Not long ago, Mark McInturff, FAIA, received a phone call that led to an unusual commission. The wife of a couple he’d designed a house for 15 years ago asked him to come over to discuss some interior renovations. The husband had died recently, and during the visit she asked McInturff to design his tombstone. “She told me her husband had requested it,” says McInturff, principal of McInturff Architects, in Bethesda, Md. “I knew them both pretty well and said we’d love to do it. Talk about closure.”
He was touched by the request, but not surprised to hear from a former client. Last year, McInturff finished a retirement house in Rhode Island for another set of clients—his fourth project with them. At any given time, one-third of his clients are people he’s already worked for. “I’d be very hurt if I found out they were doing a project with someone else,” he says.
If anything, the recession has taught architects that relationships with past clients shouldn’t be left to chance. Many, like McInturff, powered through on a small, but steady stream of repeat commissions. Intuitively, the likelihood of a residential client needing additional services in the near future seems slim. But, in fact, about 48 percent of residential architects’ business comes from repeat clients, according to the 2012 AIA Firm Survey report. What’s more, they represent a larger share of billings than in the past.
Rena Klein, FAIA, of RM Klein Consulting, in Seattle, speculates that during the recession, people became more conservative, and thus are now more inclined to hire people they know. They probably also have money to do another project, she says. Higher-end clients often build multiple homes or add another building to their estate. And residential remodeling is always a staple, even if the jobs get smaller in tough times.
There’s another reason why keeping in touch with patrons is important: According to the AIA survey, roughly 21 percent of new residential clients come through noncompetitive selection (they interview only one firm)—presumably through a referral. As a result, “your cost of getting a new job is about half as much as it would be to get a ‘cold’ client,’ ” Klein says. “They know who you are.”
For small and midsize firms, which rarely have dedicated rainmakers, nurturing relationships with past clients can be one of the harder marketing challenges. “We’re not social media people,” McInturff says. “We don’t do newsletters or email, but I often run into them at social events.” In Portland, Maine, Rob Whitten of Whitten Architects, says that after the design phase is over, he tends to be more project-driven than client-driven. “It’s a big mistake; I’ve learned over the years that I need to maintain those relations,” says Whitten, who recently took his first vacation with a client, sailing in the British Virgin Islands.
One way Whitten maintains contact is to return in about a year for a professional photo shoot, after the house seasons and the landscape fills in. Then he puts together a book for the client that memorializes the project. “I’m really not very social, in terms of staying in touch,” Whitten says. “But clients respect our authorship, and if they want to make a change they usually call us.”
Whitten’s isn’t the only firm that is marketing by osmosis in this niche. San Francisco architect Cary Bernstein, AIA, LEED AP, stays in touch by constantly servicing projects one way or another. Clients ask for help with furniture, art, and landscaping after they’ve grown into the house; one even requested a tree house. She also sends yearly cards with images of recent work. “I’m not an aggressive marketer, and I don’t like to be marketed to, but given how busy everyone is, it helps to have some reminders in front of people,” she says.
Residential work is high touch, almost intimate. Doing an informal post-occupancy evaluation shows clients you’re thinking about them, and it’s one way to research how the design is holding up. Six months to a year after project completion, Wayne Turett, LEED AP, principal of Turett Collaborative Architects in New York City, sends an email asking how things are going. “I’m curious about whether everything is working well,” he says. “Sometimes contractors leave issues that are unresolved.”
Los Angeles architect John Dutton, AIA, LEED AP, also checks in periodically, especially if he’s concerned about something. After a year and a couple of heavy rains, he called the owners of a house with a large atrium to make sure it didn’t leak. “It’s very important that clients don’t feel abandoned after their project is finished,” he says.
“Personally, I think the best way to market to former clients is to go see them,” Klein says. “Architects should routinely be doing this within a year of finishing the job.”
Raleigh, N.C., architect Frank Harmon, FAIA, likes to visit his projects at one-, three-, and five-year intervals, not only for design feedback but because “people like to know you care about them,” he says. He has experimented, too, with sending out a newsletter. One recent story described how to site and build a mountain house without spoiling the view, and another offered a design tutorial on restoring the light to an old church. Harmon also recently started a blog called Native Places (nativeplaces.tumblr.com).
Design leaders recognize that they can’t take their fans for granted, and they’re formalizing strategies to stay in touch. At El Dorado, in Kansas City, Mo., one of the firm’s four partners tracks their contact with former clients, prodding the other architects to reach out informally but consistently—at least once per year. El Dorado also maintains a twice-per-week blog commenting on developing projects. But it’s not just about the firm. “If we see clients doing something interesting through their business, we’ll write a story about it,” says partner Dan Maginn, FAIA, LEED AP. A Facebook fan page also prompts the architects about milestones such as a child’s graduation. “It helps us know when it’s appropriate to give a touch,” he says.
“Client development and maintenance strategies have to be designed like anything else,” Maginn adds. “You almost have to think like a journalist, about what would be interesting for clients to hear from you. And don’t be afraid to believe that your own work is interesting. It’s a mixture of active listening to what’s going on in their world and, at the right time, injecting things happening in your firm.”
