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How to Lose a Client Three Different Ways

While you’re out pursuing new clients, your competitors are courting your old ones.

There’s a compelling business case for retaining your existing clients.  If you can cut your client attrition rate in half, it has the same effect as increasing your sales by the same percentage. And re-activating a lost client relationship is much more cost effective than cultivating a new one.

Want to know the top three reasons why you are losing clients? Interested in learning how you can get them to return?

Check out a helpful article on the subject written for the American Institute of Architects. You can access it for free without having to log in: Three Reasons Why Clients Leave You … And How to Win Them Back.

Start Speaking Your Clients’ Language

Working with bottom-line-oriented clients, I coined the phrase “Return on WOW” to illustrate the impact that an architect’s or designer’s work can have on the performance of a property.

I was asked to speak on this topic at KA Connect, and if you have 19 minutes to watch the video, you will find ideas that you can put into play in your own practice. The talk is titled, “Correlating Design and the Bottom Line.”

You’ll learn how to go from platitude to proof when it comes to making claims about “adding value” — along with how to differentiate yourself from your competitors, and how to succeed by helping your clients succeed.

Going beyond design, the concept works for any professional services. For example, I like the term that Nanci Sherman has trademarked: ROWM — Return on What Matters. Nanci is a consultant to the hospitality industry. Don’t be misled by her clever title (Chief Inspiration Officer); she has found a way to help her hotel clients transform ordinary processes into extraordinary experiences … and, in doing so, optimize their profit. In fact, on her website, you can find ROI mentioned in each of her first three paragraphs.

Drawing a correlation between the softer side of what you do and the harder numbers associated with performance can benefit you, your staff, and your clients.

Great Advice … Directly From Your Clients

Following a workshop on branding that I conducted recently as part of an executive education course at USC, a panel of clients shared their insights. They were refreshingly candid.

In their own words, four private-sector clients who hire architects, engineers and designers for multiple projects every year offered their perspectives on how to win business. The panel included:

  • Joseph DeTuno, CEO, DeTuno Development
  • Bea Hsu, Vice President of Development, Related California
  • Jon Soffa, Executive Director of Planning and Design, University of Southern California
  • Zeke Triana, Director of Facilities Planning, Design and Construction, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center

I offer you their comments verbatim, grouped by subject. The common themes that emerged from their responses include some valuable lessons for those involved in marketing and business development.

How do firms get their first job with these clients?

“Contact us before we have a selection process underway.”

“Know enough about us to be able to demonstrate some tool, methodology, or approach that can help solve our problems.”

“When we meet, we’ll be trying to gauge what it will be like to work with you.”

“We’re most likely to give new firms a chance on low-risk projects — a feasibility study, a renovation job, etc. If it goes well, you’ll get another shot.”

“If we have a job coming up and it’s not right for you, you’ll win more points by telling us so than by pursuing something that is beyond your capability or capacity.”

How critical is past experience?

“I hate to break it to you, but most clients aren’t interested in what you’ve done for others. I want to know what you’ll do for me.”

“Just because you’ve done a lot projects in my building type, don’t think that will impress me. I want to know how you will approach my project.”

“Show me two relevant projects instead of 22. And tell me why they are relevant to me.”

“If your past experience is with our company, don’t take the relationship for granted. Recently, an incumbent firm seemed rather robotic in their presentation. In contrast, a shortlisted firm with whom we had never worked, had their entire staff visit our facility and interview our staff, and then they shared their observations and recommendations with us. That was very impressive. It said a lot about their interest and enthusiasm.”

What else matters when it comes to the presentation stage?

“I don’t want to see design solutions in an interview. I want you to listen.”

“We want to understand how you think, how you present your ideas.”

“Come with smart questions. Show your knowledge of our site and its context. “

“Imagine that the presentation is your kick-off meeting. Don’t talk about yourself. Demonstrate how you will approach our project.”

“We want to see people who can articulate and communicate a vision. Bring your A-team and your A-game.”

 How important are design awards?

“Most firms we’ve used have won design awards, so it’s not a differentiator.”

“I’m more interested in how you helped clients achieve their goals.”

“Client references are more valuable: How easy were you to work with? Did you meet deadlines and budgets? Would the client work with you again?” 

What role does price play?

“Fees don’t vary that much from firm to firm; therefore, they’re not that critical.”

“We don’t always select the firm with the lowest fee, but it’s hard to justify selecting someone whose fee is two or three times higher than the others.”

“Don’t play the game of low-balling a fee to get the job and then hitting us with additional services again and again. If your fee becomes unreasonable, we won’t work with you again.”

“A fee that’s too low can be as bad as one that’s too high. It raises a concern about whether you really understand the scope.”

“We’re looking for value. And, at the same time, we want you to be able to make a profit.”

What role do advertising, PR and social media play?

“I’m not on Facebook; I delete invitations to join LinkedIn; just call me instead.”

“I’ve sought out designers whose work I’ve seen published in order to meet them.”

