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Selling Prospects on the need for a Design

Discussion in 'Landscape Architecture and Design' started by JimLewis, Feb 2, 2007.

  1. JimLewis

    JimLewis LawnSite Fanatic
    Messages: 6,872

    So I have a recurring problem that I am sure isn't unique to me;

    I go to give a bid, and the customer doesn't know what they want exactly. They maybe have some vague ideas of some of the things they want to see, but they are looking to me for ideas for what to do. In these cases, I often get comments like this, "We were thinking of maybe a water feature over there....and we know we want some lawn and some plants but we can't agree on where or how much grass and what kind of plants. We were looking to you to help us come up with some good ideas."

    And so the problem is that I don't always have any good ideas.

    Now, sometimes, I do have a brilliant idea. I just get a vision of something that would look great. I get excited about it, and I am able to convey my ideas to them and get them sold on my ideas too. So in those cases, I don't always need a designer.

    But other times I just look around for a few minutes and nothing comes to mind. It's then that I am reminded that my education isn't in design; that I am really not nearly as creative as our designer is. So at that point I almost always switch gears and try to sell the customer on the need for a design.

    It's then that I sometimes run into resistance. I don't know why. Nearly every landscaping show on HGTV or otherwise these days starts with a designer and a landscape design. So I would think that someone who is looking to invest $10,000 - $20,000 would already have considered a design a necessity. (Incidentally, I never have a problem selling designs to people whose budget is over $20,000). But for whatever reason, some people seem to be resistant to the idea of having a design done. So I try to educate them and also to remove any misunderstandings they have about a landscape design.

    First, I mention that it's not as expensive as they might think to get a design done. Our designer routinely does top-quality designs that others around here would charge $1000 - $1500 for, for only $450 or so. And in my mind, that's a great deal.

    Then, I sell them on the importance of having a landscape professionally designed by someone with a degree in landscape design vs. a design done by someone whose background is more in landscape construction (i.e. me or my competition). And I sell them on how talented our designer is, and how she often comes up with very creative ideas for our customers.

    Next, I help them understand how a design helps me to formulate an exact bid, rather than just a guestimate price.

    Finally, if they mentioned that they have been talking to other contractors as well and were just trying to get ideas from several contractors I tell them, "When you work with a designer to come up with a design that encompasses exactly what you want to see happen in your yard, now you have something to give to each contractor. And you are now comparing apples to apples. Otherwise, if you just rely in each contractor's idea of what they would do, you're comparing apples to oranges and it just leads to frustration."

    So even after all of this, it seems like only some of the people I talk to are interested in having a design. The rest say, "Hmmm. Ok. Well, we'll think about that. But without a design, you can't give us any ideas or pricing" and I just say, "No. I am sorry. I can't. I need to have a more clear idea of what is really going to happen here. Otherwise, the quotes I would give you really don't have any real basis in reality."

    So where am I going wrong? Or am I?

    How do you guys handle this situation? Just move on to the next customer who "gets it" and quickly leave these kinds of customers in the dust? Or do something different to get them to agree to a design?

    It's frustrating knowing that the best thing for my client is really to have them work with a designer and have a design done - but not being able to convince them of it.
  2. AGLA

    AGLA LawnSite Bronze Member
    Messages: 1,776

    You are going wrong by trying to sell a service to a market that will not support that service. They do not support it because they do not value it (with actual money) because they have a limited amount of resources (money) that they have dedicated to their landscape. They see any expense that is not in the form of something physical as taking way money that would have produced another tree or a bigger walk.

    Part of why they don't value design in the low end market (under $20k is low end) is that there is a huge amount of contractors capable of doing their project. They each do what they can to gain an advantage in getting this work (this thread supports that notion). If you do not provide a design, whether verbal or on paper, someone else will in that market (<20K).

    Design is the same as selling insurance. People with higher valued items value the protection of them enough to pay higher premiums for that protection. The irony is that the people who can least afford the loss by not having insurance have the least interest in it and can not dedicate their limited resources to it. The people most capable of absorbing the loss are the most willing to pay to protect from that loss.

