Surviving Project Surprises

March 19, 2014
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.” PageBreak

present solutions
“It’s not just informing them that there’s a problem, but informing them that we have an approach to fix it,” said Kraemer. “Whether we say, ‘We don’t have an answer, but within a day we’ll have a solution,’ or we give some recommendations right when we tell them, we find that it’s the unknown that’s probably the scariest. [The client] feels lost and it creates anxiety.”

When it comes to proposing solutions, the speed isn’t as important as creating the sense that you care and are fully invested in finding an acceptable alternative that doesn’t compromise the client’s vision. That’s of course easier said than done, depending on the extent and severity of the issue at hand, but a little creativity and a willingness to improvise is usually enough to surmount most headaches.

Kraemer and his team did just that during a recent renovation project, when they faced an exterior that was not the beautiful brick they had anticipated, and proceeding with the plan would have put the project way over budget. Thanks to some quick thinking (and drawing), his team got the project back on track before there was even an issue.

“I sketched up an idea on how to solve the problem by putting this unique sign on the front of the building—a giant sign glued to the building that was made out of cutout plywood and carried some of the finishes from the inside,” Kraemer recalled. “I presented it to the customer the next day before they even knew the problem existed. In the end, they liked the solution better than what they were expecting to get.”

be on the same team
If an issue does arise and you are at fault, it’s best to own up to the mistake and work past the problem together. Even if the client perceives that you are at fault for an issue when, in reality, you are not, most designers recommend offering up a solution and moving on without arguing. If you press the situation with the client, you may vindicate yourself, but ultimately end up losing the relationship.

“You’re your client’s partner and advocate,” Ray said. “You’re going along this journey with them, and sometimes things that happen really have nothing to do with anything that you or your client have done.”

Even in situations where you’re not at fault, your relationship could be jeopardized if you can’t pull through with a fix. Sometimes that means leaning a little harder on some of your other, pre-existing connections to satisfy your client. Ray recalled a situation where a solid surface material specified for the transaction tops of nurse stations began scratching very badly. The client, furious at what they saw as a material failure, wanted them replaced; the supplier maintained that the scratches were caused by abuse and thus not covered under warranty.

“I worked with my rep and the manufacturer for almost two years to get them to replace the transaction tops at no charge to the client,” Ray said. “Although it was very frustrating to the client and I often had to tell them to be patient, the issue finally got resolved through ongoing negotiations with the manufacturer. We were ultimately able to preserve the relationship with the client.”

do your due diligence
Getting to know your clients, learning what is important to them, both in general and on a specific project, and building a level of trust will help most relationships survive even the toughest of challenges. And even though you won’t be able to spot every problem before it occurs, doing as much homework as possible before work begins may make the client more understanding when an issue does occur.

“There are things that you don’t have 100 percent control over, because you can’t poke a hole in every single wall before you begin,” said Asifa Tirmizi, principal and co-founding partner of Tirmizi Campbell. “But if [the client] knows that you’ve done your homework, they won’t look at you like you didn’t do your work beforehand. People are pretty understanding if you uncovered 90 percent of everything and 10 percent is luck, in a sense.”

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