One of the most important pieces of information you’re looking for when you first start the process of acquiring a new landscape client is the potential size of their investment, in other words, their budget.
As you already know, finding out this crucial piece of the puzzle early will help you to frame the way the remainder of the project is likely to unfold. The problem is, this can be a pretty tricky piece of information to get out of someone; money is often a very awkward topic to broach, especially when you’ve just met someone for the first time.
As a designer, I’ve become rather good at this over the years so before you go charging into your next on-site consultation, here is my step-by-step guide to distilling the dollar value from your new customer.
Prepare Your Customer Ahead of Time
Rather than simply springing the question on your potential customer and putting them on the spot for an answer, help them be prepared to have an answer by planting the seed early on. The best time to do this is during that first phone call or email. Use this as an opportunity to give them something to think about between the call and the time you meet on site. You’re not asking them to give you an answer right away, you’re asking them to make the time to think about it. Here’s some of the things I say:
“I’m really looking forward to meeting you on —-day, before you go, one of the things I was hoping you could have a think about before we meet is how much you’re thinking you’d like to invest in this project.”
“I’m not sure if you’ve already thought about this and I don’t need an answer from you now, because I know this is a really awkward subject to discuss, but it will really help me to make sure you get the best value for money if I have some idea of the budget we’ll be working within.”
“To give you an idea, my clients normally come back to me with a figure range to the nearest $5k, so for example $45-50thousand. As you know we’ve built projects from $500 to $500k and we’ve been able to do that because we always stick to the budget and make the most of the resources we have available. The last thing I want you to experience is a bunch of hidden surprises. We like to get things right from the start. If you could have a think about that, it would be a great help. If you’re not sure where to start, I’ll bring some examples of previous projects and we can talk more about it in person.”
“Oh, and if you could bring some images or printouts of the sorts of things you’ve seen before that you really like, that would be really helpful too. It’s really important to me that your personality and your tastes come through in the finished product.”
Start to Frame and Distinguish Essential Items from Luxuries
Once your face-to-face meeting is underway, it’s common to find your customer’s “Wish-List” growing exponentially by the minute. I’m sure you know what this is like! Because of the way your conversation will unfold as you move closer to determining a budget, it’s important to start framing certain elements of the design as luxury elements, and others as essential items. For example, on a newly built home, the driveway and paths around the house are far more important than having a pond with steppers across it. If someone wants a new swimming pool, the pool is more important than a trendy shade structure hovering over one end of it. The reason this is important is that it will help them understand those items which will likely sit outside the budget they’re going to give you. Not only does this mean you can assist them to understand the “true” cost of the project when their budget is unreasonable, it empowers them to make the decision to increase the project budget by adding the luxuries in later. “Framing” is the act of creating the frame or lens through which someone thinks about a particular topic. It also helps you to command authority over the conversation and demonstrate first and foremost that you’re a problem solver who is there to help as much as possible. Here are some of the things I say to frame luxury items from essential items.
“I think it would be absolutely fantastic to introduce a shelter and a lounge at the end of the pool, it would be a really great space for the kids to hang out away from the house so they can splash around all they like. I guess it depends on how far you want to go really. Because your home is a new build, we definitely need to look at the driveway and the paths first, and of course it’s much easier to put the pool in now than down the track once everything is established. It might be that the structure goes in later, what do you think?”
“Once we have a design and put the first cost estimate against it, we’ll be able to see where to place or shift the weight in terms of your investment. Obviously it would be amazing to crane in some mature trees right from the start, it will look like they’ve been here for years and start giving you shade right away but if you’re patient, they’ll grow that big eventually. I’m not sure at this stage but you might be better off spending more on installing a concrete slab and installing the stone as tiles, rather than laying pavers on a sand base. That way you’ll have less issues with weeds and ants coming through the paving. Of course if you’re not bothered by that, we can save money by going with pavers and put money back into the trees.”
Notice how I never mention any actual figures, I simply frame the situation, make the distinction between luxury items and essential items clear and leave the discussion open ended. This will help to avoid coming across as a salesman and instead allow them to evaluate the situation in their own minds and understand how a final outcome will be resolved.