Socializing happens face-to-face, too, often at parties held in El Dorado’s first-floor steel shop. “We have about three parties a year with the goal of relaxing after a stressful couple of months. And if it’s fun enough we can get clients to come,” Maginn says. The parties are “casual but designed” and include snazzy invitations. Recent events have included a German-themed party with an Oompah band, and a party to benefit the local animal shelter complete with puppies in the lobby.
It’s true that the best marketing comes naturally. Zoltan Pali, FAIA, and Judit Méda Fekete, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, who run SPF:a in Culver City, Calif., have a small gallery in their office where they host shows for artists they know. It’s a cozy gathering where clients get exposed to work they might appreciate. “I don’t ever want to be a middleman between an artist and owner, but I’ll hook them up and then off we go,” Pali says. “Clients are looking for it, they stop by and chitchat, and it becomes a nice thing.” Although the firm hasn’t done this recently because the events are expensive to produce, Pali plans to resume them as the economy improves.
Residential clients tend to be self-selecting. They’re creative, intelligent people who gravitate toward others who share their values about culture, art, and architecture. So by the time the house is finished, architects often count them as friends. “I do socialize with former clients,” says Roy McMakin, principal of Domestic Architecture, in Seattle and San Diego. “Some started as friends and stayed friends; some started as clients and ended as friends.”
It helps to be rooted in a tight-knit community such as Cambridge, Mass. The staff at Maryann Thompson Architects makes a point to patronize the restaurants they’ve designed, and they often run into clients there. Thompson rubs shoulders with others during vacations on Martha’s Vineyard. Michelle Laboy, a designer on staff, describes the firm’s touch points as frequent and spontaneous. “A few times a year, we bring prospective clients through houses we’ve designed,” she says. “Sometimes they go by themselves—clients on the way to see us from New York might stop at a house we’ve done in Connecticut. In talking to the owners, they get to know what it’s like to work with us.”
In the downturn, architects have grasped that all clients are to be treasured and nurtured. Working in a pristine vacation spot such as Jackson, Wyo., it’s not unusual for John Carney, FAIA, to get calls from former clients during holidays and spring break. He says they arrive ready to celebrate and are looking for a way to plug in locally by snowboarding or floating on the river together, or having him over for a party. Often, too, the meetings are work-related. “I don’t travel during holidays,” he says. “My family has to come here.”
The scenario is similar in Phoenix, where Jones Studio principal Eddie Jones, AIA, LEED AP, keeps tabs on a patron base that skews toward retirees. He, too, takes an unscripted approach. “It happens naturally, enthusiastically, and without effort; daily, I’m talking to somebody,” he says. One widow calls while traveling to ask what significant buildings she should visit. Another, approaching 90 years old, asked him to fix a sagging art-glass installation. He removed the 30-year-old window, put it into the back of his car, and had it repaired. Such attentiveness leads to requests for remodels or expansions for live-in care.
Servicing past clients, even after the statute of limitations has run out, is just good business. But there’s a time and place for social boundaries. Jones recalls the dinner party he and his wife hosted at their house for three former clients. “They were all very wealthy and extroverted, and were one-upping each other every 30 seconds,” he says. “Lisa and I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. After their drivers came to pick them up, we looked at each other and said, ‘Was that a good idea or not?’ ”
“One thing we don’t do is get my family personally involved,” says Frederick Stelle, AIA, principal of Stelle Lomont Rouhani Architects in Bridgehampton, N.Y. “I never show people my house. And if a client is in town, the idea of us going out to dinner with them is torture for my wife.”
Socially, he’s subtle, like getting a table at a benefit sponsored by the charity that a client champions. For example, one patron, a chef, was recently honored by City Harvest, a New York City–based group that provides food for the homeless. “It’s probably the hardest part of what we do, because I’m always feeling torn between focusing on what I like to do, which is drawing and detailing, and my personal life,” Stelle says. In the pursuit of clients-for-life, sometimes you do have to spend time with them after-hours, he adds, which is why he tries to vet new ones carefully.
“This is not the most lucrative business; part of the reward is to work with clients we like,” Stelle says. “Whenever I do an initial interview, I say this is a bit like a marriage. If something about the relationship doesn’t feel right, they shouldn’t do the project with us. At the end of the day, it’s not just about dollars or the aesthetic sense.”
This selectiveness isn’t unique to Stelle. Mark DuBois, AIA, LEED AP, principal of Ohlhausen DuBois Architects, in New York, believes that good chemistry raises the level of work, particularly for houses. He spends a lot of time explaining what architecture can do. He asks prospective clients to look at specific books, houses, and buildings, and then come back in a month if they’re excited about what they’re learning. “An educated client makes the relationship much better,” he says. After the conceptual design comes another pause to consider whether they’re a good fit.
Seasoned architects know that keeping up with past clients is important business, not only because it generates revenue, but because it’s the best way to know whether they did a good job the first time. “If someone likes you enough to use you again, they will probably talk to others about you,” John Dutton says. “So much about architecture is, in my mind, relationships. That’s as important to me as the product.”