Feedback is good for business

Words:
Matt Thompson

If it’s positive, it’s good marketing; if it’s not, learn from it

Dabbling in client feedback is not easy for architects. Apart from being a bit wishy washy, it diverts resources from earning fees. It doesn’t fit well with their training, which casts them as superhero guardians of the public good. In this rose-tinted world view, customer service is implicit in every flex of their professional muscle, so why would they do more? 

The RIBA’s Client Liaison Group suggests this presumption is misguided. Its research shows that what differentiates architects are the so-called softer skills of management, collaboration, leadership, listening and understanding. In other words, it is not what they do – which is taken for granted – so much as how they do it that makes architects stand out. As the client pays the fees, to neglect these skills might be reckless.

To be clear, client feedback is not post-occupancy evaluation. It is confirming how you run your business and processes, and is geared to improving your service. RIBA President-elect Ben Derbyshire describes it as ‘the bedrock of ethical practice’. Making claims about future performance without feedback has a whiff of dishonesty about it. That aside, it definitely makes it harder to improve, and you can forget about being able to give a quality guarantee under ISO 9001, for example.

Last year, the RIBA’s Client Liaison Group carried out a profession-wide client satisfaction survey. One of its stand-out findings was to do with follow-up. The results showed that a fair proportion of architects simply walked away at the end of their contract, with ne’er so much as a backward glance. They paid a penalty, apparently: their overall satisfaction ratings were on average significantly worse than those for architects who stayed around. 

  • Clients rate architects who do not follow up worse than those who do. The correlation is particularly marked when looking just at architects’ process management performance.
    Clients rate architects who do not follow up worse than those who do. The correlation is particularly marked when looking just at architects’ process management performance. Credit: RIBA Working with Architects Client Survey 2016
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Since architects depend so heavily on repeat clients and recommendations, the immediate benefit of post-completion feedback is simply to remind clients of your existence. With up to 80% of Sheppard Robson’s work coming from existing clients, resting on your laurels is an unacceptable risk. Andrew German, director of practice, says, ‘With the passage of time, clients see other buildings, meet other designers. Their memory quickly becomes rather fuzzy if you’re not careful.’

Although the practice reviews its projects quantitatively as part of its QA system, German finds informal feedback during the course of projects to be more valuable. For him, though, process issues are indistinguishable from the end-product. You need to demonstrate exceptional quality in both. In that sense, client feedback blurs with post-occupancy evaluation.

  • Sheppard Robson worked on BBC North, which won the BCO's Test of Time Award 2016, testament to a good working relationship.
    Sheppard Robson worked on BBC North, which won the BCO's Test of Time Award 2016, testament to a good working relationship. Credit: Gareth Gardner
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For Bennetts Associates, feedback is spliced into its corporate genome – and in any case is now demanded by its QA system. With two thirds of its business coming from repeat clients, the process is ingrained into the workflow. A senior architect sits down with the client at the end of Stage 2 and then again at the end of the project. Findings are written up under six question headings and considered at management meetings, where lessons are absorbed and actions decided on. 

  • Bennetts Associates’ relationship with the Royal College of Pathologists spans 25 years, and still flourishes today with a fresh commission to design new headquarters for them in Whitechapel, east London.
    Bennetts Associates’ relationship with the Royal College of Pathologists spans 25 years, and still flourishes today with a fresh commission to design new headquarters for them in Whitechapel, east London. Credit: Flashforward
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Bennetts Associates has always understood the importance of smooth management. When starting out, the practice employed a project manager to oversee the design programme and administration on its first big project. Now that it is all in-house, the weight given to it is no less intense. As director Denise Bennetts says, ‘We focus on getting the process right to concentrate on the important thing, which is the architecture.’

Simon Trew of Stride Treglown is in charge of ISO 9001 compliance. Using an online survey, it has centralised the collection of feedback, doing so once a year. He rates it as a tool for harvesting quotable endorsements but admits that they struggle to extract value-adding lessons. He prefers the more personal, informal approach, which allows them to sniff out new work. For him, though, the process is useful for busting the myth of architects as arrogant. ‘As a profession, it behoves us to show that architects can be bothered and do care.’

