Tags: business
Episode 048

Identifying and Communicating Your Value as an Architect with

Enoch SearsMar 3, 2014

Are you being compensated fairly for the enormous value you bring to the table as an architect? Do your clients clearly recognize your value? Can they articulate it? Can YOU articulate it?

Often there is a misalignment between the perception of architects and their clients. In this video Bob Fisher and Enoch Sears, AIA discuss a few examples of how architects can identify and clearly communicate value to prospective and current clients.

Here are some additional topics we discuss:

  • Uncovering a client's hidden needs
  • How to strengthen client relationships by adding value
  • The simple tool one firm used to wow their educational client
  • Connect with Bob Fisher by visiting GreenwayGroup.US, follow him on Twitter here, or connect with him on LinkedIn.

Show Notes

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Interview Transcript and Members Only Resources:

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Enoch: Wait, what episode is this? Oh yeah, 48. Let's do this!

Voiceover: This is The Business of Architecture – helping architects conquer the world! And here's your host, Enoch Sears!

Enoch: Hello. Welcome back, Architect Nation.

This is Enoch Bartlett Sears and I am your host here on the Business of Architecture show where we talk about running a better business so you can focus your energies on creating great design and not having to worry about where the next client is going to come from or how you’re going to end up paying the bills.

And, on the note of paying the bills, a great way to start is to have a solid business plan. If you are a business owner or thinking about going out on your own, I have a question for you, do you have a business plan for your business? Well, The Architect Business Plan Competition is intended to foster a dialog about the importance of entrepreneurship to the future of the architecture profession. The competition is open to registered architects in the U.S. or Canada who have considered starting a design firm or who have operating a design firm for five years or less. There's no fee to enter, and the deadline is March 28. So to find out more, head on over to ArchitectBusinessPlanCompetition.com or BusinessofArchitecture.com/plan. And for those who decide to enter this and want to have a go at created an architect business plan, I highly encourage it because there will be some free group coaching that will help you get your business plan written and edited. So if you've been thinking about doing it, now is the time, go through it with a group of people, get it done, go over and check out ArchitectBusinessPlanCompetition.com or BusinessofArchitecture.com/plan.

Oh yeah – one more thing. There will a $10,000 first prize, and a $2,500 second prize, and I know that there isn't a lot of entrants at the moment, so you have a pretty good chance of walking away with a $10,000 check to help you start or improve your business. So once again, go check it out, and let me know what you think.

Today, we have our second half of our conversation with Bob Fisher. He’s a Principal at the Greenway Group – a strategic marketing management consultation firm. Bob is also the associate publisher of DesignIntelligence which is a publication that sends out…

You have a number of things, Bob, and you can probably explain it better than I can. So, can you tell us a little bit about your organization and your positions?

Bob: Sure. So, the people that saw the earlier part, this will be a bit of a repeat. But, there are really three components to our organization. The first is called Greenway Group. We’re a Management Consulting firm that specializes in working with design-based companies specially firms that design for the built environment.

We provide a whole comprehensive set of services there. It could be helping with ownership transition. It could be leadership identification and development. It could be helping firms develop a better financial model. It could be developing, sort of, a firm-wide marketing strategy. It can be helping set up a business development program. It really depends on what our clients need.

The second component of what we do is a think-tank called the Design Futures Council. That’s a multi-disciplinary think-tank that’s made up of leaders in the profession who get together periodically throughout the year to figure out how the business environment is changing for built environment design professionals, and how all of the members in that organization can go back to their firms and better navigate that changing environment in order to thrive.

The third part of our business is called DesignIntelligence. That’s the thought leadership and research component to what we do. It’s really the journal of the Design Futures Council. A lot of the thought leadership is contributed from there or research ideas. A lot of the information comes from members of the Design Futures Council. All of those help to reinforce what it is that we can offer firms that we consult with.

Enoch: You say that as part of the Design Futures Council, it’s multi-disciplinary as you said, and you’re discussing the future of the industry and how the business landscape is changing.

