When it’s practiced consistently, good client screening can reduce the risk of taking on a problem client or working on a project outside your firm’s areas of expertise. No architect, engineer or other design professional wants to get bogged down chasing unpaid bills or trying to attend to the needs of a high-maintenance client.

With a well-developed initial client screening process, you can help avoid potential headaches and save time by capturing vital information. Here’s what to do to screen out risky architecture clients.

1. Consult Existing Resources

When screening clients, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. There are resources available that can serve as a starting point for your firm’s own unique intake process.

Resources such as the American Institute of Architects and the Royal Institute of British Architects are a good place to start. A survey of what peer firms are doing can also be enlightening. Internet searches for queries such as “architecture client questionnaire” and “design intake questionnaire” yield thousands of results.

If you already have an existing client intake process or screening questionnaire, compare what you have in place to what works for others. Use these resources to refine and better your own process. While one size does not fit all, it’s still a great starting point to ensure that key questions are addressed and not forgotten.

2. Create an Intake Questionnaire

Qualifying a new potential client early in the process is important. An intake questionnaire can be a good way to address the most important questions upfront.

From a risk management perspective, the most important things to cover are:

  • Motivation
  • Expectations
  • History

Here’s why these points matter.


From the outset, it’s crucial to understand a prospective client’s motivation. How motivated is this client to hire a design firm and see this project through to completion? A carefully crafted list of open-ended questions can help provide clarity.

Ask a few practical questions about current status of the project’s development is as well as emotional questions such as why the prospect is considering taking on this project. Ask about what steps have already been taken and what decisions have already been made. Some also recommend asking about the prospect’s level of commitment using a scale of 1 to 100.


Expectations also play a large role in whether a working relationship and project outcome will be viewed favorably by a client. Is the client’s outcome for the project something that is achievable? How do they expect to work with you on the project and is this a process that is compatible with your firm’s procedures?

Also ask upfront about budget and timeline expectations. If a prospective client doesn’t know what a project like this should cost or how long it should take, now is the time to discuss it so that you can help them set realistic expectations.


A prospective client’s prior history is also something to scrutinize. This part of your questionnaire should focus on their experience with design projects. Does the potential client have a history of successful projects? What architects or engineers have they worked with before? Is a list of references available?

Asking about prior history of the proposed project can also help you get a sense of whether the potential client will be difficult to satisfy. If a prospect has already been through three architects before contacting your firm, it could indicate unrealistic expectations or a payment-avoidance strategy. Either scenario is best avoided.

3. Interview Clients

The initial client interview offers another important opportunity to assess the fit and risk of a project and client with questions addressing:

  • Goals for working together
  • Practical expectations
  • Ability to pay

The interview is the time to let the prospective client talk, asking them open-ended questions and applying additional assessments of their responses.

While interviewing:

  • Try to understand what the client wants to accomplish by taking on this project.
  • Listen carefully to their responses to gain insight into expectations and any underlying issues that could factor into the firm’s decision to take on the work.
  • Don’t discount a “gut feeling” about the prospect and make note of whether the client behaves professionally, is forthcoming and shows a willingness to work together.

The interview should also assess whether a client can afford the firm’s professional services. It’s simply due diligence to gauge the potential client’s reaction when discussing a reasonable estimate of initial fees and expenses.

Architecture Client Screening: Worth the Effort

The little time you spend reviewing and improving your architecture client screening and intake practices can head off many major problems for your firm down the road. In the future, you don’t want to find yourself saying “I knew this client was going to be trouble!” or “I knew I shouldn’t have taken this project!”

Instead, make sure your firm has an established, repeatable intake process. You’ll capture the important information you need to help avoid taking on undesirable clients or projects.

Remember, you always have the option to decline a project or client.

For more risk management resources for architects, engineers and designers, click here.