The foundation of a successful firm

Dec 03, 2023

Build a resilient design firm with quality work, attentive service, and a strong team for long-term success and adaptability.

If you are looking to build a long-lasting design firm, able to survive an unpredictable economy, build a firm built on the foundation of quality and service.

Quality work is essential to building long-term client relationships and opens the door to future opportunities and markets. For small to medium-sized firms, quality allows you to compete with larger firms and attract talented employees.

Quality work is based on three key elements:

  1. Assigning the right people to the job and keeping them on it. This is critical. Reflecting back on projects you know did not go well, odds are you will find a personnel issue to be a significant part of the problem. Every manager has good intentions of assigning the right people to a project, but as other projects come along demanding the limited time of key people, personnel changes tend to occur. Learning-curves typically result in added construction costs from a less efficient design or lower-quality plans and specifications.
  2. Reviewing and challenging project assumptions and base information, both before commencing work and throughout the design process. This is the “thinking” step. Do not merely grind through a project to create an end product. Do not accept project assumptions on blind faith or use base information without evaluating reasonableness and appropriateness. Understand the needs of the client and their primary objective. Getting so bogged down in the details that you miss the big picture is not quality service. The ability to understand the context of your scope is critical.
    As part of this step, identify scope that will impact the budget or schedule of a project. Many times, the client will request additional features, or a regulatory agency will require more costly elements than anticipated. These, and any other issues that impact the cost, are communicated to the client immediately. With this open communication, we can discuss the issue and suggest potential alternatives, allowing the client to address the impact earlier in the design process. Thinking through the process and challenging assumptions reduces final costs and improves the end product.
  3. Critically reviewing the work products at key times during the project – including an extensive redline review of the final products before they go out the door for third-party viewing. Regardless of the quality of people and the degree of thinking that goes into a project, the products need review. Time pressures often make plan and specification reviews extremely difficult. It is critical to set aside the time and budget needed to review work at key times during the project.

Quality and service go hand in hand, but service affects your clients’ experience while working with your firm. Think about any business or organization. Do they communicate effectively? Are they genuinely interested in listening to their clients and meeting their needs? Are they responsive? It is important to treat each client the way you would like to be treated. In our industry, one size does not fit all. Successful firms provide professional and personal service, tailored to the specific client.

Excellent service relies on responsiveness. There are many ways we communicate with our clients these days, such as email, text, phone, video meetings, or Teams chats. Never allow your email or voicemails to back up to the point where you are chronically late. You can either be chronically late or chronically on time. You do not have to solve the problem instantly, but at least acknowledge that you are aware of the request and are working on a plan. Do not let it sit in your email for a week and only respond when you get a displeased follow-up email.

Great service starts with great employees. The value of a company is its people and the ability to work together to solve problems and meet clients’ needs. That has been true at our firm since our inception in 1990. Our mission statement has been consistent: “Satisfying our clients by providing excellent service, solving their challenges, and meeting their needs.” In a healthy work environment, employees are engaged and committed to the company, resulting in a firm that provides exceptional service. Zweig Group has a been a valuable sounding board to see how we compared to other successful firms, and because of that, we have been submitting to their Best Firms To Work For Award for years.

Our industry deals with complex issues and unique solutions. To be successful, we need to be always listening and adapting, managing with foresight and not hindsight. A reputation for excellent service opens the door to other types of work and allows a firm to diversify in times of economic challenges.

Firms built on service and quality are both successful and sustainable! 

Daniel Houf, P.E. is president and senior principal of Harper Houf Peterson Righellis, Inc., a multidiscipline firm founded in 1990 with offices in Oregon and Washington. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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.