The Business of Architecture and Design - Client Experience

It’s always good to have a plan and a strategy no matter what area of your business - or your client’s project - you’re focusing on. That’s why the same processes you put in place for your marketing and interview strategy will also need to be developed for the project delivery phase. 

Developing standard operating procedures (SOPs) takes work, sure, but they will ensure that you don’t leave anything out. Creating SOPs that reinforce your brand mission also will save you time. When the system is already in place, thought out and preplanned, you won’t waste time thinking about how a particular task should be handled. This will allow you to offer a designed experience, not a reactive one. 

With the steps below, you’ll create the foundation for a solid project and a positive client experience.

Standard Operating Procedures

With time and experience, you’ll settle into a familiar routine that will track a client entering your marketing funnel and progressing through your business — from a qualified lead to a trusting friend and an advocate for your brand.

Routines, however, don’t always correlate with the best outcomes. Use this as a chance to think strategically about the systems that produce the results you’re looking to achieve.

Define the mission: The way you do business along the way may evolve, but your mission should remain the same. Developing a mission statement, as hokey as it may sound, will force you to commit to a certain way of doing business. Think of the mission statement as the change that your business is looking to effect in the world. Keep it brief, one page at most, and make sure it supports your brand identity. Refer to this as you develop the more mundane SOP documents — everything should reinforce the mission.

Communication: Open, transparent communication should be at the heart of your standard operating procedures. You have some different communication options available, so find out what your client prefers: Skype, email, snail mail. Touching base while you’re designing not only will ensure that your client knows what’s happening but will engage him or her in the process. 

Engaged clients are much less likely to be surprised when your bill arrives at the end of the month. No one likes surprises. They also tend to value your service and advice more. There’s a lot that goes into a design that isn’t represented on a tidy floor plan sent by email. When you reveal the process, progress and struggles along the way, a client will have a better sense of the complexities of design and a deeper understanding of the associated costs. Don’t go overboard, but do keep in touch.

Your client should always be informed of any schedule changes. This is really important, because depending on the fee structure, they can have a significant impact on the final cost for a client, your profitability and ultimately your reputation. Nurturing a reputation of being forthright in all situations is in everyone’s best interest.

Systems: For the mechanics of communication, I advocate developing systems and templates for handling certain situations that frequently arise. There will then be one less thing for you (or your employees) to spend time on. Systems save time, ensure you’re delivering a consistent message and allow you the freedom to work on your business, not in it.

For example, you’ll always have prospective clients contacting you via your website or by email. If you don’t have SOPs to address these messages, you’ll spend a lot of time answering the same questions. Figure out a means of processing inquiries that makes sense. You might direct people to a new client funnel, where they provide certain information to determine whether you’re both a good fit — even before they talk with you. Or you might establish frequently asked questions (FAQs) along with an email template containing a link to the FAQs. If you revise it as new questions come in, your reply will always be up-to-date and won’t require more than a minute of your time to respond.

Automated systems like this can enhance the experience from both the client and business sides. Clients will be directed through a logical series of steps to prequalify them. If you ensure they’re a good fit for the work you do before you even talk to them, you’ve done both parties a favor — you both will have used your time efficiently.

If you do nothing else, make sure you get your communication SOPs right. Commit to an email or a voicemail response time and stick to it. I respond to all client communication within 24 hours, no exceptions. Even if it’s just, “Thanks for your message. I’m working on a solution, and I’ll be in touch shortly.” When problems arise, open, honest and forthright communication can work wonders.

Project management: We’ll explore business software in a future ideabook, but suffice it to say, you’ll need some method for cataloging all of your project information, tasks and billable time to use for invoicing. Check out Excel, Asana, Basecamp, Nozbe, Archioffice, Google Drive, Evernote, Quickbooks, Freshbooks, Harvest, Wave — all are options to invest some research time in, so you can find a good fit. Keep it simple to start. You’ll quickly determine what your business needs most and what’s missing — use that info to develop your wish list moving forward.

The other side of project management will become more important later as you expand your practice (if that’s your goal) by hiring employees. The moment you begin building a team, you must consider how you’ll manage the projects, structure your studio, compensate your team and, ultimately, how your project managers will deliver the product you’ve always delivered yourself. Doing everything yourself may seem convenient, if not necessary, at first, but your reach and scale will be constrained by this in the future.

