Most residential landscape designers and design-build landscape contractors take longer than they should to guide their clients from the design and costing phase of a project into the construction phase.
As a guy whose entire business is based around helping landscapers move more designs into construction, this is something I come across all the time. I’d like to discuss it with you here, in the hope it might help the motivated business owner to assess and address their own situation.
Although there’s no definitive time frame that all projects “should” be measured against, we may as well quantify it for the purpose of discussion. I think if the process is dragging on beyond around 8 weeks after the initial concept has been presented and priced, there’s room for improvement.
The reason I view a lengthy time frame as something negative is because in my experience there is a direct yet diminishing relationship between a client’s willingness to invest fully in a project, and the time it takes to get them to that point of making the decision to buy.
In other words – the more time that passes, the less likely it is they will move forward and further to that, the less likely it is that they will invest to the extent they otherwise might have if only they’d had the confidence to make a decision earlier.
That exciting, emotional energy that surrounds the presentation of a new concept will soon be smothered by practicality, questions of “Do we really need this?” and the proverbial ‘sharpening of the pencil’*. Give it too long, and you won’t just be leaving money on the table, you’ll find yourself on the receiving end of the conversation everyone loathes, “We’ve decided we’re just going to sit on this for a while, but thanks so much for the work you’ve put in so far.”
Given that locking in new projects is something of a numbers game, it makes sense that the more efficient you are at moving clients through the process of designing and pricing a new project, the more opportunities you will create for construction. Even after you inevitably ‘drop’ projects for one reason or another, you can still achieve your revenue goals for the year because you have so many irons in the fire.
Of course, there are all sorts of reasons why a client might stall in making a decision, many of them completely out of your control.
In this article I’m going to focus on two things you can do, that are within your control, that will assist you to:
- Maintain client confidence,
- Efficiently manage time frames; and ultimately
- Give yourself the best possible shot at moving a project from design into construction at the highest value, in the shortest time.
But first, you need to put yourself in your clients shoes (something we should ALL be doing more often right?).
Try these on for size..
Imagine you’re an office dwelling Human Resources Manager for a manufacturer of medical supplies. You’re good with people and you’re paid well, but you haven’t got a creative bone in your body. You’ve been referred to a landscape professional who you feel you can trust to translate your aspirations for a new lifestyle at home, into a design that will make it happen. You’ve discussed everything with them about the plans you have for your property over the long term, your family, your likes, dislikes, wishlist and the budget you have in mind.
Three weeks later and the day arrives for the ‘big reveal’ and the concept for a shiny new landscape is being presented to you. It’s a lot of information you need to take in from bigger picture issues like council permits for the retaining walls, if that’s what they are.. to the tiniest details like the shadow line he keeps talking about that is supposed to make everything look like it’s floating! You’re feeling cross-eyed and tongue tied by the names of a million different plant species and hoping your partner shares the same love you have for the colour of the tiles.
As the haze of information overload begins to clear, your client will find themselves asking two fundamental questions that are in your best interests to answer.
These can take many different forms, and be vocalised or asked silently, but the general theme is always the same:
So.. what exactly am I getting?
How much will this cost?
What? I made you read all this for those two questions?!
Granted these seem obvious or even trivial at first glance, but I’m here to suggest to you that if you don’t help your clients gain absolute clarity on the answers to these two questions at every step of the journey, you are doing your business and your clients a disservice.
If you’re not sure where you sit on this one, here’s a quick test to see how you’re tracking –
If you’re a landscape designer, try to recall how many of the last 10 designs you prepared that were accompanied by a cost estimate at the time you first presented the initial concept to your clients. Designers (myself included during the early part of my career) are notorious for preparing designs without truly understanding, or even deliberately neglecting, the cost implications of each stroke of the pen or click of the mouse. They’re great at inspiring clients with jaw-dropping designs but this can quickly turn sour when the initial price comes in substantially higher than the client’s budget and expectations.
If you’re a contractor, try to recall how many of the last 10 quotes you produced that were accompanied by a professional set of plan drawings or better yet a collection of 3D imagery that gave your clients a crystal clear understanding of what you’ve quoted. While designers are notorious for ignoring budget, contractors have a reputation for assuming that everyone can understand plan drawings, despite the fact they’re from outside our industry with zero experience or training in reading plans. One of the worst feelings an exhausted contractor can experience is a client quickly dismissing the last two weeks of gruelling labour, “that’s not what I thought we were getting done”.
Remember that just because your client might not say they don’t understand the drawing, or seems indifferent to the fact the design concept was presented without an estimate doesn’t mean those two fundamental questions aren’t at the top of their mind.
Once that first presentation is over, it won’t take long before the new design is being discussed at the dinner table, in bed, tossed around with work colleagues, friends and next door neighbours and that is precisely when your under-informed client is at risk of drifting away from the Island of Confidence into the vast Oceans of Uncertainty.
If you want to stand half a chance of moving a project from design to construction quickly, the next words out of your mouth after you’ve finished discussing the plan should be something along the lines of:
“Now we’ve reached a really exciting part of the presentation, I’d like to show you a 3D visualisation of this design so you can see exactly how it will look and feel with your house, and then we’ll run through an idea of the costs, so you can see where you’re money is being invested if you decide to go ahead. How does that sound?”
“How does that sound?” says your client to themselves, “THAT sounds like music to my ears!”
BOOM! Client confidence boosted, professional service delivered, odds tilting in your favour right from the beginning.
OK, so that’s the theory done, now for the practical tips and strategies.
At each step of the process your design and costings should be presented to your client hand-in-hand to give them the opportunity to make an informed buying decision at any time, rather than ‘waiting’ on the pricing or design to be updated.
