Communicating with Consumers is not Easy

Companies in the construction industry mainly sell to and serve other companies. However, many AEC firms already sell directly to consumers, and even if not, the users of the building under construction are consumers. In either case designers and contractors need to know how to interact with a non-professional client.

When I worked as an architect, I designed a few one-family houses. Many clients had envisioned their future homes using images. Some had cut out pictures from magazines and taken photos during their trip to Spain. Some had even made drawings of their ideal home.

The clients had visualized their projects and could, through images, communicate their dreams and wishes. Some of the ideas were perhaps not realizable in the project; nevertheless they gave great guidance to the designer. Sometimes it is very difficult to maneuver between dreams and bricks and mortar, but that is what the designer should do.

Some professionals feel threatened or challenged when their non-professional client wants to get passionately involved in a project. After all, architecture and construction are areas about which everyone seems to have an opinion, but not enough knowledge. Should an HVAC engineer do something when a user complains about a draught, even if measurements show that everything is in order?

When a designer or a contractor encounters a non-professional client they are easily bewildered. The client seems to care about issues that are, from the professional’s point of view, secondary or anecdotal. One renovation contractor, for example, grouched about a tenant who was criticizing the contractor’s plastering work. The contractor was unhappy to receive this kind of feedback from a layman.

There is much room for improvement in communication and collaboration with consumers in the construction industry. As first steps, I would recommend the following: 

Involve customers in design

Consumers are the best experts in their own lifestyle and needs. Architects and builders assume that they know what’s best for the customer. Some projects where users are involved in the design prove the opposite. Users can bring in knowledge that dramatically improves the end result.

Make construction enjoyable and easy

Probably no other business is as complicated for the consumer as construction and renovation. Imagine that you want to renew your kitchen, or just get a new cooker hood. How many professionals are needed? How long does it take? The worst-case scenario is that the customer has to manage the whole process herself. If you can create services that deliver on time and on budget what the consumer wants, you’re a winner.

Learn how to communicate with non-professionals

Many complaints and misunderstandings would be avoided if professionals had not neglected communication. Sometimes communicating with a layperson is strenuous. Don’t show it, but be empathetic and patient. Explain what you are doing and especially why. Customers can also teach you a lot, in every project.

Follow up

Designers and contractors hurry to the next project after the previous one is complete. Customer feedback after completion is mainly complaints.  A post-occupancy review should not be limited to technical issues: how user needs have been served is equally important. If the designers, owners, and contractors would keep in touch regularly with the users, they might learn something valuable for the future.

Design your service

Some of my clients have become interested in service design. It provides methods and tools that are especially suited for creating outstanding consumer experiences. So far, I have not seen more than a handful of AEC firms using service design consistently. It is a way to stand out from the competition in the eyes of the customer.