Although none of us clicked our heels together three times like Dorothy, we have all been at home more than normal this year. As a result, homeowners began spending more time looking at their yards than usual, which has translated into an avalanche of landscape and irrigation work for contractors. As the season changes and the nights lengthen, those same clients will be looking for ways to enjoy their new outdoor living areas longer into the evening.
Adding landscape lighting services to your offerings takes some work to do well, but it can be a great fit for clients looking for both aesthetics and safety.
Working with distributors can be a good way to build an understanding of lighting options and products, says Kyle Adamson, owner of Red Oak Outdoor Lighting, based in Lexington, Kentucky.
“They’ll have seminars and have manufacturers come in to show you how to use their products,” Adamson says. “That’s a great way to get your foot in the door.”
As you get more confident with your designs, you’ll start to understand the subtle differences between different fixtures and what they can accomplish, Adamson says. Once you dial that in and understand the scope of available fixtures, you’ll be able to make more informed choices about the lighting products that work best for you.
When Kevin McRae, president of K2 Irrigation Services in Asheville, North Carolina, started working landscape lighting into his offered services, he often went back to his distributors with his questions and ideas.
“Just having a sounding board of someone who had done this gave me confidence in what I was doing and allowed me to present myself to my clients with confidence, even though I didn’t necessarily have the experience,” he says.
Working with a group like the Association of Lighting Professionals can also be helpful in getting started, both in connecting with lighting professionals and finding training, Adamson says.
“That made all the difference,” he says. “That’s why I’m still so involved in the organization.”
Completing a certification program can really jumpstart your education in landscape lighting, says Andy Thomas, owner of Viewpoint Lighting in Sacramento, California.
“The certification for installers is probably the best way to go, because you actually get a manual, a study guide that comes along with registering for the exam. One of the biggest values of the exam is that study guide,” he says. “It’s an almost 90-page book on how to do lighting. That definitely gives you a leg up.”
A part of your research needs to cover the legal aspect as well, says Thomas. Depending on your location, there could be licensing requirements or other rules regarding equipment and voltage, especially when used around water features.
Partnering with a professional in your area at least as you’re starting out can go a long way in developing your own expertise, says Matt Nicol, owner of Lightscape Outdoor Lighting in New Albany, Ohio. “Lean on expertise. You definitely want to have someone who has that experience.”
If you intend to develop lighting as a service, it might be worthwhile to hire a dedicated lighting professional or subcontract with one as you build your own experience, he says.
“You want to hire somebody with experience in professional design and installation techniques,” Nicol says. While technique can be taught, sometimes an eye for design is something that someone either does or doesn’t have.
It’s critical to gain an understanding of the basic elements of good lighting design, says McRae. For that, seeing is often better than explaining. He suggests driving through local neighborhoods at night to get a feel for what looks good to you. Just as important, take note of lighting that doesn’t work aesthetically so you know what to avoid.
Working with customers
Before Nicol even meets with a customer, he directs them to a form on his website that asks about some of their lighting requirements and wants, as well as an overall budget. That helps determine up front if the client is someone he can work with or someone he should pass on to another professional.
He also does some research of his own by looking up the house online and getting an idea of what kind of program might work best. Once he has all of that information in hand, he sits down to have a beginning conversation with the client.
Selling lighting to customers takes a different approach than irrigation services. McRae says selling irrigation is more like selling an insurance policy to protect the investment they’ve made in the landscape. It’s a necessary part of managing a healthy green space, whereas lighting is always tied into something customers want.
“The key to selling landscape lighting is listening to your client,” he says. “Let them talk. Every one has a different reason why they want landscape lighting.”
Just approaching a client with a prepackaged program is a good way to get turned down, he says. While you can have multiple programs premade, it’s important to know why the customer is considering lighting before making any suggestions.
Switching from landscaping to lighting work required a different marketing tactic for Thomas, from being a contractor to being a designer. It wasn’t a change in how he actually did the work, but more a mental shift.
“The distinction is that you’re coming across as a designer,” Thomas says. “Anyone can wire up lights and stick them in the ground and call it a lighting system. A lighting designer is going to solve problems with unique solutions and make sure the client gets exactly what they want.”
Don’t sell fixtures like you might with an irrigation system, says Thomas. Look for ways to use more creative language to sell the artistic angle and benefits of being able to enjoy the yard in a whole new way.
While Darren Wesley, owner of Viking Outdoor in Ellijay, Georgia, has catalogs and brochures handy, when he meets with a customer he usually leaves them in the truck and instead keeps the available fixture options simple to avoid special-order fixtures for the entire project. Have a few high- and low-end options for path lights, spotlights and deck lights available, and make those your trademark.
“Occasionally, you do get those special projects where they’re going to spend $80,000,” Wesley says. “I’m going to pull out the catalog because I’m going to give you exactly what you want.”
Caitlin Johnson, project manager and landscape designer at Crystal Falls Inc. in Scottsdale, Arizona, says she discusses it with clients as if they were buying a car.
“We’re going to get you from point A to point B, but it depends on how much you want to enjoy the ride,” she says. Once you get customers thinking about entertaining family and friends in the outdoor living area, they get more emotionally invested.
There’s the scientific side of landscape lighting, understanding voltage and wiring needs, but that’s not what the client is looking for, says McRae. “The homeowner doesn’t care about the science behind it,” he says. “The end user cares about the art and the aesthetics of it.” More isn’t always necessarily better with lighting, either. Just placing 50 lights in a design doesn’t automatically make it look good.
