How Assertive Architect Sally Woods Learned to Say No

Sally Woods headshot by Belinda Pope

“I’m tired of redesigning toilets,” Sally Woods, founder of Unit 7 Architects tells Richard in their video interview above. Sally has been practicing architecture in New Zealand for over 10 years and she was tired of doing uninspiring, painful, crappy design projects. She certainly didn’t want to be known as the “Toilet Architect.” Would you want that title? 

I get this friend who says, ‘Oh, I'm in a real bind. I've got a client who wants to add a toilet to their house … and he doesn't want to spend lots of money, because it's just one toilet, and I'm desperate because I've got teenage girls.’” (2:40)

“I went, ‘Okay, I can look at this for you. It'll be about a thousand bucks for the fee.’ The client rang me and said, ‘That is so much money. I'm not paying that. I'm going to go find somebody else to do it.’ I thought, great, dodged a bullet.” (3:23

Three days later the client rang back saying, ‘I haven't found anyone who will do it for cheaper.’” (4:08

Hitting rock bottom in her career 

Sally Woods - Due Diligence - Photo by Sally Woods

Due Diligence – Photo by Sally Woods

Sally felt it was awful and at the lowest point of her entire career.  She realized that something had to change, so in 2019 she signed up for SIX.

“I was really sick of it. It was such a low point, and I just thought, something has got to change. I can't make the change, because it's been eight years. Nothing has changed. So, I thought, I'll sign up, I'll pay the money, and I'll see what happens. I can't lose anymore … It's not going to make things worse by doing this course.” (5:45

“Somebody would call me and I'd feel sorry for them. If they pulled on a few heartstrings, they could get me to roll my eyes and go, ‘Okay, fine.’ I never rejected any rubbish projects … It just felt like going from project to project. It was getting depressing and oppressive to tell people, ‘Well, you'll have to wait, because I'm on this other really crap project right now. Your painful crappy project will have to wait.’” (8:13

The magical value of the LCC

Sally Woods - Heritage renovation - Photo by Clark van der Beken

Sally Woods' Heritage renovation. Photo by Clark van der Beken.

Sally had been following AMI where she learned about the LCC.

“I wasn't firm about offering it every time. Partly because I didn't have the background dialogue that I needed and I felt a bit scared about doing it each time… once I learned, everything fell into place, and although I have on one or two occasions where I haven't offered the LCC … I've always regretted it. Now, I back it because I've given so much value to clients, even if they haven't recognized it. So, it's not just me trying to sell it, it's me actually backing it and knowing that that's the right path.” (9:22

Not only has Sally changed her process, but she changed her mindset of the value of the process — the first steps of the SIX+MAPS program. The LCC has enabled her to qualify clients and the clients recognize the value of finding opportunities and avoiding pitfalls.

She’s been getting great residential projects and is ready to expand into more commercial work. The images throughout this blog (and the icons on them) represent the 5 niche work streams that she has identified as ideal niche project types: Change of Use (same as Adaptive Reuse), Commercial Office Fitout, Due Diligence for property investors, Earthquake Strengthening and Heritage Renovation.

Through her new approach, clients end up with lower risks and better results.

“The change is about understanding the LCC value now … Because before it felt a bit salesy and a bit like I couldn't back it, but now I've seen all of the value that it's given. The price of it started at something like $600 and is now at $1,900, but I'm making a plan to take it up a [notch] because that's how much time and value it gives. Clients that are accepting it are coming back with feedback saying, ‘Wow, that was so useful. We didn't see any of those opportunities, we didn't see any of those pitfalls. We would just kind of do what we wanted,’ which was whatever they had in their head. But being able to see all the opportunities and pitfalls, they just have been able to change really easily and realize how they can achieve what they need.” (11:10)

With the LCC part of her process, Sally offers it to all her clients. Half sign up immediately and then another 15% sign when they are ready to start their projects.

