Know your client’s business

Sep 09, 2016

Being a great architect or engineer is not enough. To truly flourish, you have to have an intimate knowledge of what makes your clients tick.

Your knowledge of architecture, design, engineering, and building codes, your relationship with building and planning officials, and even your sterling reputation with the City Council, Planning Commission, and Architecture Review Board, is simply not enough today. To be truly successful and fulfilled in this business, I believe you’ve got to know your clients’ businesses intimately.

To figure this out, you have to know enough about how that client operates in the markets they serve so that you could go to work for one of them and hold your own. My experience tells me this approach reaps great rewards in satisfied clients, performance-based innovation, reputation enhancement, add-on and repeat business, as well as personal satisfaction.

Let me give you some examples:

  • In Southern California, my firm worked for many years with numerous major film studios. I became a student of how their businesses ran, both on the creative side as well as in their legal and business affairs, right down to reading the trade papers, Daily Variety and Hollywood Reporter, every day. Our work with most of our clients went well beyond designing and supervising the construction of a building or an interior. Our knowledge of their business allowed us to operate strategically. We advised them on the utilization of their studio properties, on an array of organizational issues and, of course, on how to optimize their real estate value.
  • When Sony bought Columbia Pictures and Warner Bros. wanted to swap the MGM Studio in Culver City (which they owned), for Columbia’s one-third interest in the Burbank Studio, we worked for both Sony and Warner Bros. to prepare the due-diligence, budget and relocation strategy. In order to do this assignment, we needed the full trust and confidence of both clients, who were sitting on opposite sides of the deal. That trust and confidence came from our deep understanding of what they did.
  • Another example of benefiting from an intimate knowledge of a client’s business involved a major U.S. financial institution. When a facilities management firm took over that institution’s bank-owned real estate department, they were tasked with lowering costs and reducing the number of vendors the bank was managing at the time. Originally, the number of architect/interior designers was cut from more than 100 to 16, and then to two.

I believe the major reason my firm was one of the last two vendors was the strategic work we had done with the bank over the years. We had developed a graphic icon-driven database management system that allowed us to test reconfiguration scenarios in real-time with the client. Often, we had documentation on both banks’ real estate portfolios. We augmented that service with real estate analysis. When the bank acquired another bank, they often had redundant facilities – operation centers and branches. We helped determine which had better proximity to their employment base, and which were most marketable.

I am now a development partner with the $1.2-billion West 2nd District project in Reno, Nevada ( I am expanding my intimate knowledge of the development process – how projects are financed, how they are valued, what makes them easier to manage for both the owner and the tenants, and what will make them more valuable over time as the tenant mix continues to evolve.

I spent an entire career working with developers, and my “graduate school” of development was my membership in the Urban Land Institute and participation on a Real Estate Development Council. My colleagues were developers, bankers, leasing agents, building managers and other real estate professionals. I learned a lot, and I’m still learning.

I encourage you to go deep with your clients, to engage in continuous learning. It’s up to you to gain the additional education necessary to truly understand the businesses of your clients. Yes, you should get your LEED certification. And yes, you’ll need to take continuing education classes each year to maintain your professional certification. However, to be a true professional in your clients’ eyes, you’ll need to go much further. I did, and I can say I never could have had the career I enjoyed without doing so. It made my work that much more fulfilling and allowed me to develop the deep client relationships I’ve enjoyed throughout my life.

Ed Friedrichs, FAIA, FIIDA, is a consultant with Zweig Group and the former CEO and president of Gensler. Contact him at

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.