The Holy Grail for most professional practitioners is to become their clients’ "Trusted Advisor." Throughout my career, I’ve sought this unique and treasured relationship with my clients. It’s what kept me in business, led to referrals, and reduced bickering over fees. Most importantly for architects, engineers, and planners, it gives clients the comfort and confidence to say "yes" to design and technical recommendations that they’re unable to fully understand.
A "yes" means you aren’t being continually asked to study something further. You’re able to use your fees more effectively in your clients’ interests because you’re not continually trying to put their unease to rest.
They respond in the affirmative because they trust you. They are confident that you see things the way they do, even if they don’t have your ability to visualize. They accept your recommendations because they trust that you understand their priorities and fears, and that you have accounted for them in what you’re proposing.
Years ago, I had a client who had trouble visualizing our design proposal from our drawings and renderings, so we built a detailed model. He was still unable to connect what he saw with what it would look like in real life.
I listened carefully, finally asking if he watched much television. Yes he did. I moved the model to the adjacent room and had our designer use a video camera to conduct a virtual tour around and through the building. Bingo! The client was able to look at an image of the model on a television screen and immediately transpose how it would appear in real life. He suddenly loved something he’d been questioning for weeks. From there forward, design meetings went much better. Before long, he would simply say, "I’m confident that you know what I want. Go ahead."
For me, this was an early example of what became my lifelong quest: to be considered my clients’ trusted advisor. It’s taken me many years to understand the ingredients that contribute to nurturing the trusted advisor relationship. Here’s my list:
Listen carefully to your client – They are rarely able to articulate what’s on their minds. They certainly aren’t trained in your professional jargon. So, the burden is on you to accommodate their communication patterns and, as in the example above, their unique way of seeing things.
Tell the truth – It also means: don’t hide the truth, don’t "sugarcoat" the truth, and don’t shade the truth. Clients with whom I have had a trusted advisor relationship were ones with whom I’d also built an ability to speak freely and fully about any situation; to give them the full facts and my best read about the implications of those facts. This takes time. You can’t just blurt out the raw, unadulterated "truth" in blunt terms; you have to respect your client’s communication style. An important corollary is that you have taught your clients to trust, through experience, that the conversation you are having will not go beyond the two of you.
Select your colleagues carefully – This goes beyond choosing the people you work with in your own firm and includes outside consultants and others with whom you associate. Do so with great care for their integrity. They model your behavior and the behavior you tolerate. I found that I not only had to be extremely careful with what I said (no cynical or cavalier comments when the client’s not around, tossed out for amusement or to "show off" a bit of insider gossip), but I had to continually remind everyone around me how important such vigilance is. I’m not a saint and would be unable to describe this issue had I not learned some painful lessons through the consequences of a weak moment.
Go the extra mile – Not only complete anything you undertake with thoroughness and accuracy, but also ask the questions on behalf of the client that the client has not thought of. Encourage this same attitude among the entire range of colleagues with whom you work. This surprises and delights clients, letting them know that each and every person with whom you’ve surrounded yourself "owns" the client’s program as if it were their own.
These are the ingredients of a relationship of trust that makes it comfortable for a client to feel completely confident in the integrity of what they are being shown, making you the source they will reach out to as their Trusted Advisor.
Ed Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with ZweigWhite and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.