Bob: Right.

Enoch: What are you seeing in terms of changes?

Bob: There are a lot of changes. The general areas of change are not probably going to be much a surprise to your audience, but one of the big drivers of change is technology throughout the whole design and delivery process. One of the biggest things that we’re changing is what our managing delivery process is for architecture projects.

So, we’re seeing those kinds of changes. Things are speeding up. It’s absolutely necessary for all the parties to be at the table earlier, to cooperate sooner. We’re starting to see, let’s say, general contractors are starting to offer more design services and they are changing their models that way.

There are a lot of changes going on out there. The software that’s used to design and the software that’s used to communicate is all a big challenge for firms – adopting that kind of stuff, keeping up on their expertise, and the financial investment, all of it. So, there’s a lot going on.

The other thing that we’re seeing is we’re seeing a lot more savvy clients, which is really good if you’re talking about something like sustainability. Our clients report that the clients they’re designing for are much more attuned to issues of sustainability, and they’re much more demanding about that.

They’re demanding that their projects perform better. They’re demanding less waste in the delivery process and the construction process. All that, ultimately, is a challenge in the short term, but really good news for a lot of firms who share that passion for protecting the environment and practicing sustainable design.

Enoch: Absolutely. I mean, I’m excited about it.

Bob: Oh, yeah. That’s good.

Enoch: So, last episode we took a hypothetical situation and we said if we have this practitioner or group of practitioners who want to start a firm, sort of, the initial process they go through. We really honed in on just trying to fill a need in the market. So a market-based approach as opposed to “This are my skills. I’m going to go out there and see if I can find a market for my skills.”

Bob: Right.

Enoch: So, in this episode we’ll talk about going in to a little bit of the value and the communicating of that value.

Now, Bob, you said something, I’d just like to quote you here, and you can correct me if my quote is a little bit off, but basically you said that “Architects, in general, are not aware of their value.”

Bob: Sure. Yeah.

Enoch: Could you expound on that?

Bob: Yeah, absolutely. Again, my view is just my view from what I see. So much of the way that architects are trained and so much of the way that many architects look at the world is really focused on their output. It’s really focused on the designed environment or the designed object.

Think about critiques and how that experience was all the way through to your training. It’s very output-focused as opposed to outcome-focused, which has more to do with the way that a building or an interior space has an effect on the owners and the users of that space.

So, when an architect designs something, it’s built. Then, it starts to deliver value over the entire useful lifetime of that building. So, a well-designed building, a well-designed space is going to have a positive impact on numerous levels for client organization, or in the case of a residential, the person or the family that lives there.

A lot of times, when we try to talk to architects about what effect they know that their design work has on the users of the space, they kind of come up short on their answers. My concern is or my hope is, really, is that they come to know the extent of their contribution so that they can start to build a value proposition for their firm around that.

Enoch: When you say that they come up short on their answer, could you give me an example of that to help me understand it?

Bob: Okay. So, I was having a conversation the other day with a solo-practitioner who is looking to grow his business. He’s been in practice as a solo-practitioner and had a few staff members for a while before the economic down turn for probably a dozen years now.

When I started to ask him about: What is it about what you do that makes you the obvious choice for a client that’s considering you versus somebody who you compete with? He talked a lot about, basically, architectural features. Aspects of his architectural design work that he felt made it superior to what other people could do, which is great if you’re talking to another architect who speaks that language or if you’re talking to one of the very rare savvy clients that speaks the language of design.

What came through in that conversation to me was that there was this whole dimension of positive impact and value that he was delivering to his clients who are residential clients that he was not able to articulate.

Really, if you think about being in the position of someone who’s going to hire an architect… If you do happen to be one of the very small percentage of clients who is savvy about architecture and has the ability to see great design as opposed to merely good design, you’re going to be a very rewarding client for an architect to have and things are probably going to go fantastic. But, most of the time, you’re thinking about whatever your need is that you’re trying to fill – whether it’s a home for your family or whether it’s an environment for your retail operation that reflects your brand and helps move your product, or whether you’re looking for the design of a hospital that is going to improve patient outcomes.

