Find the right fit

By Lee Chilcote

Take the time to find which outdoor living setup matches your client’s lifestyle.

Anna Thurston, a landscape designer based in Tacoma, Washington, sees herself as her customer’s agent, “like a real estate agent would be on behalf of a seller,” helping them work with contractors to get what they want out of their outdoor living spaces.

Wade Parker, owner of Majestic Landscapes in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area, says, “The amount of time I spend on a customer personally is unlimited.” Through developing a personal relationship, he’s able to keep them over the long term.

And James Denison, vice president of residential and hardscape sales at Denison Landscaping and Nursery Inc. in the mid-Atlantic region, says his salespeople focus on how customers are going to use their outdoor living spaces. “It’s function over everything else,” he says. “I hate to invest their time and money in something that doesn’t work.”

In talking with customers about how to design and build their outdoor living spaces, landscape and irrigation professionals say it’s important to focus on planning to meet customer needs, determine how much maintenance they want to do and keep things simple in order to avoid expensive customization. With the right approach, it’s possible to make sure customers are happy for years to come, generating repeat customers and long-term profits for their companies.

A personal approach

Thurston, whose goal as a designer is to create outdoor rooms that are functional, aesthetically pleasing, easy to maintain and beneficial to the environment, likes to give her first-time customers a multipage questionnaire. “I ask questions like, how many family members do you have?” she says. “What do you want in your garden? How long are you planning to be in the place?”

The purpose is to educate herself on their needs and give them a chance to articulate their vision. “I have enough information in that very first meeting that I can do quite a bit of work right there in the first two hours,” she says.

Sometimes that initial dialogue can mean educating clients about difficult topics. For example, she’s currently working with older clients who have laurels sprouting all around a retaining wall along the property line. Thurston suggested pulling the laurels entirely and rebuilding the crumbling wall. “They were reticent to do that,” she says. “But even though in the short term it’s a big expense, in the long term it’s a benefit. They’re elderly people, and my whole objective for them is to make that landscape as low maintenance as I possibly can.”

Steve Brinson, owner of Steve Brinson Irrigation in Miramar Beach, Florida, typically works with landscape contractors to implement their designs, so for him, customer education is less extensive. Although he walks customers through his irrigation systems and how they function, he says, “Most homeowners don’t have a concept of what it takes for an irrigation system to run and function. All they want is a finished product.”

Parker says he never gets tired of talking to customers. “My wife accuses me of just going until the customer is tired,” he says. “I don’t look at my talk time as on-the-clock time because I know that no matter what, the more I talk to this customer, whether it is about their grandchildren or whether it is about ripping out shrubs in the front and putting in new ones, the better the relationship you can build with that person.”

At Denison, salespeople use the first site visit to size up the customer’s needs and understand their budget and timeline. Next, they try to develop a scope of work that delivers value for the customer and profit for the builder. “We try to use our expertise so that customers don’t ask for too much or make things too hard,” he says. “One of my main things would be, ‘Less is more.’”

Sometimes that means steering customers away from unreasonable ideas and toward practical ones that will make them happier over the long term. “Some people think they want a patio or kitchen 100 feet away from the house, and we have to say, ‘No, you don’t want that, you’ll never go back there,’” Denison says. “We’re always trying to ask, ‘How does it work and how does it function?’”

Maintenance is key

Diagnosing how much maintenance a customer is able to do and designing a project for their needs is also critical. Thurston, who focused her graduate studies on examining the failure of green roofs due to lack of maintenance provisions, says not doing this can threaten long-term business.

“I’ll address their budget for maintenance if I see that it’s lacking,” says Thurston. “I don’t want them to end up with a project they can’t handle over the long term.”

Brinson educates his clients about irrigation system maintenance and tries to eradicate the false perception that they don’t need upkeep. “I describe it like this to my customers: The Grand Canyon was made by the Colorado River,” says Brinson. “Mind you, it took thousands of years for that to happen, but a canyon was still cut by flowing water. What we do is put pressured water through PVC pipe. And that tells you everything you need to know. If flowing water can make the Grand Canyon, then pressured water through PVC is going to have maintenance; there’s no way around it.”

“You have to be proactive,” he adds. “That’s part of being a good contractor, seeing things that other people don’t. You might have to move some heads around, redesign some things, to make it work better. When designing it, you need to have that [mindset].”

Parker agrees that it’s critical to educate customers about maintenance when designing a landscape, and he often steers them away from doing things he thinks they can’t handle. However, because he is also a maintenance contractor, he has the option of selling them a maintenance package along with their outdoor living improvements.

