How To Win Design Clients, Gain Their Trust and Do The Work You Love

Once you’ve set up your business structure, built your brand and started marketing your architecture or design business, your efforts will soon begin to net inquiries, what the marketing world calls leads. Converting those leads into projects — getting hired — is the tricky part and can be a daunting task for an architect or a designer with little experience wooing clients. 

Even though you’ve honed your design chops over time and are more than capable of doing the work, that’s only one small part of what matters to a client. Clients will be investing a significant amount of time and money in an unfamiliar black box we call the design process. So you’ll need a system for winning their trust and ultimately their projects.

Handling Leads

Let’s assume you’ve received an inquiry through your website or your Houzz profile or ad, or you’ve received a phone call or a referral from your network. Congratulations are in order. You’ve already sold a potential client on a number of things. It’s an important milestone and a marketing win.

The next step is figuring out if the lead is a qualified lead, one that’s a good fit for the work you do (or want to do). To do this you’ll most likely have an in-person meeting or interview on the project site or in your office.

Don’t wait for the interview to set things in motion. This is a chance for your brand to begin delivering on the promises it has made. When you’re just starting out, you have more time than work, so leverage that time and overdeliver on everything possible. This can be a real competitive advantage, and you’ll need every bit you can get.

You might begin by emailing the client an initial “What to Expect” document that describes how you work. You can also use this as a chance to confirm the meeting time and place and reiterate that you’re looking forward to meeting him or her and learning more about the project. Any document you send is a first chance to convey the quality and thoroughness of your projects.

Some other ways to overdeliver:

Communication. Prompt, thoughtful responses to emails and other kinds of correspondence show you’re engaged and establish a precedent for future communication based on trust. Note the pattern of response of the potential client — that will be important later, after the interview, if you’re offered the job.

Research. Do your best to understand the problem facing your client. Learn his or her profession and background, the property or structure details, the surrounding site conditions, the local codes, the permit process and other constraints. The more you can show your client you’re already thinking about the project, the higher the likelihood you’ll be remembered after the interview. Gather these supporting materials in preparation for your interview. Note whether or not the client fits into the ideal client avatar you’ve developed. This will tell you if your marketing needs tweaking.

Personalized service. Unless your brand is seeking to perpetuate a stereotypical designer personality — aloof and self-absorbed — use this as a chance to reach out and engage the client. People make decisions based on emotional connections. Forge yours early by remembering details and connecting with the person behind the project. It matters for good design, but more important, it’s part of being a good human.

NDC Homes

NDC Homes

Standard Operating Procedure

When a new lead comes in, you need a standard operating procedure (SOP) for moving forward and following up with that client. Just as your marketing framework is a work in progress, so too is the new-client SOP. The goal of the SOP is to have everything on hand so that when a new client contacts you, you’re ready to personalize, compile and send the documents critical to initiating the design process. Early on try to find out how the client was referred to you: the web, a friend, a Realtor, a contractor. Keep a spreadsheet or folder with this information in it so you can fine-tune your marketing efforts.

Take action: Develop your new-client SOPs and templates. Include at a minimum the following (branded) documents:

  • Client contact information
  • Project type, location and directions
  • Project brief and initial notes
  • Project schedule
  • Project budget
  • New client package of materials (process, fees, expectations, contract etc.)
  • References (develop but don’t send just yet)


Slade Architecture

Slade Architecture

The Interview

This is your chance to personally introduce yourself and your brand. Most clients who commit to a face-to-face interview have perused your website, have read your firm bio and are familiar with the type of work you’re capable of doing. Try not to reiterate what you’ve already said on your website. Clients are looking for a deeper connection and reasons to hire you. The interview is really a chance to accomplish three things:

Information gathering. This is a chance for you to listen to your potential client describe the design problem in his own words and for him to ask you questions. He is gathering information to make an informed decision. Your skill as an architect or designer is directly tied to how well you frame the problem. Be sure to listen to what he is saying (and not saying) and take notes. Be conversational, show genuine interest and ask (as well as answer) questions

Describe your process. This is your chance to offer the client a taste of what it will be like working with you, so make it interesting. Pull back the curtain and offer her an experience. Walk her through your design process. (This is a good way of working your portfolio into the interview without its seeming like grandstanding). Doing this educates the client on the way you work, and it removes some of the tension from the room. Talking about what you love to do should incite passion and confidence in you and (by design) the client. Most people are unfamiliar and intimidated by the process of working with an architect or a designer — this is an opportunity for you to set the client at ease.

