Client Relationship Management

If you are a principal in one of the great majority of design firms that see Business Development as a “stand-alone” activity in your practice structure, your thinking is stuck somewhere in the last quarter of the last century; still functioning but obsolete – and ultimately doomed.

 – Charles Nelson AIA, LFRAIA

CRM: 21st Century Marketing

Some aspects of designing for the built environment have barely changed since the days of the pharaohs. Others are evolving at warp speed. One of the latter is how design professionals get work.

What is Client Relationship Management?

CRM (according to Wikipedia) is “an approach to managing a company’s interaction with current and potential clients. The CRM approach tries to analyse data about clients’ history with a company, in order to better improve business relationships with clients, specifically focusing on retaining clients, in order to drive sales growth.”

The CRM Model

CRM is a very new development: Its birth was in the early 1990s, with the development of software (such as ACT!) that facilitated tracking of customer preferences. Salesforce, the dominant player today, introduced cloud-based CRM in 2007. Today, very few design firms have moved to use these tools in their marketing programs.

I am not advocating that design firms should start using cloud-based software to replace the strategies that have been in general use for the last 6 decades.

What I am advocating is that it is time to change our thinking about how to best secure work, and there is much we can learn from the CRM movement in how to establish a 21st C. marketing approach for design professionals.


12 step CRM wheel v2 sm

To very briefly outline these 10 points:

  1. Define market strategy means decide what kind of industries, clients and projects you will focus on (as an outcome of strategic planning).
  2. Profile target clients means identify the players within that strategic space that you will focus on, particularly with reference to the degree they see design as a commodity, risks involved, and other differentiators (also an outcome of strategic planning).
  3. Align marketing to client issues means just that.
  4. Build strategic relationships is the same as in traditional BD.
  5. Build a client-centric, value-priced proposal structure requires rethinking, for most firms, of the way they traditionally construct proposals. Too big a topic to detail here.
  6. Write client-focused PMP & offer means creating a proposal that reflects the client’s orientation rather than what you want to offer the client. This approach  has multiple facets, outlined in the expanded description of these 12 points.
  7. Negotiate scope means anticipating that you will be asked to include items that you’ve not included, and to cut your fee for whatever package you offer; be fully prepared for this negotiation.
  8. Manage client communication means that the design consultant is fully responsible for ensuring that the communication works. If lead consultant, it means also being responsible for team-wide communication.
  9. Obtain client feedback: simple idea, but often not structured or sought. Essential as part of quality management.
  10. Perpetuate client relationship means maintaining and continuously building the client connection.

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BD Background

Business Development has been a staple of design practice roughly since the late 1940’s, when the design professionals got over the idea that “selling” was beneath the dignity of a professional person – and that they either had to learn to promote their services or starve.

One of the first to advocate “selling” for architects was the Boston society architect Royal Barry Wills, whose 1941 book This Business of Architecture includes a substantial chapter entitled Stalking and Capture of Clients.

Wills laid out a full program for promoting one’s expertise that worked well for design professionals up until roughly 1995, when the development of computer software began to open up entirely new ways of connecting with clients.

The BD model

As practiced in most design firms, BD is essentially firm-focused: showing (mostly with pictures) what the designer can do for a client. The folios of pretty pictures have been largely replaced by websites of the same pretty pictures, typically with sparse text, or none at all.

The idea here is basically the same as the plant kingdom uses: flowers that passively attract bees who will indirectly guarantee the survival of the species.

Enterprising firms and their principals have begun to use the new “channels” made possible by technology, but most still build relationships in traditional ways, create close relationships with repeat clients where possible, and wait for projects to be announced that they can compete for. And some see competitions as the best path to stardom.

In the great majority of firms, BD is carried out by principals, or in larger firms, by dedicated marketing staff. Commonly, the people who will “do the work” find out about a new project after it’s been won. BD starts with hearing about an opportunity and ends with winning or losing the job.

The CRM – BD difference

There are 3 critical differences between CRM thinking and traditional BD thinking:

  1. There is no “beginning and ending” in CRM as there is in the BD model – it is a continuous endless loop that starts long before a project is known about, and continues long after it is completed.
  2. CRM is not the responsibility of a few dedicated people: It is he responsibility of everybody in the organisation, but particularly those who have any contact with clients and potential clients.
  3. Compared to BD, CRM is more fully client-centric, with the primary focus being on what the client needs, rather than what the designer has to offer the client.

Your options

You’ve got two choices: stay with the rest of the herd as they slowly lose market share and relevance, or do a full, ground-up rethink of your marketing strategies. If you opt for the first, good luck. If you opt for the second, this paper will provide a framework to start that rethinking process.

The principles at left are developed and discussed in the PSMJ PM ESSENTIALS workshops.

More great resources

See the Business Development section of

See the Client section of Several good articles there on the topic.