Business In Archviz

By Jeff Mottle

Business in Arch Viz. Vol. 11 - Managing Clients

Welcome to the eleventh installment of our new RebusFarm Business in Arch Viz series.  Over the next year we will be featuring regular articles every month. Each new article will discuss the business side of working in and running businesses in the visualization industry.  We will feature articles from some of the top studios in the world and have in-depth answers to questions that every studio and artist in the industry should know.  

The goal of this series is to provide a long-term resource for not only new artists and business owners entering the industry, but also long-time industry veterans.  The topics will range from contracts and IT infrastructure to hiring and business strategy.

Studios participating in this series include: 2G Studio, ArX Solutions, Beauty and the Bit, Cityscape, DBOX, Designstor, Digit Group, Inc., Factory Fifteen, Kilograph, Luxigon, MIR, Neoscape, Public Square, Steelblue, The Neighbourhood, Transparent House, Urbansimulations and many more. Collectively these companies generate hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue, and have decades of experience running some of the most successful businesses in the industry.

We hope you enjoy the series!

We would like to also like to sincerely thank RebusFarm for supporting this series. Through their support they are helping better our industry and contribute significantly to future generations of visualization businesses in our field. If you are looking for one of the best rendering farm companies in the world, we highly recommend checking them out here

Image courtesy: Kilograph

What is the secret to managing clients?

ArX Solutions: Always deliver on time and surpass the client's expectation. For us, a client is someone that did a project with us and then came back with another project. If they are not coming back, we don't consider them as a client. 

Beauty and The Bit: The secret is that we are all human beings so we all want to tell our truth. Maybe you can't clearly see their motivations but they have them. Maybe it is selling a millionaire condo property, winning a competition or showing their beloved ones what they have in their minds. It is a complicated act of balance between what they want to see and what you want to see. Generally I would say that the secret is empathy.

Designstor: The ability to clearly communicate is the secret to managing clients. Clear communication wins arguments, eases fears, wins hearts and hits deadlines. 

Kilograph: Making them feel like it was all their decision. Having a happy and relaxed relationship with them as much as possible.

MIR: We are still struggling. I would not pretend that this is something we excel at.

Neoscape: Successful client management and customer service is all about setting proper expectations and then constantly resetting expectations throughout the life of a project.

PixelFlakes: Explaining the process is key to the management and creation of good imagery. Ensuring clients are coming to you for the right reasons, at the right time in their development process and that they understand what it is you're going to deliver and how is crucial. Face to face meetings if possible are a must, to both help you understand their intent and for them to understand your process. When everyone is educated correctly the management of clients and their projects is for the most part very straight forward.  

Public Square: Please tell me….ha

Pure: Communication

2G Studio: Speak with your heart, respect yourself first. Clients don't want to know if you sleep or not. If they ask for one day progress, and you say yes even though you know you will not sleep at that time, they don't care. Although you say no, they will keep pushing. At some point they will say, nah it's okay, we can give you 3 days. The question is how you want to respect yourself. Easy, charge your client if they want fast progress. Charge them until they don't need to think to say no to pay your extra fee. 

Ricardo Rocha: The secret is to have a lot of meetings to know all the expectations about our client. This help us to keep our clients happy.

Transparent House: There's no single secret to manage your clients. But making sure to attune to your different client's needs and their personalities is key. Some of our clients are very knowledgeable about the process and require very little hand-holding. With these people, keeping communication brief and to the point has proven to be successful. 

In other cases we sometimes work with clients who are very inexperienced in the realm of CG visualization. In these cases we try to make sure to keep the client fully up to speed at all times, several times a day to give them a piece of mind knowing that things are moving along on our end. When you work on something you are unfamiliar with, it is easy to get anxious and wanting answers at all times, which we understand well and try to cater to. 

But ultimately we do our best to balance our client interaction so that there's a healthy dose of communication and interaction while at the same time making sure that it is streamlined and to the point to allow us to focus on actual production of our work. 

