• Client satisfaction is the first of five objectives we listed when we started the firm, says Schemata Workshop co-principal Grace Kim. Design is the reason we do what we do, she adds, but we don't practice architecture as a service to ourselves.

    Credit: Karen Moskowitz

    "Client satisfaction is the first of five objectives we listed when we started the firm," says Schemata Workshop co-principal Grace Kim. Design is "the reason we do what we do," she adds, "but we don't practice architecture as a service to ourselves."
Most of them probably wouldn’t trumpet it, but architects are in the service industry. And service is at least as much about process (meetings, invoices, etc.) as it is about results (the building). Seattle-based Schemata Workshop, a five-year-old, five-person firm that specializes in small institutional projects, readily credits its early, and continuing, success to an unrelenting focus on customer service—or, in the firm’s preferred construction, “client satisfaction.” In 2009, Schemata won a Seattle Mayor’s Small Business Award, earning praise for how the firm works with clients and for its open communication. Grace Kim is co-principal and co-founder there with Mike Mariano, and both bring large-office experience to bear on the small practice.

What’s the difference between customer service and client satisfaction?

If you have good customer service, you get client satisfaction. It’s ingrained in our culture. We think design is hugely important, [but] the notion of customer satisfaction has been an underlying thread in the way we deliver our services.

Your website refers to a “transparent approach to design and fees.” What does that mean?

I’ve never had a client call because they didn’t understand their invoice. We clearly explain where we are on the budget; where we are in the current billing; what we’ve invoiced to date; where are we in the context of the fee. If people understand that, they don’t have a problem paying.

Where does this transparency start?

Prospective clients get a spreadsheet of the various tasks we’re going to do. We give them the detailed backup that most firms do to get to a number. That way, when they say, “Your fee is too high,” they can see what we’ve included. That gives us a basis to negotiate: Where do they want us to cut? We’ve accounted for this number of meetings; can you do with less? Maybe instead of three design alternatives, we’ll do one or two. It sets the expectations.

But can’t that lead to cutting corners?

If we’re working with a client whose budget won’t support meticulous note-taking, we at least follow up immediately with an e-mail that summarizes the decisions and outlines the key next steps. Keep all communications clear, concise, frequent. That’s part of it.

What kind of clients have you found with this approach?

We look for projects where the client will appreciate working with a small firm. We work with smaller clients and jurisdictions that can benefit from having a hands-on, personal experience. They get me at the interview. They get me on a day-to-day basis.

Where does design fit in?

Design is of paramount importance. We definitely have a style we’d advocate. We try to be on the modern side, but as an extension of the client’s identity and mission.

How often do you keep in touch with current clients?

If we don’t have a meeting, I e-mail at least once a week to say: Here’s what we’re doing, here’s what we’re working toward before we meet with you. The worst thing is for us to go quiet and not be in communication.

How often do you stay in touch with former clients?

We try to keep people abreast of what’s going on. If I’m in the neighborhood, I drop by and ask how things are going.

How much of your success is based on people skills rather than the quality of the design?

It’s a combination of both. Mike and I have strong people skills. When we hire, that’s what we look for. During the interview process, I’m evaluating: How comfortable will I be having this person represent my company?

How do you know your approach works?

Repeat customers and client referrals. We count on our satisfied clients to help us get our next clients. In a competitive situation, if a prospective client calls our past clients, we know we’ll get the job.