This is one of a series of occasional Guidance Notes published by The Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC). IHBC Guidance Notes offer current and recent guidance into topics that we consider crucial to the promotion of good built and historic environment conservation policy and practice. The Notes necessarily reflect knowledge and practice at the time they were developed, while the IHBC always welcomes new case examples, feedback and comment to email@example.com for future revisions and updates.
1. This guidance note aims to provide sole practitioners and small traders with advice on taking on new work – specifically Ten Red Flags to watch out for when meeting potential clients.
The challenges of providing fee proposals
2. As a sole practitioner or a member of a small partnership in the heritage sector you will probably quite often find yourself being asked to quote for a commission either by competitive tender by written submission or by pitching for the work at a meeting where the objective is to prove you are the right consultancy for the job.
3. Two important questions to consider are [a] whether the client and or the agent (or in some cases a larger lead consultancy) are a good fit for you; and [b] whether or not the job is right; that is, are you are being asked to support something that is actually ill-conceived and harmful? If so, you have two choices - either to turn the job down or try and shape the proposal to make it acceptable.
4. The latter scenario involves creative input and can be very rewarding but if the client (or the principal agent) already has fixed ideas, this may put you in an unarguable situation. If there is a risk that you may be required to advance a position you cannot support, the answer may be to offer to do only an initial assessment for a relatively modest fee and part company when the initial assessment has been done. You at least get some remuneration for your trouble and the client gets some objective professional advice. Where advice does not meet a client’s requirements it may well be best not proceed further and part company at that point.
5. As an IHBC member, the Institute expects you to comply with the Code of Conduct, that heritage principles and ethics be maintained and you will also have a business reputation to uphold. You will therefore want to ensure you only work with people who will listen to your specialist advice; that you will be able to add value to the commission and be able to recommend or deliver a satisfactory and appropriate heritage outcome.
Early warning signs and Red Flags
6. Recognition of some early warning signs of a bad client may be helpful – simple red flags that sometimes pop up during the initial communication that may reveal if client or other agent might be difficult to work with.
7. While the following ten items need not induce great discomfort, a little wariness is advised, and your instincts may be helpful before you decide to work with anyone new about which you may have doubts.
Before the meeting is barely underway the client starts explaining why the services of their previous consultant/advisor was dispensed with – possibly for failing to support inappropriate or unrealistic proposals or deliver the necessary statutory consents. This is not exactly a confidence builder and may be a possible warning sign that the client will prove difficult to work with.
Before deciding to provide a fee quotation be sure to ascertain what had previously gone wrong in order to better understand the situation and whether you can work out if your prospective client or the previous agent was the problem.
When clients appear to want a "short and simple" analysis or report it is likely that they don't understand how the heritage system works, or they have set an unrealistic timescale, or may be determinedly trying to minimise the fee. Clients that think it is easy also tend to think that the outputs ar2e the work of a moment.
Notwithstanding that many heritage reports should be proportionate to the issues to be addressed, you may need to explain in some detail how the heritage system works, the timescales outside your direct control, how you operate and why a commission or an outcome might take a little longer than the client expects.
You may need to go into some detail of what's involved, the process of any feedback or amendments process such as is likely from the local authority or statutory consultees and any other aspects that your client might not have thought through. If the client is prepared to accept that the assessment process and/or preparation of proposals or alternatives, or the obtaining of consents isn't so quick or easy, then you are likely to be on the right track.
There's no strategy, no end product and no idea of budget (... and you haven’t received a detailed brief). This often seems to arise then the client has just acquired a building, sometimes without realizing it’s listed but immediately thinks something must be done. This should the biggest red flag of all because the client has no idea what they want and this is usually not a good start. While you can't be expected to work miracles, at least this will not have ruled out any (realistic) options.
If you have the opportunity before meeting the client (which may sometimes be on site) try to be as prepared or as practical as seems justified - for example having already accessed the National Heritage List (or equivalent if outside England) - to impress the client with your knowledge and expertise particularly where this can be tailored to the project in question.
If a client is expecting considerable output without paying very much for it, decline. Consider the value of your professional worth and that there will be other clients who will be more pragmatic. Clients with unrealistic expectations are definitely the stuff of nightmares.
Look instead for reasonable clients. The type who understand what is and isn't possible, who will not impose impossible deadlines and know what can be achieved with the time they have allowed for the delivery of the work or the submission of consent, and what can be done for the fee quoted. These are the types of clients with who a good working relationship can be established.
At meetings you are sat around a table with numerous people, none of whom is taking the lead and you find that in fact you are expected to. As you are there to offer specialist professional advice it is likely your role will be asking as many questions as answering them and you will quickly need to decide it is appropriate for you to try to take control of the situation. Although this can be very awkward it is also an opportunity to demonstrate your organisational skills and steer the client in a direction where you can add value to the project.
After two or three telephone conversations, email exchanges or meetings, the commission has not yet been agreed and you are spending valuable un- remunerative time on the project without any clear indication that you are to be employed (or ever will be).
If you find yourself "consulting" for a client without getting paid, then it's a potential red flag as the client may simply be after free advice. If you are asked for another free "pick your brains" meeting, say you'd be happy to do so once they have formally accepted your fee quotation.
You have been asked to quote for a specific piece of work to achieve a specific outcome but the client wants to reduce the fee. If you have to justify your overall fixed fee or an hourly or day rate at such an early stage this strongly suggests the client doesn't appreciate your time or understand the value of your specialist expertise. It is rarely justifiable to agree in retrospect some sort of compromise and it is generally wise to decline to discount the fee and better to walk away from the commission with some self-respect.
Be wary of being asked to quote for a specific piece of work without enquiring or being informed that the work is to be secured by competitive tender. It is best to be aware of this in advance and if a good rapport with a client is established, your expertise is valued and the output is delivered successfully it is much more likely that further commissions will be sourced from you directly.
If you are meeting a client re a new piece of work but you have worked for them before and they were very slow in paying it is advisable to ask for a part-payment at inception.
You are being made to feel awkward by someone and get the impression that the client may have set out with the view that they don’t need any heritage advice and therefore resent having to pay for it.
If you are receiving these vibes and can read between the lines, you may need to mount a charm offensive, and work out who needs to placated, influenced or reassured by adjusting the discussion accordingly.
Be aware that some politics may be in play in which case, if you are working with a professional team who all with their own ideas about outcomes, you may find yourself arguing about every bit of work, every piece of advice and every decision from the outset. This is almost always a receipt for failure.
Be cautious when there no detailed plans are available - or you are told that the “architect” is working them up or that you have been given some but they are incomplete or clearly inaccurate. Some clients expect you to do reports to tight deadlines in the absence of detailed plans, which only appear at the eleventh hour. If the proposals turn out to be less than satisfactory, this can become very awkward and my compromise the advice you have prepared.
This may seem a very trivial point, but good working relationships with clients and other agents are built on mutual respect. Unless you are on site where the offer is impractical, if you're not asked if you would like a hot beverage or a glass of water when you meet this may tell you something about their attitude? Nine times out of ten this is an innocent oversight, but occasionally it can reveal a lot about whether the client has respect for you and your time.
8. To conclude, it is never really clear what you can expect when you meet a potential client. Listen and observe carefully and consider everything calmly and, with practice and intuition, you should be able to avoid the stresses of working with difficult people. Sometimes you will get it wrong but, more often than not, you will be glad you listened to your instincts.
Bob Kindred MBE BA IHBC MRTPI