“I’ve been dreaming of this day for years. I know exactly what I want.”
“I’ve been living in this dream house for years, if only in my head.”
“I have more than enough money saved to get what I want.”
“If I start now, I’ll be living in it by summer.”
When one of my residential architecture clients finally reaches out and calls Fivecat Studio, these are some of the thoughts they may start with. They have saved for years and have very specific expectations.
Most of our clients are first time builders. They’ve never experienced a design process or any type of major construction. They think they know what they want, how much it will cost and how long it will take to design and build it. Unfortunately, most of their expectations have been set by “reality” TV and are completely UNrealistic.
They start with half the budget they need for the project they have in mind.
You’re in the Client Happiness Business
Most architects I know are in the design business. They get hired to prepare a design, they create an amazing piece of architecture and deliver it to their client. Done.
In fact, that’s what we’ve been trained to do.
As corny as it may sound, at Fivecat Studio, we’re in the client happiness business. My primary responsibility as Partner in Charge of Operations is to make sure every client is happy and enjoys the experience of designing and building their dream project. I take my responsibility very seriously and I start managing expectations from our very first conversation.
Play the Process Like a Game
Our process is constantly evolving. We try to play the process like a game and we use forms and checklists to guide our way. Upon receipt of the Owner Architect Agreement, we send each client our Pre-Design Client Questionnaire. This document provides a fun way to help our clients organize their thoughts and clearly communicate those thoughts to us. They answer approximately two dozen questions about their hopes, dreams, wants and desires. We ask about their budget, their expectation on timing and lots of questions about their wish list and priorities.
The questionnaire also requests two collections of images; aka The Love/Loathe Folders. As do most architects, we ask our clients to prepare an image collection of things they love. Then, for me even more importantly, we request a second image collection of things they loathe. Knowing what a client does not want is, at times, more important than what they do want.
Recently, online tools like Houzz.com and Pinterest have allowed clients to prepare and share these Love/Loathe collections online to make the process even more fun.
Manage Their Expectations
Our questionnaire is our first line of expectation management. The information we collect not only helps us learn specifically what our clients want from us, but also helps us to clearly understand what they expect from us. Learning expectations up front allows us to clarify the truth of the process. It gives us the chance to correct the fallacies engrained in their minds by HGTV and ABC’s Extreme Makeover Home Edition.
Then we get started and prepare our designs.
Provide Them with the Tools They Need
Following an approval of Schematic Design, we move into Design Development and again we play the game.
For selections of fixtures, fittings and finishes, we give them a choice. Our base service requires the client to select these items, but again we make that process simple and fun. We provide shopping lists that identify every item they may want or need to purchase for their project. We also provide contact information for stores and suppliers, including the names and telephone numbers of specific sales representatives. For clients who would prefer not to shop themselves, we offer an additional service to prepare these selections for them.
Whatever we need to do to keep the process smooth and pain free; that is what we do. We provide every tool they may need and if those tools don’t exist, we create them.
Keep Them Updated and Informed
Throughout the entire process, we keep our clients informed. We provide weekly email notices to keep them updated on our progress and let them know what to expect next. There are few tasks more important than keeping your clients’ informed. They need to know what comes next, how long it will take, how much it may cost and when they will need to pay.
If you don’t tell them what they need to know, they will make their own assumptions. They will write their own script to the story and the chances are high that they’ll be wrong.
Under Promise and Over Deliver
A very important rule in the game is to under promise and over deliver. Do not ever tell a client what they want to hear if it is not true. It may be easier in the short term to keep them happy with all sorts of promises, but eventually the truth of reality will rise up and bite you.
It is always easier to handle disappointment early in the process than later when “project fatigue” kicks in and the money starts running short. Estimate high for cost and time and your clients will always be happy at the end… when it matters most.
Tell Them When You Are Being Amazing
Soon after launching Fivecat Studio, Annmarie and I were hired to provide architectural services for a whole-house renovation and additions project. For two 29 year olds, it was a dream project and we were determined to serve this client at the very highest level. One day, we even went so far as to deliver their laundry to the cleaners. That was the level of service we provided.
Although we succeeded in making our clients very happy, we made one fatal flaw. We forgot to let them know that we were over-serving them. They appreciated the efforts we put forth, but didn’t understand how extraordinary our efforts were. Our efforts became expected and we never earned the reward for being so remarkable.
Don’t forget to let them know when you are over delivering. Since they’ve not been down this path before, many times a client will just assume that your extra effort is, in fact normal. They will assume that what you have done is what they are paying for and that every architect does the same thing. You need to let them know that what you have done is not part of your basic service. You are providing additional service and over delivering in order to make their experience extra special.
Leave them Happy
The experience of design and construction is overwhelming and a major event in your clients’ lives. They will tell everyone they know about their experience. If you end the project with a frustrated disappointed client, that will be the story they tell. If you complete the project on time, on budget and they actually enjoyed the process along the way, you will be the hero in that story. You are the author of that script. You control the plot and the storyline by managing your clients’ expectations and creating an experience that your clients’ will never forget.
It’s not your design or even the building they end up with that will be remembered most. It is the experience of the process that will be remembered and passed on to friends and future clients.
Your goal is not to create a beautiful work of architecture. That is expected in the service you provide and by your title as Architect. Your goal is a happy client. Happy clients lead to more happy clients and ultimately, for you, more beautiful works of architecture.
Tell me your favorite way to keep your clients happy.