Procedures: If you’re using a simple, lean system to start and not a specific project management tool, you can set up a master file with project folders to deploy for new clients as their projects activate. I personally use Dropbox, but there are also Google Drive, Carbonite, and others. 

Data storage and syncing with the cloud are essential in my opinion. The cloud can back up info and update it on all of your machines, and the sharing ability built into these platforms allows open and transparent communication with clients. By sharing specific project folders, you’ll save time emailing documents back and forth, and you’ll ensure that clients always have access to the most current project information.

Documentation: Meeting notes, phone calls, emails, schedules, milestones, drawing lists, bid documents, owner-supplied documents, client imagery, and surveys — put in place a system for filing all of the documentation early and keep on top of it. Integrating some form of project management software, as stated above, should adequately handle this task. If you don’t have any, file everything in your master (cloud-based) filing system. Correlating your filing system with the design phases is a simple first step: predesign, design development, construction documents and so on.

Time tracking: Once you’ve established the fee structure and budget, you’ll need to track your billing against that fee for invoicing as well as your own accounting. If you have project management software, this is likely built in; if you don’t, you’ll need to create it. As you hire employees, you’ll need a robust system for tracking this — a software solution will be essential. Excel, Drive or even Evernote can work if it’s just you. Track this on a weekly basis as appropriate. Not only will this provide information on project profitability, but it also will quantify the types of projects and clients you do your best work with — numbers don’t lie.

Design schedule: You might struggle to get this right early on, but as long as you’re up front and honest with your client as things progress, open communication will usually soften scheduling setbacks. This will vary greatly based on project type, complexity, scope and client, which makes it difficult to offer any specific guidelines. Initially, you’ll rely on your previous work experience to establish a schedule and fine-tune it along the way. Make sure your fee correlates with your schedule and set realistic expectations.

If you’re a sole proprietor wearing all of the hats, don’t assume you’ll work the 80 to 85 percent billable time you were able to while working for someone else. It won’t be possible. A good starting guideline is to assume that a maximum of 50 percent of the time you spend on your business will be billable per week if you’re really cranking. The remaining time will be spent managing the business, handling communications and doing invoicing, business development and marketing.

Marketing (a Reminder)

Remember the system you had in place to net new clients? The work you’re putting into your business delivering projects is only one part of what you need to be doing for the business. Be careful to nurture the marketing needs of your business during project delivery. 

If you’re not actively seeking new clients while you’re working on your current project(s), you’ll be left with a gap in your schedule and nothing to transition to in time. The big commission you’re working so hard on now will be out the door sooner than you think. To avoid a roller coaster cash-flow problem, you’ll need to be diligent about developing new leads and new projects.

Design the Experience

I want to end by reframing the discussion into a more right-brained exercise. The aim of this is to give you an idea of the benefits and liabilities associated with each means of determining your compensation, how to protect yourself contractually and the processes needed to deliver the work for your client. Those are all things at a basic level that you must do.

How you do them is up to you. 

The broader goal of this exercise is to find a method that complements your brand. Think about a client’s experience from the moment someone comes in contact with your brand. You get to design that. You could literally hand clients a physical menu of services — (a graphically pleasing, well-designed menu, of course) — and they could select the deliverables from that. That could be your contract and fee proposal all in one. Think of this part of the work as another means of standing out.

When deciding what’s on your menu, you will also need to decide if you’ll offer à la carte services or full service. This really is a strong differentiator and a waypoint for your brand. Offering full service means you’re requiring your clients to hire you for all phases of the work, including the all important construction observation. It will make a difference in the project you’re able to deliver to your client, and naturally you’ll have fewer to choose from. You’ll establish your brand as exclusive and high end, but recognize that the trade-off is a more limited reach. Knowing who your ideal client and target market are will inform this decision.

Design the experience you want your clients to have and deliver it. It doesn’t have to be any of the above, or the perceived “accepted” way, or the AIA way. That’s the beauty of owning your own practice — you get to choose what it’s like. Sometimes we forget that we’re designers when we start focusing on our business, but this can be a creative exercise once you understand the fundamentals.

Now you’re ready to do the work in front of you. Good luck!


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.