How to marry the use of technology for communications with the overriding need to create and perpetuate great personal relationships with clients? That’s a question pondered by Alan Powell, chairman of architects HPW Architecture, who says there’s no greater enjoyment in business than meeting a new client face-to-face and establishing that connection.
“The biggest buzz I get when I talk to a new client is that moment when you can see in their eyes that they are thinking ‘this guy understands and can help our business’, and I come out of the meeting thinking ‘yes’!” says Powell.
“You can’t do that digitally. The challenge is to make digital communications fit in with our ethos of being driven by personal relationships, to mesh together technology and relationships to give the client a real tangible benefit.”
In his other job as a guest lecturer at Southampton Solent University, Powell says he talks to students about the importance of client relationships. “I know competitors who are so focused on digital communication that they won’t go out and meet potential clients without charging their day rate for that first meeting.
Even we have been guilty of thinking that if you send out an e-newsletter and you have a good website you don’t have to go out and meet people.
But it’s the opposite: the digital age means you have to work harder at relationships.”
Powell started the multidisciplinary practice, which specialises in designing sustainable buildings, over thirty years ago and has historically relied heavily on repeat business and referrals. “We built the business on the basis that people buy from people they know and like and trust,” he says.
“Running a business successfully is about building quality relationships, with clients and other consultants. If we do a great job they’ll come back to us.”
Getting to know the client well also means that the firm can advise from a business perspective and not just from an architecture point of view. “For example” says Powell, “when we work on a restaurant project we will always ask the client about their catering strategy: how long do they want diners to stay for, how much storage space they need for food, how much does the restaurant need to turn over to pay for the investment. Only when we have all this information do we sit down and design the restaurant. It’s shocking how many practices will start with questions about design. Clients can get seduced by that and end up with a place that looks wonderful but where the design doesn’t work and the venture doesn’t produce a return on the investment.”
During the course of these on-going relationships, Powell and his business partner Gary Wilburn have become friends with many clients.
That relationship-based business model helped win the firm’s biggest ever project, the £140million Rushden Lakes, the leisure, retail, and tourism destination scheme in Northamptonshire; they had met and impressed the developer through previous work on a garden centre scheme.
But more recently HPW have felt the need to become more sales orientated. As part of this new approach, instead of trying to be “friends with everyone,” the firm is harnessing digital communications to focus on small, targeted groups of consultants and clients, using a database of contacts who they will have synergy with.
This kind of shift in tack has to be “enabled” by a flexibility of approach and willingness to change, says Powell.
Because concentrating on a particular type of client means having to be prepared to turn away some work.
“There are some companies out there that will award a job based on a £50 price differential,” says Powell. “We decided we deserved better than that and we would focus on quality clients who appreciate the value we can bring to their projects.”
In turn, the new focus on fewer but better quality clients has informed how the business markets itself. Powell admits that in the past their marketing communications had not been terribly effective but looking at it afresh led to “a transformation” in terms of how HPW communicate. “This exercise has been incredibly powerful. We were almost able to reinvent ourselves,” he says.
“Marketing strategy is now primarily based around getting more of the big projects and our marketing challenge is to demonstrate that we understand the client’s needs to help them to minimise the huge risk they take on in any construction project.”
As part of revisiting their communications, HPW been making constant refinements to the website, which is no longer seen just as an electronic portfolio but more as a means of vital research for potential clients.
Testimonials are an important part of the website, with potential clients encouraged to contact existing clients to ask what it’s like working with HPW.
“We probably get very little business from the site directly but when we meet people they do look at it to check us out. It’s useful for when people want to drill down into the detail about the projects we are doing,” says Powell.
Increasingly the firm is using video as a communications tool, including footage taken by an amateur drone operator who has been filming the progress of the development at Rushden Lakes.
Technology in the form of virtual reality and 3D printing also have important architectural applications. “We are planning to get into virtual reality using powerful software from the gaming sector,” says Powell.
“We could take what we are already doing with 3D design and put that into virtual reality, so the client could put on a headset and walk around their new house. You can see the water in the lake moving and the smoke coming out of the chimneys; you can even see where the sun will be at a particular time of day in the building.”
At the simpler end of the technology spectrum, HPW also dispatch quarterly newsletters by e-mail. But Powell believes there can be too much noise in terms of the amount of digital communication which people receive and that there could be a shift back to printed material.
“We used to get quite a few clients responding to our newsletters but that has stopped. I suspect they think ‘oh no, not another newsletter’! If you get a real letter these days it’s a big event so we might revert back to some use of print.”
The firm’s approach to both building design and communication is contemporary but Powell admits that he personally is more old-school, a tendency he is having to fight.
Take social media. “Almost everyone else in the firm has embraced Linkedin. My business partner has 2500 contacts. But my attitude is I’m not going to spend my weekends on the internet.”
Part of his ambivalence towards social media has come from the stress that arose when he had his identity stolen. “Fortunately, it did get sorted out but that was a torrid year.
The bank wanted to be sure that I didn’t have anything to do with it, and whenever I went to the bank after that I would be hauled in to a back office so they could make sure it was really me. They asked me if I was on social media and told me how easy it was for company directors to have their ID stolen.”
Powell is also fighting his cynicism about the value of Linkedin connections, recalling one incident. “We pitched for a project and gave the potential clients some advice. They ignored it and we didn’t get the job, but then they cherry picked our ideas anyway.
Then shortly afterwards I got an invite to join them on Linkedin. I thought ‘really’? I just deleted the request. ”
But actually he’s coming round to the idea. “I think it’s less natural for the older generation to feel the need to put stuff out there. I still feel uncomfortable about it, but I do feel increasingly isolated. I do realise there is a value to it.
My business partner has started blogging about our projects and I have seen the analytics about who has been reading the blogs, which include people we would like to target, and that’s really useful to know.”