If you’re designing hospitals, your focus should really be how this built environment is helping to improve patient outcomes because that’s the bottom line for people who are running those kind of operations. They want to help people get better. They want their positions and other healthcare staff to be able to work more efficiently, to serve more patients, to be able to increase the amount of healing that they can do.

There are many architects out there – I don’t mean to portray this that architects don’t have a sense of this, because there are many smart practitioners and firms who really do design for the ultimate effect of what they’re designing, what they’re producing – but there are still quite a few people out there who don’t understand just how much value they’re actually delivering. They’re not able to articulate that and sadly, they’re not able to charge for it because they’re not fully aware of it, they can’t make the client fully aware of it. Therefore, the client is making their decision on fees based on an incomplete set of criteria.

Enoch: Okay. Tell me how would an architect, let’s talk just about a solo-practitioner, how would they identify they value? How would you suggest they go about turning that in to the communication strategy? Expound that for me.

Bob: Okay. If you are user-centered in your design work and if you are designing… Let’s take – did you say you wanted to use a residential architect as an example?

Enoch: That’s a great example. Sure, let’s go with that.

Bob: Okay. So, we’re looking at residential. If you are designing, your primary focus is what the experience going to be like being in this space for the people who are going to spend the most amount of time there – the owners, the people who occupy it, their guests, that kind of thing. That already puts you in the right kind of mindset to really deeply empathize with the users of the space and understand what their needs are, and to create something that fills those needs.

If somebody is really adept at this, they can work not just with needs that the client can articulate, but also with needs that the client might have but not fully be aware of. The designer should be able to bring expertise to the table that, kind of, opens up the client’s eyes to new possibilities that the client wasn’t aware of.

Kind of a side story to this: The world of Industrial Design and Product Development is really leading, in a lot of ways, on the whole field of design research. So, what you get in a lot of these types of firms, and what you get in a lot of these companies that produce these products is they have interactive experiences that they can take people through that help elicit what the core needs are in the target market so that they can go back and design things in a way that serves that need.

The old example that I’ve heard others use is the minivan. Nobody knew they needed a minivan until a minivan was there. But, somebody went to that target market and somebody found out what the unmet needs were. They probably took members of that target market through a process that gave them that kind of insight, and then was able to create a product that filled that need. It’s really no different or it’s very similar and architects can borrow the model.

Enoch: How would that apply to a smaller practitioner that might not have the resources of larger firms to be able to do this sort of in depth research projects or can they do them?

Bob: I think they absolutely can do them. The thing is they should also be compensated for doing them because helping to identify these needs is going to give the client, give the end user something that’s far more useful and continues to deliver far more value all through the life of that building.

So, the first thing that people should look to do is insist on and make part of the design process the right kind of engagement with the client up front so you’re getting the kind of information that you need in order to create the right design that’s going to perform at all the right levels for the client.

Some firms that we’re aware of, and some of these happen to be larger firms, but there’s no reason why smaller firms couldn’t do it too if they’re properly compensated for it.

In healthcare, as an example, where we have a firm that actually puts its architects through a, kind of, I guess you would call it mock experiences or play experiences where they will actually go in and play the role of the patient and be ushered through an emergency room, and how people are checked in to the emergency room. They get to see the world from the eyes of the patient. That informs their design work when they later go in to design a clinic or an emergency room, or what have you because they understand what this key group of users is all about.

There’s a lot of research being done out there in human tractors on how the medical staff move in interior spaces and how things should be laid out. If you’ve got somebody who understands how those two things work together, they’re automatically going to be making something that’s far more useful and far more valuable to their healthcare client.

The next most powerful thing that they need to be able to do is when they understand that value and they understand how to uncover it, and they work that in to their process, and they understand how to charge for that is how to articulate it through their marketing so that people go in to a relationship with them understanding the true depth and breadth of what it is that they offer and they’re willing to pay for it.

