Coaching Call: Managing a Difficult Client

Client discussion - Image by Headway @headwayio via Unsplash

This week I had a feasibility call with a prospective client for a school project and told her about the LCC. She hardly asked any questions about the LCC and interrupted me while I was explaining, saying I can email it to her, but she wants to meet again in-person for an hour or two — maybe on site to see if we have a rapport before committing. I said we charge for site visits and she said that was okay.

However, I don’t find it useful to visit the site currently. I'd rather take her to see a previous school I've designed, but I can’t charge her for that. Ideally, she should commit to the LCC to understand our rapport. Another strange thing she said was, “Would it be fair to ask you not to take up any similar sized projects during our project so that you don't spread yourself too thin?” I said we can manage just fine as we have systems in place to deal with different projects. What should I do?

RICHARD (me):

  1. Not all clients are good clients. She may not be a fit.
  2. Be strong in the face of clients telling you how to operate. A good client complies with your system. You don't bend to theirs. You are the pro, you know how to get great results, she does not (otherwise she'd do it herself). Think like the surgeon, it's your way or not at all. This is to protect them and you.
  3. She wants to meet again in-person for an hour or two — maybe on site to see if we have a rapport before committing.” Say this: “NO. But you can come to my office and meet me for free. But that meeting will be just to understand the scope of your project, not to discuss design ideas, and to understand what you are looking to achieve. If I think I can get you the result you want, then I will let you know. We can also meet on Zoom. I do not do site visits or discuss design until we have been engaged.” (LCC)
  4. Would it be fair to ask you not to take up any similar sized projects during our project so that you don't spread yourself too thin?” Say this: “Sure, you can pay us US $10 Million to work exclusively with you for three months. Otherwise NO.”

I am guessing, and I don't know, that you are coming across as too accomodating to a client like this. Maybe other clients too. If clients sense you are weak, they will take advantage and ask ridiculous questions, like a child, to see how far they can push you. They need a stern “NO” every time they ask a stupid question. You don't need an explanation, just a direct “NO”.

Clients respect a strong architect.

If you allow yourself to be pushed around by them, then they will think everyone on a project can push you around. If you stand up to them, they will respect you, and know you are tough enough to run their project and push back with subcontractors trying to push their luck.

You won't win all deals, but the deals you do win MUST be on YOUR terms.

You can't afford to win bad projects with clients who are out of control.

If a client proves they will follow your rules and take instruction from you, they might qualify to work with you.

I KNOW this is hard advice to follow when you need to win a project. But you need this mindset even when you are desperate.

Otherwise, you will win projects that are not worth winning with clients who are not worth working with.

Be strong. Know your process, rules and standards and stick to them.

ARCHITECT:

Thank you so much, Richard! This should be a post on a blog for architects starting out on their own, it needs more readership and everyone who's starting out (and are usually in a place of desperation) needs to adopt this process. I will stand my ground. With this prospective client, I have been more confident than with previous ones when I used to be very accommodating. I'll instruct her as an authoritative expert next time she contacts me.

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Please go ahead and share it. I hope it's useful to others.

Watch this interview

Get focused. You’ve got to know who you’re after and learn to say no to who is not a good match for your firm. Watch my interview with Sally Woods, our Sunshine Island Hero, “How Assertive Architect Sally Woods Learned to Say No.” Like and subscribe to our YouTube channel to stay up to date.

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