerating change.”
In my consulting work I encounter architects who have collaborative process talents that they take for granted. These capabilities, rooted in empathy and appreciation for the high stakes decisions that clients must face, often get masked by standard marketing claims. An empathy-driven approach to marketing can reveal fresh opportunities and strengthen client relationships. To do this, you need to paint a picture of what it feels like to collaborate with your team and the benefits of your unique way of working. How do you develop a deeper understanding of what each client wants their project to achieve?
Rather than rely on well-worn phrases that clients see as norms for the profession—such as years of experience and vague, me-too statements about excellence and innovation—what if you conveyed the quality of client experience and the benefits of that interaction? If empathy is about understanding how clients see things, how do you gain that understanding rather than proceed on the basis of assumptions?
Communicating a higher quality of interaction could encompass:
1. How you help clients think through options in order to make better, more confident decisions.
2. How you probe beyond stated requirements to discover true needs and wants.
3. How you find out what matters most in the client’s mind, rather than acting on assumptions.
4. How you identify a “common cause” that reflects both your interests and the client’s priorities (without compromises).
5. How a client would describe the experience of working with you (vs. generic marketing language).
Describe your consultative approach
In recent years, doctors have added “patient interview skills” to their classroom curriculum. They realize that traditional, paternalistic ways of dispensing their wisdom must be replaced with a consultative approach. Design clients often don’t know what questions they should be asking, in the same sense that you may not know all the questions you should be asking your doctor. Also, clients frequently don’t fully understand their needs until the design process begins to unfold.
How effective are your client interview skills? Architects who establish an outstanding reputation for empathy are more than good listeners. They certainly are not order-takers, because they don’t accept what clients say at face value. They do not say “we will build your vision.” Instead, similar to a good doctor, they know that better questions lead to better answers.
Your ability to respond to what matters most
Enormous amounts of time can be wasted when we jump ahead without asking “what matters?” to clients. Are we making the right assumptions? Are we ruling out the right possibilities?
“We make our thinking process highly visible by involving clients in hands-on working sessions, rather than relying on presentations that require us to convince decision makers, says Tania Bortolotto, OAA, FRAIC, president, Bortolotto. “Our transparent approach allows us to spotlight how we explore project possibilities and creative problem solving. It also helps clients digest complex issues so they feel more confident as we move forward.”
Are you hiding your most valuable client collaboration skills behind a wall of “me-too” claims? Not every architect is interested in delving into these emotional aspects of the business. Yet an empathy-driven strategy will make the value of what you do more obvious to clients, and free you from the commodity services trap.
Sharon VanderKaay is a design strategy and marketing communications coach: www.vanderpalette.com. She writes for Canadian Architect on topics related to selling design services.