    If you can consistantly get above the $20k market, you will have less contractors competing with you, more willingness to invest in a good design, and better opportunity to move more product. Easier said than done,

    You'll have to learn some very basic design and to learn to be free with your ideas if you want to land these 10-20k jobs. That is a very big market and worthy of working, but the rules of the game are different. You have to give to recieve. Whip off a quick sketch on graph paper and write a proposal on the spot with a limited response time. Limit your time investment to the one meeting and give them everything in terms of ideas and estimate that you can. Then walk away with no more commitment, but only the possibility that they'll send the contract an deposit. You can't put more commitment into a job than the client. If they don't want to develop a good plan, sell them some shrubs and a walkway. Thats all they can get from anyone. It is what it is.
  3. PSUturf

    PSUturf LawnSite Senior Member
    Messages: 663

    You touched on some of the problems you run into when there is no design for a project. If you are just doing a single row of shrubs along the foundation then you can get away without a design yet still provide an accurate estimate of materials needed and how long it will take to do the job. If the customer is thinking of a project with multiple layers of shrubs, water features, a yard with significant elevation changes, or complex hardscaping you will run into trouble without a design.

    When you present the customer with a hard copy of a design and a contract you have something for them to 'sign off' on. If you start a project without a design Murphy's Law says the customer will have a problem with it because it is not the way they thought it would be based on your discussion. If they are not willing to pay for a professional design I tell them 'Sorry but I can't provide you with our services. We have a reputation for very high quality work and I can't guarantee this standard without a design'.
  4. PaperCutter

    PaperCutter LawnSite Bronze Member
    Messages: 1,996

    One of the best things about a master plan design for a budget customer is that once the final goal for the yard has been addressed, they can break it up into comfortable phases (with you the professional advising what order things should done in, of course). I tell them that without thinking through the overall design, it's entirely possible that to accomplish year three's goals, everything you do in year one will need ripped out. Sometimes it helps them if they see the design as not just critical to the project at hand, but providing a blueprint for the next several projects. Builds a heck of a relationship.
  5. VO Landscape Design

    VO Landscape Design LawnSite Senior Member
    Male, from Mt. Pleasant Ia.
    Messages: 365

    I will be watching this closely as I move forward with my Design plans. I look at it like building a house. You don't just start building it, you have a design so you get it right. I think you are on the right track, you can only do so much with the client but keep trying to come with other analogy's to show them why a design is both beneficial for them as well as the contractor. Both know what is expected. All good points have been touched on. Still new here but learning.
  6. JimLewis

    JimLewis LawnSite Fanatic
    Messages: 6,872

    All very good responses so far. Keep them coming. And thanks to those who've added their input so far.

    I wanted to respond to this;
    Well, I am fairly good at design, particular these on-the-spot designs. I keep graph paper and a landscape template in my truck at all times, just for this reason. And if I can come up with something creative on the spot, I'll sometimes do just that - whip up a quick, nice looking, design, for free. But the problem is I don't always come up with ideas on the spot. Sometimes I do. Sometimes I just can't. It's like writers block or something. Sometimes nothing comes to me.

    I still think we compete pretty well in this market. Probably 80% of the design/build jobs we do all year are in this range. And it's not like I am not landing jobs. We keep 2-3 crews totally booked with these kind of jobs for 9 months of the year. But I have to give a lot of bids to accomplish that. I probably land about 30% of the bids I give for people who don't know about us, and upwards of 50-60% of the bids I give for people who come in as a referral or who already have a favorable impression of our company (e.g. we did a job for their neighbor). But it's the ones that I lose that get to me. And I know if I could just convince them to have us do a design for them, I could increase my chances of getting that job to about 90%. I almost always land jobs when our designer does a design for them.
  7. pclawncare

    pclawncare LawnSite Senior Member
    Messages: 991

    I dont do a heck of alot of landscaping jobs more maintinance, but maybe you should work with the designer tell her or him hey look this is what im running into i can get you alot of work fairly regularly. See if the designer will possibly work with you on the price like 350 or 400 insted of 450 to 500 anyway just include the design into your bid and leave out a shrub or two to cover the cost. That why the customer is paying for it, but they do not know they are. Might sound a little underhanded, but when they think they are not paying for it it would be much easier i think.
  8. AGLA

    AGLA LawnSite Bronze Member
    Messages: 1,776


    One of the reasons you always land the job that your designer does is that you have a client who valued the job enough to invest in the design in the first place. The commitment was there and the design followed that commitment. Once you go through the design process a bond has developed that is difficult to separate - you own the job. It is extremely effective marketing.

