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Six ways architects can win repeat business from ongoing clients

Neal Morris

Learn more about nurturing practice-client relationships and turning the short-term into the long-term

The primary objective should consistently focus on nurturing an existing relationship.
The primary objective should consistently focus on nurturing an existing relationship. Credit: iStock Photo

Repeat business from returning and ongoing clients is far and away the greatest source of new work for architects.

Practices surveyed for the latest RIBA Business Benchmarking 2023 report suggest this type of work accounts for 38% of new commissions, well ahead of client referrals/word-of-mouth on 24% and dwarfing mainstream marketing efforts such as advertising and web presence at 10%.

Rebecca Ball, Marketing and Communications Lead at HLM Architects agrees that repeat business is all important: “I’m incredibly passionate about this approach to winning work because if you have a good experience on a project, even a small project to start with, you can grow that initial relationship with a client into something more longstanding and achieve great things together.”

But how do you keep that initially short-term relationship with a client and turn it into something more long-term and fruitful?

Here are Rebecca’s top tips for retaining clients for repeat work, that can be tailored and applied to any size of practice:

1. Nurture long-term relationships

The primary objective should consistently focus on nurturing an existing relationship. After all, taking time to build bonds in order to win repeat work can often be easier than winning new work, Rebecca suggests, where relationships are starting from scratch.

Interaction should not just be about the next project, either: instead, interaction should be about developing enduring personal relationships that aren’t just about the ‘hard sell’. Why? Building a strong rapport before, during and after a project fosters a sense of partnership, helps to grow trust and could encourage clients to turn to you for their future architectural needs.

Nurturing also means all staff members acting as brand ambassadors for every front-facing interaction with clients. Fostering a culture where everybody in the practice - no matter how big or small - understands what you do means that anyone in the practice can interact with clients, whether it be HR, IT, finance, marketing and bid teams, or whatever resources are available within your structure.

2. Increase touchpoints with the client

The project architect will have established a working relationship with the client, but there should be an ongoing search for ‘touchpoints’ involving the client that go beyond project sit-down meetings, Rebecca says. This can also introduce the client to different parts of the practice team and help to increase communication across the business.

These touchpoints don’t have to be about selling the practice to win the next job. It can be about building client involvement with the practice, which might include interacting on a new piece of research related to a project, past or present.

If a practice has a marketing team, it will usually be involved in looking for touchpoint opportunities, keeping them alive and finessing communications, but this approach should be more of a day-to-day effort including people from across the practice, says Rebecca.

3. Build relationships after projects have completed

Regular communication with your client throughout a project is a given if it is to be successful, but communication after completion is paramount if you are to secure future work, Rebecca suggests.

A practice will no doubt have fought off stiff competition to win the project in the competition phase, and it’s a given that your competitors will want to win the next one even more. It is therefore key that a practice maintains communications and continues to build the relationship with a client, says Rebecca, even when there is no project on the horizon.

“Keep the conversation alive by talking to them about new initiatives that are happening within the practice and other project successes,” she adds. “This will keep the client up to date and interested in your work.”

Rebecca also suggests keeping in touch with an individual who has moved on from the original client to another business, especially when it is in the same sector, as this could potentially be a contact that could lead to new work.

4. Develop client relationship-building techniques across your practice

HLM operates across nine different sectors but makes an effort to avoid the siloing of work teams both internally and at client-facing events, Rebecca explains.

Each sector team has its own market-specific marketing plan and budget, but each knows what the other teams are doing and are encouraged to share information at monthly cross-sector forums. It is seen as an advantage having experts in one sector suggesting to clients in another that the practice is undertaking projects that they might be interested in taking a look at.

HLM also encourages junior team members to learn how to develop client relationships by shadowing more experienced members at presentations, roundtable discussions and award events.

5. Seek feedback and act upon it

After completing a project, ask for feedback from clients about their experience of working with you, Rebecca suggests. Listen to their suggestions for improvement and take proactive steps to address any areas of concern.

Demonstrating a commitment to continuous improvement signals to clients that their opinions are valued, and that you are dedicated to delivering an exceptional service.

Rebecca says HLM collects feedback systematically as an audit trail, but she warns against relying on Customer Relationship Management systems (if you use one) to monitor and maintain relationships. It has to be an actively personal process where communication is key.

6. Enjoy your success with your client

Finally, Rebecca says architects should always look for ways to enjoy the success of a project with their client. This might mean asking clients to get involved in photography for PR purposes, short-form video for social media or with awards submissions.

HLM sees its awards strategy as a valuable marketing tool and will link up product manufacturers and other consultants involved in projects to maximise award opportunities. This commitment to the awards process means that the relationship with the client may benefit, especially if they get to share and celebrate the spoils.

Thanks to Rebecca Ball, Marketing and Communications Lead, HLM Architects.

The next instalment of RIBA's Horizons 2034 sponsored by Autodesk, focuses on the economics of the built environment. Four scans are available to read, written by world-renowned experts in their field, exploring geographical interconnectedness and specialisation, emerging economies, inequality, and the financialisaton of the built environment. 

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RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Business, clients and services.

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