For What it’s Worth

Preliminary site massing options are part of the Discovery Consultation offered by Lethbridge-based 010110 Architecture.
Preliminary site massing options are part of the Discovery Consultation offered by Lethbridge-based 010110 Architecture.

Alberta architect Spencer Court, MRAIC, principal of 010110 Architecture + Urbanism, had had enough. Enough free site visits and design sketches, of prospects who “pick his brains” and then evaporate. “We’ll think about it and get back to you,” they say. But then Court adopted the Low Commitment Consultation (LCC) strategy. “So far I’ve landed three large residential projects with the strategy,” says Court, who finds the approach useful for “eating the elephant one bite at a time.”

The LCC strategy was developed by architect marketing coach Richard Petrie, in response to complaints he heard from architects around the world about how the sales process often halts when potential clients receive a proposal.

“Clients stall,” says Petrie, “because they lack all the information they need to make an informed decision early in the process. They are afraid of making a mistake. Committing to move ahead with a contract for architectural services is a huge decision with a lot of inherent risk for a client.”

The typical proposal process asks too much of a potential client, too fast, he says. “It’s like a man proposing marriage to a woman on the first date. You wouldn’t move this fast in a relationship. Yet when it comes to selling architecture, architects throw everything they know about human relationships out the window and go for the full Monty.”

Petrie originally developed the strategy when he was working in sales for a New Zealand IT firm. While other IT firms offered a full package of services, Petrie would offer a “Needs Analysis” to help a potential client determine the scope of services. Petrie found that companies were more likely to move ahead with a small commitment like a Needs Analysis, and that 95 percent of the companies that paid for the Needs Analysis moved on to engage his company for full services.

A rendering of the firm’s Hillside House renovation in Cardston, Alberta. The project started as a Discovery Consultation and is slated for construction this spring. Photo: 010110 Architecture + Urbanism
A rendering of the firm’s Hillside House renovation in Cardston, Alberta. The project started as a Discovery Consultation and is slated for construction this spring. Photo: 010110 Architecture + Urbanism

“It’s like taking the client on a few dates,” says Petrie. “You get to figure out if this is a fit before signing up for a big commitment.”

Petrie has developed a framework for creating an LCC, which he recommends that his architecture clients offer as part of their sales process.

However, a roadblock appears if clients think a firm is charging for something that other firms do for free. The key to overcoming this obstacle is to position the Low Commitment Consultation as a product. In marketing lingo, this is known as “productizing a service”.

A productized service has four important elements:

A name
A promise
A process
A price

For instance, the airline industry has productized First Class flying. The name of the productized service is “First Class.” The promise is greater comfort, privacy and exclusivity. The process includes expedited check-in, preferred seating, higher-end food selection and concierge-level service. The price is double or more what one would pay in Coach or Economy Class. By productizing First Class flying, airlines are able to sell this service as a package people understand, and for which they’ll pay a premium.

This same strategy is used to create a Low Commitment Consultation productized service offering for an architecture firm. First, the service must have a name. Possible names for an architectural Low Commitment Consultation include:

Needs and Options Review
Feasibility Study
Opportunity Analysis
Exploration Package

The promise of an LCC varies by firm and services offered, but typically includes identifying project constraints, challenges and opportunities. The process can include an initial meeting, site visit and exploratory research, with the focus on pre-design work. The price is a fixed fee amount that depends on the target client and services offered. I’ve seen fees anywhere from $500 up to $18,000. The charge should fairly compensate the architect for their services and deliver value to their client.

Architect Spencer Court’s LCC is a Discovery Consultation, for which he charges a fee on a sliding scale, starting at $1,800. For this fee, Court delivers a five to seven page functional program outline, along with other documents including a site evaluation and order of magnitude budget estimate. Court helps the client understand that the research that goes into this report aids them in avoiding potential project pitfalls and uncovering hidden opportunities. It also helps the client feel more comfortable with the process, and allows Court to find out if the client will be a fit for the way he works.

The Low Commitment Consultation strategy also works with non-residential clients. Toronto architect Robert Murphy, MRAIC serves institutional owners of multiple properties. His firm, A. Robert Murphy Architect Inc., offers a Site Feasibility Study that includes a high-level zoning review and several massing schemes to explore possibilities for maximizing site development and revenues.

“We used to give this sort of preliminary work away, hoping to get a job once in a while. We are now strong believers that it is far better to sell a useful and affordable front-end service that positions us in the client’s mind as the go-to firm for future work,” says Murphy.

Architect Graeme Verhulst, MRAIC is a principal with Waymark Architecture, based in Victoria, B.C. His firm offers a Needs and Opportunities Assessment to potential clients. A recent LCC led to other work for his firm because of the opportunities it uncovered. Interestingly, Verhulst has also found that some clients don’t move ahead with the project after the LCC. “In these cases, the clients had unrealistic expectations, so it is probably a good thing those didn’t turn into projects,” says Verhulst.

With an LCC, the simpler and more straightforward it is, the better. The easiest way to do it is to simply charge for the first meeting that most architects give away for free. Meeting and offering advice without a fee sets a bad precedent in a potential client’s mind moving forward, because it devalues the architect’s time. On the flip side, a well-positioned LCC actually increases the perceived value of an architect’s services.

Ultimately, the Low Commitment Consultation is useful because it fills a critical gap in the typical architecture firm’s sales process. It allows clients and architects to “date” before committing to marriage. It gives clients a way to evaluate what it will be like working with a firm. And because it is a smaller commitment on the part of the client, it is much easier to sell than full design services, which means that more prospects convert into clients. Offering an LCC is a great win-win.

But that’s not all. “In addition to getting paid for work I used to provide for free,” Court says, “I find that this helps me identify the qualified clients, which ends up saving me time.” As architects, time is one thing of which we can never have enough.

Enoch Bartlett Sears is a California-licensed architect and co-founder of the Architect Marketing Institute. For more information on how to apply the Low Commitment Consultation strategy, a free, downloadable booklet is available at