What If Your Clients Wrote Your Contracts?
Updated: Jul 14
Today I had a very intriguing thought: What would my agreement look like if I let my clients write them?
We all have our 'standard agreements' and they are written from the standpoint of what we offer them and what they will have to pay; in terms of time and money. It is exactly this that sparked the thought.
Actually, I received a contract from a company that is involved with the book that I have coming out. It sucks. I mean it is not unfair. All the terms are standard for the industry. However, it still sucks.
It is not that the company is asking for more money when things go awry, nor are there penalties instated for anything that I may want to change. I have problems with the vagueness of the terms. It uses terms we see in agreements everyday: in a timely manner, various solutions, from time to time, 60 to 90 days, indefinitely until terminated, etc.
So, that got me thinking; what do my agreements look like to my clients?
This is a good mental exercise that I think we should all take part in so that we really look at what we are asking our clients to jump into. Now before you run down the "our clients would want us to give them the moon for free" road, let's just flex our brains.
Imagine that you are planning to hire our company to help you market and get more leads into you company. What is it that you are really looking for? Technically, if we brought you one more lead then, technically, we have helped you to bring in more leads, thus upholding our end, but that isn't really fair, is it?
So, what is it that you would be hiring us to do: increase the average number of leads per month by twenty-five percent, improve the qualifications that leads have prior to engagement resulting in higher conversion rates, or perhaps just a fresh, updated look on your marketing materials and a plan for marketing activities over the next year?
Now, I ask again how would you write our agreement? Likely it would contain these specific results and deliverables that you expect. It may also include how often you expect our communications and interactions to take place and who would take minutes, build agendas, and send reminders for each.
I am sure that you would make sure that you were comfortable with the terms and set provisions that protected you in case we did not deliver on our promises. But then what?
Would you expect that you would not have to pay for the results when they were delivered? Hardly. In fact, I would guess that you are often happy to pay for the value that you receive from companies you do business with, especially the ones that under promise and over deliver!
When your conference room is booked with new clients and you have many new retainer checks to take to the bank, you gladly pay that invoice. There may be a conversation about what we charge for our marketing services, but there is not an expectation that you would not pay for them.
I can also imagine that the agreement you wrote would not have any vague disclaimers. After all, a vague disclaimer is nobodies friend. You would want to know exactly who was responsible for what and what the consequences were for not meeting the expectations.
Now let's discuss your agreement for architectural services. What is keeping you from doing this to your own agreements?
My guess: it is more difficult for you to define exactly what it is that your "architectural services" provide for your clients. Every project has different requirements and you never know if the jurisdiction is going to throw you a curve ball during permitting. Furthermore, architectural projects are complicated enough that even people who have been in the industry for a long time do not really know what you do for them. Besides, what does "advocate for the client" look like in a contract from the client's point of view?
The real question here is what are your prospects really asking you for in the first place: peace of mind, faster permit acquisition, apartments that the market finds more desirable, a larger profit on the sale of the building? Clients are rarely upfront with this kind of information, even when they know and could tell you what they want for a result.
Some results are easier to define than others. Peace of mind looks different from person to person. One person may want a hands off experience and trusts that you have the details under control. Someone else may want to be updated regularly on the progress of their project.
Other aspects like the financial side of a project are easier to define, but they come with a catch. In our culture discussing money and profit are taboo. As if for some reason these are bad things or that if you knew how much a developer was going to make on a project you would want a larger slice of the pie.
As if all this was not enough, as architects and designers we struggle with our own ideas about what value we provide and what aspects make good architecture. Whether it is contemporary styling or historical preservation, we all have our ideas about how our architecture contributes to the larger community. As if that doesn't throw you off track, there is pressure from the media about what good architecture looks like as well.
With all the high-profile architecture that we see published every day it is easy for us to get caught up in our desire to design "in the spotlight" projects. When we can't we claim that our clients are not willing to pay us for the value that we could provide with good design.
But, maybe just maybe, if we step outside what we think architecture is supposed to be, let go of the theoretical expressions that we see in the magazines, and allow ourselves to consider what each agreement would look like if we let the client write it we may find that the value we can provide to our clients is exactly what they are willing to pay for.
It is hard to look past the spatial aspects of a project and into the minds of your clients. After all, you are going to need to explore options for the floor plans and produce a permit set of drawings. Leveraging specific deliverables is good and this practice should be part of every agreement. All of the deliverables that your client will receive should be described in the agreement.
My challenge to you, and to me, is to determine what these deliverables mean to the client who is receiving them. What is the real value that they are looking for and how does each idea, concept, and drawing that is produced add to that value? Then add some description that connects each deliverable to the value the client receives.
In this light, 'two conceptual schematic floor plans' becomes 'two options for spatial layouts that explore increased productivity for your employees and describe the sales flow for your customers.' I think you can see how the second description injects the things the client values into the deliverables.
Of course this will require you to spend more time on the proposals that you write, but it should not change the template or the process you go through too much. In fact, it just requires you to contemplate what the client values from what you provide not simply list the deliverables that you will produce.
Lastly, let's discuss a subject that we all want from the contracts that we sign but are reluctant to insert into the ones we write - accountability. What happens if the project you design does not produce the results that the client was looking for? If you just thought - we can't control what the market is going to absorb or how the family will feel about their new home - think again.
It is important to remember that people do not hire you to acquire a permit or produce a set of drawings. They do not want a roll of plans or a sheet of paper that approves the construction described in those drawings. They want the house of their dreams or a income producing asset or some other result for which your services are the key.
None of us want to carry around a phone, which in itself is just a chunk of plastic and glass with wires running through it. However, we do want to be connected to our family and reachable when they need us. We like being able to connect to the internet and scroll through social media whenever we desire, and having a portable entertainment device is good too.
We don't want the phone as an object we want what the phone can provide to us. For some the newest I-Phone is a status symbol and for others it's the obsession with discovering the new. Some of us see our phones as a security measure and others see it as a lifeline. Regardless, it means that we are willing to pay for this value.
So, what is it that your clients are really looking for and how can your agreement protect them if they do not receive this result? Retailers provide a money-back guarantee; other companies provide maintenance guarantees - like how a contractor will repair faulty work for a year after building completion.
Would these work for you? You may not be able to return all of their money if they weren't satisfied, but if you planned for it you could return a percentage (your profit perhaps). But the money would not help them to get the result they were looking for now would it?
Perhaps, a post occupancy evaluation with free redesign and permit acquisition (minus jurisdictional fees) for any portion not meeting expectations for a year after occupancy would sweeten the deal. How about if you could work out a deal with the contractor to complete the redesign work for time and materials as well? After all they are also responsible for making the client's dream come true.
A simple statement like this provides insurance to the client that you are invested in making sure that they are happy with the work that you did for them. It provides a safety net that catches them if their fears come true and the project is not what they expected. Plus, it guarantees that you will have a satisfied client after every project. What do you think that would be worth to your company?
I hope you enjoyed going through this mental gymnastic with me, and if nothing else you at least consider what you are really asking your clients to sign when you present a proposal to them. I feel that the goal of every company should be to make their clients lives better. The first step, then, is to consider how our work gets them to that better place and how we are communicating that through our policies and agreements.
Best of luck in building value, and as always - let's build better systems!