Residential Landscape Design
Henry Ford was once asked in an interview what he thought was his most important trait that had led to his astonishing success as an automaker. His response was, "The ability to organize."
If you are a landscape designer, a landscape architect, or a landscape contractor who offers design services, this is the key fact to know about organization: The amount of organizing you have to do on a job is not proportional to the budget amount - or to your profit. Remember that if you make a 10% profit on a landscaping job and the budget is $50,000, you will make $5,000. But if the budget is $5,000, you will make only $500. Yet the same organizational framework will probably apply, regardless of the size of the job.
To begin with, it is important to do a time line. It is vital to coordinate material and workmen on the job. It is also necessary to inspect the work and ensure that everything is going smoothly. Yes, whether a tree is going to cost $1,500 or $35, it will take the same organizational system to plant it. All this requires precious time. Therefore, in order to organize your schedule efficiently, it is important that you start out by screening your telephone calls. Don't allow dead-end client prospects to steal your time.
Can you distinguish a good call from a bad call? Think about it. You return from the field to look at your messages. This one looks like a good call. You talk with the people. They are anxious to have you come out, so you do. You're in a good mood. You're feeling friendly. You talk about their last house, their dog and their kids. You talk about your company and the jobs you've done - and inevitably, why one of their pyracanthas is yellower than another. Everyone is getting along famously.
Up to this point, however, it hasn't seemed quite appropriate to bring up the subject of money. Finally the inquiry, "What does it cost?" You start to explain how you charge for your services. By the look in their eyes, you know almost immediately that these people cannot afford your services. You've blown an hour in meeting time and wasted an hour in travel time as well. Typically, I think we are all optimistic in a situation like that: The client is thinking it over. They'll call back. In fact, a high percentage of the time they don't call back at all.
That was a good example of clients who should have been screened out in the very beginning. You need to find out in the screening process if the caller has a realistic expectation of what professional landscaping services entail.
I think the ultimate example of a total waste of time has got to be the client who asks, "What does it cost to do the landscaping?" You explain that, first of all, the design fee is $1,000. To which she responds, "Does that include the trees and the sprinklers, or just the trees?" Talk about being on two different wave lengths! Screening your calls, therefore, is a valuable way of managing your time. Don't go running out to someone's house unless you're sure it's a really good prospect.
But how to make sure? The first question you should ask a potential client is "Who referred you to me?" If it's a friend, terrific. You're in. If it's from seeing a magazine article or awards publicity, you're in as well. But if it's from the phone book, or from a truck sign, the percentages are against you. Be on your guard.
Basically, if they say a friend or publicity led them to you, your screening job is over. It's absolutely no problem driving to their house and talking to them. It means they have tangible evidence of your work. They have specific expectations. However, if the potential client you're talking to is not a referral, be prepared to mention a specific dollar figure on the phone. It can be done in a sensitive and relaxed way. Your design fee or project minimum or project average is a good starting point: "Our company specializes in projects starting at $15,000," for instance, or "Before bids can be submitted, we must do a landscape design of the property. The design costs $800."
Right here I'd like to break the train of thought we've been on and comment on these dollar figures I've been throwing around. It's all relative. To some of you, a $3,000 project minimum may seem high. The number, however, does not matter. It's the system that counts. There is a clientele for every sized project. At times I hear someone object, "Bill, it sounds like a good idea, but I don't want to lose a potential job. If I tell them the design fee is $800, I might be discouraging a potentially good client." My answer is, "it isn't a potentially good client, or your fee is too high." If you are comfortable with your fee, you'll be comfortable discussing it on the phone. If you're confident, it will be reflected in your voice. And if it's an appropriate client for you, they'll go along with your fee.
The landscape design fee range in the United States is probably between $50 and $1,000 for a one-sheet master plan, with various amounts of information. That range excludes working drawings, which can cost in the thousands, especially when the project includes a lot of construction. No, the amount you charge for the design really isn't too important. The design is merely an opportunity. Your fee will automatically rise as your skills develop. Often the design is not your primary source of income. Rather, it is the carrot to bring in the larger dollars in contracts or in construction supervision. In that case, start low with the design fee.
Many contractors have a policy of refunding all or part of the landscape design fee if the client contracts the job with them. This policy can be very effective. But never give the design away, unless it?s your grandmother. The best approach is to be direct: "Mr. Smith, our average fee for a residential landscape design is X amount of dollars." Or "Our Company's minimum landscaping projects start at XXX." The screening process helps you to pinpoint your market. If discussing your design fee or project minimum on the phone still seems awkward, try what I call an over/under question. "Mrs. Smith, in order for me to get a feeling of the scope and the size of the job you're contemplating, could you tell me if you've budgeted over or under X amount of dollars." I've found the over/under question to be one of the most effective ways to determine a potential client's budget.
Unless it sounds like a really good prospect, I prefer to ask the client to come to me for the first interview. It gives me an opportunity to deal with him/her in my own environment. The office and photographs of my work help to substantiate my credibility. And it doesn't waste my time if I don't get the job.