Chemistry. Perhaps most important, the interview is a chance for both of you to gauge personal chemistry. Very few clients will hire you without feeling a personal connection to you. The interview is a chance for both parties to size each other up. You’ll be designing the places, objects, materials, fabrics and furniture that the client will interact with daily. That’s a deeply emotional process and one that can span many months or even years. You both have to be comfortable with each other.

After conducting a number of interviews, you’ll begin to see a common pattern of questions. Most of these are boilerplate and can be easily be found online, published by the American Institute of Architects, among other sources. With time and practice, you won’t even need to think about the answers to these questions, but early on be prepared to answer the dozen or so most common questions. 

Also be prepared to pivot these questions and reframe them in a way that you think matters. If your fees are higher than your competitors, be prepared to answer your client’s question about them. You might pivot it into a conversation about value by saying something like, “While our fee is higher than many in the area, our homes typically are appraised at 20 to 25 percent above standard homes at project completion.” 

Focus on the client. The overriding theme of the meeting should revolve around the client’s particular project brief and problem, and how you’re best positioned to solve that problem. People buy solutions, not egos. A potential client cares a great deal about how well suited you are to address his particular design problem and a whole lot less about lofty architectural theory.

The interview is your chance to offer your insights into his particular issue, so use this as a differentiator. Your competition may not have thought to print out a site plan or research the resource protection area the client’s property is bounded by, or thought about a view easement deed restriction or the surrounding topography. Offering these things up for discussion may be the thing that tells the client you’re the right person for the job.

SAK Designs

SAK Designs

A conversation. Many architects and designers mistakenly assume that the interview process is one-sided. The client interviews the designer, who then answers the client’s questions, leaving the client to decide whether or not to hire the designer. Not only is it a wrong assumption; it’s a missed opportunity.

If you approach the interview as a conversation, not only will it be more relaxed, but it will shift the pressure from your having to prove your skill set to a discussion of finding the best solution and fit for both you and the client. This is a substantial investment of resources for both parties. You’ll be investing time and building your brand, so make sure it’s a project that meets your design sensibilities and brand’s mission. If it doesn’t, you’ll not only be doing yourself a disservice, but you won’t be meeting the client’s objectives either.

Personalities. The interview is a time when, typically, people are on their best behavior. If you see evidence of a personality conflict in the interview, understand that it will only be amplified when the complexities of the design and construction process are made manifest. Skill at reading the “tells” in an initial client interview takes time to develop, and certainly you’ll miss some, but trust your instincts and hone this skill; it will serve you well.

Take action: Anticipate your client’s questions, concerns and insecurities; develop an interview strategy; gather client-specific interview documents (site plans etc.) Develop your own question list for your clients.

Esther Hershcovich

Esther Hershcovich

Experience vs. Ignorance

I love this quote by Richard Saul Wurman (the founder of TED), referring to Charles Eames: “Sell your expertise and you have a limited repertoire. Sell your ignorance and you have an unlimited repertoire. He was selling his ignorance and his desire to learn about a subject. The journey of not knowing to knowing was his work.”

Think of how the Eameses changed the design world. Experience wasn’t the key they used to unlock any design problem they encountered. The not knowing, their ignorance, allowed them to reframe the design challenges they were presented with and develop unique solutions. 