Introduce the Subject with Previous Examples
Before you talk about their money, you’re going to talk about someone else’s. This is a crucial step and one that I’ve found really effective. Be sure to bring with you some examples of previous projects, ideally photographs of the finished product, but at the very least a set of plans and some 3D images. (Don’t forget we can help with that 😉 Most importantly, bring the costings for these too. You need to bring at least two for this, one high, one low. You’re going to demonstrate how confidently you discuss the subject of money to get them used to the idea of talking about it. This is your chance to show how you helped someone get the best possible value for their investment, and if you think it’s appropriate, how they actually added a luxury item themselves because it’s something they really wanted. Make sure you briefly highlight all the “money-you-can’t-see” costs that appear on your quote as well. In addition to thinking a design is something that suddenly “appears” in a creative person’s mind, most clients have no idea that it costs time and money to measure and set out the site, order materials, hire a skip bin with a permit and demolish and dispose of waste at the tip. Show them with someone else’s project first and let them see from the comfort of that position, how a typical project cost unfolds.
Here’s another typical example of how this could play out:
“I thought I’d show you this project first, it’s probably a little bit larger than what we need to achieve here, but it’s a great example of a project with a bit of everything. We were able to build this one well within this client’s budget which was great because they had a pretty extensive wish list! Some of the things we did to help them achieve the most out of this project was we changed the material used for the decking sub-frame from aluminium to treated pine. At the end of the day, it’s the boards on top that you see that count, but what was good about doing that is that we were then able to put this water feature in as well. The lady chose this one herself too so she was really happy with that.”
“One of the things we made sure of for this project, being a new build, was that the overall framework of the landscape was in place, all the paths, the planters and the garden beds were in and built with really good materials. We agreed to reduce the plant installation sizes so that all garden beds would be planted out and they were happy to wait for them to grow. Even though you can see the cost for this project is much lower than the other one, the quality of the work is there and in five years you won’t notice the difference, once the plants are all established. This one also had a custom designed arbour along this path which was really a luxury item, but once they saw how the whole garden was coming together, they actually added this one in at the end. Sometimes there are things people just want, even though it stretches their budget a bit. We’re really glad they asked for it because it really makes the space and I think there’s a lot of value in that.”
You’ve Laid the Foundations, Now Get On With It.
I typically leave this part of the conversation to the third quarter of the meeting because I don’t want to start or finish on the subject of money. The best thing you can do now is diplomatically, but matter-of-factly bring up the subject, acknowledge that it isn’t always easy but that it’s a conversation that needs to be had.
With all the ground work you’ve done in the lead up, this shouldn’t be too difficult to do. Although the desired result here is a dollar value of some description, try to let them come to you with a figure, rather than asking directly for one. I try to avoid using really direct questions or clarifying statements until the end. Here’s how a typical conversation might unfold.
“Thanks for helping me understand all that, one of the last things I was hoping you could help me with is to talk your budget. It’s never the easiest thing to talk about but if you remember I was talking about it on the phone with you, it’s one of those things I’d prefer to stay open and transparent about so we can make sure you know what’s going on all the way through the project. Have you had a chance to think about a budget for this project?”
“Great! Well, I think I’ve gotten almost all the information I need. Just before I go, I was wondering if you’ve had a think about how far you wanted to go with this project in terms of your investment. If you remember when we talked on the phone you were going to have a bit of a think about a budget to work from, at least as a starting point so we don’t get carried away. As I said earlier we’re really conscious of the budget for every project because we really want to make sure we can give you the best value for the investment you’re making. After seeing these other projects or from talking to other landscape contractors, did you have a particular figure in mind?”
Evaluate, Confirm and Reassure
Depending on the answer that comes back to you, it’s important to make sure you’re happy with the outcome ie you’ve got a figure that you can realistically work with to help them achieve what they’re hoping for. If this is the case, thank them for being honest and open with you, verbally confirm the figure and make sure they see you writing it down. You can clarify even further by asking if that is inclusive or exclusive of tax, or even if it is to include one of the ‘bigger ticket’ luxury items such as the shade structure by the pool. Well done! You did it!
