Think like a client of your firm

Feb 27, 2022

No matter how you do it, getting inside your clients’ brains is crucial to your long-term success.

If you really want to improve the quality of the work your firm puts out as well as improve the “client experience,” you need to learn to think like your clients.

Sure, there are some tried and true methods for doing this. One way is to go hire someone from a client organization. We have all probably done that at some point and it is a good way to get insight into what your clients really want from their architects, engineers, and allied professionals. For example, it’s common for firms that serve DOT clients to hire people out of the DOT, or firms that do K-12 projects to hire former school superintendents.

Another way to get inside the clients’ heads is to bring in outside board members who come from client organizations. I have served on a number of boards of directors in privately-held AEC firms where one or more of my fellow BOD members came from a large client of the firm. Those included retired people from Fortune 500 companies, the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, former secretaries of transportation, and many other large buyers of their services. I can’t tell you how helpful that intelligence and linkage was to the AEC firms whose BODs they were on. In some cases they helped secure work. In other cases, they helped set the priorities for the project and acted as intermediaries when problems developed.

But there are also some other ways to learn more about what clients actually want and need. Becoming a developer and contractor myself after a long career on the architecture and engineering side of the business certainly opened my eyes. I found myself much more concerned about fees from my providers than I ever thought I would be. “Soft costs” become much more important when construction costs are as hard to control as they are.

One of the most innovative ways to get inside your clients’ heads (along with a good way to spread that knowledge throughout your firm) was pioneered by the late Steve Schein at the former Sumner Schein Architects & Engineers in Boston (they became part of Carter & Burgess about 25 years ago, and Carter & Burgess later became part of Jacobs Group). Sumner Schein was a more than 100-person company focused on retail clients and shopping malls. They did a lot of tenant improvement work for mall clients, so they decided to open a retail candy store in a mall they designed and go through the tenant buildout process. But perhaps even more importantly, they operated the store for a number of years afterward, using a wide variety of their employees to take turns working there. Can you imagine how valuable it would be for them to be able to tell a client who needed their services that they, too, owned and operated a retail business in a shopping mall?

Client surveys are yet another way to get inside the heads of clients and potential clients. The problem with most of these is that they are one-shot deals, and not enough people inside the AEC firms conducting the studies see the unfiltered results. I like to see these studies done on a continuous basis over an extended period of time, with the unedited results being fed back to everyone in the firm.

The important thing is this: No matter how you do it, getting inside your clients’ brains is crucial to your long-term success. To the extent you are successful in doing this will ultimately determine what kind of work you can win and how well you can actually do it.

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at

Click here to read this week's issue of The Zweig Letter!

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.