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Architecture, Client Engagement, Public speaking, Winning New Business

Client Engagement for Architects – Don’t take “Yes” for an answer

If you are an architect the hardest thing you do is create beautiful, inspiring buildings that  allow people to do what they want to do as easily as possible. That’s hard, and it’s why you spend so much of your career learning.

In my world, which is helping architects sell new projects, the hardest thing you do is listen to your clients say “yes”.

It’s taken quite a while to come to that conclusion, or at least express it simply.

Some context. We work a great deal in pitching new projects. If you to see some specific advice on what we have learned look here, here, here, here, and here.

We have worked on many PFI (Private Finance Initiative) schemes. These take 6 months to 2 years to negotiate and are the ultimate example of competitive dialogue. For those who have never experienced it, it involves developing designs to a very high level of complexity while knowing these may never be built, if you are unsuccessful.

Excluding the obvious, like value for money, the bid is usually won and lost in those meetings. But, at the end of the process it is usual that neither side knows if they have won or lost with any degree of certainty.  For the clients team not giving away some of your opinions is a vital skill.

And I don’t think this situation only applies to competitive dialogue. It seems a core characteristic of humans that we like to retain stuff. We like secrets. We don’t want people to know everything there is to know. We like some cards to play close to our chests.

So if you find yourself in a design meeting and the client says “No”. you should be pleased. No is easy.

One of our catchphrases is, “Leave your ego outside”. So when the client says they hate something you love and spent days on, you say, “That’s great. Thanks for that. You’ve been very clear.”

Or you can storm out and throw the model in the bin like someone we know….

So “No” while painful, at least moves you forward.

What is dangerous is “Yes”.

“Do you like the design?”


Brilliant, fantastic, they love it! Let’s rush back to the office and put in another 1000 hours of work. This is going to be great!

Now we as humans have a bunch of ingrained biases, that can lead us astray. Look here.

We are optimistic. We think more of ourselves than others. And we really want to be admired. So when people say nice things we tend to believe them. Who wouldn’t?

But imagine a follow-up question.

“Do you like the design?”


“Is there any part where you feel we can do better?”

“Yes. I think the look, while I like it, is a bit brutal. The interiors seem much more cramped than I hoped. Several key functions seem to have ended up down long corridors and it has less window glass than the building we’re in now.”

“So you hate it?”

“No. I just think it could be better.”

Now I’m sure you are all thinking you do that already. You are geniuses in asking open questions and appreciative enquiry, and all that.

So answer this question.

How is it possible to get to the end of a bidding process and not know that the client liked the other design much more? Because that happens. Quite a lot.

As I said at the beginning, in engagement, dealing with “Yes” is the hardest thing you do. Because it’s exactly what you wan to hear. But our advice is ask, “Yes, but……”

Please leave a comment if you think I wrong, or if you think I’m right.

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About gristpresent

Presentation, Q&A and Engagement Coach. We help you win more business. Also BAFTA-winning film maker. See our new site www.grist.co.uk


One thought on “Client Engagement for Architects – Don’t take “Yes” for an answer

  1. Woops. I liked my own post. That, I assure you, was an error….

    Posted by gristpresent | May 24, 2012, 8:10 pm

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