  • This library refurbishment is Stride Treglown's 20th project in the last 10 years for The University of Reading, a mutually beneficial relationship.
    This library refurbishment is Stride Treglown's 20th project in the last 10 years for The University of Reading, a mutually beneficial relationship.
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So much for larger practices. What about smaller ones targeting the private domestic market? Producing mostly private houses but with ambitions to spread into other sectors, Clapham-based Granit Architects is remarkable for videoing its clients in situ, daytime-telly style. As well as new client bait, the resulting information is turned into in-house training. 

The problem for Granit is the reluctant response. Permission to video private clients is at the expense of a £100 restaurant voucher. It is worth it, though, according to James Munro, architectural director. ‘Relationships are inevitably tested during a project. Feedback forces you to acknowledge when things go wrong. It also generates goodwill in past and future clients.’

The charismatic Phil Coffey of Coffey Architects is disarmingly straightforward about where his youngish, evolving practice is at. With a high-profile track record of mostly private domestic work but ambitions to leave all that behind to join the major league, he currently only has one repeat client. Feedback is squarely in his crosshairs. He equates it to the ethos, pathos and logos model of classical rhetoric. Applied to the practice of architecture, logos is what you do, pathos is what you’re like to deal with, and ethos is your moral character. As he says, ‘We’ve got logos and ethos all over the place, but we need to explore the pathos.’

Looking beyond the usual wins from feedback, he sees potential for mid-stream feedback to communicate more effectively with the client. Questions can emphasise, for example, the difference between design iteration and a client instruction. That way, he says, ‘it begins to crystallise in clients’ minds exactly what it is we do.’

  • 'We would never have visualised our house in a million years. That’s the true skill of an architect.' Granit Architects’ private clients sing their praises to camera.
    'We would never have visualised our house in a million years. That’s the true skill of an architect.' Granit Architects’ private clients sing their praises to camera. Credit: Andrew Beasley
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Facit Homes employs architects but in fact is a one-stop shop, making as well as designing homes for private customers. In that sense, every client is a new client, and so one might think there is less of an incentive to seek feedback. Director Bruce Bell disagrees. ‘Since we have no intention of doing any other kind of building, we are very motivated to learn from feedback and apply that learning.’ He sees his job as eliminating uncertainty for clients. ‘The scariest thing for them is the unknown, right? They’re standing at the edge of the abyss, terrified that they will lose their life’s savings. Continuous learning allows us to narrow the margin of unknowns. That’s a relief for them.’

Feedback has innumerable benefits for architects. Handled intelligently, it allows them to improve professionally. It gives lie to the stereotype that architects are only interested in the architecture and devil take the hindmost. It is an opportunity to nudge clients towards a better understanding of what architects do and thus appreciate their value. It generates positive testimonials, helping them to sell their services. And if you improve management processes, it frees you up to design.

Most clients tend to be nervous and risk averse. While architects’ websites parade the quality of the end product, that’s only half the equation. A great piece of architecture can easily hide corrosive relationships and a financially ruinous process, and so clients also want reassurance that architects are good to work with.

Simply knowing that an architect engages in serious feedback gives some peace of mind, no doubt swaying clients’ hiring decisions. It would be much better, though, to see what previous clients had experienced. A properly policed, cumulative, averaged scoring system would fill an information black hole. It would even the playing field, allowing new entrants into exclusive sector ‘fishbowls’, as Simon Trew puts it. And adopted across the profession, it would drive up standards.

The rest of the commercial world has the Net Promoter Score system, which evaluates customer loyalty based on responses to the question, ‘How likely is it that you would recommend our service?’ Adapted to reflect the complexity of what architects do and moderated to iron out bias, it is time for architects, led by the RIBA and Constructing Excellence perhaps, to do something similar.


 

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