Enoch: Okay. Let’s talk about another example. Let’s say there’s a firm doing work for a school district.

Bob: Sure.

Enoch: I know that it sounds like what we’re talking about here is a little bit like programming but a little bit more in depth. I know that in a typical process, there’s outreach where the architecture firm will meet with the administration, they’ll meet with the teachers, representatives, and they’ll meet with the students. Then, they’ll try to get a consensus of different stake holders, how they want the project the go. I think most, nowadays, it’s typical in terms of the programming and part of it.

With the knowledge you have how would you go through that process and say, “Hey, listen, we can tweak this, and we can add this. This is what it really needs to look like, and here are ways we can approve that process to make it more effective?

Bob: Well, one of the key things there is… I mean, it is an essential component of programming to go in there and talk to the people who are users and try to get an idea of what it is that they need in that way. But, again, you run up against this limitation which is not everybody knows what they’re going to need or they won’t be able to articulate it to you. There’s also a question of innovation, right?

People who are using a space, teachers in a classroom or what have you, may have some ideas of how they would innovate their physical space. They may have needs that could be met in some way that hasn’t yet been envisioned, but they’re not able to articulate what those needs are. So, again, the product faults have developed methodologies that go under this umbrella of design research to help uncover these unspoken or unarticulated needs that you combine with what you learn through traditional programming to come up with more innovative solutions.

Enoch: Okay. So, how could a firm that’s doing school work, how could they apply this in their interaction with their clients. Like you said, for the healthcare you gave me an example. Let’s move it over to…

Bob: Okay, so two examples:

One would be immersion. Talking to people is one thing, but you’ve got this very mediated version of what the need is and what the experience is.

What about direct observation? Borrow from ethnography and some of their immersive methods of getting in to a culture and understanding that culture. The same thing can be done with design clients. The more that a designer understands in a hands-on way, in an experiential way, what the experience is of the users, the more that that designer is going to be able to understand on a very deep level what it is that people need and how they need that space/that building to perform.

Enoch: Excellent. I love it.

Bob: Another interesting thing, we we’re talking about value earlier.

There’s a firm that we know of that practices in the mid-west. One of their specialty practice areas is in education. One of the services that they offer is actually helping school districts to do the research necessary to get funding passed because a lot of their clients are public school systems who have to fund certain projects through bonds or whatever else levees.

This architecture practice actually has some really savvy tools and services to help support school districts in that effort like researching the constituencies, and sort of building a strategy for how to fund this. In my own experience working as the Director of Communications in a private school, and we were in the midst of trying to raise $35 to $40 million to do the largest capital improvements in the school’s 100+ year history…

We were working with a firm that did fantastic design. They were very thorough about the research that they did and all that, which actually gave them a leg up. They were hired to do the research and benchmarking first, and they had a proprietary system for doing that. They were hired as part of separate engagement. That also gave them a real advantage when it came time to look at who is going to be the lead architect on all of the different buildings that had been identified.

Well, if I have one piece of advice for this firm, it would have been this: as the Director of Communications who was on the core part of the team that was trying to put the communications together to convince donors to donate this $35 million, there was a lot more that that firm could have done to support us.

When they were thinking about putting this together, understandably they weren’t thinking about how this was going to be funded. Those of us on the client side were really focused on how it was going to be funded because that was really the first step for us. Really, it’s great to have all this wonderful schematic designs, but if we don’t find people who are really passionate about backing the mission of the school and what that campus master plan is, we’re not going to build anything.

So, I can envision a scenario where that firm that was so smart in the way that they developed the programming could then have offered and been compensated for the kind of support services that we would have needed in order to successfully raise that money. Because one of the things that I saw in donors that was really remarkable to me was how excited people were when they saw drawings. Fly-through and highly technical things were fantastic, and these have a persuasive power as well, but there was really nothing that got people inspired about the future vision for the school like drawings. We use them as essential props in all of our communications with potential donors.

