Client Relationship Management 101

In a professional design practice, there are 6 main management facets, discussed under the corresponding hexagonal links above right:

Practice, Client Relationships, Risk, Quality, Design, and Projects.

Although many design firm managers make no distinction between the first 5, it is very difficult to rethink the firm without separating them. Some designers also make no distinction between quality, design and project management; blurring the edges of these functions also makes change and improvement difficult. This entry is an overview of CRM.

Client Relationship Management

Managing Client Relationships is about every aspect of connecting to the people who make our business possible. It has (in this DesignNode model) 5 main functions:

B01  Team Communication
B02  Building Trust
B03  Marketing
B04  Proposals & Presentations
B05  Negotiating Scope

Team Communication

There is a wealth of evidence and expert opinion indicating that a major cause of client dissatisfaction comes from inadequate communication between designer and client.

It is safe to say that nearly every design firm has an opportunity to improve its client communication. One of the systemic communication issues is that many clients don’t really understand the design process. As a result, they focus on deliverables – end products of process.

This is an important distinction in the overall relationship context, because the more the client thinks “deliverables”, the more they see the design firm as a commodity provider, and less as a professional rendering profession service. And, of course, the more they see your output as a commodity, the more likely it is that price will be the biggest factor in deciding who to use.

One way to counter this perspective is to involve the client more in the design process.

Another way to enhance communication is to plan and drive communication as an essential component of the service provided. Taking responsibility for client communication requires the preparation of a Communication Plan that is discussed and resolved with the client. That way everybody knows what to expect.

Building Trust

Every single interaction between members of the design firm and the client organization either builds trust, or erodes it. It is never neutral.

Design firms that understand this make certain that all of the people in the firm who liaise with the client – including designers and project managers – understand this simple principle, and have it front of mind whenever they are connecting with the client.

This attitude shifts the focus from the design firm to the client. When meeting a deadline becomes a problem, the people involved look at it first from a client perspective, and second from their own perspective. They talk to the client about the problem, and do their best to ensure that trust is maintained in the resolution.


Most design firms see marketing, or “business development”, as a practice management function, not a CRM function. That made sense in yesterday’s world of “push” or “interruptive” marketing. It doesn’t make sense anymore in the new world of “pull” or “inbound” marketing.

The reason is that the marketing model is changing rapidly from “seller” to “buyer” – where the design professional has to create a presence in the client’s mind that makes the client initiate the buying process, and see the design firm as a preferred supplier.

It follows that this kind of “marketing” is a natural progression from good client communication and planned, systematic building of trust.

Proposals & Presentations

If marketing is a CRM function, so is the proposal and presentation process. The emphasis shift noted under Marketing above also applies to proposals and presentations: The focus shifts from what the designer has to offer, to what the client needs and wants.

Too many architects suffer from a bit of hubris on this interaction: They know what the client needs (and therefore ought to want) – and lose credibility by blowing their own horn too much.

There is nothing wrong with architects raising awareness of environmental issues, or any other value driving their practice. However, these typically backfire as “push” tactics. If the design firm’s content marketing has been effective, the client will be coming to the firm to take advantage of its values orientation and expertise.

Negotiating Scope

Professional design services, unlike most other professional services, are negotiated; both in the detail of the service provided, and the fees for providing them.

As noted under Team Communication above, the degree to which the client sees design services as a commodity will heavily influence their proclivity to bargain. People never bargain with health care providers, and rarely bargain with lawyers, or with most other professionals.

There are a few key negotiating principles that good negotiators remember and use:

  • Always have something to give away. Unless the negotiation is completely one-sided (where instead of negotiating you are simply “bargained down), the process is to trade something the client wants for something you can afford to give away. In return, you get something you want that the client can afford to give away.
  • Know your “walk” position. That means, know exactly how much you will give away before you stand up, gather your papers, and prepare to terminate the discussion. If the job is worth having, it is highly likely that the client will back off and accept your last offer. Hey! You can’t blame them for having a go at you. They might just succeed – and at your expense!
  • Don’t be hungry. Smart clients expect to test your resolve; they don’t really want a design professional that is desperate; they want a professional they can relate to as an equal.
  • Don’t go alone. You are much better positioned if you can play dual roles. In general, it’s a good idea to let the Project Manager or Design Manager carry the main negotiation, but hold the Principal in reserve to step in and either stop the giveaway or put an alternative offer that resolves differences of position. (See sidebar)

Rethinking Client Relationship Management

Unless your practice is most extraordinary, almost certainly there are CRM aspects of your business that would benefit from a good rethink. Here are your 15 test questions:

  1. Have you been free of claims for at least the last three years?
  2. Do you have a program of regularly involving your clients in the design process, including being present while preliminary design approaches are being made?
  3. Do you think that your clients understand and value the design process more than deliverables?
  4. Do you regularly prepare a Communications Plan as part of your overall proposal, except for small projects?
  5. Do you feel that a strong trust relationship exists between your firm (not just you) and your clients?
  6. Do you and your key staff primarily look at projects from the client’s perspective, rather than your perspective as a services provider?
  7. Is your approach to business development understood, by all involved, that it is primarily a client relationship management activity?
  8. Do the people who do your business development understand the difference between “push” vs. “pull” (or outbound vs. inbound) marketing? (Outbound marketing is also called “interruptive” marketing, meaning that it “interrupts” the client focus.)
  9. Do your people involved with marketing talk about these concepts?
  10. Do you regularly research the client’s business and industry prior to starting work on a proposal?
  11. Do you visit and assess the project site prior to starting work on a proposal (if the project is a physical structure)?
  12. Do your project managers always see and comment on proposals before they are sent to the client?
  13. Do your project managers participate in selection interviews?
  14. Do you rehearse selection interviews before showing up?
  15. You have a clear negotiating strategy, that (a) always has something to give away, (b) knows what you want in return, (c) has a known walk point, and (d) involves at least two participants from your team?

If you can honestly answer all 15 of these with a YES!, you are part of a truly awesome practice. LET ME KNOW!

  • I’d like to interview you as a case study for the DesignNode site, AND
  • I will personally send you a certificate for $1,000.00 (yup, that’s one thousand dollars) to be applied toward any PSMJ program I teach in the next 12 months, or any PSMJ consulting contract in AUS/NZ with your firm in the next 12 months (both starting from receipt of your email).

If you can’t come up with a YES for these 15 questions: Well, you know what you need to focus on in your CRM rethink. The special offer will still be good next year!

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