The level of detail in either the costing or design should step up together. The concept will initially be accompanied by an indicative estimate, eventually becoming a landscape plan with a firm quotation supported by accurate pricing by specialist subcontractors.
The Golden Rules
Always accompany your designs with an appropriate level of costing detail.
Always accompany your costings with an appropriate level of design detail.
Companies that have an in-house estimator and design team tend to stick to the Golden Rules pretty well. They have the capacity to have more irons in the fire and in turn get sign off on more jobs purely based on numbers of project processed.
Makes sense.. but what about the smaller guys who can’t afford an estimator or a design team and feel suffocated by their existing workload?
Just because a company is smaller with a more compact staff structure doesn’t mean they can’t compete with or even outperform the larger more established operators. We are fortunate that we live in a time where software and a global marketplace means small business can move faster, smarter and get the same results as the bigger players without the overheads.
Estimating and Quoting
Pricing new projects and adjusting the price on existing ones is easily the most challenging bottleneck both contractors and designers experience on every project. In an age where we are all time-poor, this is the step that tends to slip through the cracks at the beginning of the design process.
The good news is there are a substantial number of off-the-shelf solutions out there that can perform hours of estimation work in a matter of minutes, as long as you’re prepared to put in the hours upfront.
Benchmark – Large providers of estimation solutions like Benchmark provide comprehensive solutions with representatives across the world. Benchmark has all bases covered with some incredibly powerful features that may be beyond the need and budget of most small to medium operators in the residential sector.
Planswift – Time-saving platforms like these are ideal for quickly putting together a ballpark estimate with a drag’n’drop platform that is simplistic but super easy to use. Unfortunately there aren’t many of these that come ready-to-go with landscape specific rates although you can definitely build this capacity over time.
LiberRATE – This type of platform is my personal preference not because of the features, which are similar to most other platforms, but because it’s focused on the landscape industry.
I honestly believe more landscape architects and garden designers should be using landscape estimation software like LiberRate to monitor the cost implications of their designs, if only during the concept phase.
You can gain instant access to libraries of rates and materials specific to your state, and the people behind it who have a long standing industry presence and authority as estimation professionals. The system auto updates to reflect the actual pricing from each completed project allowing you to generate everything from a ballpark figure to a comprehensive report in a matter of minutes.
Design and Communication
So, how can you make sure that the ideas you have in your mind, can be communicated clearly to the minds of your clients? At the very least you’re going to need a legible, neatly drawn plan, perhaps accompanied by photos of already completed projects or similar situations. Ideally, you develop the capacity to accompany designs with more visual imagery such as 3D renders, elevations or perspectives. We already know the next generation that are coming through are far more visual having been raised in this digital era.
Learn CAD software – Although this tends to be the expensive, time consuming option for a contractor to take, designers would agree that using any kind of CAD software helps immensely with being able to test new designs, and represent them professionally. Perspective sketches and 3D renders in particular are effective for communicating more than just lines on a page; they hit those emotional buttons that give clients a sense of how their new landscape my ‘feel’ and not just how it might look.
Vectorworks – When set up properly, Vectorworks almost gives you the best of both worlds can create professional drawings and 3D imagery while simultaneously compiling a bill of material quantities while you draw. These can then be quickly transferred to estimation software to see how the price stacks up.
Pool Studio – Although I don’t use Pool Studio anymore, I have long been an advocate for this simple to use 3D modeling software that, like Vectorworks is able to help you quickly calculate quantities in just a few clicks. The finished plan drawings don’t have the finesse of a Vectorworks drawing and their 3D renders aren’t photo realistic, but they’re fast, they’re effective and the license is billed monthly, which means the cost is easier to absorb.
Outsource it! You already know the shape of the workforce is rapidly shifting towards a marketplace of freelancers and specialist agencies. Our industry is no different.
Besides accounting and administrative tasks there is a growing trend towards small design and construct firms adopting the Project Management model where teams of subcontractors are assembled and coordinated by a Landscape Construction Manager and Estimator. There are always going to be advantages and disadvantages to both sides of the coin.
If you didn’t already know, Pitch Box (my business) provides landscape designers and contractors with 3D visual imagery, fly-throughs and professionally drawn CAD plans.
There’s a reason for this.. they work! 3D in particular communicates ideas clearly, wins more work and makes life easier, not harder for my customers and clients.
The major advantage we bring to the table is the speed of delivery and affordable pricing, which is geared towards the small to medium-size business and gives them the chance to deliver designs in a way they never through possible.
When you couple an impressive 3D visualisation, a professionally drawn plan (What they’re getting) with an itemised estimate for construction (How much it’s going to cost) it’s not hard to see why clients who experience this level of service in such a short space of time are more likely to feel confident, to ask detailed questions and make informed decisions sooner.
This will either lead you towards a sale or to part ways and allow your business to continute to pursue new opportunities regardless, rather than dragging out the one’s you already have.
As we often say here in Australia, you’ll soon sort out who’s “fair dinkum” (being truthful or reasonable) about their budget, once you put the quote in their hands and a clear picture in their minds of how their lives might be.
So, what’s your opinion on that initial project timeline? Do you feel that you could improve the pace at which new projects are designed, priced and approved? Do you have any suggestions others could use to take action and improve their conversion ratios?
Pitch Box helps you DESIGN and WIN more landscape projects, faster.
Simply send us a sketch of your ideas and in just three days you can have it back as an awesome digital sales presentation with 3D fly-through, screenshots and a scaled plan that’s ready to print and present.
What’s more, we’ll build and host the entire presentation for you on it’s own web page featuring your logo and branding so you look awesome! You just need to email your clients the link!
Sound interesting? Click the button below to learn more now.