Are you best friends with the people you work with? It can happen, and it can be just great. Sometimes a lifetime bond emerges from your shared experiences, your inherent compatibility, a common worldview. But sometimes, even people you like can turn into a burden in a work environment. They interrupt you when you're trying to focus on an important task, they overstay their welcome in your guest chair, they ask you for special favors that put you in a tough spot, they call you after hours when you'd rather spend time with your family. The needy friend who knows no bounds is a problem everyone has had to deal with. If you're an architect who pitches your services as “a process” rather than a necessary means to an end, you may also be cultivating the needy client.
Relationship selling is all the rage these days. But who wants a full-blown relationship with everyone we do business with? How many hours in the day do you have to hold the anxious hand of a client? The more you sell clients on the process of architectural design rather than the product it can achieve, the tighter their grip will close. Certainly, you must treat your clients with respect and sensitivity, but you don't have to sign on as their bosom buddy.
Everything gets complicated when friendship is involved. Here's where architects often don't charge enough to make money on the job, or you overwork the project for the fee you're collecting. You spend time quelling the client instead of finishing the drawings and moving on to the next project. Maybe you discover you've created a monster client who won't allow delegation to anyone else in the firm. Even worse are the besotted clients who delay completion of the project with changes or additions because, consciously or not so consciously, they don't want this wonderful relationship to end. And alas, anything that slows down the work makes residential design even less lucrative than it already is.
There's really no reason to fall back on this rosy idea of process as a way to justify your expense or even your very existence on a residential project. And there's no need to seduce clients so they'll sign whatever checks you put before them. It's so much simpler and more effective to maintain a collegial relationship with them—one based on mutual esteem. What they require from you is your expertise, your insight, and your understanding. They want you to get back to them in a timely fashion—during business hours—when they have a question. They want you to do the same for their builder. They expect regular communication from you even when you're juggling other projects and haven't finished the next step on theirs. They hate being the heavy who has to hunt you down for everything. They rely on you to budget your work accurately and to stand up for the aesthetics of the job even when they waver. They want and need a good house from you.
In turn, what we all must do is champion the premise —through consistent behavior—that architects are professionals and their professional services have value. And when you've done your job right, you've added value to your clients' houses. That's when you'll have earned their friendship for life.
Comments? Call: 202.736.3312; write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.