Who Is the Client?
Knowing who your client might seem like an easy question to answer. However, a lot of the time, the "client" is a group of people with varying roles and differing amounts of input and authority. In my experience, often the problems encountered on a project (i.e., general communications conflicts, non-payment, and even termination) can be linked to mis-understanding the make-up of the client, and perhaps looking for too much from the wrong person on the client side related to approvals and decisions. As an example, you might think you have a design decision or budget approval from the client, but you later learn that someone else on the client side (with more authority) has weighed-in and reversed the decision or nullified the approval. Meanwhile, you may have progressed with the project and now find yourself in a spot where you have completed work that will need to be revised.
Spending the time to research and diagram the full organizational structure of the client team will help you determine the complexity involved and navigate obtaining decisions and approvals successfully. To help you get started, following are broad categories of client types (private and public) as well as some common characteristics:
- Large to Very Large Clients: This type of client often commissions projects that will be owner developed and occupied. These clients often have very large organizational structures with the ultimate leaders (such as top executives and Board of Directors) being far removed from the day-to-day activities. For the most part, VPs lead these projects from the client side with the company leaders setting larger "big picture directives". Most project decisions and approvals are made at the VP level, but the leadership will want to be informed.
- Medium-Large Clients: These clients operate similarly to the Large companies above, but the executive leadership level (i.e., President and Board of Directors) will likely want to be kept informed regarding the progress of the project and occasionally engage in key decisions and approvals. Smaller day-to-day decisions and approvals mostly occur at the VP's and PM level.
- Small Clients: These clients may only have a single building/facility, and a very "hands-on" leadership team. Even though they often have a "facilities manager" assigned as the client lead, the company owners will likely be involved directly in decision making.
- Large urban jurisdictions with a Mayor and City Council that can (and often do) get involved even though the day-to-day coordination with the architect has been assigned to a PM or Facilities Director. In general, elected officials may be highly inconsistent in their decision making and support for the project, which can add a layer of additional complication.
- Medium-sized jurisdiction: These are smaller cities and towns where the majority of the decisions are left to the heads of the primary user group (i.e., a Police Chief in the example of a new police station project), but politically charged decisions, especially related to funding will need a City Council (and/or City Manager) approval, which can make things a little complex to navigate.
- Small jurisdiction: These are perhaps the least complicated of the public clients with a small team and hands-on leadership that make obtaining approvals and decisions less cumbersome.
The above are just some of the structures you may encounter with a project. But what they illustrate is that there are many shapes and sizes of clients with sometimes multiple parts with multiple agendas. Getting to know your client, specifically who is involved in decision making and why will be critical for project success.