Restoring Relevance

This is Step 8 on the pathway to Taking Control.

Step 5 identifies some of the diverse reasons why design professionals feel they are losing relevance. If we seek to find a common thread in these reasons, it likely has a lot to do with our own perspective – thinking that what we had to offer was so good that the benefits would be obvious to clients.

Is it all about us?

The key here is not what we think, but that we see it from our own perspective more than from the client perspective: Firm-centric rather than Client-centric. One of my architect client firms, that shall remain nameless, spent a year completely redesigning the way their practice worked, producing all new graphics, a new logo, and a raft of new ideas. They got so carried away with all this that they produced a 22-page description of their new system that did not once use the word “client”. It was all about them. What a waste of creative energy!

Restoring relevance

While I find much to agree with in the thinking of those quoted in Step 5 and others, my own agenda for restorative action has this simple focus:

  • Build trust
  • Beware the commodity box
  • Do your homework
  • Value price and value add
  • Embrace risk
  • Adopt situational awareness

Build trust

Trust is absolutely core to perceptions of relevance. Trust has value that cannot be measured, so if one firm bidding for a project is perceived as having a high level of trustworthiness, that intangible value gets added to the fee, and can often result in winning the work even if the hard money component is greater than others are offering.

Some of the core ideas in building trust make architects nervous; for example:

  1. Never, ever, lie about anything, including whether or not you are behind schedule or haven’t done all the work you are invoicing for.
  2. Do what you say you are going to do, when you said you’d do it, whatever it takes.
  3. If for reasons outside your control #2 becomes impossible, tell the client immediately, and include them in the replanning  the rest of the work.
  4. Wherever possible, give the client an active role in your thinking, your design, your decision-making processes. Remember whose money you’re spending.

Beware the commodity box

Decide how to relate to the “commodity box” – that’s the place where your services are bought – and therefore sold – for the lowest price. The assumption is that all services are of roughly equal value, so you get the best deal by going for the lowest price.

In the commodity box the only relevance you’ll have is that of useful fodder.

Never forget the golden rule of the commodity box: There will always be somebody else more desperate or stupid than you, who has to win the job no matter what. You can’t compete with that. There are techniques to deal with clients with a commodity-box mindset, but the best advice is to stay away from them.

It’s extremely difficult to create trust in that kind of environment. The best you can hope for is that the client will give you more work at money-losing fees. Commodity box issues are discussed in more detail in Step 10.

Do your homework

This means knowing at least as much about the project as your client, and preferably knowing a great deal more. Only then are you perceived to be offering more value, than somebody else who is a great designer but who doesn’t really understand the project. Remember that “design” is a mystery to most clients; most will attach relevance to what you might see as peripheral aspects of the project.

Value price and value add

Value-based pricing is a pricing strategy which sets prices primarily, but not exclusively, on the value, perceived or estimated, to the customer rather than on the cost of the product or historical prices (Wikipedia).

Frank Stasiowski, President of PSMJ Resources, Inc., is the leading proponent, globally, of value pricing strategies in the design professions. I discuss his contributions elsewhere in this site.

Value adding is something you can do only if you have convincingly demonstrated client value in your communications, marketing, proposals and negotiations. Adding value, obviously, only works where the client values what you are adding more than she will have to pay you to produce it. Value-adding is discussed in more detail in Step 10.

That means you really have done your homework, and you have built trust.

Embrace risk

Taking a creative approach to risk offers more opportunity to differentiate your value proposition to your client than just about any other strategy available. I cover this strategy in more detail under the Managing Risk facet, so will not elaborate here.

Meerkat 2a smAdopt situational awareness

My colleague Harry Nicholas is a military history buff;  the idea of situational awareness comes from classic military strategy. He translates this concept for use in design thinking as “a state of alertness, where you know, what every team member knows, and doesn’t know, at any point in time.” 

Harry uses the meerkat as a metaphor, where in any meerkat troop, there is always one meerkat up on its hind legs, head above the tall grass, keeping an eye out for danger. I’d like to extend the metaphor in this context, in 2 ways:

First, to suggest that keeping an eye out for opportunity is even more important than keeping an eye out for danger. In this context, Cliff Moser’s insights are relevant, as proposed in his recent Architecture 3.0: The Disruptive Design Practice Handbook.

Second, to extend the “vision” to the complete field of view – to understand how the project fits into the client’s overall objectives, to see all the project links between your firm and others, including stakeholders both internal and external to the project team. This takes time, and focus. You can’t do it if you are stuck in the commodity box.

Next: Step 9

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