It’s also important to get ahead of clients who are more apt to go to a big box store to try to do their own installations, says Wesley. He won’t stop a client from going that route, but he will ask how much time the client expects to put into the installation and what the warranty for that installation looks like if something goes wrong. He doesn’t get into the technical details of the customer’s plan but asks them to take a look at the value of the home and think about whether it would be worth it to invest in a lighting system that fits the rest of the property.
A designer’s approach
Adamson starts his discussion with a client by asking about what the customer wants to illuminate. The front door makes sense, but do they also want to call attention to a statue or a particular part of the landscaping? Ask about how the outdoor space will be used, especially for backyard areas.
Push back gently if the client tells you to just use your professional expertise to develop a design, Adamson says. “That’s always a train wreck,” he says. “You really have to communicate and make sure everybody’s involved.”
If clients don’t have any ideas to share, Adamson will sometimes give the addresses of other locations he’s worked on so they can drive past and see how a completed design looks.
Once customers have identified some focal points around the yard that are important to them, build out from those areas to create a more complete lighting design, says Thomas.
“Find or create that focal point, then fill in the gaps,” he explains. “Say it’s a fountain in the yard. The fountain should be the brightest part, and then everything kind of tapers away from that. It’s building to the crescendo of that focal feature.”
That also gives you an opportunity to upsell a client on lighting by providing more options surrounding those focal points, says Wesley.
“Once they settle in on those couple of key areas, then I start talking about balance,” he says. “If we focus on just your Japanese maple, for example, you’ve got some other areas over here, and that’s going to throw the visual off. What if I just put a couple of path lights over here to balance it out?” Working through the design with the customer that way also gives you a chance to show off your expertise and give the customer reassurance that they’ve hired the right person, he says.
A good design uses a healthy balance of light and should be visually pleasing, Adamson says.
“You don’t want to have shadows where you have a very bright light and then a very dark area,” he says. “You want it to be subtle and more uniform.”
Try to develop a design that keeps the actual light sources out of view, says Wesley.
“As people pass by or come to your home, the first thought should be, ‘Wow, what a nice home,’” Wesley says, “rather than, ‘Wow, look at all the lights.’ There’s a huge difference between those two.”
It’s important to consider what the design looks like from inside the house as well, says Nicol.
“You don’t want clients just being able to enjoy their lighting for the 30 seconds that they pull into their driveway,” he says. “It’s about creating scenes for the clients while they’re in their house as well.”
An easy mistake to make is using too many path lights compared to uplights in a design, Thomas says. The ratio in a stronger design should be closer to 10 uplights for every path light. Path lights are very visible and should be used conservatively to get the most effectiveness. You can avoid a “runway effect” by spacing the path lights out a little farther or staggering them, including changing heights to break up the monotony.
Occasionally, McRae will do a nighttime demo for clients if they’re really struggling to understand what the finished project will look like, but it’s not something he does often. While it can be time consuming, they’re a great way to sell a job.
“I’m not sure if I’ve ever set up a demo and not sold the job,” McRae says. “Once they see it, that makes a huge difference.”
He only does demos for clients that really need the extra push, he says, and only during the times of the year when it gets dark early enough that he can do the demo reasonably early in the evening. He almost never pushes for a demo during the summer.
Instead of doing nighttime demos for potential clients, Nicol uses digital editing software to show what the house might look like with a full lighting program.
“Lighting is an emotional sell,” Nicol says. “When I do an illustration for a client, I take photos and overlay lights where they’re going to go.” Johnson uses 3D renderings to show clients what the property could look like with lights installed.
Safety is another design factor to keep in mind, Adamson says. The property could have a particularly dark area that could use a little extra light to put the client’s mind at ease.
It’s also important to make sure that pathways or trip hazards are well-lit while maintaining a balanced design, he says. “It doesn’t have to look like a prison yard,” he says. “We can provide security and safety aesthetics without being harsh.”
For outdoor living areas, build the lighting into zones that can be controlled independently or on a dimmer, Adamson says. If clients are planning on having the whole family out in the backyard for the evening, they’ll want more light. But for an evening spent with a few friends having cocktails on the patio, more controlled light will create a better mood.
Avoiding common mistakes One of the biggest problems for landscape and irrigation contractors taking on lighting services is learning to avoid giving lighting projects away, says Warren. They can be so used to including services to try to beat a competitor’s price or offerings that it feels right. “There’s no reason for that. None,” says Wesley. “That should be one place where they can make a lot of money.”
While landscaping and irrigation are things that customers need, lighting is different, he says.
“They don’t have to have lighting. They want the lighting because they want to enjoy the landscaping after hours,” Wesley says. “That’s when you can charge the money and make that side business you’re trying to build a very profitable one.”
It’s an easy mistake to make, but not every corner of the house needs a light, says Adamson, especially if it’s left dark between the corners and the rest of the front of the house. More balanced placement built around a central focal point on the front of the house will make a better design.
Contractors should also put in the research on fixtures as they become more comfortable with lighting design, Adamson says. Depending on your design needs, you might find that the manufacturer you start with isn’t the one that works best or lasts the longest for customers. Be open to trying out different product lines.
While it can be hard not to watch the bottom line, just choosing the cheapest products will cause more problems in the long run, says McRae.
“What happens with those cheap fixtures is that you typically have failure,” he says. “Typically, you get what you pay for.”
This could be the ideal time to learn more about landscape lighting and add it to your business, while offering some much-needed enjoyment to those spending more time at home these days.
The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.