Project Profitability: Successful Designer/Client Relationships


    It is crucial for design firms to provide high-quality service to keep their clients satisfied. Many design practices obtain the largest part of their work from repeat clients. One financial industry observer has identified five keys to client retention:

    • Respect — Treat clients, whether institutional or individual, with respect. If you respect your clients, they will in turn respect you and your organization. Take the time to find out what they want, listen to what they have to say, and give them what they need, not what you assume or think they want.

    • Communication — Communication goes hand in hand with respect. Keeping everyone well-informed makes the team effort a reality. This includes all aspects of written and oral communication. From timely invoicing, monthly reports, periodic telephone calls, and personal visits, everything must be complete and accurate. Review your clients’ status on a regular basis. Contact them and ask for suggestions and comments. Determine if they need anything or if there are problem areas.

    • Service — Emphasize to your staff that they must offer prompt and complete service to clients. Research and implement controls and systems to ensure that clients are getting the best service you can provide. This ranges from telephone procedures to individualized attention from staff. Quick response to requests and immediate resolutions to problems are critical. Respond to telephone calls in a personalized manner with courtesy and intelligence.

    • Satisfaction — A satisfied client translates into loyalty and referrals. The combination of respect, communication, and service make a client remain with you. Satisfaction also means coping with problems in a way that all parties achieve their objectives and you maintain your client relationships. Communicate to your staff the necessity of a quick resolution of problems. A problem should never become an issue, at which time it may be too late to avoid damaging a relationship.

    • Loyalty — Stand by your clients. Seek ways to offer your help, resources, and abilities. Do your best to help solve their problems and needs within their budget and time frame. Your efforts will be repaid with both client loyalty and a positive image that is communicated to the entire industry.

    Owner/client expectations

    It is surprising how many design professionals fail to fully understand their clients’ needs and wants. Many designers have little interest in learning about client priorities, methods of operation, or information needs. Some professionals are even condescending to clients. These designers have the attitude that they know what is best for the client and want no interference. Unfortunately, these designers forget whose project it actually is. Every owner/client is different, and their needs and wants also vary. However, there are some needs that are common to most owners.

    Owners and designers are often moving in opposite directions on this subject. In recent years, there has been a trend toward encouraging owners to hire all consultants directly. This is due in large measure to liability concerns. Designers can also be found liable for the errors and omissions of consultants if they hire them. When a client hires a consultant, the prime designer’s liability is lessened.

    On the other hand, owners are looking for one party to be responsible and in charge of the project. As projects have become increasingly complex, this need has grown. The result has been development of various specialists to fill the gap left by engineers and architects. These project management and construction management firms are now assuming the responsibilities formerly held by many design firms. The result is deterioration in the designer’s role, scope of services, and authority.

    A design firm’s internal project management structure can also frustrate many owner/clients. Owners are looking for one individual to be in charge and responsible for their project. When they have a question or problem, they must know who to contact. Unfortunately, many design firms operate on a crisis-management basis. Often, especially in smaller design firms, principals try to run projects, bring in new work, and also manage the firm. Rarely do they succeed in all of these activities.

    A departmentally organized firm can only make the situation worse. In these firms, a series of changing individuals are responsible for the project during its various phases. As a result, there is no consistent point of contact.

    Most knowledgeable owners favor the matrix or strong project management system of project delivery. In this system, the client knows who is in charge of the project and who to contact. Most all experienced and sophisticated clients endorse this approach and many employ it in their own organizations.

    Specifically, clients/owners want the following:

    • Clients want to be kept informed. A common complaint among owners is that their design firms fail to keep them adequately informed on the project’s progress and the design options involved. Designers must develop reporting systems, meeting processes, and monitoring tools to keep clients informed.

    • Clients want good cost control. To some owners, designers seem to be unaware of the costs of design decisions. To many designers, some owners want more out of a facility than they are willing to pay for. While this dichotomy in goals may never be fully resolved, firms that show a concern for construction costs at an early stage of the project are most appreciated by owners. This situation is particularly acute for public-sector clients. Many of these agencies receive their funding based on an appropriation and find it difficult to obtain money to pay for increased construction costs.

    • Clients want technical competence. Although many designers don’t believe it, most owners are more concerned with technical competence and experience than they are with the designer’s fee. Clearly, design fees are an issue to many clients. However, most owners repeatedly indicate that fees are not as important an issue as many designers believe.

    • Clients also want to be invoiced regularly. This is essential if they are to plan and manage their own cash flow. Many designers are slow at billing or fail to provide complete and accurate information. The result is a delay in processing invoices and potential irritation to all parties. In a well-managed design firm, it is the project manager who obtains information on billing needs and requirements at the start of a project.

    Howard Birnberg is executive director of the Association for Project Managers. He may be reached at 312-664-2300 or