Why Relationships Win Projects

A Guide for the A/E Industry


It’s a familiar scene for any A/E firm: You’ve made your pitch, presented your plans and interviewed with the client. Now you’re among the final handful of firms vying for that one prize job.

Your firm is short-listed, and you make your presentation to the selection committee.

When another firm is selected for the project, you are left scratching your head. You’re confident that your firm was at least as qualified for the job as the other firms in contention, and you wonder where you went wrong.

Consider, however, that the reason you didn’t get the job might not be what you did wrong, but rather, what the other firm did right—long before the first pitch was ever made.

The winning firm likely has built a relationship with the client.

“In the personal interview process, a working relationship weighs heavily,” said John E. Gardner, Resident Architect at The Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina. “Architecture and engineering firms can’t expect just to show up and win projects. You have to develop relationships first.”

Dos and Don’ts for A/E Firms
  • Get to know the client—FIRST.
  • Align your firm’s project experience with the client’s work.
  • Listen to the client and consider his or her needs and goals.
  • Respect the client’s protocol.
  • Do our homework. Know the work, know the client.
  • Give more than you receive. You’ll end up with a far greater return.
  • Ask yourself three questions before pursuing a project:
  1. Do you know your client?
  2. Did you know about the project before it was advertised?
  3. Are you a good fit with the client and project?
  • Bring a colleague with you to the initial meeting to help you learn more about the client.
  • Nurture your relationship with the client even after projects are concluded.

Gardner said too often firms vying for jobs think of these projects as individual capsules, not as relationships that can last for years. “You have to develop trust and understanding,” he said. “It’s a process.”

Establish a Relationship
Kenn Bullock, (retired) Architectural Practice Leader with Woolpert, knows that process well. After more than 30 years in the industry, Bullock said he’s found the best way to win a job is to establish a working relationship. He said he starts by having a conversation with a potential client before pulling out his portfolio.

“People come first. People come before the work. And when you do eventually show your book of projects, make sure it lines up with their work,” he said.

Bullock approached Gardner a few years ago, long before they began working together, because he felt the needs of The Citadel and the capabilities of Woolpert were a good match.

“You have to identify if there is future work with a client before you pursue them,” Bullock said. “It’s not just about who you want to work with, but what work you want to do for them. And you need to get in on the open end.”

When Bullock contacted Gardner, his intent was to introduce himself, have a friendly conversation and let Gardner know his firm was interested in working with The Citadel when an opportunity arose.

“Kenn told me he knew he couldn’t just walk in and get a big project,” Gardner said. “And he didn’t wait for a job; he just stopped by and visited. I told him when there was something of interest for them, I’d let them know.”

As the months passed, Bullock checked in with Gardner periodically—enough to keep in contact, but not more than he felt Gardner would like.

“You have to get to know clients as people and foster those relationships,” Bullock said. “I have clients I call once a quarter, and others I have a beer with every six weeks. “You have to monitor the pulse of your client to know when to move in and when to back off.”

Gardner said he appreciated Bullock’s awareness. “You can’t just come in and say, ‘Let’s go to lunch.’ You have to be able to read people,” Gardner advised. “If you stop by to talk to somebody and they’re barely cordial, you have to back off.”

It’s important to respect how each client operates. “It often comes down to personalities,” Bullock said. “Not everybody’s going to like you, so you just have to find the right person. Then you have to communicate and follow up.”

Follow Up and Build on Opportunities
Gardner said it was about two years after his first meeting with Bullock that a small laundry renovation project surfaced at The Citadel. “It was below Woolpert’s radar, but I said, ‘If you want it, we’d like to do this with you,’” Gardner explained.

Bullock accepted the job, seeing it as an opportunity to show The Citadel what his firm could do.

Gardner said The Citadel often offers these kinds of project to new firms: smaller jobs that, if done well, can open the door to future work. He said sometimes these test projects work out well and sometimes they don’t, but when they do succeed, they help to solidify working relationships.

“Woolpert is a big firm and this was a small job, but their work on the project demonstrated the great working relationship they have with their staff, project manager, all down the line,” Gardner said. “This gave me the opportunity to meet the people who were actually doing the work. We learned they were confident and friendly, and that we could work with them.”

After that, other jobs emerged that enabled the relationship between The Citadel and Woolpert to grow—although that didn’t mean that every project was a match.

“John and I started talking about master planning, then about classrooms, then about an definite delivery architectural contract,” Bullock said. “But Woolpert didn’t get that contract, because we didn’t do exactly what was suggested.”

He said to always listen to the client.

“But, if you lose one job, you just have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and go back, saying ‘I’m still here.’”

Woolpert did just that, opening the door for an even bigger project down the road.

Ready for the Big Project
On the next project, Woolpert followed the required presentation guidelines and won the Capers Hall Replacement Project, the largest project on the Citadel Campus.

Gardner said The Citadel received 14 qualification statements from architectural firms for the Capers Hall project.

The initial project scope included constructing a new 80,000 square foot Capers Hall adjacent to the existing building and then demolishing the old structure.

“There were only (about) two or three firms that had provided professional services for The Citadel before,” he said. “But we still have to go through all of the qualifications and select the best four or five firms for professional interviews.”

Gardner said another benefit of the relationship dynamic is that it helps you know whether you’ll get along with a firm and its people before you hire them. “You spend a lot of time together with these projects. Large projects can last two or three years,” he said, “and it helps to know you work well together.”

Gardner said the nearly four-year relationship forged between he and Bullock, The Citadel and Woolpert, was an important factor in the selection of Woolpert for the Capers Hall project.

“This project was the icing on the cake; it was the period at the end of the sentence,” Gardner said. “We probably have this kind of relationship with two or three other firms out of maybe a dozen. One of the other firms has been doing business here since 1990.”

“It was amazing that Woolpert beat out that firm for this job, but that path has been forged.”

Win-Win for Firm, Client
Building a working relationship between a firm and a client isn’t easy; it takes time and effort, planning and perseverance. But when it works out, it is an efficient, effective and financially beneficial endeavor for both. Bullock said he believes so fervently in this process that he no longer pursues projects in which he doesn’t know the people involved.

Bullock said, “You have to be friends first and know that you have shared business interests.”

Gardner agreed, adding that it is never too late for a firm to establish a relationship with a potential client. He said he never turns away architects or project managers who want to stop by, introduce themselves and open that door.

Gardner also advised firms not to wait for job postings to approach a client. He gave an example of how he ran into the owner of a local architectural firm when he was out in the neighborhood one day. She asked him what her firm had to do to get work with The Citadel.

“I told her, ‘You have to ask for it. Where’s your business card?’” Gardner explained. “A lot of people wait until a job is advertised, but then you’re competing with everyone else in the world. Now we do lots of projects with that firm.”

Bullock said that this process isn’t revolutionary, but it is often the difference between the dreaded short list and the win. “It’s these little touches, these little personal extras, that put you over the top,” he said. “It’s not a big secret; it’s just about building relationships.”


Kenn Bullock

Kenn Bullock recently retired from Woolpert. As the firm’s Architectural Practice Leader responsible for the Carolinas region, Kenn was responsible for projects ranging from university master planning and historic preservation to land development design and Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance plans.