How can you identify a Great Client?

Every design professional I’ve ever met would like to know how to find great clients, or at least convert the clients they’ve got into better clients.

A small fraction of them think about this from the other side: How could they become better clients as well?

These two questions are more tightly connected than one might think. I’ll return to that idea after addressing the first question. These conclusions are based on six decades of experience working with thousands of design professionals in hundreds of offices across three continents.

Traits of the Great Client

1. Great clients understand that it is impossible to completely objectify the value of design services; that is to treat them as commodities to be purchased at the lowest price. Rather than trying to reduce appointment criteria to “comparing apples to apples”, they accept that true “value” always involves elements that can be evaluated but cannot be measured.

2. Great clients try hard to be clear about what they know they want and need, but also recognise that there may well be alternative solutions to their perception of a problem that may give them better solutions than they could see. They start with an open mind.

3. Great clients understand that they will get the best service if they provide all of the information their consultants need, when they need it – but they can rely on the consultants to advise them of those needs.

4. Great clients understand and accept that – whether or not they understand design process – that it is generally linear, and forcing a designer to go back and start over on some component generally increases the cost.

5. Great clients don’t micro-manage.

6. Great clients do not misrepresent the purpose of requesting a proposal for services. They don’t do “price-checking” when they’ve already selected a consultant – unless they tell the proposer that’s what they are doing.

7. Great clients pay for services promptly, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t question whether invoiced services really have been completed.

8. Great clients communicate: They ask, they listen, they respond.

Are you a Great Client?

You might think that very few clients meet those eight criteria. Here’s a little secret: Most consultants don’t either.

Most projects today have a small army of “clients” – called “stakeholders”. The primary client – the one that pays your invoices – also has a large group of sub-clients they have to answer to, who rarely have aligning priorities.

Those stakeholders are also your clients, and the rules of being a Great Consultant require that you exhibit the same traits as you expect in return. You are the “client” to all of the people that provide input into your design process. That includes the client and all stakeholders, including your own subconsultants.

Being a Great Consultant won’t necessarily turn your average clients into Great Clients, but it won’t hurt either, and it almost certainly will reduce your risk of practice. Research shows that 40% of all claims against design professionals are caused directly or indirectly by a breakdown of communication.

What’s your experience? If you disagree, or think this view misses a key element, let me know! Cnelson<at>

Charles Nelson AIA, LFRAIA, AECPM

28 February 2018

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