Imagine sitting in your favorite lounge chair on a flagstone patio.

It?s a cool, starlit evening. . . . You?re enjoying the warmth of a fireplace and the trickling sound of a fountain or small waterfall while a couple of filets grill on the barbeque. This is the picture you can paint for potential clients looking to invest in some form of hardscape for their property.Why do I say ?invest?? The answer is simple. Because unlike a risky stock market investment, adding a high quality, eyecatching hardscape to a home can guarantee a profitable return on that investment. The work described above can easily add fifteen percent or more to the value of the property. And until homeowners actually sell their home, at which time they will financially realize that profit, they get to enjoy their investment?s beauty and relaxing effect every day and night. The easiest thing in the world for you to explain to your potential customer is that a hardscape can be functional, practical and most of all, beautiful. However, it all depends on the needs and desires of the client. It is also relative to the client?s budget, the existing architecture and the type of construction required for the project. Whether the hardscape is functional, decorative, the focal point or a subtle addition, it should, above everything else, be a visual enhancement that the homeowner can point to with pride and enjoy, especially when friends and relatives come to visit. ?When designing a hardscape or landscape, it?s important that we understand not only the look the client wants to achieve, but what he wants to use it for,? says Daniel Currin, business developer for Greenscape, Inc., Raleigh, North Carolina. ?The potential client usually comes in with an idea, or pictures from a magazine, or something they?ve seen, and then we incorporate the design to fit their landscape.? But more often than not, when you sit down to discuss what your potential customers want and what it will cost to bring their dream to fruition, they rarely expect the bottom line to be as high as it inevitably turns out to be. ?The client?s perception of cost usually tends to be less than what is estimated,? says Daniel Scholl, director of Design Build Services for Terrain Systems, a division of Grounds Control, Inc., Phoenix, Arizona. ?We try to sell them on value rather than price. They are not just buying a product, but a company that is going to stand behind that product. Remember, most of the hardscapes we do are custom. Very few are exactly alike.? Currin concurs, ?Clients often do underestimate the cost of a project, but it is our job to educate them on why there is a difference, and the value that they have not recognized. The biggest difference we see between the client?s estimates and our own is not that the material should cost less, it?s more along the lines of them not understanding the amount of preparation and foundation work that goes into building a hardscape structure.? When you must be a teacher

It is now your job to explain to the customer the new glossary of terms they need to know. In this case, it?s ?hardscapes? and ?softscapes.? Patios, pavements, walkways, boulders, wood elements, arbors, gazebos, fences, retaining walls, trellises, water features and swimming pools . . . these fall under the category of hardscapes. One simple way to explain it: if it?s hard to the touch and hard to do, it?s a hardscape. Even when it comes to softscapes, little does the homeowner know that you must first install hardscapes. This can be very difficult when a minimal budget is all you have to work with. It happens more often than hardscape contractors care to think about, because as a contractor, you can provide a more professional end-result by installing certain hardscapes when the person writing the check has a better understanding of what he?s paying for. Scholl adds, ?It often works both ways. Sometimes, the clients have very specific ideas as to what they want, and other times we design it from the ground up. Once a client sees something on paper, their level of input increases dramatically.? Even when the client has a good idea of the cost of landscaping, they have no concept of what hardscaping costs. Rarely do they think about the heavy equipment needed that would disturb their softscape, which then needs to be re-landscaped and figured into the estimate. Explain that you often need to bring in backhoes, forklifts, excavators and skid steers for the earth-moving part of the job, and special cutting saws, concrete mixers, demolition saws, hand tools, etc., for stonework and masonry. They don?t realize what it takes to build that patio, or run the gas lines to the barbeque or fireplace, and construct it ? or install the water lines and pumps that are needed to make the water flow over and over again through the system. Spending a small amount of time with the customer at the start of the installation, to explain the sequence of events for the entire construction process, just may save you a lot of time during and after the job. Give an example that they can understand, as if it were like building a car. Most certainly, they will understand that you can?t put the body on the frame until the engine?s been mounted, nor can you put on the tires before installing the axles. It?s simple, once you find something they can relate to. But then, sometimes that isn?t as easy as it sounds, according to Currin. ?We recently finished a Japanese garden for a commercial client that involved a very complicated ?native style? bamboo fence. All we had to work off of was a picture that the client had sent us. The most interesting part was that the project was here in North Carolina, but the decision makers were in Japan. So communicating on-site was not an option. So, after having to take and send lots of digital pictures and numerous e-mails, in the end, it couldn?t have looked more like the picture.?

When it affects their wallet, they listen
Have your clients understand that your time, as well as theirs, is valuable. When they first call and give you an idea of what they want, ask them to put together a list of what they have in mind, so that the first appoin-tment will de-termine if both parties are on the same page and can work together. Prior to your meeting, ask them to prepare a detailed layout of their property, possibly even provide a survey plot, and show the desired location of their vision. But what is essential and primary, prior to that first meeting, is that they prepare a budget. There?s nothing worse than spending more time than necessary with potential clients that are ?just shopping? or want a fifty-thousand dollar job done for ten thousand or less. Sometimes, they won?t have a budget, or one that doesn?t come close to covering their ?wants.? In this case, your experience is what will drive the deal. Provide them with a historical budget based on similar jobs you?ve completed. Also, having references and letters of recommendation from previous customers in the neighborhood is an excellent way to make them aware of the quality of your work. There certainly is no need to waste anyone?s time designing something for a budget that doesn?t exist. During your on-site meeting, the client needs to be made aware of all of the hardscaping costs from the get-go, and that one piece can?t be removed from the design on a whim, like a ten or twenty-gallon piece of plant material they might decide to remove from the soft-scape. It?s best that at the close of this meeting you give a broad estimate in order to eliminate wasting time. When utilizing software technology to close the deal, Scholl says, ?We use AutoCAD to produce our final landscape documents. However, we still put pencil to paper. On larger jobs, or jobs where clients need a good understanding of what is being installed, we will prepare color renderings of the design. We also show sectional drawings, perspectives, whatever it takes to get the idea across.? Currin says his company also uses AutoCAD, ?. . . for all of our base work and on eighty-five percent or more of our finished plans. We also do sketches and renderings when we think it will help clients better understand the job. We use photographs or pictures from magazines of other projects we?ve done. For some clients who cannot take a two-dimension plan and see what it is going to look like in 3-D, we take them to sites and show them walls, stones, structures, even plant material, all to help them visualize it better. It also gives us a better understanding of what they want.? And then . . . there are the permits. Currin says, ?Permits? They change every year.? But that?s a story for another time.

November 2003