“Having done the AMI SIX program, the difference now is that if somebody doesn't take up the LCC, I don't care. I used to really care about that and think, oh, what happened to that client? Why didn't they choose me? But now I go, ‘Okay, see you, good luck with your project,’ and I just let it go. (14:09

“I know that they have never been a client, for one thing. They're not a client until they pay money. If they don't accept the LCC, then they won't ever be a client. So, it's not my lost opportunity. That's theirs if anything. I have got a lot more strength when communicating with clients now, so it's just, ‘This is how I do it. You're free to not choose it.’” (14:39)

Mindset shift from humble servant to standing strong

Sally Woods' Change of Use. Photo by Joe Dudeck.

Sally Woods' Change of Use. Photo by Joe Dudeck.

Sally shifted her mindset and success followed. Gone is a position of weakness. Her processes and her mindset are stronger. Sally has moved from humble servant to standing strong.

“I was a humble servant. They're paying me, oh my god, that's amazing. They're paying me money to do this. Whereas now I know my time is worth money, and if you don't pay me for it, you won't get any of my time. It felt quite mean at first. It felt a bit abrupt and a bit short, but now … [I know] I’m not being a horrible person. I used to avoid conflict before, whereas now, it's not like I embrace it, but when it comes I just stand strong and say, ‘This is how I need to do it. This is what needs to happen. Make your choice.’ It's up to them.” (16:02

At AMI, we have recognized that many architects struggle to set boundaries with their clients. Architects are fearful of losing even painful, crappy design projects if they don’t agree to all their clients’ demands. The SIX+MAPS program gives the designer the confidence needed to stand strong. 

“Clients actually love it. It was a big surprise to me. I thought people would be really offended and not like me, and all I get is good feedback now. I didn’t get bad feedback, but there were crickets. But now I get, ‘Oh, this is so great, somebody's taking charge of this project. We couldn't do that.’ I do the diagnosis or the LCC and put together my fee proposal, and I say, ‘This is the fee. It's up to you now. You can take it, you can leave it. I've been paid for the LCC, that's fine.’ They've been accepting them, and so my average fee has gone up huge. Not every project was a $1,200 project, but now every project is averaging at least $55,000 in fees.  Before it was $25,000.” (17:33) 

Sally’s advice for anyone just starting: Don’t work for free

Sally Woods - Earthquake Strengthening - Photo by Yuvraj Singh

Sally Woods' Earthquake Strengthening. Photo by Yuvraj Singh.

Many architects are hungry for work and are willing to do almost anything to get the project. This includes visiting sites and creating schematic drawings, all for free. AMI has taught Sally and many other architects just how to avoid this.

“Don't deliver services for free. Put together a Low Commitment Consultation (LCC) … I don't think that's a bad thing, that people are charging for their site visits … When I first started, I would jump at the chance to go look at somebody's project for free. 100% of my work would go to do nothing — free hours to give a fee proposal. So, don't do that. Get something put together, a package that you can sell as the first step. That's huge. And it all flows on from there because once you are the architect or the provider of the service they need, it's rare that they will sort of sack you to go find somebody else.” (22:01)

Sally predicts a bright, flourishing future

Sally Woods - Commercial Office Fitout - Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi

Sally Woods' Commercial Office Fitout. Photo by Nastuh Abootalebi.

Gone are the days of doing crappy design projects. With the additional income, Sally has been able to expand her business and hire additional staff. The program allowed her to learn the strategies and gave her scripts to use, but the real strength is the change of mindset. With weekly Q&As and listening to others, Sally learned to internalize and feel her value. Now that she feels it within herself, she can express it effectively to her ideal audience. She’s calm, confident and in control which comforts her clients.

“Yeah, and that's the real strength in the program. That mindset adjustment takes longer than implementing the program, but it's vital.” (28:05)

This success is all because Sally now realizes she has TWO jobs:

  • Marketer of design services
  • Architect

Sally Woods is this month's Sunshine Island Hero. (Headshot by Belinda Pope.)

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