VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Interviews can work, but they often need improvement

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“You will have 30 minutes.”

Most project interviews begin with those five words. Design firms usually get 30 short minutes to persuade prospective clients to hire them for a project.

Often, when all is said and done, both the designer and prospective client
for the project, however, the guy sold his firm and retired to Florida.

The interview certainly can make a difference, as it did in these three cases (although mostly for the wrong reasons). But most marketing experts will tell you that the selection usually has been made before the interview.

Still relevant?

So, do interviews matter anymore? Is the interview a truly effective tool for clients to choose a design firm, or is it simply an archaic hangover from the past?

I’m guessing that plenty of designers-and clients, too-would rather do away with the interview process. After all, sitting in a darkened room for hours listening to multiple presenters from multiple design firms say the same things with different degrees of skill really isn’t the best use of anyone’s time.

With this approach, the project can easily get lost in the “show-and-tell.” Some firms have slick presentations delivered by the “interview team,” a group of people the client probably will not see again once the contract is signed.

And from the designer’s perspective, responding to multiple RFPs and participating in multiple interviews is costly in terms of time and energy.

While interviews are not always required, clients have given several reasons why they tend to conduct them:

walk away with some measure of doubt.

“Did we ask the right questions?” and “Can this firm really handle our project?” the client wonders.

The designer, on the other hand, thinks, “Did we say the right things?” or “Did they like us?”

Years ago, a client interviewed Louis Kahn, one of the greatest American architects, for a project. The client ultimately hired another architect because it thought Kahn was “dull.”

And then there’s the architecture firm that landed a job after an interview because a board member told the administrator to “hire the guy with the brown eyes.”

In yet another example, a nationally known architect promised the client he would personally manage the major project on a day-to-day basis and attend every meeting. Immediately after being selected

Written presentations tend to be all about the firm, not the project at hand.

They want to meet the people who will lead the project, especially if a team is involved.

They know some firms inflate the experience of their project team in written proposals by blending the experience of the individuals proposed for the project with projects completed by other members of the firm.

Carefully selected words can make it appear that every project has been completed “on time and on budget.” We all know that’s not always the case.

Improving the process

When a client decides to use interviews, I believe the process can be improved to the point where they achieve their true purpose-to select the best team to complete a particular project.

Here are a few suggestions:

The client should develop a welldefined request for proposal, or RFP, that clearly articulates the project scope, goals, budget and schedule as well as its expectations, the selection criteria (including diversity expectations) and unique conditions that may or may not require specialty consultants. It’s also helpful to define the preferred format of the proposal.

The client should select a short list of firms to receive the RFP based on experience, reputation and specialties.

If the initial response from those firms is not satisfactory, then invite additional firms to respond to the RFP. As a courtesy, the RFP should state the names of the firms being considered.

After all the proposals are reviewed, the selection team should create a written list of concerns and/or questions and give them to all firms before the interviews begin. If interviews are not planned, they can request the responses in writing.

Before conducting interviews or making a selection for a major project, key members of the selection committee should visit the designer’s office and at least one of the designer’s major projects.

During the interview, the design team should respond to the committee’s concerns and answer its questions as directly as possible. The committee will learn a lot about the design team as well as the chemistry between the committee and the designers.

The funny thing about interviews is that most people don’t seem to like them, but the process has changed little in the years that I have been in practice. With some better preparation and a little more homework (on both sides of the table), those 30 minutes will be much more successful. So will the resulting projects.

Altemeyer is founding partner of BSA LifeStructures, the Indianapolis-area’s largest architectural firm. Views expressed here are the writer’s.

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