“In that first year, it’s crucial to get them set up,” he says. “Usually, I’ll step in and walk them through it on a no-charge basis. Or if I have to regularly maintain it, I’ll cut them as good a deal as possible.”

“I love looking at jobs I did 10 years ago,” he says. “It’s really nice to see when someone actually knows how to take care of things themselves.”

Denison educates homeowners about maintenance, and he directs customers to keep things simple to cut down on costs and upkeep. “One of the first things would be, if they’re building a fireplace, do they want wood burning versus gas?” he says. “Do they want to handle wood, and do they know it’s a smoky mess that’s going to stink up the neighborhood? Then we ask about the appliance size and number of appliances, because it’s a lot more to keep clean. Everything’s outside and gets dirty.”

“Simple is better,” he says.

Limiting changes

Showing customers examples and detailed designs before the work starts is essential to making sure everyone’s on the same page. It’s also important to limit changes as much as possible after the shovel hits dirt, because that’s where things get messy. When changes need to be made, landscape and irrigation experts counsel being flexible and adjusting where possible, limiting the extra costs to the customer unless it’s part of a larger design-build contract.

“You have to be open-minded and know that you could run into something, because you never know what’s underground,” says Brinson. “You have to have the ability to change on the spur of the moment. Most of the time it’s not a big enough cost to where you’re going to alter it, unless it’s something major.”

Parker says that when changes need to be made, either before or after the work has started, having a good personal relationship with a customer can help ease the transition. “It’s easier to tell someone what they want doesn’t work when you’ve made the relationship somewhat personal,” he says.

These landscape and irrigation professionals also counsel against upselling unless it’s truly what the customer wants. “I think it’s morally important for the seller not to take advantage of the customer,” Thurston says. Overselling to a customer who can’t keep up with the maintenance also ends up making both the landscape professional and the wider industry look bad.

Parker says that customers will come to you when they’re ready to add on services or improvements. “Most of the time I’m not a pushy salesperson,” he says. “I don’t upsell that much. I probably should, but I’d rather keep the relationship.” When he suggests that a customer think about an additional service in a few years, the customer usually asks for a reminder about those plans once the current installation is finished.

Denison has had a lot of success selling preset packages to master-planned communities in recent years. Because they’re already working in the community, they’re able to show customers exactly what they’re getting. Having something they can see really helps to sell the services and design, keeping costs down for customers and maximizing builder profit.

With higher-end projects, they upsell by giving customers multiple options or packages. “We tell them, ‘This is the base of what we talked about, with the patio and the kitchen, and these are separate line items that show possible extras, such as lighting,’” says Denison. “That way, we’re really showing them how it enhances their outdoor living.”

Lee Chilcote is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at leechilcote@gmail.com.

What do you need to know from your customers?

It can be challenging to work with a new customer to figure out what kind of outdoor living space works best. Sometimes, the customer has ideas, but doesn’t come into that first meeting knowing exactly what they’re after.

Brainstorming is helpful, but a designer can use a tool like a questionnaire to narrow down some of the ideas that won’t push the customer toward a design that will provide the right outdoor experience. Here are several sample questions that can help start that process, supplied by the designers we interviewed.

1. What is your reason for pursuing landscape enhancements at this time? Check all that apply.

- Improve home resale value, and we plan to sell in ___ months.

- Increase short/long term property value

- Make the home more attractive

- Make the home more sustainable

- Enable my personal/gardening activities

- Create privacy/protect my pets

- Attract small/large wildlife

- Reduce maintenance

- Grow my own food

2. Please use the following to describe your neighborhood. Check all that apply.

- Peaceful and quiet

- Friendly

- Modern

- Well-maintained

- Noisy or busy

- Hostile

- Historic

- Run down

- Exposed

- Indifferent

- Mixed

- Varied

3. Should your home:

- Blend in

- Stand out

- Draw attention

- Be hidden from view

- Feel like a farm or forest

4. Do you want to attract wildlife to your garden? If so, what types?

- Beneficial insects

- Birds

- Butterflies

- Squirrels and raccoons

- Deer and other megafauna

5. Which phrases reflect your perspective on the use of chemicals in the landscape?

- We prefer to minimize our use of chemicals for dire situations only.

- We prefer to use only organic products in our landscape.

- We prefer to use only materials within our local area for enhancing our landscape.

- We regularly use manufactured lawn and garden fertilizers.

- We regularly use chemicals to prevent problems caused by bugs/disease.

6. What kind of landscape process would you prefer?

- A phased installation

- A complete install, all at once