Five steps for getting ahead

Ryan Loveday , 3 May 2024

In what feels like a crowded market, how do we differentiate ourselves? Ryan Loveday offers five practical steps to get ahead, from selling tangible outcomes and building visibility around expertise, to growing your community and relationships, and prioritising client service. He also throws in several excellent book recommendations.

In what feels like a crowded market, how do we differentiate ourselves from everyone else? Are the things we do really different from all the rest? Is that wonderful bespoke service we offer so unique? The hard truth of it is… probably not! While we’re very good at what we do, the standard demanded in practice means that most of our competitors are probably pretty good at what they do too.

Like most of you reading this, I’ve spent decades just learning to be a good architect. And having reached the lofty heights of practice leadership, I’ve found myself having to learn a whole new set of skills –  shifting from how to DO architecture, to how to SELL architecture.

First, some thoughts – forget the idea that you’re competing against those other firms out there. You will bump up against the regulars and it’s normal to get a bit tribal. But it’s not a zero-sum game. It’s a big world, there’s enough work for everyone, they are not your hurdle. Focus on your own value.

Next, realise you don’t need to impress every possible client everywhere. You just need to build trust with a small slice of clients for whom you are exactly the right fit. Trying to be everything to everyone is a doomed strategy. You’re better off being totally amazing at something a specific client really loves, than trying to impress your colleagues.

With the approach sorted, you have to DO something. Here are the practical steps:

1. Demonstrate a tangible outcome

Demonstrate everywhere, in all your Comms, how the intangible service you offer, delivers something tangible a client will specifically care about. Sell the outcome, not the architecture. The problem with a service is that no-one can know what they’re getting until after they’ve got it. Selling services is quite different from products – the experience frames the quality of the outcome. But you can control the experience. There’s a great marketing classic on this titled Selling the Invisible by Harry Beckwith. Your client is asking, Will I like what I get? and Will I enjoy the experience of getting it? So, answer the question – what outcome do you deliver?

2. Build visible credibility

Position yourself as an expert with solutions to specific design problems. This is all about visibility because visibility builds pre-emptive trust and credibility. Read, research, write, speak and publish, wherever you can. This is admittedly easier for some than others. You’d like to assume your work will speak for itself and build a following for you, and well done if you can. But most clients don’t read glossy archi-mags. They work in their world. Clients want you to know their world, their context, and the language they use. You can’t fake expertise, but it’s not hard to apply disciplined empathy. Marketers call this a knowledge gift. I loved reading This is Marketing by Seth Godin and The Challenger Sale by Dixon & Adamson on this.

So, what can you be expert in?

3. Grow the community

Demonstrate the culture that your extended tribe can identify with. You don’t need to be Apple to do this. Tell your ‘why’ story, engage with a community beyond your walls, build love, build followers, collaborators and advocates, working for you out there. Every design firm intersects with people up and down the line; it’s not just clients that matter. The way you and your team interact with the whole market creates a momentum. Does your culture matter to a client? You bet it does! A client has to want to give you a job. Clients connect with what you’re about, and you can’t fake that. So, stand for something, be a movement, be the change you want to see. You’d have start with Simon Sinek’s classic Start with Why and then move on to Patrick Lencioni.

So, what are the values you stand for?

4. Get personal

Determine who your clients are specifically, in sectors, in roles, by name! This is undoubtedly the most mechanical part of marketing, easy to say and hard to do, especially for creatives. We say our industry is very relationship based, but really they all are. You will succeed because you know who your clients are, what they want and because they like you. However, they are unlikely to just stroll in the door. Part of your energy has to be spent going to them. Get market intel, build a referral network. Find out where your likely clients gather, who they trust, where they get their information. Make a soft connection, go meet them, ask them what they need, do them a favour. Use those natural social skills but don’t be timid about talking business – they know why you’re there. I’ve been reading Sell like Crazy by Sabri Suby and The Seven Levels of Communication by Michael J Maher on some of this.

So, who are your clients?

5. Reinforce client service

Help everyone in your business apply the correct attitude to dealing with clients. Certainly, train your team for technical quality but also train them for service – remembering everything we do is marketing. Credibility is like a bank account. You and your client start with a positive assumption of competence and every interaction either adds to or subtracts from that account. Your relationship can survive very difficult moments if you have enough in the account! To do that … Keep your word. Solve problems. Be excellent where it matters in what leaves your office. Be knowledgeable but never defensive. Keep them informed, gently educate, acknowledge their fears. Never hide failure, don’t disappear when things go badly. Go the extra mile, be clever, surprise and delight your client. I don’t have a book reference for that – just hard experience.

So, does everyone in your business value the client, and the work it took to win them?

You can’t control the economy or the market, but you can control where you put your energy. Architectural projects are always an act of courage by your client. You must meet them on their terms. Your competition are not other firms, it is the client’s own inertia – it’s always much safer and easier to do nothing.

So, make it easy for your client to say yes.

Ryan Loveday is a Director of Fulton Trotter Architects. This article was originally published on LinkedIN and has been re-published with permission.