Urban Simulations: Being half part of their team, half a business you have to deal with.

Image Courtesy: Beauty and The Bit

How do you deal with difficult clients?

ArX Solutions: Learning how to count one million or start doing something. That something might be not nice but necessary. In black and white, a bad client will make you lose money and might kill your business. Try to avoid difficult clients and as soon as you have one in front of you try to walk away asap.

Beauty and The Bit: We always try to give our opinion with all our clients. In the end we are the professionals and we have a trained eye for this. We also try to provide our clients not only with an image but with a strong art direction. In the end you have to know what battles you have to fight and which other ones you have to let go. Ok, you want that bad camera with those overused clichés and nonsense activities? There you go with my best smile.

Designstor: Tactfully, unless they are outright rude. Understanding why clients are difficult is a good approach. Often it's something out of our control. 

Kilograph: Every day and every night.

MIR: The problem with difficult clients is that it is never the person you are talking to that are difficult. It is their boss. Or the boss of the boss. Or the bosses, boss' client. Or maybe their client again. We try to talk to people as high up in the hierarchy as possible all the time.

Neoscape: Patience.  As well as acknowledging that clients have hired you to provide a service.  You sometimes have to swallow artistic pride in order to keep a client happy.  

PixelFlakes: We are now in somewhat of a privileged position when it comes to clients, projects are born from architects who genuinely appreciate what we bring to the table. A lot of our clients stem from frequent collaborations which means that 'difficult clients' are somewhat of a rarity. We of course have clients and have had many in the past who don't heed your advice and ignore your attempts to reason or push through ideas. We don't work with these clients anymore. Not just because we choose not to, but also if you feel that the client is being difficult, then they no doubt feel you are too. It's the same as any relationship in life, when both parties bring something of value, you are respected and appreciated for it. The experience is smooth and enjoyable and that's what clients remember. Difficult clients in our experience have  naturally faded out.

Public Square: The best way I have found is to be factual and straightforward. Sometimes giving them enough information to see inside your own business and what it takes to achieve their project goal gives them better understanding of what they are asking and insight into why the cost and or time is what it is. 

Pure: Communication

2G Studio: Being stubborn I guess. That's the only thing I always do, hahaha. If i say we can't, then we can’t. If they ask why, I always tell them the truth. Ee have another client that also waiting, and we are human, that need to sleep. If you want to us to help, then you have to help us to give fast feedback etc etc. I am always honest to my client. Never tell a lie.  They can feel and know, even when you tell them through email.

Ricardo Rocha: We try to manage our clients properly, so it allow us to set "real" pipelines. Basically is to educate the client about the times, process and all the stuff we do. 

Steelblue: Try to put yourself in your client's position to help you understand what they want.  Will this make them better clients? They have pressures of time and cost as we all do. Perhaps not, but maybe you can adjust your method of communication so they understand the boundaries, schedule, process, constraints, and end goals.

Transparent House: Every once in awhile we may encounter a "difficult" client. The difficulty rarely comes from a point of working with bad people but more so a frustration that they either don't have a full grasp of the process or that they feel their expectations were not met. Either way, this is often a sign that somewhere communication got lost. In these situations we always try to get some direct face time with the clients so that we can, in real time, discuss and counterbalance their reactions. Written communication has the benefits of keeping a paper trail of communication but can also be easily be misunderstood. We often clear such disconnects right away once we get a facetime meeting in place and we are then able to reboot and start on a fresh page.

Urban Simulations: Finishing the project and denying next projects.

Image Courtesy: Pixel Flakes

Have you ever fired a client? How do you know it’s the right time? What is the best way to let a client go?

ArX Solutions: Yes. When a client doesn't respect us or our product we let them go. Also, when you are losing lots of money and the client is still coming back with unreasonable requests and don't assume any responsibility, we discuss an amicable way of getting away from the project. It is really important to understand the power of a “NO” at the right time.

