Think back to the first time you remember seeing fireflies on a warm summer night. It was magic. It’s the magic of moonlight glimmering on a still lake, of a small oil lantern glowing at your campsite. The effect of subtle lighting in a dark landscape is always magic and it’s this magic that has turned outdoor lighting into a multi-billion dollar industry.

Landscape contractors are in a perfect position to capitalize on this booming industry but, in order to be successful, they need to know how to market their services and set themselves apart from their competition. They need to have a clear vision for what their company can offer its customers and they need to be able to communicate the unique value they can add to the project.

“Customers want to know why they should buy from you,” says David Beausoleil, president of Cast Lighting, Hawthorne, New Jersey. “When your price is higher they want a reason why they should pay you more. If you can offer them something the other guy can’t, and you can clearly show them why your price is higher, chances are they’ll be eager to choose you.”

To successfully market your company, it’s important to understand what people are looking for in outdoor lighting in the first place. When people first began installing lighting in their yard, the emphasis was primarily on safety and security. Lights were used to keep family and friends from tripping on dark walkways and to keep suspicious strangers at bay.

Photo courtesy: Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting

In recent years this market niche has evolved into much more. In addition to providing added safety and security, customers now look at lighting as a way to enhance the beauty, usability, and value of their landscape.

“This industry has come so far from the string of pagoda lights lining the driveway,” says Cheryl Bean of Evening Lights, LLC in Sterling Heights, Michigan. “New innovations in lighting fixtures and wiring methods allow low voltage lighting to do much more than it used to. It can provide more light, better quality light, and much greater design flexibility. It’s like the difference between having a box of eight crayons or a box of sixty-four. You can do a lot more if you have more tools to work with.”

The art of night lighting
One of the primary reasons homeowners add outdoor lighting is for aesthetic beauty. For this reason it is critical for contractors to develop their design expertise and, more importantly, to convey this expertise to clients.

“Landscape lighting is a relatively simple industry,” says Lew Waltz, vice president of sales and marketing for the Landscape Division of Hadco, Littlestown, Pennsylvania. “Homeowners often think they can go to any “Do-It-Yourself” store and get the basic products and installation instructions. But what they don’t get is the design. What you are selling is art. ”

Photo courtesy: RSL Lighting

Beausoleil agrees. “Lighting is not an objective sale, it’s a subjective sale. You are selling your art and your design.”

Steve Parrot, marketing director for Cast continues. “Lighting contractors are not fixture salesmen. There are a myriad of design elements you can incorporate into the lighting landscape to evoke the particular mood a customer is looking for, whether it be romantic, mysterious, dramatic, or grand. With training, contractors have an opportunity to become experts in the techniques that go into establishing this mood. A smart lighting contractor will impart their expertise in these techniques to their prospective clients. They’ll show clients ‘if you use me you’ll get someone who can create this magic for you.’ ”

According to industry professionals, there are five basic principals of landscape lighting design that create a unique visual experience for the customer:

• Depth – directing the visual experience of the viewer and adding visual interest both near and far

• Perspective – treating the landscape as a three dimensional canvas to create visual interest from all possible viewpoints

• Focal Points – establishing visual “destinations” or resting places in the gazing experience

• Quality and Direction – “painting” your landscape using various lighting qualities and directions to achieve the desired moods and experiences

• Symmetry and Balance – highlighting structures and forms that have intrinsic beauty

Photo courtesy: RSL Lighting

Successful contractors learn these principles and learn how to convey their in-depth knowledge to clients.

Another major selling point for landscape lighting is usability. “This is one of the most important aspects to communicate to clients,” says Cruz Perez of Vista Professional Outdoor Lighting in Simi Valley, California. “You spend, thirty, forty, fifty thousand dollars or more on your landscape and it looks great…during the day. But who really gets to appreciate it besides the mailman and anyone else who happens to be on your block during the day. Outdoor lighting enables you to get much more use out of your landscape.”

One way contractors can set themselves apart is by providing a design that is sensitively tailored to the client’s unique needs for usable nighttime space. “In order to understand these needs, it’s absolutely critical for the contractor to ask a lot of questions and to ask the right questions,” says Perez. “You have to get into the mindset of the homeowner. There are many key questions to ask to get a real sense of how the client uses the landscape at night. Homeowners know what they like but they don’t necessarily know how to explain it to you. Your communication skills are key.”

“For example, they might tell you that their kids use the backyard at night. But you need to know more. Is there a specific area of the yard close to the house that they want to emphasize in order to encourage the kids to stay there? Or is there a dark corner at the edge of the property that you need to light? Is there a special tree in the yard that needs attention because it has meaning for the kids? You’ve got to ask explicit questions to get at the details you need to do a good job.” It’s this attention to detail that will give customers a reason to choose you.

