In the 20-plus years that I practiced architecture, I could have been the poster-child for relationships gone bad. I thought I was cursed with attracting crazy clients. Eventually, I learned that I was actually the one who allowed the relationships to sour.
Here are a few of my personal client relationships that went south. They involve a Harvard-educated lawyer, a geometry-challenged Hollywood starlet and an unsavory developer who may or may not have been married to the mob.
Had I just understood things a bit better, had I just changed my own behavior a little, these experiences and many others could have ended up quite differently.
I opened my own firm at the age of 35 and my first client hired me to do a gut-remodel of a high-end co-op apartment in Chicago. The budget was generous so I had a lot of fun with the design. Five months after the project started, after at least a dozen meetings with the client and her interior designer, I receive a certified letter from her attorney asking I cease all work and not to send any additional invoices. I was fired.
So what happened? I was providing my client with the best services and design ever.
My insightful lawyer, Mark Friedlander suggested I hadn’t listened to my client. She was explaining what she wanted, but I kept telling her what she should have. I was insensitive and arrogant. I also forgot that my client was a Harvard trained lawyer. Oops.
Two years later I landed a project with a multi-platinum rock star and his B-movie starlet wife. They had already gone through two other architects before finding me.
If there was a little voice saying “Danger, Steve Burns! Danger!” I ignored it. I was too excited about designing an amazing project, with an unlimited budget, to think about why they had already burnt through two other architects.
And so began the honeymoon phase. My clients loved me and the project was fantastic.
This delusional bubble lasted for about 6 months, at which point it burst like the housing market.
The husband calls my partner saying they like the designs but not me. I couldn’t present or be in any meetings when his wife was present. I was banished to the back room—doing the design work without any glory.
Where did I fumble? In my last presentation, I discussed the difference between a rectangle and a square with the wife. She really didn’t understand the difference. The problem was she thought I was lecturing her and was offended by this.
In the hubris typical of a young professional, I was not mindful of my client’s personality or her needs and I paid the price.
My next hellish experience involves a developer. This gentleman, and I use the term loosely, came to me asking for a two-week feasibility study for a large parcel of land in Chicago. He wanted to persuade another developer to sell off a parcel of a larger development project to him so he could build an apartment tower, hotel, movie theater, retail mall and parking garage. Time was of the essence. We agreed to a fee and signed a contract which stipulated 1/3 of the fee be paid up front due to the project’s brevity, 14 days. He gave me a check for the amount.
About 2 or 3 business days later, my banker called me saying his check didn’t clear. So I called the developer who said that he was moving funds between his companies and apparently the funds hadn’t cleared yet. Redeposit the check in a couple of days, he said. I call my banker back to repeat what my client told me only to find out the check was written on a closed account that no longer existed and couldn’t be re-deposited.
I call the developer again. He says he’ll come to my office the next afternoon and to keep working. This is halfway through the project.
The next day we meet in my office conference room. And, like a scene from a bad mob film, he opened his briefcase and handed me a Certificate of Deposit written in his name for $500,000. He explained that he was good for the money, but couldn’t get to it until the CD matured–in about 6 months.
I gave him the benefit of the doubt, even though he’d already lied to me twice. Additionally, I’d already poured a full week’s effort of my staff on the project and had one more week to go – what the heck. It was also fun designing the project.
Nonetheless, I did an internet search on the guy. The results showed a person who could have been the inspiration behind the Paulie Walnuts character from The Sopranos.
The following Friday, I had 10 beautiful books bound and sent to my client as required by the contract. The next Monday, we presented the project to the other developer to convince him to sell his parcel of land to my client. Long story short, the other developer had no intention of selling and my client had no intention of paying me either.
In a final attempt to collect payment, after learning that writing a check on a closed account is a felony, I told my client I would go to the States Attorney if the fees weren’t paid. That’s when Paulie Walnuts said he knew where I lived and would not advise I do that. I contacted the States Attorney Office about the matter and Paulie ended up with a 15 months prison sentence.
Eventually, I did receive 33-cents on the dollar which just covered my staff’s labor and printing costs but not for any of the many hours I also poured into the project.
Lessons learned? Listen to your clients. Be aware of a client’s personality and act accordingly. And always research your clients before you get in bed with them, no matter how short the project. I’ll return to these principles later.
Now that I’ve shared my hair graying experiences, in my next post I’ll go over the four types of clients that can be the most challenging for professional services firms. Being forewarned is forearmed. Stay tuned.