Beauty and The Bit: Yes we have done just a couple of times. It is just a matter of respect. You know the time has come when you feel that lack of respect for what you are trying to do for them. We once fired a client that was a big studio and they sent us a really rude mail saying that they included us in their "blacklist" so we wouldn't get more jobs. I think time proved they were wrong. 

Designstor: Yes. It's the right time to fire a client when they are disrespectful, uncooperative and/or unreasonably demanding. The best way is to be direct and expect to do so over the phone. 

Kilograph: Yes we have tried but unsuccessfully.  I am a poor liar so I think the point was made and the relationship improved.

MIR: No, not really. The only clients we have had to let go are the ones that want us to produce more images than we are willing to deliver. It is important for us to have different clients, because we learn more from this and we don't want to put all our eggs in one basket.

Neoscape: Yes - we have resigned business a small number of times.  In each case the relationship got strained despite our best efforts and the clients were simply not a good match for the services we were providing.  In one case the client was abusive to our staff and unprofessional in general so we had to draw the line.

PixelFlakes: We haven't openly fired a client or had a project which has ended in disaster (touch wood)! However, we have phased clients out by constantly being 'fully booked' or 'having artists on holiday', I guess, it's our own way of firing people! At the end of the day we want to be working on exciting projects with like minded architects, who appreciate your vision rather than attempting to mould you to theirs. Whilst we appreciate input we don't want clients dictating camera angles and lighting conditions, as soon as we feel the creative process is lost, then we'll generally prioritise other potential projects instead.

Public Square: To my knowledge we have never fired a client, however we have definitely learned from a project and how we would handle the client differently if and when they come back for more work. After working with a client you can usually better predict the amount of revisions etc. their team will need and we can better plan for that if we have learned from a past experience. 

Pure: Once. It was hard and it hurt so much, that I knew I needed to protect our business.

2G Studio: Yes, from US. That time was not the right time. Really, but he keep screwing us up, and happen too often. We always tried to help him, but he did not realize that. Until we left. The best way is to tell them the truth, I guess. I don't know any other way.

Ricardo Rocha: The best way to let a client go is to deliver our best work.

Steelblue: We completed what we agreed to, but we turned down additional phases and subsequent projects. Try to finish what you start.

Urban Simulations: Yes, there are some points where keep going is worse than stopping. If you are about to lose money or the client has a picture in mind and the data he gives you is inaccurate. Really often clients who don't have the skills to describe what they want make them dangerous… they become a bomb.

Do you have any tips to help ensure successful client relationships? Ultimately, what is the client generally looking for?

ArX Solutions: Listen, learn... Service, service and service.

Beauty and The Bit: A human approach to things. You don't work in your client's office but you have to team up with him and row in the same direction. Communication is the key. Also it is important not assuming an architect knows  about everything, so don't take everything a client says for granted. Maybe if you defend your point always with respect, the client realizes that your way to tell the story is even better. In the end, is understanding mutually and make concessions. Also you find the more and more you work for a client the more creativity and space allows you, so go and work hard for that privilege.

Designstor: My biggest tip for successful client relationships is to always remember that you are providing a service, and that many others can provide that service also. Ultimately all clients are looking for help to solve a problem. Solving clients' problems will make the relationship strong.

Kilograph: Agree on a creative brief at the start of the project. All progress should be measured against this brief to ensure goals are being met and everyone is still on the same page. This separates the production houses from the agencies.

MIR: Don't blindly take orders. Try to understand what your clients are after and use your experience and knowledge to try to achieve this. Get to know your clients, talk to them. Let them know that you are after their best, not only in words, but in tone of voice. Don't let them control the initiative.

Neoscape: Clients want to work with teams that can deliver the results they want and with teams that they like working with.  We carefully consider which team will get each assignment based on project type, skills needed and client personality.  Chemistry is a large part of keeping clients happy and it often starts with selecting the best team.

