This year my wife, Vicki, and I celebrated 20 years of marriage; and we can both tell you we are grateful, it’s been mostly harmonious. What makes it work? I’m no Dear Abby, but as I reflect on how my wife and I interact, I realize there is an alignment between the actions that help personal relationships succeed and those that bolster client relationships.

(1) Put the toilet seat down. OK, not literally, but identify what makes your client insane. People can drive others crazy through their idiosyncrasies. Watch body language as you just may have a habit that is getting under your client’s skin, such as how you greet them, address them, or smack your gum. This isn’t about you; it’s about them and their issues, so don’t take it personally.

(2) Tell her she is beautiful. This is easy for me to tell my wife because it’s true. That said, when she was nine months pregnant and was miserable with edema and emotionally done being pregnant, I made a conscious effort to remain patient and make her feel loved. Everyone has insecurities and knowing what your client’s are, and managing them correctly, is critical. Ever stop to think that your client is scared to death about screwing up a project? A compliment and or a bit of encouragement from an industry professional can go a long way in calming nerves.

(3) Throw them a life line. Recently we were on a flight and I got stuck in a conversation with my new-found neighbor. Being the astute partner my wife is, she pulled me aside letting me know she had something in her eye and asked for my help. After the winking surgery was complete the unwanted conversation was broken and all was good. Does your client ever need a little help out of a jam? It may not be in your scope, but those little bailouts are usually very much appreciated.

(4) Celebrate moments. When I reflect back on my career I realize that what I remember the most is not the grind of the design process and OAC meetings, but the special moments and personal interactions that I have shared with the clients.

  • During the management of one particular project we stole our client’s cardboard cutout of soccer legend David Beckham and had our team take him on outings for photo opportunities —Mr. Beckham even joined us at our company retreat. We sent the pictures to the client sharing the idol’s adventures.
  • I had a police chief tell me once that he didn’t have enough money to build the facility he wanted and was looking for creative ideas. We reached out to Dunkin Donuts in regards to opening a franchise that could be connected to the facility. After we delivered the documentation, he ran with it and began envisioning donuts on the hoods of the cars, telling us that officers would be assigned the jelly, Bavarian cream and sprinkles car. It never panned out but we did have some fun with it.

(5) Admit you’re wrong. This is easy for me now because I have had a lot of practice. This is one of the biggest challenges for the AEC industry as admitting fault can lead to writing checks. Although I can’t predict how your client will react to these tough situations, I can tell you that not admitting when you have made a mistake, or not presenting how you are going to make it right, are the fastest ways to destroy a relationship and your chances of being awarded a future project.

  • I recently got my days mixed up and by the time I realized I needed to get the kids to their respective events, we were going to be too late. I had to own up to the error, ask for help, and offer something in exchange, which, on that night, was to take care of dinner. If you’re in a successful relationship you know it requires give and take along with creativity to get out of tough situations.
  • Consider being up front about errors with the client after the contract is signed. Tell them how you would like to operate; communicate your attitude about errors and how they will be handled. When events happen buy some time and breath. All too often people rush into a response and defend their position. Even if you are in the right, take a step back and let the client process the situation, sometimes it simply takes time and a cooler head to resolve conflicts.

(6) Be there for them. There is a scene in the movie What Dreams May Come where the spouse is in a dark place and her husband doesn’t get it and can’t, or won’t, join her in her sadness. As the movie progresses he understands her feelings better and in the end, does journey with her into what is a very dismal situation. By joining her and understanding her, their bond is renewed. We don’t always understand why our clients are upset about certain things that we present or construct, but when they are upset, consider moving to the middle to be upset with them, and then, and only then, begin to resolve the issue.

After twenty years, I can’t emphasize how much the little things, like holding the door, giving a kiss on the cheek, telling them they are a great parent, do for a marriage. The same goes for your clients, it’s not the mushy, over-the-top expressions that win the day; it is a sincere thank you when you pause to appreciate them. Don’t forget to do it or eventually they will forget you.

Note for younger readers: Dear Abby was a very popular columnist who would receive questions from her fans related to love and relationships. A columnist was someone who wrote articles for the newspaper, kind of like a blogger. A newspaper was a printed document issued to your doorstep each morning that covered the events of the prior day.

~ Paul Wember, Owner’s Representative