The Round Table – Pitch to Perfect

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In Association with

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Thanks to all who took part:

Elena Panagiotidis, Perkins+Will/ Gurvinder Khurana, align/ David Walker, BDG/ Laura Warholic, Gensler/ Chiara Cantilena, LOM Architecture and Design/
Jason Stubbs, AECOM/ Nick Hoffman, COMO/ Steve Makris, ISG

We are all sales people at heart and when the client says ‘Yes’ to your proposal, we suspect there is a frisson of excitement in anticipation of all the good things to follow. So, once you have told your boss, colleagues, family and Twitter followers the good news, you now must settle down to deliver.

Our latest roundtable assesses how clients are changing and are becoming ever more demanding. We look at the increased pressure on the whole of the project team to work together to go above and beyond for their client.

The big question is; has it ever been more difficult to deliver a scheme from pitch to perfectly happy client? In other words, have client expectations changed over the past few years?

Here’s just a snippet of the fascinating session.

Chiara: Technology has changed – it has moved forward – and clients now have access to media and all sorts of things that allow them to be much better informed. They know what they want and when they have a space they often have a vision for it – whether that’s the right or the wrong vision. This makes it easier in one way.

Elena: I think it depends on the sector – especially the commercial sector that we work in. I think client expectations have been relatively similar over the past few years – I don’t think they have dramatically changed. It comes down to money. What can they expect for the money they want to spend? That’s the driving factor for a lot of our commercial clients.

Asha Genat: But they do want more bang for their buck. A big part of the demanding aspect here is that clients often want everything, regardless of what the budget might be.

“I do think clients are more demanding – and they’re more demanding because they’re more educated and they’re also more exposed to design through technology.” David Walker

Elena: I’m not sure client expectations have changed – but they are certainly more demanding; more demanding not only in terms of your vision for a project but also more demanding of your time. You become more of a hand-holder than a service provider.

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Gurvinder: I think hand-holding is part of the service. You’re offering a premium service – a top-notch design service – and most of the people around this table are working for big, global firms who are at the top of their game. Therefore you have to be able to offer that.

Elena: You do – but that level of service is not factored into the price that the client wants to pay.

Jason: I think that’s quite interesting. I think global companies like ourselves are finding that the global footprint of our client has spread. The demand now is that they expect us to service the London market today – and tomorrow they expect us to be somewhere in the Middle East, where the level of expertise that a business like the Specialist Joinery Group could bring, simply isn’t there. The speed at which clients want us to turn things around has changed – going back to the media and being fed information almost instantaneously – but actually it’s a lot of effort to create something. It’s not an easy process and you often can’t put a time limit on that. So are clients more demanding? I’d say yes – but rightly so. Clients come to you because they believe that you’re the best that you can be.

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Chiara: You do come across some kinds of companies – like tech companies – who have a completely different way of dealing with designers. I think, typically as designers, we’re used to being around the table producing fantastic visions and we can offer an idea of what the final product will be. But when you’re dealing with tech companies, they’re often one step ahead of you – so you really do have to make that extra effort to meet their expectations. Otherwise you find that they’re not necessarily wowed by what you have produced for them.

Steve: I do agree that sectors play a big part in this. I think we’re always trying to connect with ‘what’s next’ – we need to be because we’re always up against firms who are all looking to bring something different to the table. And that doesn’t come with a charge. We are all demanding more within a compressed period of time – and something’s eventually got to give. There’s always someone who will say that they can do it faster and cheaper. When are we going to say, ‘Right, enough is enough’?

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David: I do think clients are more demanding – and they’re more demanding because they’re more educated and they’re also more exposed to design through technology. They see things more – through Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest – it’s all out there. Even if they’re not fully educated, they’re visually educated. They see a lot of things that they like or that they don’t like and they are able to make judgements on these things. Sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes that’s different – because they see something and they say, ‘I like this, why won’t this work, why can’t we have this?’ You then have to spend the time and your knowledge and your experience to tell them, ‘Well it works in this case, but it may not work for you’. The important point here is that you can’t just throw out the solution that’s visually enticing and looks amazing on that Pinterest page. You have to make that bespoke effort for each client – so they get what they want but they get it just for them. Speaking of delivery, we need to use technology but we also need to fine-tune our decision making process.

