This may be uncomfortable, but we need to talk about money.
Are you making enough to finish each month with a profit? Are you making enough to live comfortably? Are you making enough to simply pay the bills?
So many architects I know are not making ends meet. We architects are notoriously horrible business people. My mission is to change that. (So share this blog with every architect you know!)
I believe, deep down, we all want to be successful. We all want to make more money, but we are afraid. We are afraid to do the things necessary to make the money we truly deserve.
Successful businesses must perform certain tasks and techniques consistently in order to be successful. One of those tasks is “sales”. No sales. No business. No success. It’s as simple as that.
Sales. The first thought that comes to mind is the used car salesman down on Main Street, but in fact we are all selling, all the time. When we present our initial schematic designs to our client, we are selling. Every time we try to persuade someone to take action, we are selling. I am selling right now… selling you on selling.
In order to be the success we strive to be… In order to live the lives we are truly meant to live, we need to change our mindset on sales.
When I present a product or service to a prospective client, I am presenting them with something that will improve their lives. If hired, I will use my expertise, skills and talents to literally change their lives. There is value in what I am providing. I am offering to trade an improved life for money.
You too are improving people’s lives through the services you provide. You are making the world a better place and for doing so, you should be rewarded with payment. With this mindset, the more money you make, the more lives you’ve changed, the more families you’ve strengthened and the better the world has become. So, making money is good.
Let’s say it together… making money is good!
One of the problems we have in the architecture profession (and there are many) is that we have allowed our perceived value to drop way below our true value. We have been afraid to charge the fees required to be a successful business and the market is more than happy to agree with us.
We need to make some changes.
My Sales System
After 7 years of slow consistent growth, in 2006 Fivecat Studio hit a plateau. We hit a wall. We worked hard, designed projects that people talked about and were well known in our market. We acquired enough work to keep busy and pay the bills, but we wanted to grow and I needed some help.
Through my local business council (the county chamber of commerce), I discovered a program called the Academy of Entrepreneurial Excellence. I’ve written about this program before, including in the introductory post to this Entrepreneur Architect Academy blog series. It was a 15 week program, where we met and learned the fundamental basics of business. It was at that program, when we hit the session on sales, that everything changed. It was “sales” that we were missing. We were great at marketing. Everyone knew who we were and what we did. I had plenty of opportunity and met with potential clients about twice a week. We were doing everything right… except sales. We had no sales system.
A system is nothing more than an integrated process of steps that get you results.
Since that time, we’ve developed a system that works. Here is what my sales system looks like today.
1. Qualify the Client.
When a client calls (some clients initiate the process with an email, but most start with a telephone call), I use a, Client Qualification Form to guide our conversation. I start with asking their name and confirm its spelling. If you misspell a potential client’s name, you might as well scrap the remaining steps. I collect their contact information, including home, office and mobile telephone numbers, email addresses, postal address of the potential project and the year the home was built. Then I ask them to describe the project… and listen.
By the time a client calls us, they have been through their own process of dreaming, saving, researching, goal setting and designing it themselves. They have very specific expectations for what they are seeking. Often those expectations are inaccurate or just flat out wrong. (Thanks HGTV!) By listening carefully I learn many things about not only the project, but the person on the other end of the phone… my potential client. I often know whether a client is a good fit for my firm from just the few short minutes listening to them on the telephone. It is not often, but occasionally I will pass on a project simply from the “vibe” I feel from this initial conversation.
Having developed my target market in Session 003, I also know very quickly whether the project being described hits our target. I don’t take every project that rings my phone. I know which projects are best for my firm and I pick the ones that will best meet those requirements. I often say, “sometimes you will make more money from the clients you choose not to serve.”
When I know that the project and client are a good fit for my firm, I schedule an interview to meet the client and review the project in person. I offer this interview as a “complementary initial consultation”. I explain that there is no charge for the meeting and that the intent is to learn more about the project. It provides them an opportunity to confirm that we are the right firm for them and that they are a good fit for us. I leave it open-ended with no obligations, so they know that there is no pressure to meet with us.
Qualifying the client is very important. We don’t have much time to get everything we’re doing done and wasting time on a prospect that will never become a client does not lead to success for your firm.
2. Establish Rapport
When I meet with a prospect, I make the meeting all about them. My marketing from Session 003 has already qualified my firm in their mind, so my goal at this meeting is to build a relationship. Remember… people hire people that they know, like and trust. I have established some familiarity through my firm’s blog and during our initial telephone conversation. I have earned trust through my reputation, testimonials, referrals and word-of-mouth. This meeting is my opportunity to show a prospective client what a nice person I am and how easy it might be to work with my firm. It’s my opportunity to establish a rapport with this person.
