I have learned that no project or opportunity is too small if it provides access to a great client. I once found myself in search of a special ashtray that a new client had specified—hardly the design project I had envisioned, but it eventually led to a number of more challenging and fulfilling assignments.
Any opportunity to work with a new client provides a window for you to get to know them and for them to learn more about you. Forge a relationship and demonstrate your abilities while working with your client, and keep the door open for future opportunities. By doing small projects well, you will be first in line for consideration when larger projects arise.
We grow our business by helping clients grow their business. Great clients provide us with opportunities such as developing new products or services, or expanding into new locations. They will take you with them if they have confidence in you and your team. The importance of client relationships is one of the concepts outlined in my book, Art’s Principles, based on lessons learned over the 50-year history of Gensler.
Client relationships can be built when you least expect it. One of my favorites started with someone kicking sand in my face. It was the early days of our firm, and I was taking a breather at the beach when the sand came flying. I looked up to find that the perpetrator was a friend’s brother. He knew I was an architect, and he proceeded to ask if he could borrow a draftsman to help with his second store. I told him that my business was doing projects, not lending employees, but to help out a friend, yes, he could borrow one of our staff.
A few weeks later he called and asked to borrow a project manager. I sent one to help him, but he quickly called me and said, “I give up. You do the store.” We completed his second store. He was grateful when we were able to step in and get the job done, and we were grateful for his business.
Today, we have designed more than 3,000 stores for that friend, who I just happened to meet one day on the beach. His name is Don Fisher—his store is called The Gap (gps).
If you want to build an organization that will grow consistently, empower every person in your firm to go out and win business. Gensler people understand that they hold our firm’s future in their own hands and that unanticipated opportunities often crop up in everyday activities. Encourage your people—regardless of their role—to step forward and seize potential.
In order for employees to effectively pursue new business, they must approach situations with a forward-thinking mindset. For example, I have told our employees that in order to win new business in unexpected places, we need to:
Learn to listen. Ask good questions about the potential client or project and then listen carefully to the response.
Learn to share. It is important that employees understand the strengths of your firm and have enough social capital and goodwill to become skilled at sharing potential leads. Encourage them to direct the prospect to the right person in your organization who can deliver the expertise to meet the client’s needs. Act as a family; as you share leads, others will do the same.
Learn the tools. Experts in employee education agree: If you want your people to feel empowered, you must create an environment in which they can empower themselves. Give them the information, tools, and support they need to convey the essence of your firm. Set a tone that encourages people to grow their skills and take on more. Teach them what you can about your business and your clients’ businesses. Each business sector has its own special vocabulary, terminology, and nuances, so educate employees about the specific industries you service. Speaking the client’s language and understanding their business goes a long way in winning their respect.
A solid strategy for success is simple but complex: match the right team members, expertise, and resources with a prospective client and a specific business opportunity. An organization is at its best when creating value that clients cannot get anywhere else. Always respect your clients’ objectives and exceed their expectations.
And finally, remember that people value what they pay for. If you provide free work or solutions, clients will never take your recommendations seriously. Why give away your expertise? If they “have skin in the game,” they will value your services even more. When a client understands your capabilities and the value you bring to an assignment, there will no longer be a need to constantly submit fee proposals or participate in a competitive sales situation. The client will want to hire you for the value you bring to the assignment, rather than for the low price of your services.
Stay realistic in your reach, and don’t try to be everything to everyone. Aim to simply be the best at what you do. Keep your eyes and ears open for new opportunities, and place a high value on that which you can deliver—trusted partnership and superior service.
Arthur Gensler, FAIA, is an architect and founder of Gensler, a leading global design firm. When he started his company, he knew a lot about architecture but very little about running a business. In 2015, he wrote Art’s Principles to offer today’s entrepreneurs the business insights he wishes someone had given him when he was first starting out.