“There have always been demanding clients. There’s always been that one client who wants to be there through every single detail and though every step of the way.” Chiara Cantilena

Laura: I agree with that education point. Clients sometimes think they are educated on a lot of things – but in reality they are not as educated as they think and we then have to spend more time explaining why or why not we may or may not be able to do something. Trying to convince them of these things takes time. It also takes time for them to value our opinion and to trust us – to trust that we’re doing the right thing.

Nick: A lot of people have touched on this already but I think the speed at which clients want things done now is not necessarily a reflection of the clients, it is a reflection of society. We’re now living in this instant society where you can press a button and have a cab in front of you in three minutes rather than waiting half an hour for one to come down from the train station! It is all moving in that direction. There’s little patience any more, whether that’s clients or society as a whole; everyone wants everything now – and they want it cheaper.

Asha Genat: There have always been demanding clients. There’s always been that one client who wants to be there through every single detail and though every step of the way. I think the onus is on us as designers to manage them in a different way – to make the best use of their time and our time.

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Elena: In a lot of our work we have a filter between us and the client, which is the project management arm. The project manager can offer the world to the client – but they don’t factor in the amount of time it takes for us to deliver that. So we are being pushed not only by the client, but also by the PM’s to get it done quickly – and the PM’s simply don’t care about the details! It’s a discussion we have with project managers all the time.

David: It’s not just about speed of delivery. I think a lot of clients –and I’ve experienced this a lot – leave decisions until the very last minute. It’s not us leaving the decision until the very last minute – we’re led by the client.

Gurvinder: Again this is systematic of society. They don’t give you what you need but they still expect that the timescales won’t change. We tend to deal with MD’s and CEO’s and we’re constantly asking for their time – and they’re trying to deliver their own business strategies. So it becomes a real tussle – and because of technology and everything now being instant, you can’t see any respite from this. It does make a difference when your client understands the process – in other words working with creative companies. People who have that creative background will – sometimes – cut you more slack because they understand the pressure of deadlines.

“There’s little patience any more, whether that’s clients or society as a whole; everyone wants everything now – and they want it cheaper.” Nick Hoffman

Ciaran: Going back to the original point of whether expectations have changed over the past five years, of course they have changed. If it hadn’t changed, we’d all be out of a job essentially. Things are changing constantly. Design creativity has always been a major catalyst for Specialist Joinery Group’s growth and development. When you push the boundaries in design, we respond with investment in our people and manufacturing capability to ensure that we can continue to deliver innovative solutions that achieve the vision. It’s exciting to think of the potential for change over the next 50 years and the role that we can play in that.

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Sean: At this level, when you’re ‘at the coalface’ actually manufacturing products, you have to react. You have to constantly react and evolve. We have all agreed that towards the end of a project timescales are always pushed, but as specialists we can never compromise on the quality of the finished product. At the end of the programme, there can be a lot of congestion and we have to be able to respond by resourcing the project all over again – ensuring that perfect delivery and finish that we set out to achieve.

Conclusion: We often talk about how technology and information enhance our work and our lives – but it clearly comes with a cost. Creativity takes time – whether you’re a designer, a contractor or a manufacturer. These skills shouldn’t be taken for granted or treated as commodities. And this should come from the top – from the end user. Have expectations changed? Definitely. It is crucial that, as technology continues to evolve, these expectations don’t become so great that they break the creative process.

Thanks to our friends at Specialist Joinery Group for their support in this Round Table and their welcome hospitality after. Our thanks also go to AECOM for hosting the Round Table.