Essays & Essais – the new book by David Marlatt, AIA, is now available for pre-order!

Clients & Customers

Occasionally the word “customer” is used interchangeably with the term, “client,” as in “our firm prides itself on excellent customer service.” For sure, this message is not for me; it is intended for prospective “customers,”  who reasonably expect service for their money. It’s well intentioned, but deserves some dissection before being taken too literally and devaluing our profession.

Clearly, architects practice a service profession. But, when we see our job as simply to “serve our customer,” we can do a disservice to our both our client and his or her project. The semantical difference hinges on the notions of passivity vs collaboration. A customer passively purchases something of value in exchange for money. A client pays for a service to collaborate on a project. 

A doctor’s patient is a client, not a customer. The patient consults the doctor to solve a problem, not to dictate to the doctor a desired diagnosis and prescription. The patient’s health is the project on which they collaborate, and a good doctor will not hesitate to contradict or disappoint his patient for the sake of his health. The patient may be scared, angry, relieved, or whatever, but they find great value in that service. The value is reflected in  what doctors earn.

Whether they initially understand this or not, I feel my clients hire me to look after their building project in the same way that a patient hires a doctor to care for their health.  More often than not, there is little distinction between the client’s interests and those of the project, but sometimes I have to defend the contractor’s change order request, or the building code requirement, or the planning code limitation. Sometimes, I have to (patiently) explain that the client’s favorite color or aesthetic preference may not be in the project’s best interest. Even more delicate is when the client’s budget and schedule are incompatible with the project’s success.

Explaining to a client that she is wrong is a service. Knowing when to do it and how is an acquired skill. It must be handled politely, respectfully and with good humor. Hopefully, solutions accompany each problem (e.g. “we can’t do this the way you asked, but here are two other ways to get the same result”). 

Because they have achieved the financial means to construct a building, our clients by definition have demonstrated a measure of success and power. They really don’t need me to defend them or feed their ego. I am the advocate for their project, and after months or years of work, when we are finally standing in a completed building, they are grateful that I thought first of our mutual project and not just of their personal needs. I am grateful to have served them as clients and not customers.