Why do you buy coffee at Starbuck’s, or buy shoes from Zappos? You can get a fine cup of coffee or a good pair of shoes elsewhere, and probably for less. If you’re a customer of Starbuck’s or Zappos – or Ritz-Carlton, Disney World, Lexus, Singapore Airlines, Enterprise Rent-a-Car, or Nordstrom – you’re probably there because of the legendary service experiences these companies create for their customers.

Architects and engineers aren’t trained to think about clients and customers, or even the fact that they’re in a service business. We learn about those things later if we’re lucky.

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These qualities are the basis for many big business decisions, as well as everyday consumer choices. People select professional services and products that give them positive experiences and make their lives easier – not those that are difficult and seem likely to create problems. Life’s too short.

Design and construction firms are notorious for bad customer experiences. The industry is severely fragmented based on decades of protectionism, silos among technical disciplines, and efforts to avoid risk. Architects and engineers aren’t trained to think about clients and customers, or even the fact that they’re in a service business. We learn about those things later if we’re lucky.

Managing Uncertainty and Expectations in Building Design and Construction, a research project I’ve led for the AIA Large Firm Roundtable and other sponsors, showed that construction owners most value architects, engineers and builders who can actually work together to solve problems. In this context, it’s also no surprise that many design and construction firms look so much alike. They promote the same services, in the same ways, and appear to have similar portfolios of completed work.

Most great brands are built on exceptional customer experiences as well as great products or services. My favorite definition of “brand” comes from Clark Kellogg, of the Center for the Built Environment at UC Berkeley: “…it’s what people say about you when you’re out of the room.” What are your clients saying to other potential clients about their work with you?

The most successful AEC firms distinguish themselves by knowing their clients well and delighting them with extraordinary service experiences. As noted in Design Intelligence, “companies that continue to thrive year after year are the ones that are in the experience business…the ones that fail have allowed themselves to become commodities.”

So how can we design the actual service experiences we create for our own clients and customers?

Last month I addressed the CXps Conference of professional firm leaders on this topic. I referred to the concept of “touch points” and “impact points” through which we create customer experiences. Touch points are direct interactions with our clients, and impact points are business practices behind the scenes that affect a client’s experience and perceptions. Professional services are intensely personal, so most of my recommendations involve people, relationships, and communication.

Great service starts with strong leadership for every client relationship and project: you must commit a real principal or senior executive, and make sure that person is there at every step of the process. He or she should build a relationship of trust with your client before the hard work begins, and communicate regularly so that any problems are understood and resolved in the context of your team’s positive achievements. Here are some other “touch points” that could become part of your firm’s brand:

  • Present a clear and transparent work plan to help your client know what to expect – many are unfamiliar with the process.
  • Take the lead in selecting and aligning the entire project team – make it your responsibility.
  • Develop a creative, proprietary method for defining a client’s design problem. Unclear project requirements are one of the leading causes of project uncertainty and risk.
  • Lead regular progress and performance reviews with your client, project partners, and team members. Present written progress reports to your client along with monthly invoices. They’ll be surprised.
  • Follow a completed project with post-occupancy assessments and honest evaluations of your team’s performance. This will set the stage for a long-term relationship with your client – and your selection for future work without competition.

Your firm’s “impact points” may seem less obvious. Look at your accounting practices – are your invoices clear and user-friendly? Are they accompanied by a brief report about what your team has accomplished during the invoice period, and what’s coming next? How about contracts? Does your attorney or legal department have a positive way of explaining your preferred agreements and the terms that are potential deal-breakers for your firm? Then there’s marketing material and publicity: do you clearly acknowledge and thank your clients in communications about completed projects, or do they seem to be all about you?

Designing your client experience can be an inspiring process for your own people. Once you’ve identified signature elements of your service experience, however, they have to be delivered with absolute consistency. They must be authentic and become part of your firm’s culture.

Once you’ve invested this effort, ask your clients regularly to assess their experiences with your firm. You’ll be amazed at how the conversation has changed…even when you’re out of the room.

Clark Davis, FAIA, is an architect and Principal Consultant with Cameron MacAllister Group, a trusted advisor to architecture, engineering, and construction firms.