Surviving Project Surprises

When a snag sends a project south, keep your relationship with your client headed in the right direction with these tips.

A stroke of bad luck, Murphy’s law, a series of unfortunate events—whatever you call it, it happens to all of us at one point or another. Whether it’s a budget breach, a blown timeline, or a sudden demand from management, problems and obstacles have a way of creeping into even the most heavily planned interior projects. And while most obstacles are minor and easily addressed, there are occasionally bigger bumps that have the potential to make or break your relationship with the client.

In the face of serious adversity, how do you keep your relationship with your client on track? We spoke with designers and architects from some leading firms to learn their techniques for handling the unforeseen.

manage expectations
Maintaining a positive client relationship begins well before any obstacles present themselves. As soon as you understand the scope of the project, manage your client’s expectations from the outset by having an open conversation about the process—and what could keep the process from moving forward. Knowing and presenting the specific issues that may come up will help soften the blow if they are encountered on a project.

“If you’re doing a remodel, you might say to them, ‘We’re going to be tearing down a lot of walls, and we may find plumbing in a wall that we’re not aware of that won’t allow us to move the wall exactly where you want it,’” explained Janette Ray, senior associate at Davis Partnership Architects. “Or, ‘We may find asbestos, which will cause the project to take longer than we originally thought.’”

Managing expectations includes ensuring that you can deliver the promises you make. The client may enjoy hearing that you’ll be able to meet their demanding budgetary and time limitations—and you’ll feel good winning their business—but that rosy glow will fade when you can’t deliver months down the road.

“If it’s May 1 and a client says ‘I have to move in June 1,’ and you don’t think you can meet that deadline or help the client meet that deadline, you don’t need to walk away from the project, but don’t promise anything you can’t deliver,” Ray said. “Clearly, a discussion when the project starts is much more important than trying to manage a problem after it’s occurred.”

communicate clearly
This step relates to the cardinal rule of crisis management: if a problem occurs, you need to convey the issue to your client before someone else does.

“We talk to the owner as soon as we know or suspect something is wrong. We find that the earlier that we deal with it, the better it is,” said Bob Kraemer, principal and co-founder of Kraemer Design Group. “For example, on a construction problem, we’d rather not have the general contractor or construction manager tell the customer—we’d rather that we deliver the message.”

Not only is timeliness of communication important in preserving client relationships, but the mode of communication is paramount as well. In-person is always better than the phone; the phone is always better than email or other forms of digital communication. Also be cognizant of how you’re framing information for your client. If it’s not a true emergency, be careful presenting it as such.

“When you need a quick response—when you really need your client to do something for you or you need something immediately—make sure you really need it. Save your ‘emergency’ for a true emergency,” explained Corgan Principal Lindsay Wilson. “Inevitably, at some point you’re going to have to call your client and say, “This happened, and I need you to make a decision by 8 a.m.’ If you managed to wait the whole project and you only have to do that one time, they will understand, and it ends up not being a big deal.”

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