PixelFlakes: The main thing here is education once again. There are many different approaches to visualisation, some companies prefer to be at the very beginning of a project when designs are loose and you're able to use artistic license to help create imagery for internal communication. Others prefer to come at the end of proceedings where specifications are exact and imagery is used for branding and marketing purposes. It's important the client knows what it is you deliver and where your strengths lie as a company. For us we like to be there towards the beginning of a process, where information remains a little loose and we have some creative freedom, we ensure clients are aware of this somewhat conceptual nature so they know what expect. If this process is followed then clients will naturally be happy with the outcome as the intent of the imagery and the output have been discussed throughout the process. Disappointment only arises through promising something that can't be obtained.

Pure: Trust. Clients search for trust. And communication is once again the key.

Ricardo Rocha: The client is always looking for new technologies for their projects. If we can do what they need and offer a plus it will be successful relationship.

Steelblue: Learn what the client is looking for is.

Transparent House: Each client and project is unique, which is a wonderful thing in our industry but it is also something that creates a challenge. Most importantly we pride ourselves in constantly keeping our clients updated. Our industry has an unfortunate reputation of companies who'll fall of the radar from their clients. Since we almost exclusively work on projects with strict deadlines we understand and value the pressure our clients are faced with on their end and we always do our very best to provide them with a peace of mind knowing that their investment for marketing imagery is hard at work and always on time. But more important than anything else: the key to happy clients is to constantly produce and deliver high quality assets!

Urban Simulations: They look for growing the internal team with an external team, if you are honest with the fees, you are building a good business relationship.

Image Courtesy: Public Square

Is there a way to determine if a client is going to be a good client or bad client in advance? How do you tell?

ArX Solutions: Yes you can know, but to be honest, we have had our surprises with really nice clients that at the beginning we thought it was not going to go that way.

Another piece of advice would be: if the client does not trust you and is really complicated, then it is not the right client. 

Beauty and The Bit: The first round of revisions is decisive. It is something that your intuition lets you know with years of experience. Usually when they get too picky even when you haven't still started the process is a clear indicative of a hard week to come. 

Designstor: I've been surprised in both ways: some clients I thought would be bad turn out to be good, while others I thought would be good turned out to be bad. An in-person meeting is usually the best way to gauge this. 

Kilograph: If you are referred to them through a contact that tells you they are difficult this is usually accurate. Otherwise nearly impossible to tell. We have found a relationship between rounds of revision to the service agreement language and level of difficulty further along in the project however.

MIR: The language in the e-mail will usually reveal how they will treat you. If the e-mail is formulaic, sound the alarm.

Neoscape: Yes - a good client wants to be engaged in the project.  The proposal process is a good barometer for how a project may go - clients who are attentive and forthcoming with information - collaborative - tend to maintain that throughout a project.  Some other clients may have less time to focus on our work together - which is fine - as long as decision making is happening in a timely fashion and we know that going in.  We often say that "if it starts hard it'll get harder".

PixelFlakes: There are certainly tells at the beginning of the process. Are assets sent on time, are they detailed enough? Are assets and direction too detailed? Will the client be looking to micro manage too much for example? Warning signs are always there, as long as you react to them in the right way and in a timely manner it's still possible to shape the production and management process of the project. 

Public Square: I think it's hard to tell. Sometimes you have someone that comes in that you think is going to be very easy to work with, but then further along in the process that can change and vice versa. Usually the more knowledgeable about the process the better the client is. If they ask certain questions or provide you with info before you even ask, those types tend to be the easiest. 

Pure: You NEVER know. No matter what you think / hope up front.

2G Studio: When a client sends me an email, they usually ask a general question, the workflow, and price. Usually I reply to the email and ask a very short question. What is your budget and the workflow you expected. If they reply, I can see they want to build relationship. and they are a good client, and I will keep chatting with them. If they don't reply, then they are bad client, you don't want to work with arrogant client.

