Best practice — Understanding your clients and their needs

Best practice — Understanding your clients and their needs

June 10th, 2020

This is the fourth in our series of guest posts by architect and business consultant Lucy Mori on setting your practice up for success. It’s a better business bonanza, and in this installment, Lucy explains how to gain an understanding of the concerns of your prospective clients, and demonstrate how your work can solve their specific problem. If you haven’t read the first three posts, find out about allocating time to management (part 1) here, and building a multi-sector pipeline of work (part 2) here, and focusing your marketing efforts (part 3) here. If you want to be sure not to miss an update sign up to our newsletter for monthly content alerts. Lucy Mori, we tip our architectural, engineering and construction design hats to you.

— Synergy Ed.


Telling the story of solution

The best way to communicate and to sell is through storytelling. Some architects and built environment designers do that instinctively. They tell the story of their design in their pitch, and they’re very successful. For those that don’t do it naturally, it’s a strategy that can be taught and can be learned.

Some AEC designers might be a bit like rabbits in the headlight when you say, ‘you’ve got to do marketing and you’ve got to do sales’. They think, ‘oh no I can’t do that, I don’t like salespeople, don’t want to be pushy, it makes me feel uncomfortable doing the sales’. So they retreat too far in the other direction and sometimes then often aren’t being explicit about what they do at all. I think the middle way is to always think of any client interaction — particularly at the beginning of a relationship — as telling a story. Not a story just about yourself, but a story that responds to, or reflects, the needs of the client. 

In that way you’re putting yourself in the shoes of the client, thinking about things from their perspective, and then reframing your service, your experience, your portfolio as a story that solves a problem of theirs.

Architecture and built environment design are such all-encompassing disciplines, but many practitioners will talk about things from a building perspective. Actually, the real scale of opportunity is that the solution isn’t always the building. It may be that a building is part of the solution, but perhaps the problem is much broader than that, and the building project can help solve the problem. 

Now that you’ve segmented — delve in 

As I’ve said, you can’t hope to be an industry specialist across the board. So that’s where it makes sense to have done your segmentation: 

Choose the area that you love, where you feel there’s opportunity for growth. Then there’s so much available online, there are industry events, there may be conferences to go to. There’s a lot of free stuff out there.

Once you’ve done your segmentation, then you think who the clients are in that sector, who are these people? And really try and understand their business and what their issues are. 

Example one — education

One of the examples I’m using in my RIBA CPD is, and I mentioned this in a previous blog, is a very simple one. Let’s say a primary school that’s being told, as part of a government decision, that they need to provide cooked dinners for all their pupils.

This is something that happened in the UK. A lot of schools have been built based on most children having packed lunch or the schools having a very small kitchen where they could just heat things up. Then they were told there needed to be recognition of the importance of nutrition, and that packed lunches might be full of sweets and crisps — not proper food.

Then they looked at the school-provided meals and saw that they weren’t really proper food either — they were all mass produced and heated up. The school kitchen I remember from my primary school was a big kitchen, full of cooks with large mixers, making apple crumble from scratch. That had disappeared from my children’s primary school — they had a kitchen no bigger than mine at home. How could they cook meals from scratch? How could they create healthy food within their premises?

As a result, the inititative had an impact on the buildings and their design. The kitchen wasn’t big enough, the hall wasn’t big enough for everybody to sit down. How could they extend? What would the options be? 

So, if we look at that as a trend then an architect can really get into thinking, ‘well we’ve got a building-related solution that is going to generate fees for us but it’s also responding to a real need that is happening not just in one school but in many’.

It’s worth the research because there are enough potential clients out there who might want a similar service. Understanding about industrial kitchens, looking into the food nutrition, the impact of natural light, environmental issues and perhaps there might be some aspects related to the technical requirements of food preparation: 

It might be suitable for one school but then it’s something that can be duplicated. 

This could then lead to relationships and lead on to extra work.

Example two — retail

It might be as simple as keeping your eyes open — taking some time away from your desk, from your computer, and maybe going and looking at the shops. See how people are shopping. Go and look at a thriving retail destination. Look around and ask yourself:

All those things are part of the retail experience. See what you can learn from that.

Example three — healthcare

If you’re in the healthcare sector, or you do GP surgeries, or dentist surgeries, go and take a look at what’s happening there. Ask:

Really delve in deep and if you’ve got a team and you’ve got students working for you that’s great to delegate! You can instruct a student to ‘go and research the superbugs in hospitals and how design can help make it easier to keep hospitals clean and come back and share that with the team next week’. 

Example four — travel

Think about the travel sector and the issue with airports — there’s the security and then there’s the environmental concerns. They’ve had big impacts on airport design over the last few years, so what’s the future for airport designers? 

An example was the impact of Brexit. At St Pancras, with the Eurostar, they put in partitions on both sides for passport checks — there must have been architects and engineers involved in that. Somebody’s getting work out of these big political situations. You can go and identify those needs and think:

Example five — tech and the urban realm

Technology is a huge subject and so much is happening now with machine learning and artificial intelligence, robotics and how people use their telephones. And that’s all happening so fast. It’s hard to predict, but think which trends are going to take root and what’s going to happen quickly. If you’re working for commercial clients, business clients, private and public sector, they like their consultants to be clued up on technology — looking for insight wherever they can find it. So if you love technology, that’s something to really grasp and get excited about. And who knows where that might lead you: 

This all has an impact on the urban realm. That’s definitely the built environment. Ask yourself, and research: 

That’s public sector, but it’s also these big developments. It may be forming partnerships with landscape architects and designers, so you can broaden and deepen your offer of a solution.

The built environment designer’s three-dimensional view

These are just some of the examples — this is true across all sectors. There’s loads of opportunity. And again, I think built environment designers have, through training, a three-dimensional overview and must never limit themselves just to the building. There are big opportunities for architects and engineers to take leadership on some of these projects that will be impacting our cities.

It may be that by thinking through, researching the sectors, and thinking about the stories and the client’s needs, you’re better at selling to clients for building projects. But it may take your business in a new and different direction where there’s perhaps opportunity with other consultancies that aren’t necessarily related to designing and delivering buildings.

Once you can think ‘well this year, that’s the sector I’m interested in — doesn’t have to be forever, but let’s do some deep diving into what’s happening there and read up about it, visit it, look at it, share it, talk about it’ you’ll see how that can lead to generating revenue. Which is what it’s all about.

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