Building a great engineer client relationship isn’t easy. But if done right, you’ll maximize your profits and have satisfied customers.
I’m going to share 18 tips I’ve gathered over the years in working with clients. My experience includes working with awesome clients, down to nightmarish clients. These clients are huge private companies you’ve heard of and big-name government agencies.
#1 Define a project’s scope of work
Work with your client to define a clear work scope. Your client needs to understand exactly what they’ll receive at the end of their project.
To start, review the project scope provided by your client. Read it in close detail. If a scope item is questionable in the beginning, it’ll more than likely become a can of worms in the future. So, ask ALL your questions now before you put together your cost. You don’t want ANY surprises down the road.
Next, put all the scope items in writing, down to every last detail. This requirement applies to all types of engineering. When I write a work scope, I create a clear black and white boundary of my work. Then, if work comes up outside of my scope, I can point to the signed contract. This is a great way to avoid future finger-pointing.
#2 Only do the work you’re an expert in
Don’t try to do work in a specialty you have little to no experience in. This includes giving advice outside your domain of expertise.
And I know, you may make your client happy in the beginning by accepting this extra work. But, if shit hits the fan, the client will come after your head first. Don’t get fooled by a smiling client who throws you a bunch of compliments.
For example, as an electrical engineer, I’ve had many clients ask me to do structural work. Clients tell me all the following things to get me to do the work:
- “It’s quick and easy.”
- “I can even do it.”
- “This is what we’ve done a hundred times in the past. Don’t worry about it. We’ve never had any issues before.”
- “You’re a smart engineer, you can figure it out.”
Most of the time I can do the work, but I don’t want to deal with the liability. Plus, any serious client would hire out, instead of trying to pinch pennies.
#3 Define roles in your engineer client relationship
It’s important to draw the line for your client on work roles. I’ve seen many clients try to overstep their boundaries.
For example, a client may directly tell you how to design step by step. This isn’t conducive whatsoever to an engineer client relationship. Because your client hired you as an expert for a reason. Your job isn’t to take advice from your client over every small design element.
If this becomes a constant problem, you need to explain how you’re the hired design engineer. It would be like telling your dentist how to perform a root canal.
Important Note: always design what a client wants. But, if a client’s design is off the wall, make them understand the drawbacks. If they still want to proceed ahead, then do so as long as you have a written record. Also, as long as the work doesn’t violate any codes and regulations, and it isn’t a safety issue.
#4 Trying to achieve perfection in your design work
Explain to your client how perfection is impossible, no matter the budget size. Then, give your client realistic expectations of your services.
I always tell clients, issues are bound to come up, especially the more complex a project is. It doesn’t matter how perfectly I plan their project either.
Now hopefully, though, most of the errors aren’t from your end and sourced from negligence. Rather, the errors are out of your hands, for example, the following:
- A new product update may make parts of your design obsolete.
- An inspector or reviewer may have a bad day when reviewing your work. So, they’ll reject your design and request changes.
In short, being an expert doesn’t lead to a seamless project.
#5 Project deadlines
When you discuss deadlines, choose deadlines you can meet. Even better, set deadlines you can beat. Under-promise and over-deliver is the secret sauce to winning over clients.
I always like to deliver a week or two early when I can. And I never miss deadlines. A missed deadline can lead to any one of the following for a client:
- Lost money
- The client’s client becomes angered
- Lost edge to a competitor
- Lost trust in you
#6 Over-communicate with project updates
A client will always love to hear updates on their project they’re paying you good money for.
Just think about how stressful it is when it takes weeks to receive a response over a service you’re paying for. Even worse, when your messages go ignored.
For this reason, update your client about their project even if they don’t ask. I always like to send an update every 2 or so weeks. But, keep a fine balance.
If you overly update your client, they may cause you more problems than it’s worth. They may request design changes and endless explanations. So, find the sweet spot with your update schedule, as it differs from client to client.
#7 Give no guarantees
Your client may expect you to move mountains because you’re an amazing engineer. But, you need to draw the line. Don’t guarantee anything you can’t do.
For example, don’t guarantee a design will get approved by an inspector on the first submittal. I’ve had instances where a design I’ve done many times before was all of a sudden rejected by a reviewing agency. This happens for the following reasons:
- A new inspector does the review
- An inspector has a bad day
- Review standards have changed
- The review committee from city to city has differing standards
In the past, I’ve taken heat from clients for setting the wrong expectations. The clients became upset because I told them their projects were straightforward. But then, their projects hit hurdle after hurdle. This is why I just shut up now. I explain all the ins and outs, without making any guarantees I can’t deliver.
#8 Document everything
Don’t trust your client when they say they’ll remember a conversation. More than likely they won’t, and neither will you. And sometimes, clients conveniently forget key details…
So, document every discussion for your record. You’ll later be thankful if any problems come up. And I speak from experience.
Clients have surprised me one too many times saying they never spoke certain words. When just months earlier they were adamant with their words. But, if you have a record, you can quickly point to an email and end an argument.
Important Note: even document phone calls. After a phone call, follow up with an email to summarize your discussion. Then, ask your client to confirm receipt of your email. And if they don’t reply, you’ll still have a record you sent your email.
#9 Draw pictures in your explanations
Humans are visual creatures. We understand better with pictures than through written words.
So, if your client is having difficulty understanding your words, draw them a picture. This can be as simple as a hand-sketched schematic.
This will help your client get on the same page as you. And also, you’ll gain more of your client’s respect for putting in the time to help them understand. Because not many engineers go the extra mile for their clients.