Most homeowners see landscaping as an investment in their home. Landscape contractors can help customers recognize the value that professional outdoor lighting adds to that investment. “People spend tens of thousands of dollars on their landscaping. By setting aside part of their budget for outdoor lighting, they can get many more hours of enjoyment out of their investment,” says Cheryl Bean.

Photo courtesy: Cast Lighting

“If you’re putting in a $100,000 landscape, you can expect to add 10-20 percent of the value in that landscape in lighting,” says Beausoleil. Of course this also translates into a great investment for contractors but in order to reap those rewards you have to be able to communicate the long-term value of the project.

“Lamps used to last only 2,000 hours, or about a year,” says Waltz. “Now you can get lamps that last more than10,000 hours. Contractors can also offer better warranties because manufacturers are offering better warranties. This creates a much more valuable service to offer to the customer which in turn brings more referrals.”

Contractors sometimes mistakenly equate value with low-price. “I have yet to see a landscape contractor who is a low price leader who is the most successful among his peers,” says Beausoleil. “The guy who is the most successful is the one who can communicate his value. They know exactly what they have to offer and how to communicate that to clients. Those that do this simply outsell their competition hands down and get the price they need.”

Waltz agrees. “Sometimes, after completing a few jobs, a new contractor will start looking for a lower price on products,” says Waltz. “In the long run this really isn’t helping their business at all. You can always find something for a buck less. But the key in this business is to form an allegiance with an experienced distributor and an experienced manufacturer and stick with them. The relationship you develop is really going to help your business grow.”

Technical Know-How
Customers may choose you for your design expertise but one of the foundations of good design is technical knowledge. “Design and technical expertise go hand in hand with lighting – probably more so than any other aspect of landscaping.” says Scott Fears, senior landscape designer for Highland Outdoor, which serves the Kansas City Metro Area, “If the lighting system is thoroughly understood before it goes in the ground, it is installed much more easily and makes for a much more trouble-free operation.”

Photo courtesy: Hadco

Fears says his company added lighting to its offerings four years ago because of customer demand. “As we started to add it to our repertoire of product offerings, we found that it enhanced the landscape so much that we now include it in just about all of our projects.”

“It took a little while to understand what each fixture will do and what effects they will create but the training provided by the manufacturer helped tremendously,” says Fears. “They gave us training on how to install their products, how to sell, and how to design.”

In addition to providing extensive training, manufacturers are constantly striving to create products that simplify system design. RSL Lighting, Chatsworth, California, manufactures a voltage regulator that helps add flexibility and simplicity to the system. “One of the biggest problems new lighting contractors have is in regulating voltage – getting enough voltage for what they want to accomplish and understanding voltage drop,” says Perry Romano president of RSL.

“A 12 volt transformer typically enables you to go 30-40 feet before you get voltage drop. A multi-tap transformer enables you to get farther away, but there can also be a problem with overkill. Contractors can use higher voltage taps to go farther but this can give some lamps too much voltage and cause burnout. Lamps are going to burn out before they’re supposed to and you’re going to get call backs.”

A voltage regulator ensures that each lamp gets the exact amount of voltage needed for optimal performance and no more. It allows contractors to use high voltage taps or a single high voltage transformer without worrying about having too much voltage for every given lamp. This takes a lot of the guesswork out of installation.

Reaching the Market
So once you know your company’s niche and are confident about your offerings, how do you reach clients? Here are a few of the tried and true methods:

Demo kits – A picture is worth a thousand words. Invest in a few demo kits to show rather than tell your customers what lighting can do on their property. Set up a demo for a few days to give clients a taste of what their project might look like. They won’t want to live without it.

Door hangers – Whether you’re doing a demo or a full install, make sure to door-hanger the rest of the neighborhood to let them know who you are and what you offer.

Targeting – Obviously you’ll mine your current customer base first. Remember to target those who have disposable income. These are the customers who might seek outdoor lighting in the first place and the ones who will be willing to pay a higher price for greater value.

Service agreements – Service and maintenance agreements give you additional income and enable you to keep returning to the property regularly to clean, re-aim, and replace lamps as needed. How does this translate into new customers? Think of a completed project as your marketing brochure. You’ll want to be able to update it yourself to keep it looking the way you meant it to.

As Beausoleil puts it “This is your creation. It’s your work of art. As long as it looks good it’s going to sell another canvas for you.”