Free Advice: Business Development

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.

What Clients Don’t Want

At the request of Boutique Design magazine, I managed to get the attention of some ultra-busy clients — reaching them on four different continents — and asked them how they want to be marketed to by design firms.  I learned as much about what they don’t want.

The revealing responses came from these four hospitality industry luminaries:

  • Dana Kalczak, Vice President, Design, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
  • Mike Paneri, Senior Vice President – Hotel Development, Viceroy Hotel Group
  • Carl Kernodle, Vice President, Development Asset Management, Hyatt Hotels Corporation
  • Larry Traxler, Senior Vice President, Global Design, Hilton Worldwide

Their responses to my questions are quoted verbatim, but I chose to protect them a bit by not revealing who said what.

HW: How are design firms breaking through the clutter and getting your attention?

“Great work, creative intensity, and strong design communication skills always speak louder than words, sales calls, and lunch meetings. Just show me how you have created great design despite today’s challenging financial situations­.”

“Your website is the first place I go when researching a design firm. It’s your primary means of communicating your credentials, your experience, and your design style. I hate seeing renderings. Anyone can have a beautiful drawing done. If it has been built, show me the real thing. And let me know what your role was on the project. I also want to see bios.”

“I’ll admit I’m influenced by pretty pictures. Get your work properly photographed and published. If I see images I like on your website, I may ask you to send printed materials of the project. But, ironically, in the case of many firms, their websites are more out-of-date than their brochures are.”

“When I like what I see, I arrange a meeting. I always think of designers differently after I’ve met them … sometimes for the better, sometimes not. I once asked to meet a restaurant designer whose work impressed me. He was so arrogant I resolved then and there, ‘There is no way we will ever work with this @$$hole.’”

HW: What’s the best way to reach you?

“Don’t call me. I find unsolicited calls annoying. Email is the best way to reach me. If we need to talk, you can set up a call through email.”

“You’ll get my attention when I see good work; not necessarily by continually contacting me. I appreciate those who present their work and let it speak for itself.”

“Every firm wants to come in to meet with me. I suggest sending me your printed materials first. When we’re embarking on a project, we review design portfolios and seek to match a firm’s strengths with the intent of the design and the location of the site.”

“I don’t need printed materials. Electronic is cheaper, quicker, and just as effective. If you’re going to send me anything, put in on a flash drive rather than a pile of paper.”

“If we already know a firm, staying in touch electronically is a good idea. Electronic newsletters can be a non-intrusive way to get my attention and stay top-of-mind.”

HW: What’s your impression of business development people?

“Business developers have their role in scoping out opportunities for their firms, but it’s much more impactful when I get a call from a design firm owner. BD people can be effective if they have some longevity and seniority with their firm and can speak with authority. For me, the issue is trust.”

“One super-aggressive, annoying, high-pressure salesperson who contacts me regularly has been with five firms in seven years. I simply don’t believe him any more.”

“Some BD people are so persistent that they verge on being stalkers. I will do anything I can to avoid them and, by extension, their firms. Self-effacing and sincere will win out over pushy.”

HW: What are some of your pet peeves when it comes to marketing?

“Don’t expect that if you met me at a conference — where I got dozens of business cards from others just like you — that it will have left a memorable impression on me.”

“If you’re a large firm with multiple offices, don’t have multiple people from different offices call me. It just makes you look disorganized, and it doesn’t endear me to your company.”

“If you’re a small firm, don’t exaggerate your capacity and capability. If you try to take on something you can’t handle, you will ruin your chances for working with us in the future. If you’re right for a project, but it’s too big for you, we may hire you for a piece of it.”

Howard’s takeaways

Don’t waste the time of a busy client. If you have something of value to share, marketing can be effective. If you’ve done good work, let them know. Otherwise, they seem to be saying, “Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”

Your takeaways?

Howard Wolff
Most Senior Person
Full-Height Advice
Direct 1.808.683.2600
Email Howard

Howard Wolff - Full Height Advice

Advanced Marketing for Design Firms