“Blogs and articles are more effective than paid ads.”

“Most architects and designers are better at marketing to other architects and designers than to clients. We don’t read the same publications that you do.”


While every client is different, there are some universal truths represented by the insights and opinions shared by these four individuals. But don’t stop here.* Ask your own prospective clients to answer these questions. You’ll not only come away with valuable information; you’ll also demonstrate your interest in their issues and endear yourself to them in the process.

* Attend the USC XED Marketing Methods class next summer not only to gain great insights but also to meet some impressive people.

How to Ask For—And Get—What You Want

You can learn a lot about asking for what you want from people who’ve made you reach for your wallet. Such was the case for me in San Francisco, as I succumbed to two pleas from panhandlers, even after ignoring dozens of others. What was it about these pitches that was so effective?

In short, they were masterful storytellers.

Knowing how to tell a story can be an effective way to evoke empathy and to get what you want. First, grab their attention. Then, give them a reason to care. And, finally, get them to take action.

What are the implications for you in your business? Here are a couple of situations where you can put this advice to work:

When interviewing for a new project, don’t forget to say what this opportunity means to you … and ask for the job. Clients have told me they select individuals who are not only qualified but also authentic, enthusiastic, and relatable—all qualities of a good storyteller. And similarly, when you need to ask clients to pay up or to pay more, they are much more likely to say yes when you give them a reason, describe the situation personally, and make a specific request … just as successful panhandlers do.

Craft a compelling story and tell it well. As the storyteller, be bold, be different, but be yourself. Know that the power of your words can make a remarkable difference, as illustrated in this impactful 100-second video.


Re:Designing Your Website — What You Need to Know

Invited to Denver to be a juror for the 35th annual SMPS National Marketing Communications Awards, I reviewed 19 of the best websites in the industry. Here’s what impressed me and where even the best of the best are missing the boat.

We’ve come a long way, but …

Firms are getting better at tracking traffic, but are they measuring the right thing? Using Google Analytics, you now have access to a range of metrics like how many unique visitors you are getting, how long they spend on your site, and what pages they are viewing. But is that what your CEO cares about? Most firms fall way short of quantifying the business value of their website. How many leads is it generating? How many new clients is it capturing? How many new employees is it attracting?

Companies have moved on from static sites that serve essentially as on-line brochures. Most understand that the medium can be interactive; there is an opportunity for two-way communication. Many are now embracing social media, including videos, and creating fresh content via blogs. But having five-month gaps between blog entries suggests that you don’t have a lot to share that’s of value.

One firm boasts about being a thought leader and offers a downloadable white paper.  Good start. But it’s hard to be considered a thought leader if you just have one thought.

Leading-edge firms are winning points for creativity in web design, but beware. What some viewers find clever others find annoying. Being different for the sake of being different doesn’t help your case. If the site is not intuitive to navigate, if visitors are confused or frustrated, they will leave and they won’t come back.

Content is king. A clean layout and pretty pictures are critical, but if people are coming for information, the writing has to be compelling, as well. Most of what I read on websites is either too long, too skimpy, too generic, too dense, or too boring. And what a shame it is when the writing is strong but nobody knows it, because the text is illegible due to poor choices of fonts, backgrounds and/or type sizes.

Some helpful advice

Establish your objectives and define your audience. Everyone wants to reach potential clients. But don’t forget about existing clients, business partners, influencers, past and prospective employees, journalists, bloggers, and anyone else who can help you build your business.

Determine what your audiences want to know. Make it easy for them to find it. And let them know “You are here,” so they can navigate easily to wherever else they want to go.

Be yourself. Everybody starts the process of web re-design by looking at competitors’ sites. Consequently, many sites look the same, and clients can’t distinguish one firm from the next. Instead of copying others, find your own voice and reveal your company’s distinctive personality. Don’t just list your office locations, illustrate what the environment and culture are like.

Showcase your people as well as your projects. Everyone says, “Our people are our most valuable asset.” Sure they are. Now show us why we would want to work with them. Shoot real people in real settings. Avoid the stock photography images of posers around a table, someone pointing to a drawing, or a close-up of a handshake — all cliches.

Make it easy to do business with you. Easy to contact you. Easy to find your office. Easy to know what role you played on a particular project. Easy to apply for a job with your company.

Offer something of value. Engage visitors with interesting content. Share useful and helpful information. Give them a reason to come back.

Optimize for mobile devices. No longer can you expect that your site will be viewed on a computer in an office. Your site now has to work on tablets and phones. Increasingly, that will mean creating a separate mobile version of your site that downloads quickly and is sized correctly not only for viewing but also for fingers.

According to a survey of 500 professional service firms, 46% have redesigned their websites within the last year. And, according to Hinge Research Institute, 66% of firms plan to increase investment in their website — and online marketing — in the next 12 months. Get it right. Follow the advice above to make sure your money is well spent.

Howard Wolff
Most Senior Person
Full-Height Advice
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Advanced Marketing for Design Firms