I can envision a whole suite of services that a firm would offer in that way, and they wouldn’t have to be a huge firm to do it. They really just need to understand what we as clients, what we as owners, were up against, what our priorities were, and design a suite of services to help support us achieve our priorities so that we can help them do fantastic work and everybody wins.

Enoch: What kind of drawings?

Bob: What kind of drawings?

Enoch: Yeah.

Bob: Just conceptual drawings.

Enoch: Okay.

Bob: The more that they look hand-drawn, the better. I mean, it was really quite remarkable. What it did was, in the early stages, when we were trying to develop a vision in the donors’ minds for what the possibilities could be for that school, drawings were some of the most appropriate vehicles because they allowed people to use their own imagination in that vision.

It wasn’t something that felt like it was already solid and it was already done. A lot of times when you have donors, they’re also the kind of people that can provide valuable strategic advice on a variety of different levels. So, when you go to them and you’re trying to jointly form a vision with them of what the future of the school can be, something that feels very open ended like a drawing can be a very persuasive tool.

That said, one of the things we also did is we put together a really slick video that had all kinds of fly-through and things, and it was very polished. That also had a persuasive power on its own. Interestingly, we had to produce that on our own. We had to actually mobilize our own resources to do that and at some cost that went to another type of firm because that wasn’t one of the things that the architecture firm envisioned as part of its role.

That, to me, is a missed opportunity. I mean, I don’t want to say anything negative about this firm, they did fantastic work.

Enoch: Sure.

Bob: Just that all of these opportunities that came to my mind where they could have helped us and it would have been worth us paying them, and we ultimately wound up paying other people. That’s another thing that people might want to think or that’s another reason to look in to really starting with your owners and starting with your users, starting with what the core needs are whether they’re articulated or not. That comes from a deep and empathetic understanding of the clients and of the owners, and building out what your offering is from there because there may be tremendous opportunity in offering a complimentary suite of services in addition to tradition architecture and design.

Enoch: Interesting. So, we’re talking about different profit centers. I find that fascinating. McDonald’s comes to mind. Hate or love their food, but in terms of pure marketing and pure business efficiency, they have it mastered. I’m just thinking that, you know, when they go in there, you have the Happy Meals and they’re promoting movies, but what does watching a movie have to do with eating a hamburger? So, it seems like they’ve been able to apply that and said, “Okay, we have a captive audience here, what are some additional services that we can offer them to…?”

Bob: Let’s not forget real estate. Because they are a very large real estate holder, and that’s a significant source of their wealth as a company and they’re very savvy about how they do it.

When I was in the entertainment industry – you know, I worked for Cartoon Network – we had a variety of different streams of income. One of the first ones was, we’re a cable channel, so the more cable systems that carried us and paid to carry us – that was one major source of revenue. Advertising is another major source of revenue. The better your shows do, the more you’re carried by multiple cable systems, the more you can charge for advertising. Then, there was the whole consumer products area.

So, if we had a smash hit show – like when I was there Powerpuff Girls was the big thing. It’s a $500 million consumer products property. We had all kinds of licenses that were out there paying us a licensing fee in order to produce a product that was branded with Powerpuff Girls. Then, you get in to all kinds of other sponsorships and promotional things. Other businesses do it all the time.

With the changes in traditional architecture practice… Architecture practices always had multiple, not necessarily streams of income because they come from one place but they’re charging for different things. Technology is one driver of change in what it is that architecture firms can charge for, but it also opens up all kinds of opportunities for alternative and complimentary services that firms or practitioners can offer, and that’s opportunity.

Enoch: Well, I think that it’s been a great episode, Bob. Speaking about, just to end on a note of the additional services, or shall we say the additional profit centers you said when you were in that position as the owner, you imagined, “Oh, here’s a slew of things that you could have thought of that this architecture firm could have included and could have added additional value.”

Bob: Right.

Enoch: Can you just throw some of these out there? Just to get our minds out of our little box.

Bob: Sure. Alright. So, remember, I was working for a school. So, it had Grade 7 to 12. We were in the midst of… We weren’t going to increase our enrollment but we were building new buildings to refurbish the campus which was going to add to the value that we could offer the students.

