when they say no

10 October 2013

 dear john 01

This is one of those posts I’ve put off writing because I wasn’t sure of the reaction or my real motivation. However, my blog tagline compels me to share what we’re thinking. If you’re looking for facts, checklists or hard core information, well…you’re not going to get it today. I’m just sharing thoughts today hoping to evoke a conversation. Maybe next week I’ll put away my tissues and get back to business.

So, what do you do when they say no?

As architects in a creative field our emotions are deeply rooted in our work. I believe when going after an architectural commission, architects put more into it than mere business sense and set of unemotional numbers and proposal language. We often go after projects because we have some interest in them and we believe they could add to our portfolio. Yet when we do not receive the commission, it can feel like the client is rejecting us as opposed to declining our services. Maybe I’m alone on this.

dear john 02

Before we discuss this, let me acknowledge two things. One, there are scores of blogs, articles, podcasts, videos, etc. about marketing and methods of getting the project (or increasing your chances). Two, there is another related discussion about the architect saying no to a project for a whole host of reasons. However, I’m not giving advice and you can read here about one blogger exploring saying no. I’ll deal with that one sometime in the future.

In my opinion there are three main reasons why clients say no.

The first one is price

The second one is experience

The third one is chemistry

Other than hiring the next guy because his price is cheaper than yours, the last two reasons relate to a sense of trust (or lack) in the architect. It might not be that the client doesn’t trust you (or like you); it’s just that they trust (or like) another architect more. There lies the problem. How do we communicate well to a client during the interview or proposal phase? Methods can vary whether you are in a formal process for a large public project all the way down to a single family home. My practice focuses on small commercial projects and residential design, thus the slant of this post.

You’re wondering why write about this – right? You’re wondering if you should keep reading – right? You’re wondering if I’ll keep asking questions.

dear john 03

I do believe in the “pull oneself up from their bootstraps” mentality and the “suck it up” mindset and move on without whining. Yet ignoring that emotion or that “let down feeling” and acting like a dispassionate entrepreneur is disingenuous to being an architect. We’re the artsy type and we often wear our “hearts on our sleeves” to borrow a bad cliché. Quite frankly, I hate to lose. Despite that horrible feeling of getting a “dear john” letter (or email or call or nothing at all), there is much to learn from each situation. Nevertheless, in order to truly learn from the situation, it would really help if the client would give honest feedback to what led to their decision. Sometimes you learn there is nothing you could have done. Often you find out not getting the project was a blessing in disguise. In many cases in my practice, I found out years later the project never happened.

I’m not proposing answers at this point and perhaps I am venting and you’d rather read about solutions than merely discussing feelings. I believe acknowledging the feeling along with inviting a conversation is critical in developing improved proposal/interviewing skills. Self-reflection and critique is often painful, but a necessary part of being an architect. I am curious to your thoughts.

dear john 04

photos are from multiple photostreams on Flickr (used under the Creative Common License)

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10 Responses to “when they say no”


  1. Hey Lee, another great post that gets to the heart of the issue (literally!). I share the sentiment of the let-down I’ll confess. Have you found any strategies for getting the feedback from the clients that do say “no”?

    • leecalisti Says:

      Yes, I have in most cases. My most recent one was a bit arcane, but I think I have to tip my hat to the other architect for being a better communicator. Without pressure, diamonds can’t be formed. (boy that sounds cheesy).


  2. Good post. I actually had in my ‘future post topics’ the issue when clients don’t even respond, frustrating to say the least. Maybe I’ll get to that post eventually.

  3. William J. Mello Jr. AIA Emeritis Says:

    “So, what do you do when they say no?”

    Find out Why?
    Sort of a “Post Partum” on a “Still Birth”.
    It will surprise you!

    • leecalisti Says:

      William, I agree that’s the right approach. However, I didn’t mean to imply that I don’t do a follow up. I’ve never had a case (when I didn’t get the project) where I didn’t at least ask the client what led to their decision. They don’t always tell you or respond.

      My focus today was more on dealing with the feelings of losing and thinking through what to do the next time. Its more about looking forward than back.

  4. Dan DelCampo Says:

    Lee,
    The sad thing is that most potential clients (residential & small commercial), won’t know a good architect from a bad architect. A bad experience will quickly advance the learning curve. Inexperienced prospective clients will be swayed by a cut rate price & a good sales pitch. The end result in that scenario won’t be good for either client or architect.
    My suggestion would be for (well intending) architects to educate their novice clients about want they should reasonably expect from their architect. Not talking about shared artistic vision, but a reasonable degree of plan detail that will be needed by a moderately competent builder to get the project completed. Thats what you did, that’s why we worked well together & that why our project has been successful!

    Dan

    • leecalisti Says:

      Dan, thanks so much for the kind words and even more so for contributing to this conversation. I’m writing another post and what you said about shared artistic vision is a key part in it. Your suggestions for clients is also good fodder for me to write other topics that will hopefully be useful to others.

    • leecalisti Says:

      I think your main point is more important than shared artistic vision no doubt. But so often clients come to their architect with no shared artistic vision and are disappointed when they don’t mesh.


  5. […] say no. For a good read on when clients say no, see Lee Calisti’s post on think | architect when they say no.  However, my issue is when there is no response. What causes a potential client to be unresponsive? […]


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