Championing the Client Interview, With Full Firm Involvement

Architecture and design firms undertake myriad business development activities, but they often do not spend adequate time preparing for project interviews. Knowing that the interview is an open invitation for the firm to present itself and pitch its expertise and capabilities to a potential client, this can be a missed opportunity. A truly great interview is a combination of several important aspects, including the communication of a strong mission and vision that drives firm culture as well as the presentation of a consistent portfolio that is applicable to the client’s needs. Additionally, interviews present a learning opportunity, internally, for all levels of staff in the business development process. When a firm is invited to interview, its leaders should consider the following elements in preparation.

Collecting data and research
The interview process presents plenty of opportunities to both master your own collection of data and to implement the resulting research. Following each interview, the firm should document the questions asked by the prospective client, as well as the firm’s responses. Even as the project typology varies, companies often tend to ask the same types of questions. Keeping a record of potential interview questions can provide a useful tool in preparing for the next one, and can help your colleagues to maintain a consistent voice in their own interviews.

Researching the business of the prospective client is an obvious starting point, but be sure that this extends beyond the scope of the project. Depending on the market sector, it may be equally important to study the client’s competitors, as well as hot topics in local politics or related business sectors that could potentially impact a project.

Crafting a relevant story

The interview is where a firm makes its first impression on the client who will ultimately decide which design practice to hire. I have been on the client side of an interview enough times to have memorized the origin story of several local firms. Many of these stories are not particularly unique or reflective of those firms’ more recent accomplishments and, in turn, are not meaningful to clients. Firms do not have to retell an origin story at every interview. Often, if a firm is more than five years old, the origin story is not meaningful at all. For example, if it seems like ancient history, remotely connecting a story of founders to the firm’s current work or more diverse practice, then the narrative can be eliminated or noted briefly.

Great storytelling is a good way to build a rapport. But be aware that it is all too easy to fall back on the same narrative, especially when interview preparation is often limited to rereading the RFP and skimming through a standard presentation that was put together by the firm’s marketing department.

Practice, practice, and more practice

Do you know what you look like when you are taking part in an interview, whether telling your story, responding to questions, or listening to others speak? What do your body language and facial expressions convey? With the ease of capturing video today, it is worthwhile to take the time to record yourself and study the playback. Making small adjustments to the way you present yourself can positively impact your personal approach.

If you have additional preparation time, then holding a mock interview is beneficial for those preparing to present as well as a great learning experience for those playing the role of the client. Mock interviews are a way to engage all members of the practice, including those who were recently hired. Sitting on the client side of the table to hear tenured staff pitch the firm equips everyone to be a good listener, and the experience provides excellent fodder for small talk the next time someone asks what the firm is about.

Remember, the interview should be the culmination of all business development efforts, and the process should involve the entire firm because everyone has an opportunity to be a voice for the practice. The interview process is reflective of everything that the firm represents—its culture, its people, and its projects—as told in person.