So, one of the things that the firm did absolutely right is they had developed proprietary benchmarks because they work with a lot of different independent schools, and they were able to come in and tell us what we needed. They were able o actually help us know what we needed.

We knew we needed certain things like faculty office space. That was a no-brainer, but when you’ve got these complex decisions to make as an owner like where are we going to put our resources, they had a way that they could look at all of the different programs on campus and measure our space allocation against comparable schools, comparable institutions and give us an idea of where we fell compared to other options that were out there for parents who were looking for an education for their kids.

So, that was fantastic, right? That actually, I think, again, I suspect that they don’t know how important that was to us and how valuable that was to us because that benchmarking that they provided us enabled us to go to donors and start to demonstrate a need. You know, “Hey, we’ve got a great school. We’re giving a great education, but take a look at how our built environment, how our physical compares to peer institutions. Here are some places where we really need to make some changes. Do you agree that there’s…”

The first step is, of course, getting somebody to support a capital effort is to get them to agree that there’s an issue. This firm was able to give us a fantastic way to do that. So, that’s one.

It’s an extension of traditional programming. I can see opportunities where they could have done that in different ways that might have uncovered other needs that we weren’t able to articulate. Some of those methods that we talked about earlier whether they’re immersion type things or taking people through experience, exercises to try to get out what are these unarticulated needs are. There’s additional opportunity there.

So, another is think about how your owners have to fund this. Now, residential is one thing, but if you’re looking at institutional, and if you’re looking at doing something for non-profits, well, they’ve got to raise the funds to do this through donation.

Architects are the ones who make the vision real. They make it tangible. So, we, as an institution, might have had some goals that we wanted to get to, but there was really incredible power in being able to show somebody in a concrete way what that vision looked like. We could tell our story, but they helped us show our story.

The opportunity there is if they understood that it was one of our top core needs is to fund these projects, there are a whole bunch of stuff that they could have done to help us build an even more compelling vision of what that school and what that campus could be that we could then take the donors and have them get excited about that vision and have them be willing to support it. So, those are a couple of ideas.

Again, the main thing is understanding what the priorities of the owners are and the users, and what the experience of the user of the space is going to be in a way that maybe goes a little bit deeper than traditional programming.

Enoch: Excellent.

Bob: Yeah.

Enoch: That’s an excellent place to leave the interview.

Bob: Great.

Enoch: Bob, how would people get a hold of you if they want to reach out to you, or connect with you, or find out more about Greenway Group and about DesignIntelligence?

Bob: Sure. Well, the online home for DesignIntelligence is DI.net. Again, we’ve got a free newsletter called Design Intelligence Update that people can subscribe to just by dropping us their email address. Greenway Group is at Greenway.us. My direct email, if anybody’s interested is at Bfisher(at)Greenway.us.

Enoch: Excellent. Well, thank you, Bob. It’s been great having you on the show.

Bob: Appreciate it very much. It’s been a pleasure.


Enoch: And that's a wrap. Thanks for riding along on another show about the Business of Architecture. I want to know your opinion about today's episode, visit BusinessofArchitecture.com/podcast or send me an email at show(at)businessofarchitecture.com with your feedback about today's show. And remember, visit BusinessofArchitecture.com/free to grab your free membership pass to Business of Architecture Insider where you'll have first access to free resources to help you run a great business. See ya next week.


The views expressed by my guest on this show do not represent those of the host, and I make no representation, promise, guarantee, pledge, warranty, contract, bond or commitment, except to help you run a great business. Bump music credit to Ben Folds Five, “Do It Anyway”.


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Enoch Bartlett Sears is the founder of the Architect Business Institute, Business of Architecture and co-founder of the Architect Marketing Institute. He helps architects become category leaders in their market. Enoch hosts the #1 rated interview podcast for architects, the Business of Architecture Show where prominent guests like M. Arthur Gensler, Jr. and Thom Mayne share tips and strategies for success in architecture.


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