I ask them for a tour of the house and for them to share their ideas for the project as we walk. I ask lots of questions about them, their families and their interests. I try to find common ground. Maybe they have kids with similar ages to my own, people we both know or familiar places I might recognize in photos displayed around the house. If you haven’t read Dale Carnegie’s iconic book, “How To Win Friends and Influence People” (AL), buy it now and read it tomorrow. It’s a great place to learn how to quickly build rapport with people you’ve just met. It was the first business book I ever read and it is still one of my top 10 favorites.
3. Confirm Credibility
As I listen to the prospective client, I am more concerned with the problems they share with me than the project they are describing. We architects are problem solvers. Our designs look beautiful and impress clients’ friends, but our true value is in solving our clients’ problems and improving their lives. When I fully understand the problems they are sharing, I describe them in my own words, confirming to the client that I have been listening. I then share some ideas and describe how our services will help solve their problems. I try to share ideas that they have not already considered, which reinforces our credibility and our ability to create innovative solutions.
I then give them an opportunity to ask me questions. I am prepared to answer every question they might have for me. The questions always revolve around our fee, the duration of the process and the cost for their project. I describe our fee and set appropriate expectations about our process. I am always honest and my answers are often very different from what they expect. Our process typically takes more time and our fee is higher than is often expected. I explain our full service process and the benefits they will receive from our involvement; from generating ideas though completion of the punchlist. Setting expectations up front will allow the remaining process to proceed much more smoothly, resulting in much happier clients.
If this meeting goes well and the project is appropriate for my firm, I offer to prepare a written fee proposal. I ask them to complete a Client Contact Information form, which confirms the information I gathered earlier over the phone and makes the meeting feel more official. I leave them with two business cards (one for them and one to give to a friend) and a promise to send them our proposal before a specific date.
4. Send the Proposal
Our proposal, which also acts as our agreement between owner and architect, is written in plain, easy-to-understand language. It clearly describes our fee, the process of our architectural services and it covers all the legal requirements for the project.
I send this document by email within days of our meeting. By sending the proposal sooner that the client expects, it further establishes our credibility and professionalism.
I then prepare a printed proposal package, which includes a firm-branded folder containing a cover letter, our proposal, a list of references, another business card and several project sheets. Project sheets are photographic case studies of projects similar to the one the client is considering. The proposal package is mailed out on the same day the proposal is emailed to the client.
Sent USPS First Class mail, the package takes a day or two to arrive in the client’s mailbox. The email gives them the document quickly and the printed package arriving a few days later reminds the client that you are professional and want to be their architect.
5. Follow Up. Then, Follow Up Again.
Here is the part that my original sales system was missing. The follow up.
I thought that I was done once I sent the proposal. If they want to hire us, they’ll send us a check with a signed contract, right?
We need to follow up, remind them that we are the right firm for their job and ask for the project.
Here’s what I do these days…
I allow the client to review the documents I sent and to compare them to others they may be considering. If we are good at what we do and we’ve done our homework from the earlier sessions, we should want a prospective client to compare us to others. We are better for the project than the others and we have proven it throughout this process. The comparison will actually help us win the project.
A few days after sending our proposal, I call the prospective client, confirm that they received the package and ask them if they have any questions. I remind them that we are available to start their project as soon as they are ready. I then remind them that we want the job. I don’t pressure them. I just make sure they know that I am sincerely interested. I ask them if there is anything keeping them from proceeding with us. This question gives us the opportunity to address any additional concerns or learn that they are, in fact, leaning toward us as their architect.
I offer to meet again to review the proposal in person. If they choose to meet, we are on our way to a new project. If not, I ask them if I could follow up again in about a week. I then go through the follow up process described above once again.
If after the second follow up, they don’t proceed, I move my focus to other prospects.
I don’t give up though. About a month later, I send an email inquiring about the project. It is often that a prospective client has just not yet made up their mind and the additional follow up may be just the incentive needed to get them started.
Review your business plan developed in Session 002, specifically your mission. That’s your purpose. When you sell your service, sell with purpose. You’re not in it for the money or else you’d be doing something else. You are working toward something more important, something bigger than money, and you want to share it with as many people as possible.
The beautiful thing is that the more you share and sell with purpose, the more money you are going to make.
Try this system with your next prospective client and let me know how it works for you. It works for me and I hope that it make you lots of money. The world deserves it.
Do you have a great sales system? Please share your ideas with us in the comments below.