New firms must get comfortable with selling ignorance. You approach projects with a fresh perspective, an eagerness and a willingness to craft inventive solutions to your client’s problems. You’ll work harder to achieve results, because you have much more at stake when you’re building your reputation. Clients are savvy too; they understand this, so always be aware of your surroundings.

Experience is an issue you won’t be able to avoid. “I’m sorry, but we’ve decided to go with a firm that has more experience,” can be one of the most difficult things to hear as a professional. After all, you’ve endured years of education, a multiyear internship and the professional licensure process, and have had years of designing, drawing, detailing, project management and field experience. How much more experience was the client looking for?

Kariouk Associates

Kariouk Associates

There are two possible lessons to learn from that kind of response. First, those were clients who were never going to hire you, because they were looking for a sure bet. No amount of experience makes an architectural project without risk. Second, you didn’t convey the experience you do have confidently or convincingly.

The former is an individual client’s disposition. The latter is something you can address and work on. Practice your presentation skills every chance you get. When starting out, pursue all interview opportunities. Practice on real clients so you’ll gain experience fielding questions and listening. Learn to address specific concerns. The client wants to feel confident in your skills, to build an emotional connection and to be comfortable with you. Understanding this will allow you to deliver. 

Be yourself, be open about your process and dispense with the intimidation tactics and lofty descriptions. Instead of lecturing, use narrative and conversation. Even if you don’t win the project, you’ll have educated someone about what you do, and you’ll be a little better next time.

Getting Hired

After the interview be sure to follow up with an email on the same day. Include anything else you’ve promised (references, fee proposal etc.) or tell the client when she can expect it. If you have any unanswered questions, request answers.

I try to jot down any additional thoughts, impressions or insights from the interview when the meeting is still fresh in my mind: right after it’s over. If you’ve visited the client’s site, categorize the site photos in a folder. Personally, I take photos of my meeting notes and include them in an Evernote “Potential Client” folder for filing. Just have some means of filing the documentation you gathered. Answer any follow-up questions promptly and professionally, and be sure you understand all of the project parameters.

Ideally you’ll leave the interview with an idea of whether or not you would accept the project if offered. This is important. When you’re just getting started, it’s easy to fall into the trap of accepting every commission that comes along. Knowing when to say no is an important part of your job as CEO, perhaps the most important one. Saying no can be extremely difficult when you’re staring at empty boards and no receivables, but by declining a project that isn’t a good fit with a difficult personality, you can invest your time where it can be better used. Remember that the types of projects you take on and deliver will define your brand. You’ve put a lot of effort into creating it; you’re in charge of its stewardship. Protect it.

The offer (or not). If you’ve decided you would accept the project if offered, that’s great. It means you came away from the interview feeling like it was a good fit. Hopefully the potential client will feel the same.

Playing the waiting game is difficult. Try to solicit an idea of a client’s decision-making timeline during the interview. I recommend following up with active leads as often as you feel comfortable (don’t wait months, though). You have to strike a balance between confident and interested and desperate. Accepting work from a point of desperation is a recipe for a bad outcome for everyone involved. No matter how much you think you need a project, accepting one based solely on desperation isn’t acting responsibly, and it’s unfair to both you and the client. 

If you get an offer, congratulations! Now you have the work in front of you, and you’re ready to move on to a new set of challenges. If you don’t get an offer, try not to take it personally. If possible, solicit the client’s feedback on why she made the decision she made. The worst she can do is not answer; the best she can do is offer you more information that you can put into practice, refining your pitch and your SOP.

There will be far more jobs you don’t get than ones you do. The early interviews will seem especially precious and ego-bruising. Keep at it.

Related links:



This is a guest article by Eric Reinholdt of 30X40 Design Workshop and Houzz.

Houzz is the leading platform for home remodeling and design, providing people with everything they need to improve their homes from start to finish – online or from a mobile device. From decorating a small room to building a custom home and everything in between, Houzz connects millions of homeowners, home design enthusiasts and home improvement professionals across the country and around the world.

Eric ReinholdtComment