Architecture clients can be difficult in more ways than one. From the indecisive client to the one worried about the budget or obsessed with the timeline, many design professionals have seen it all. The issue of difficult clients is such a common experience that ArchDaily has featured a humorous cartoon on the topic: 15 Clients You Will Encounter as an Architect (And How to Deal With Them).
Many younger designers are told that they must learn to work well with all types of architecture clients. That’s generally true, to a point, but it’s also important to take your own risk exposure into account. If an architect and a client have a serious disagreement during a project, a costly lawsuit can result.
Following on from ArchDaily’s survey of client types, here’s a look at 15 types of architecture clients and the risks they present, plus tips on how to protect yourself and avoid a lawsuit.
1. The “I’m Not Really Sure What I Want” Client
Have a client who says they want one thing in a meeting and another in an email an hour later? Such indecision isn’t only annoying, it’s also risky, since the conflicting instructions may lead to a claim. A good way to handle it is to specify a decision-making process in the contract, then follow it. Document your professional advice and each choice the client makes.
2. The “I Assumed This Was Included” Client
Ever work with a client who insists on getting something extra at every turn? Consider what could happen if something goes wrong on work that isn’t even noted in the contract! The best practice is to adhere to the scope of services all involved agreed to. Feel free to refer the client back to the contract when pushed. If the scope must expand, sign a new agreement.
3. The “I Need This Done Yesterday” Client
What about clients who don’t understand that work takes time to complete? It’s a comparatively short trip from a lack of awareness of time to accusations of missed deadlines and a breach of contract. Begin timeline discussions early and document key dates in the contract itself. Educate clients on what to expect and about risks such as unforeseen conditions.
4. The “Everything Is an Emergency” Client
Ever have a client who thinks they’re your only client? Unaddressed, that lack of understanding could lead miscommunications, hard feelings or worse. Often, this is an issue with inexperienced clients. You can use your client screening process to help identify those without architectural experience who may need extra handholding and use your contract to help protect your time.
5. The “We Don’t Have a Deadline — Wait, We Do and It’s Tomorrow” Client
How about a client who claims there isn’t a set schedule until the project falls behind schedule? It usually happens due to a lack of communication on the client’s side. But that’s not to say you won’t be blamed for it. Again, early discussions of timelines and deadlines documented in the contract are key and can help protect other projects and timelines from being impacted.
6. The “I Don’t Really Care, Just Do What You Want” Client
What do you do when you have a client who is truly hands-off? Creative freedom can be great in certain circumstances. But some client feedback is still necessary. With these kinds of clients, let documentation be your friend. Sign a written agreement on an initial approach, provide regular written progress updates and get affirmative decisions on the books for anything important.
7. The “I Care So Much It Hurts” Client
On the other extreme, ever have a client who cares too much about every detail? An extremely specific vision can be frustrating, but more dangerously, it may also be unworkable. Education and guidance can help with this kind of client. Using your contract to specify clear roles for both you and the client can also help prevent an opinionated client from taking over.
8. The “I Don’t Know What I Want, But It Isn’t That” Client
Or maybe you have a client who knows what they want but doesn’t know how to tell you (and you’re not doing well at guessing)? A client who is impossible to please from the start can be very risky. Discussions about a project’s aims and approach happen very early. If warning signs appear here, it may be better to pass on the project to protect your firm.
9. The “Will This Cost Extra?” Client
What about the kind of client who is tracking your budget down to the penny? Having a budget-conscious client is pretty normal, but an inflexible one could be a different story. Projects can be unpredictable and a financially stressed client is more likely to sue if a problem arises. Use client screening to verify upfront that a client has the financial capacity to complete a project.
10. The “What’s a Weekend?” Client
Have a client that calls or emails after hours? Or tries to get you to work weekends and holidays? Left unaddressed, it could turn into a breach of contract claim. Remember: boundaries aren’t just for surveyors. Upfront, be sure to set clear expectations for how you and the client will work together, including turnaround times for communications and limits on client requests.
11. The “I Hate That Color for No Reason” Client
Ever had to work with a client who obsesses over a small detail like a particular color, material or fixture? Once they latch on, it can be hard to get them to let go, risking project delays, extra expenses and hard feelings. Protect yourself by addressing how changes will impact timelines and budgets in your contract. In difficult cases, consider withdrawing from the project.
12. The “Won’t This Take Five Minutes” Client
What about the type of client who doesn’t understand that architecture takes longer than a few minutes? This client’s lack of awareness may seem humorous, but it is also risky. In fact, you could be accused of professional negligence for normal timeline issues beyond your control. Set realistic expectations at the outset and communicate any changes impacting the timeline.
13. The “Decision by Committee” Client
Have a client that decides everything by committee? This client is often found in the corporate world and can result in more and more individuals becoming involved in your project. The danger here is that communication can break down on their end, with you blamed for the results. Be sure to stipulate a single point of contact in the contract to make your life easier.
14. The “Disappearing, Reappearing” Client
Ever have a client who disappears for weeks at a time, only to reemerge with urgent requests? This type of client is particularly risky, since such behavior can jeopardize the whole project. A strong contract and clear expectations can help you here. Make sure the client acknowledges your turnaround time for questions, requests and other project work, and stick to it.
15. The “This Turned Out Great, But Let’s Change All of It” Client
What about the client who seems satisfied, then bombards you with requests for major last-minute changes? It’s a move that can throw everything into question. Your contract and documentation are your best defense here. Go over the contract and records with the client and inform them that changes beyond the original will require additional time and budget.
Architecture Clients and Risk
While your primary concern may be helping challenging clients reach the finish line on a project, it’s important not to neglect your own risk management needs. Just like clients, these can vary and require differing tactics to minimize your risk and get the job done.
From client screening, to using good contracts and documentation, there are many tactics that can make working with clients more manageable. But even the best risk management won’t save you from a lawsuit every time. In these situations, the right insurance can make all the difference.
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