    That $10-20k range has a lot of people working it as I said before. You can not expect that you will be perceived as the best bet for the client every time simply because there are a number of values that these clients are weighing. You and your company have a balance of those same values that are going to be weighted similarly to some prospects, but very differently to others. The four primary values are your aesthetic touch, your craftsmanship, the amount of landscape in terms of plants and other amenities you are putting into the project, and finally the price of the project.

    Let's say a job has a budget of $20k. Company A is going to bring in 10 shade trees 14 ball and burlap rhododendrons, 20 assorted 2 to 3 gallon shrubs, and 150 SF of walkway in a very generic layout at $20k. Company B brings in half of those plants and hardscape but lays it out beautifully and with higher quality materials and exceptional craftsmanship at $20k. Company C offers to do "the same thing" that company A will do yet has little experience and track record, but will do it for $15k.

    There are companies reading this right now that fit each one of these profiles, but only one profile fits any company at a certain time. Anyone of these profiles is going to win the job when it matches the client's profile and is not going to get it when it does not.

    So Jim, if you are about quality and craftsmanship and charging what is reasonable for these skills like Company B, and your prospective client is all about how much stuff you are going to put in his yard like Company A, or all about doing it cheaper like Company C, it stands to reason that the only way you will land that job is if you change your profile or change your client.

    By the way, I don't have any problem with any of these profiles. There is a market for all of them. Profit can be made in each. Client's fitting those profiles will not be satisfied by those who do not fit their profile.
  9. JimLewis

    JimLewis LawnSite Fanatic
    Messages: 6,872

    AGLA, where have you been hiding? I suddenly realize I should have been paying more attention to your posts all these years. It's rare that I find someone here on lawnsite who's posts are so poignant. Thanks for your analysis. I think you are right. I guess I shouldn't worry about the ones I lose so much.
  10. Dreams To Designs

    Dreams To Designs LawnSite Bronze Member
    Messages: 1,406

    Jim, as Andrew has said, it's all in the perceived value of the client. The key to design is reading the client and determining what they are really saying, not just the words coming out of their mouth. We must realize that most folks don't really know or understand good landscaping, but like what they see in the neighbors yard or on TV. It is up to us to determine their needs, desires and value they put on these things. Some folks will have a strict budget, and will want the maximum for their money, not necessarily the quality, and you and I are not going to change their mind. They may get a sketch, or paint lines in the yard and a proposal. If it meets their expectations and budget, you have the job. While others want quality and sustainability, but may have a limited budget. They can budget some this spring, maybe a little more in the fall and again next season an often for many seasons after that. These folks get a basic plan that will continue to evolve throughout the installation process and their appreciation will also grow during the process. Occasionally we all get the high end job that involves a fully detailed plan and an installation that doesn't end until that entire plan is implemented, and they sometimes continue to grow because this client is delighted with the work.

    I have found that about 1 in 20 of new homeowners in upscale developments can afford the designer and everyone they bring with them. A few more of that 20 will want some work, a patio, driveway, walkway, new foundation plantings, screen plantings or some other type of landscape work. Half of the remaining homeowners will not be able to afford much more than a weekly mow and blow crew at first, but 5 years down the road that may change, and the rest will try and do it all themselves. I'm sure we have all seen the homeowners walls, walkways and plantings.

    Whether your designer is an employee or an outside source, they should have consulting fees. An hourly fee that gets you lots of advice, information, a sketch and hopefully a suggested plant list. often times this consultation impresses upon the client the need for good design and planning, and a portion of a limited budget is turned over to just that discipline. If it is a one time thing for the client, quick and to the point is all it will take, but if this is their home and they plan on being here for a while, they will realize the benefits of a plan and stepped approach. If you don't start a project right from the beginning, things rarely end well. From my own experience. most client want to tell me what color flowers they want. I politely stop them and explain we will get to that, after drainage, soils, structures, hardscapes, trees, shrubs, then we can talk about the pretty flowers. Most get it, some are and will always be confused. You either walk away or you let them dictate the job and deal with the unhappy circumstances of poor planning.


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