Sell Outcomes, Not Services
It’s logical to believe that the quality of your client service sets you apart. Your firm—like all other professional services firms—sells services, and your fees are based on the time it takes to provide those services. But offering good services is just the baseline, not the end game; services are merely the instruments needed to develop, design and build great projects. To build your influence and attract more clients, it’s time to drop the emphasis on services and start to focus on outcomes.
What Are Outcomes, and How Do You Measure Them?
You can easily quantify outcomes by running the numbers; for example, how many people attended a cultural venue you designed, how many new students applied to a school, or what version of LEED certification you were able to achieve for a client.
On the other hand, qualitative results—such as user comfort or even social justice—are more difficult to measure. While it’s hard to quantify “transformation” or “design excellence” and much easier to measure the performance of a building, many would call a building with multiple design awards and wide media coverage a critical success.
However you measure a project’s end results, outcome-based thinking—and doing!—are increasingly urgent as the industry is forced to confront new challenges at an unmatched scale (extreme heat, wildfires, rising sea levels) and complexity (pandemics, public health, homelessness). The stakes are highest for problems of local and national magnitude: anything from future-proofing cities for resilience to providing affordable housing for all.
Shifting Your Mindset
Recalibrating your thinking towards outcomes means adopting a different kind of mindset that leaps beyond delivering project features (size, program components, materials) to producing results—such as increasing your clients’ ROI, reducing their energy use, or improving the tenant experience.
By foregrounding great results (rather than, say, fees), firms transcend the transactional nature of the business relationship, shifting the conversation from spreadsheets to strategies.
Additionally, talking about big-picture solutions can help firms bridge the educational divide that often separates professionals from their clients, connecting AEC experts with owners and users in a more positive way.
In most cases, though, it takes a like-minded client to join you: Either you have the client at “hello” or you don’t.
Resetting Your Vision
Some firms have always concentrated on the end product, while other firms have used the pandemic as an opportunity to reset their practices, beginning with their marketing strategies. Over the past couple of years, global cost consulting firm Rider Levett Bucknall (RLB) transitioned its strategy for providing integrated services in North America, pivoting away from service lines (project management, cost consulting, and expert testimony) to focus on a results-based approach.
It can take time to get your team up to speed. Ultimately, explains Julian Anderson, president of RLB North America, “You need to figure out the outcome before you figure out what the services will be required to get to that outcome.”
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Firms can win new projects and get better results by showing clients how their buildings will perform over time. For example, Metcalfe took the leaders of the Solebury School through his firm’s design process during the final interview for a project. To engage the client, the team made puzzle pieces representing the program components and backed them with Velcro so they could be shuffled around on a board. As the head of the school got up and interacted with the team during Metcalfe’s presentation, he could imagine real outcomes. Metcalfe got the job, beating 16 other firms for the win.
Outcomes-based thinking is oriented towards the big picture, not specific activities. Transsolar KlimaEngineering doesn’t sell energy model studies to its clients who want to attain a goal like net zero; instead, clients give Transsolar’s experts the leeway to use their knowledge in the interest of getting results. Transsolar consults on passive and low-energy buildings out of its New York, Stuttgart, Munich and Paris offices.
Whereas some owners might fear that an outcomes-based process may be risky, stakeholders may embrace a focus on the big picture rather than the details.
A Final Word
At the end of the day, the question remains: does focusing on results help firms get more work? Behnisch Architekten orients its business development efforts towards clients that embrace results, admitting that it takes more time and work “presenting, negotiating, and cajoling,” according to Matt Noblett, partner in Behnisch’s Boston office. It “becomes a decision about the kind of work we are proud to be associated with, and known for,” he says.
In a final analysis, however, one of the benefits of an outcomes-based approach is that high-level results can endure far beyond the kickoff-to-completion milestones that normally bookend a project. It’s not just one and done. Philadelphia-based KieranTimberlake’s founding partner James Timberlake emphasizes that “we’re not walking away after a project is finished. And, for us, it’s not just about getting the project into the design magazines. The primary goal is beauty, and performance comes along with that, as do things like equity, purpose, contribution to the environment, and—ultimately—impact.”