Let's talk about your first meeting with a client. Assume that out of three calls that came in today, you have screened out two of them and the third sounds like a potential candidate for your services. At your first client meeting, don't say much for the first 10 or 15 minutes. They've usually got a lot to tell you. Be a good listener. You've made an appointment to visit their home. When you arrive, listen and relax. Let them get used to having you around. It's a quiet way of establishing your leadership role.
So far, by not saying much, you've increased their interest when you do say something. They'll probably want to show you around. Don't get side tracked giving them opinions at this point. Relax and Listen. Next, make some introductory remarks about your company. But don't drone on and on. Be sure that everyone is seated at the kitchen table, rather than on the sofa in the living room or family room. If Mrs. Smith says "John, won't you sit down?" and gestures toward the sofa, stop her at that moment and ask pleasantly, "Would you mind if we sit at the kitchen table?"
Be sure that you've arranged the seating so the husband and wife are sitting side by side, with yourself either across from or beside them. This is because you're showing them the information. And when you address two people, one on either side of you, it's a big headache passing a portfolio back and forth. Each person wants to see. It's just awkward. You're better off sitting in straight-back chairs. It's more business-like. And if the two people are sitting side by side, it's easier to monitor the information they're reviewing. The thing you have to remember is that you do this all the time. You're a pro. You're very comfortable at it. They do it rarely. After all, how often do they set off in search of professional landscaping services? I find that people are very willing, even anxious to comply with these adjustments: "Would you mind if we used the kitchen table, Mrs. Smith?" "Why no, let me move this place setting for you." While you're briefly describing your company's services, don't allow yourself to be sidetracked into discussing money yet.
You've got two sorts of promotional material with you. There are the things you keep, such as slides, photographs, magazine articles, and perhaps film or video presentations. You will also want to bring things you will leave with them, such as a brochure, references, perhaps a location map of completed projects, a project list, and your fee schedule and business card. Some of you may limit the things you leave to simply a business card. Others may have a whole complement of marketing alternatives. Regardless, I suggest you handle those items that you intend to leave with a light touch.
Your client's attention span will be, I would say, about ten minutes for looking at photographs and a bit longer for looking at slides. It's very important in terms of building credibility that you not milk your information for all it's worth. Lay it down with a comment like, "These things are for your review when it's convenient."
I think that driving clients around to jobs can be one of the most effective means of promoting your work. After showing them the work you've done, but before discussing their specific needs, tell them how much you charge, and how you arrived at that figure. In addition to telling them verbally, I find that a printed fee schedule can be very helpful in reassuring your client that you didn't pull a number out of a hat.
At this point, you've met a new family and seen a possible new project. You've listened to your clients describe what they think they want for landscaping. You've told them in brief the sort of company you have. You've left supportive material with them. By now they're aware of what you charge, and have a feeling for you as an individual.
This is the time to go to the car and get that other photograph you forgot to bring in, or go to the bathroom, or make a phone call in the other room. In other words, give them a few moments alone to make a decision. If a salesman were in your home, talking to you and your spouse, how comfortable would you be if you had to make a decision before you had a chance to talk to your spouse in private? You wouldn't want to do it -- and neither will they.
Quite often it is in that time when you're walking out to your car that a sale is closed. In fact, it may well be the most valuable three or four minutes of your meeting time because it gives them a chance to say, "Honey, I like what he's done. Do you want to give him the go ahead?" Now you can be sure they've had a chance for a private chat. That little chat may well have eliminated another trip out to their house. At this point, let's assume they say, "All right, what do we do now? We're anxious to start." Regardless of your preferred method of charging, it is neither unusual nor inappropriate to ask for money up front.
The first check you receive will always be the easiest money you ever collect on a job. It's important that your client take you seriously. A check and a signed contract are a good start. Once they've decided to roll with you, I find they're as anxious to finalize that commitment as you are. The key is to speak straightforwardly.
At this point, you've met with them, you have a signed contract, and you've accepted a retainer in the form of either a token or substantial payment against the design work. You are ready to begin. However, do not discuss design specifics before you are ready with a formal preliminary presentation.
Speak of the project only in general terms. You don't know at this point whether the patio should cure here, or whether this tree will have to come out. The client is paying you to use your talents to come up with your one best layout. I think, however, that you should be prepared to speak and illustrate in general terms. When I say speak in general terms, I mean, for instance, observing that the backyard is very narrow, or that there is a nice view of the park to the east.
With headache-type questions, like "Do you think we are going to have to take out that tree?" experience and wisdom suggest that the answer be, "I don't know." How in the world could you know? If you did, you wouldn't have to draw a design. There are many components that will affect the decision. The answer is, "I don't know. I'll have to work on it."
By showing your clients a preliminary first, you give them a feeling that they're participating in the design process. I suggest that you include your clients' architecture in your comments. So it's important to have at least a basic knowledge of architectural styles.
Study architecture enough to have a feeling for the style of the home, which you will complement. For instance, if a home is contemporary, you may suggest that a gingerbread fence is inappropriate. Discussing building materials and themes are good examples of what I mean by discussing general considerations rather than specifics.
At this point the marketing phase of the job is over. It's time to prepare for your real work, which is designing a landscape that your client can live with and enjoy.