Ricardo Rocha: There isn't a way to know that, we think it's all about good communication and transparency in the process of the project.

Steelblue: Trust your gut. Research their past projects. What are they using to market their other projects or who are they using to render their past designs. Are these in lines with your goals? There should be a few points of contact before even a simple rendering effort and this gives you time to understand how a client responds and communicates. 

Transparent House: We always try to see our clients as good clients since they are in large what keeps our company and our industry moving. A "bad" client can often simply mean that we'll need spend some additional time educating them on the process and often once they start seeing the fruit of our work the quickly move from a "bad" to a "good" client. However, there are of course always warning signs that may indicate a tough relationship to begin with. It's important to really listen to what they have to say, what they are looking for and also to learn what their previous experiences were. Sometimes we hear one thing from the client but reading between the lines it is obvious they are looking for something else. This often comes from a point of not being able to fully articulate their needs. If this is not caught on early it is easy to fall into a spiral of negative communication. We also experience clients that very clearly are purely looking for an engine to produce their assets with no regards to knowing that real human beings are the true creators of their assets. We always try to strive to have a partnership relationship with our clients, these are the ones that truly value and appreciate the hard labor and creativity that goes into our work. 

Urban Simulations: Gut and experience. When a client says in the first meeting "everything is well defined” it’s the first step to disaster.

Image Courtesy: ArX Solutions

Other than one's that pay on time, what are the best clients to have?

ArX Solutions: Recurring clients that always respect the professional relationship and have integrity.

Beauty and The Bit: The ones that pay before time. Jokes aside, the best client is the one that say…Victor, I leave it in your hands, we want to outstand this of our project. How you do it is up to you. We have some of those and we always (independent of how busy our schedule is) provide them with a time slot because this is the best way to do our thing, with no pressure, feeling relaxed and only focusing in doing something that works incredibly for us, because we know it will work for them.

Designstor: The best clients to have are ones that ultimately respect you and the work you do, recognize your efforts and provide opportunities outside the norm. These are the clients we call partners, and they are the ones that we seek out.

Kilograph: Repeat clients and clients who recommend your work to others.

MIR: The boss of any successful architecture office is bound to be intelligent, open minded, structured and flexible. Whenever we work with leaders, they are bold, understanding and curious. People lower down in the hierarchy are usually more afraid of taking risks. And they forget to think because they want to comply to expectations. Everyone knows how to deliver on expectations, but few are willing to try to exceed them.

Neoscape: Someone who values creative services and can get excited about their project.  I also think that clients who trust us and truly value what we bring to the table in terms of strategy, creative and execution and pay on time are the best clients.

PixelFlakes: Clients that respect you as an artist and expert in your field. When I need a plumber, I don't hire one and then tell him how to do his job. I show him the issue and trust him to come up with a solution. The same is true for us, clients that respect this and give a detailed briefing along with the creative freedom in order for us to do our work, they are the best clients.

Public Square: Those that make sure that before giving feedback, everyone that has input has had a chance to look and chime in. The most difficult clients are the ones that either don't do this and you get notes from other parts of the team later that may contradict a previous note. That's where we can run into issues because you end up going back and forth. If those questions are resolved before we get feedback, it allows for a much more seamless process. 

Pure: The ones who say “thank you“ or “great work“ in the end. They are very seldom these days.

Ricardo Rocha: The best clients are those who spread the word about our work! Nothing is more important than hear our client have the best renderings for their project.

Steelblue: Those that make you know you are a part of the team and this is a collaboration.

Transparent House: Clients that see us as a partner in their work are the ones we bond the best with. These are the people that truly values our work but who are also invested in what we do and frankly how we do it. These are also the clients that are more inclined to spread the word about our company; both internally and externally.

Urban Simulations: The ones who appreciate and communicate the satisfaction of the work you are done for them.

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We talk to top studios about how best to manage clients.

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About the author

Jeff Mottle

Founder at CGarchitect

placeCalgary, CA