#10 Becoming too friendly
Sometimes, clients become overly friendly. And it’s tempting to become good buddies with them too.
But a lot of the time, this brings on more problems than it’s worth. Because a client who is also a great friend may expect you to go the extra mile without giving anything in return. They’ll want you to make some small design changes here and there without any added cost. All because you’re buddies.
I compare it to lending money to family and friends. And you know how this typically turns out…
Now, of course, exceptions do exist. I have clients who’ve become great friends of mine. But, in most cases, I maintain a professional relationship.
This doesn’t mean you can be an ass though. Just don’t get overly friendly. Draw a line and don’t cross it.
#11 Speak like a normal person
Tone down your technical jargon. Speak down-to-earth English and leave your industry lingo for your colleagues. Because your goal isn’t to confuse your clients or try to appear smart.
I see some clients nod their heads in agreement when I accidentally use technical jargon. But, in reality, they have no idea what I’m saying. They just don’t want to look stupid.
As a good engineer, you need to make everything crystal clear for your clients. And going back to Tip #1, if your client is unclear of something, it can open up a can of worms.
#12 Listen more often
Let your clients speak and don’t assume to know what they want. Because I know it’s tempting to direct them from the getgo, showing them everything you know. But, only do this after you hear them out so you can assess their thoughts.
To explain, certain designs you do one way 99 out of 100 times, and clients don’t complain. But, every so often, a client comes around who flips the design on its head. I had this happen to me on several occasions.
I told the client his design proposal looked off and it’s not advised. Also, I explained why I’ve never seen his design proposal implemented before. But after hearing him out, everything then clicked for me. I understood why he wanted his particular proposed design.
#13 Always deliver quality engineering work
Even if you have a downright bad client, your duty is still to provide quality design work. No exceptions!
Because your reputation as an engineer is on the line, especially since you signed a contract. Even more, your work will still probably impact the public.
Imagine if your Doctor botched your surgery because they thought you’re an ass. Lawyers would have a field day with this doctor.
#14 Always ask your questions
Whether at the beginning of a project, middle, or end, always ask your questions. Many times, certain design elements fall through the cracks. Then other times, questions won’t strike you until you’re knee-deep into a design.
You may even feel like an idiot by asking basic design questions late in the design process. But who cares. It’s better to catch ALL issues in the design phase versus later down the road.
#15 Admit your mistakes
No one is perfect. So if you make a mistake, own up to it even if you’ll look like an idiot. Because the longer a mistake goes unnoticed, the more costly it becomes.
I understand it’s not easy. But, it’s the right thing to do when a client pays you good money to complete a design. Especially, since your work impacts consumers and public safety to some capacity. You have an obligation as a working engineer per the engineering code of ethics.
Even worse, never hide a mistake thinking your client won’t find out. A mistake will always rear its ugly head, even if takes 10 years.
#16 Call out the client
If a client gives you misinformation, then call them out. Don’t become a punching bag. Of course, do it kindly and respectfully.
For example, in your original scope of work, your client tells you something is 20-feet long. Then, in the design review process, they tell you, “why did you show 20-feet instead of 22-feet?”
In this situation, show the client they originally told you 20-feet. This prevents the client from then doing the following:
- Blaming you for project delays
- Thinking you’re reckless
- Making you burn billable hours you don’t have
More importantly, if a change results in a lot of extra work, you can issue a change order. Again, this goes back to the importance of documenting everything in writing.
#17 Understand personality differences
Clients come in all types of differing personalities. So, learn about your client’s personality to improve your engineer client relationship. Then, try not to take things personally.
For example, if someone is naturally blunt and abrasive, keep it in mind in all your interactions. Don’t try to retaliate, rather remain professional and keep your composure.
I’ve worked with clients from all around the globe. I’ve noticed how different cultures address problems in business differently. So, I don’t take anything to heart. Every engineer client relationship is unique.
#18 Go the extra mile
We all love to get more for our money. Just look at the restaurants you go to, and the cars you buy. When you get more than you expect, you’ll always have a smile on your face. This is why I like to give back to clients as much as I can. ONLY good clients though.
My goal is to put a client at ease in a potentially stressful design process. So I do the following for them:
- Remain accessible on weekends
- Provide extra details in my designs
- Make my work as close to perfect as possible through repeated reviews
- Involve the client in the design process and ask for their input
- Be nice
Going the extra mile isn’t difficult. You may just end up spending a little more time on a project than you normally would. But in the end, you’ll build invaluable relationships. And, more importantly, you’ll become a better engineer.
Follow these 18 tips to build a better engineer client relationship.
Of course, every client will be different. And at first, it’ll be touch and go. But over time, you’ll know how to deal with all types of clients. This will then lead to fewer problems and less stress on your end.
More importantly, a solid engineer client relationship leads to impeccable engineering work. As a result, everyone wins!
What’s your favorite tip on how to improve an engineer client relationship? What makes a client unbearable to work with?
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Koosha started Engineer Calcs in 2020 to help people better understand the engineering and construction industry, and to discuss various science and engineering-related topics to make people think. He has been working in the engineering and tech industry in California for over 15 years now and is a licensed professional electrical engineer, and also has various entrepreneurial pursuits.
Koosha has an extensive background in the design and specification of electrical systems with areas of expertise including power generation, transmission, distribution, instrumentation and controls, and water distribution and pumping as well as alternative energy (wind, solar, geothermal, and storage).
Koosha is most interested in engineering innovations, the cosmos, our history and future, sports, and fitness.