Many of us work within tight markets full of qualified competitors.

Each has highly-qualified and experienced leadership.
Each has committed staff with excellent credentials.
Each understands current industry trends and innovations.
Each employs a sound process to identify client needs and deliver quality services.
Each has a portfolio of impressive and relevant work.

The good news about checking all the boxes?
You’re in the game! Clients expect these boxes to be checked. In fact, these boxes represent the minimum requirements for their consideration, the ante that puts you in the mix.

The bad news about checking all the boxes?
Everybody’s in the game…and it’s crowded.

How do you reach beyond the minimum requirements to pique a client’s curiosity, grab their attention, and win the work?

By considering what they are thinking about, concerned with, and challenged by…things that are NOT on the checkbox list. Standing out requires us to reach far beyond the checkboxes to more fully understand the client’s situation and begin to conjure an approach that will address their concerns.

For example, let’s say that you represent an architecture firm pursuing a project to build a charter school inside an old factory building. Before beginning to visualize the design potentials, take time to step into the shoes of the members of the charter school board and imagine what’s going on in their minds. Get curious about:

The driving mission + vision
Why have they chosen to build this charter school?
What is the school’s mission and how does it differ from other schools?
What do they hope this school will be and become over time?
Who will this school serve specifically?
What are the expressed needs of the proposed student body?
What are the potentially unexpressed needs?
Are there identified models for the school?
What about these models do they admire?

The building needs + concerns
Why have they chosen this old building for a new school?
What are their concerns about adapting the building?
What are their ideals for the new learning environment?
How do they want the school to feel to the students? to the faculty? to the community?
Are there benchmarks for this type of adaptive reuse and how might they inform this project?
Does the context of the building present challenges, opportunities, or both?

The experience + value you bring to the table
Imagine yourself as a board member? A student? A faculty member? A parent?
What experiences might your portfolio bring to this project?
What experiences does your team bring to this project beyond your portfolio?
Are there personal connections your team brings to this project (or project type) that may shed light on the perceived challenges? How might these inform your approach?

Probing deeply into the mindset of the decision makers and end users can illuminate a critical perspective not offered in the proposal request and open distinctive pathways to potential solutions. Equivalent to “doing your homework,” this type of earnest exploration demonstrates to the client your sincere interest not only in addressing the design opportunity but in resolving the issues and concerns surrounding their passion project as a whole.

Differentiation within a tight market of qualified competitors is a significant challenge that calls for both creativity and courage. Whether refreshing our brand or pursuing a project, winning requires that we reach beyond the checkboxes, get curious about our potential client, and begin to address the problems with which they are wrestling.

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