Knowing When To Pass On A Design Project and Saying No To A Prospect

Bates Masi + Architects LLC

Bates Masi + Architects LLC

Ask yourself these questions when talking with potential design clients.

They will help you determine whether or not you should accept or reject the project.

Many architects and designers finally feel busy again. As the list of potential projects grows, your task as a business owner changes, yet again, from business development to curation, in which you filter the list of clients looking to collaborate with you. It’s an enviable position to be in, but the process of figuring out which projects are the best fits for your business isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Often the first inclination is to accept any commission that presents itself, especially if the recent past has been lean. But, somewhat counterintuitively, saying no can actually help your business grow. Here are some things to think about as you decide which projects to take on, and some insight about when saying no can actually be a smart idea.

Do you have time in your schedule? 

Overcommitting can be quite harmful to your reputation. Taking on so much work that you’re not able to fulfill your brand’s promise is a serious problem that can be hard to recover from. Clients and professionals can be naive about scheduling when embarking on a project. Fast-tracked schedules are particularly demanding; if you can’t meet one given your resources, then saying no is the right thing to do. You don’t want to be known as a firm that overpromises and underdelivers.

If the right client and the right project present themselves and your schedule is the problem, then it’s probably time to consider scaling up to handle the increased workload, but the demands of scale come with problems too. Determine your maximum project load and time inputs from the outset, so you’ll have a better framework for accepting new work and be confident that you’ll deliver the results you’ve promised.

Is the client good for your brand? 

The clients you choose to work with today are the clients that you’ll be working with tomorrow. This is your brand, your business — selecting the best client and project fit is one of your primary responsibilities. If you choose to build designer sheds, own it. Use times of plenty as an opportunity to hone your brand message, bolster your portfolio of work and target those clients you’re best suited to help. 

Saying no to clients that aren’t a good fit is in their best interest as well. Our clients make what we do possible, and we owe it to them to provide the most appropriate solution to their design challenges. Refusing work because it’s not a good fit is easier to see as a positive, informed choice when you understand the client-designer relationship to be symbiotic.

Is the client someone you can spend time with? 

Let’s face it: Not every client will be a good match for your business, no matter how appropriate the work they’re proposing is to what you do well. Always remember that the project and client are inseparable, a package deal.

Designing a home is unlike designing commercial or civic architecture — it’s an intimate process. You’re going to be spending a lot of time together, getting to know the owner’s personal habits and lifestyle, so there should be some common ground, a connection. Is this someone you could envision spending time with?

You often don’t have much to base your decision on. A few phone calls, emails and the initial interview are your only opportunities to formulate your opinion. The interview is as much an opportunity for you to interview your clients as for them to interview you. Predetermined decisions, difficult personalities, unreasonable expectations and misaligned budgets are all things to be wary of. 

If you have a bad feeling, trust your gut in spite of what the facts may be telling you. People are usually on their best behavior during an initial meeting, which means any personality traits you notice that trouble you will only be amplified during the design and construction process. If you have the sense that someone isn’t looking to leverage your professional advice and creativity, it’s a warning sign that there’s trouble ahead.

Ask about previous projects, working relationships and how problems were solved, paying close attention to the things the answers reveal. Hearing “I’ve worked with a lot of architects in the past” could mean there are trust or satisfaction issues ahead. How the client speak about builders or other professionals involved in previous projects is a preview of how you’ll be viewed too. Is the language respectful or ridiculing?

What do other professionals say about the client? 

Leverage your network of contacts, especially other architects, designers and contractors in your area, for help in understanding a client’s reputation. Contractors intimately understand how a client reacts under pressure and can offer insights into a client’s true character. If you find very strong reactions to certain inquiries you make, it might be best to avoid those projects.

Is it the right project? 

Not every project will be a good fit for your business either. Often questions of scale inform the decision about whether or not to take on a project. A sole practitioner may have trouble accepting large-scale work, while a firm of five or six may have trouble accepting smaller commissions because the staff’s fees make the work extremely expensive.

Project type is equally important. The smaller the firm, the more important a niche focus becomes. Accepting work outside of that niche can make it harder to distinguish the brand in a meaningful way.

What are the expectations? 

The initial interview is also a great time to gauge a client’s expectations. It’s a time to get an idea of the project scope and budget. If you sense the two aren’t even closely in alignment, it’s a sign of unrealistic expectations. I don’t expect nonprofessionals to have a full sense of the costs involved for a design project; it’s complicated even for those of us who practice it on a daily basis. But if I give an opinion on a budget mismatch that’s met dismissively, I know it will be a difficult project to execute to the client’s satisfaction. Unrealistic expectations can lead to unhappy clients and architects.

SHSH Architecture + Scenogrpahy

SHSH Architecture + Scenogrpahy

Learn how to say no. 

Once you’ve decided the work isn’t a good fit, crafting the message requires some thought. We’ve all been on the receiving end of “We’ve selected someone else to work with.” Delivering the news that you’re declining a project can be ego bruising to your client. Rationalizing the decision as a business decision can help you to react as dispassionately as possible. If at all possible, try to remove the emotion from the situation. Emotion can cause you to react reflexively to a terse response from the client you just broke up with.

I like the “I’m not the right architect for your project” angle, because it makes it my fault, not theirs. Or: “This isn’t a good fit between our strengths and your needs.” Be thoughtful and respectful and trust in the decision you’ve made for your business.

Suggesting a more appropriate alternative (another firm) is a great way of offering value even as you part ways.

There are other ways to say no too. If a project’s schedule is too aggressive, politely saying that you can’t reconcile the client’s needs with your availability is an easy exit. If you remind clients it’s about meeting their needs and not yours, they’ll understand. And if they don’t, you’ve seen a side of them that will reinforce your decision not to take the project.

Pricing your services high enough to dissuade someone from hiring you may seem like a good idea, but it’s counterproductive if the client accepts. Difficult clients may already be used to a fairly ridiculous set of fees anyhow.

When used correctly, wait lists can be helpful for keeping strong projects waiting in the wings until you have time to do them. But don’t use them to sideline clients you think are a poor fit.

It helps to remember that every no is also a yes to something else. Make sure that it’s a yes to the priorities you’ve set for your business and your brand. Designing and constructing a home is a stressful process that occurs over a period of months and sometimes years. You’re investing your business resources into the project and the client, so it’s critical that every yes is well reasoned and works on a gut level.

It’s hard to turn work away. I can guarantee that you’ll fight an internal battle each and every time you do it. If you’re strategic about it, turning work away can repay you by turning a costly relationship into the freedom to work with the clients who are a better fit.When you have the ability to choose whom to work with, choosing the right fit is good for everyone — your client, your business and you.


This is a guest article by Eric Reinholdt of 30X40 Design Workshop and Houzz.

Houzz is the leading platform for home remodeling and design, providing people with everything they need to improve their homes from start to finish – online or from a mobile device. From decorating a small room to building a custom home and everything in between, Houzz connects millions of homeowners, home design enthusiasts and home improvement professionals across the country and around the world.

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Eric Reinholdt

This is a guest article by Eric Reinholdt of 30X40 Design Workshop and Houzz.

Houzz is the leading platform for home remodeling and design, providing people with everything they need to improve their homes from start to finish – online or from a mobile device. From decorating a small room to building a custom home and everything in between, Houzz connects millions of homeowners, home design enthusiasts and home improvement professionals across the country and around the world.