The reward of change

Feb 12, 2018

Clients have evolved, and if you want stay connected with them, you have to learn who they are, what they want, and where you fit.

Change – a simple yet loaded word, particularly these days. Unless you spent the last year under a rock, you must have noticed that things are rather in flux – make that very in flux. With all the change happening, there is great temptation to escape the discomfort it causes by running for cover. It’s a normal reaction. However, the cost is an opportunity to lead in a different direction.

Avoiding a trip down the jagged corridor of our political environment, let us look at change in the A/E industry. The fundamentals of designing, permitting, and constructing a building do not change. There are only so many ways to apply the laws of physics to create a physical structure that rises out of the ground, remains in place, and looks good.

So, what has changed?


A/E industry executives lament how in the “good old days,” clients valued and willingly paid for professional guidance. Now they want expeditious results, technological solutions, and commodity pricing. That is a tough reality for the dedicated A/E design community, one that inhabits the world of the intense details and nuancing needed for successful projects. Nevertheless, without those unappreciative ratepayers, there is no income stream.

So, what to do?

To win over an unconvinced audience, you have to move into the discomfort zone, taking behavioral risks to learn who they are, what they want, and where you fit. In the process, it’s important to recognize that clients’ dismissive behavior might come from their own discomfort in a rapidly changing world.

Here are four ways to close the gap between you and your clients:

  1. Understand that clients lack the bandwidth to understand or care about your work. When I joined Amazon in 1998 as its first global real estate executive, for the first time in my career I experienced life as an expense sump rather than income generator. To succeed, we had to accept that our clients only cared about real estate when it failed. Once in a while they liked it (especially if it involved food service), but that was the exception. What mattered to them was their work. The hyper-connected digital world required inventing and testing new products and services at warp speed. The last thing they wanted was to expend precious brain cells learning about stodgy bricks and mortar. What was true in 1998 is now universal to business, even with the addition to real estate of highly technical solutions.
  2. Winning means convincing your client to care on their terms. A/E professionals often are reluctant to leave their comfort zone of design and techno speak. What they fail to notice is the audience for A/E speak is limited. To close the communication gap between you and your client, explore how they define success. That opens the channel to their willingness to hear how you can serve them. It requires business oriented inquiries rather than technical requirement discussions. Converting their needs into design is your job after you understand them.
  3. To close the gap, you have to change. To gain client trust demands not only asking questions, but also answering questions you did not expect. Today’s knowledge workers, particularly the new generation of Generation X executives, measure worth based on data, metrics, and pushing the envelope. They will happily challenge everything you say, including things you always took for granted. “Well, why can’t we install screens in the middle of our spaces?” To prove your value, you either have to concede or, better, confess ignorance and commit to finding a great solution.
  4. To prove your value, empower your listener. While they are unlikely to admit it, clients dislike not knowing what you do. It takes them out of their comfort zone. Your job is to empower them to hold up their end of the conversation. To achieve that, try converting highly technical information and design ideas into understandable terms. Using everyday analogies (e.g., “It’s like when you finally take apart that broken grill and discover …”) and visual aids bring them into the discussion. Keep it simple, but not simple minded.

Change is hard, for everyone, but the reward of entering the discomfort zone is valuable new information and opportunity.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 16 years has coached and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She earned her stripes for leading in the new and unknown as Amazon’s first global real estate executive. She is an award-winning author of The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. She can be reached at

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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.