Of course if this isn’t the case, some more gentle persuasion may be necessary. There are a typically only three ways this conversation goes and most are a variation on a theme:
- A budget is provided but it is completely unrealistic given the wish list.
- No budget is provided because they genuinely don’t know what a new landscape costs.
- No budget is provided because cost isn’t an issue.
Typical answer ONE – “We have actually, although the house renovation has gone over what we thought we wanted to spend there so we don’t have as much to spare for the landscape any more. We were thinking somewhere around $25-30k including the pool would be alright. I don’t want to overcapitalize on this place, so we really don’t want to go over that.”
Heard this one before no doubt? It might feel that you’ve simply been wasting your time and you will already have your own way of dealing with this response. As a designer, I would still clarify whether the opportunity for a project still exists and whether they are blissfully unaware of how unrealistic their budget is. To move forward I’ve always found it is helpful to offer a ball-park breakdown of the project using the wish list they’ve just provided. This can either be on the spot or via a follow up email, if you need more time. If you can show them, very roughly, how much their wish list is likely to end up costing, they will either accept your judgment and raise the figure, or usher you slowly out the door!
Typical Answer TWO – “Well we tried to, but this is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this so we actually have no idea how much anything costs. If we can just get the design and see how much it costs, we’ll be able to decide what our budget is after that.”
Again, this is a very common response, but one which is very easily worked through. What’s happening here is that because it’s the first time they’ve been faced with the cost of landscape works, what they really need is additional guidance and reassurance. Without a figure in their minds from the beginning to frame the project, the actual costing of the design will more than likely be a disappointment to them so you must press further. I will almost always refer back to the previous project I’ve brought with me to show them and reassure them that no matter where their budget sits in relation to the two examples, I will be able to help them achieve a result that they’ll be happy with. Doing this is effective because you are using actual projects with real associated costs. It’s crucial that they understand that nominating a budget as a starting point is even more important in their case because they are unaware of the cost of a new landscape or swimming pool. Once you’ve agreed on a starting point, be sure to write it down and thank them for helping you with something to work with, reassuring them that you will revisit the budget throughout the project so they feel comfortable with what’s happening.
Typical Answer THREE – “I wouldn’t worry too much about that at this stage. We’d rather not provide you with a figure because it’s really not the cost of the project that concerns us, we just want you to produce an outcome that looks fantastic and really works. Why don’t we just go through the process and then when there’s something on the table we can decide whether it’s providing value for money or not.”
Working with high end clients, I get this one a lot. I actually believe it’s somehow related to the way my clients interact with each other socially where they hide the realities of their wealth from one another for fear of finding out they’re not the top dog! That’s my theory anyway. This response should always be treated with caution. While an unlimited budget sounds appealing, the truth of the matter is, at the end of the day, everybody has a figure that they won’t go over and except in very rare cases, this is much lower than they’re implying. As with the previous response, I would start by referring to the project examples I had brought with me, but keep the conversation fast moving. If I’m still not getting any response, as a last resort I will start to suggest price ranges in increments of $50k at a time in a pretty casual manner. Their eyes will often tell you when you’ve gone too far! As this scenario is more likely to occur on bigger projects with affluent clients, the budget range tends to be in increments of $50k anyway, for example $200-250k total spend. As with before, make sure you write the budget down in front of them but let them know it is there simply as a guide and won’t get in the way of producing a quality end result. Walk away knowing that the lower figure in that range is most likely the real project budget. Certainly these projects benefit from identifying the luxury items from the essential items in Step 3.”
Talking about budget is not always easy, especially if you’re trying to enter another area of the market and are not familiar with higher project construction costs. Identifying the project budget early is absolutely key to ensuring a positive customer experience and earning more referrals.
Let me know if you found this helpful or if there is anything else you’d like to add.
I help Landscape Contractors and Designers save time and attract better Clients by improving their professional image.