Four out of five landscape contractors who are trying to develop the design arm of their construction businesses, struggle with design fees.

They have trouble communicating the value of design to their clients, they lack confidence in discussing what’s involved in the design process and they have difficulty pitching design fees and winning them.

Does that sound like you?

There are lot of reasons why you may have decided you’d like to be more involved in the design process of your projects; more control, more creativity, fewer delays.

Whether you’re just making the transition to being a “one-stop-shop” or trying to sustain the design arm of your business, one thing’s for sure, good design takes time. And time, being the single most valuable resource any of us has isn’t something you should be giving away for free, but you already know that.

The question is not just, “How do you ask your clients to pay for design fees?”

but more specifically, “How can you ask for design fees that cover a reasonable proportion of your time relative to the complexity of the solution you need to develop for any given project?

For almost all landscapers who are just starting to introduce design to their array of services, the most obvious starting point is to offer a “tiered” service; you don’t know what your clients want and you’re just testing the waters so you give them the chance to choose the level of input they want depending on how much they’re willing to spend.

For example they can opt to have as little as a basic hand sketch or for a higher fee have the designer prepare a computer generated plan. The next tier up might include a full species list, a materials specification or even a full set of working drawings and construction details. As an optional “extra” clients could choose to include 3D imagery to accompany the drawings if they want to visualise the design.

To some extent this process works, and yet after a while, and particularly if you are able to compare your success rate with that of others, it becomes very clear that perhaps your system isn’t working nearly as well as you originally hoped. And I say this because in fact, you’re not alone..

The most common feedback from 80% of the contractors I speak to that offer their clients design as a tiered list of choices is almost always the same:

  • most clients become immediately cold to idea of paying for design as soon as you show them the costs.
  • the scope of design input clients choose is insufficient for the project at hand.
  • the value of the fees clients are prepared to invest doesn’t come close to covering the time needed to develop a quality solution.
  • the discussion about the design process always revolves around cost and not a good design

Take a look at any “design only” firms or the remaining 20% of design-build operators who’ve integrated the approach taken by design only firms and you’ll see it’s the complete opposite.

So what’s going on?  What are 20% doing right that 80% are not?

Here’s what I think – at first glance, the tiered options approach seems reasonable and it definitely makes a lot of sense if your aim is to capture the broadest possible area of the market. You want a foot in the door for your construction business so you’ll take whichever option they want design-wise, even give it away for nothing for the treasure that awaits inside a signed construction contract.

It seems counter-intuitive but offering any aspect of your design service as an “option” is actually the strategy that’s least likely to result in the best outcome.

In this article I’m going to show you why, from a designer’s standpoint,  this is the single biggest error 80% of landscapers make and offer you five reasons that leading landscape designers rarely give their clients the opportunity to choose their own adventure in these situations.

The reason I want to do this is because I really believe that you, the design and construct landscaper, can win better and more design jobs (like designers do) if you consider avoiding a tiered structure in your design service too.

These observations are based on my own experiences and confirmed by other landscape designers and landscape architects who similarly have had to earn their livelihood on developing a successful strategy for pitching and winning design fees.

So, here they are:

1. Clients are seeking expertise –  give it to them!

If you begin from a position of confidence and command a respectful sense of authority over what is required to produce the best outcome, your client will feel comfortable that they’ve approached the right person:someone who knows what they’re doing that they trust to make the right decisions for them.

Leading designers don’t ask their Clients what sort of drawings they want them to prepare, they use their experience to advise them the process that needs to be undertaken, which drawings they need and in what order so they can achieve a great outcome, avoid hidden costs and enjoy a smooth ride from concept to completion.

If that means just a sketch, fine. On a more complex project that really needs more consideration and everyone to be on the same page, dictate the best course of action – you’re the expert!

2. Choice relinquishes control

For many clients, this will be the first time they’ve ever even parted with money in exchange for letting someone to do some work in their garden, let alone ideas and plan drawings! If you allow your Client, the least experienced stakeholder in the project, to decide what the best approach to take is, you’re relinquishing control of the crucial early stages of a new project and risking your own reputation.

In fact aren’t you undermining your own beliefs in the value of “design” which is the reason you brought this service into the business in the first place?

Leading designers, like successful contractors,  assume and maintain control of their projects from the very beginning to ensure it unfolds predictably and successfully. Of course Clients need to be intimately involved and offered choices along the way but it’s important to take the leading role when it comes to how your service is delivered.

I often find it helpful to think of my clients as “investors with a personal stake in the project” and myself as the project manager that leads and coordinates. It’s important that they are involved, but at the end of the day, I have the most experience and the responsibility to deliver rests squarely on my shoulders, they’ll thank me for it later.

3. Choices framed by task & cost lead to the cheapest option

If you present someone with a “menu” of tasks and the costs associated with each, more than likely they will go for the cheapest option, or at best the next level up.

It’s a little bit like choosing a bottle of wine from the menu in a restaurant. If the waiter simply asks, “What do you want?” only the true connoisseur will know which wine is best suited to the overall combination of dishes being served; the inexperienced wine drinker looks at the prices and will select the second cheapest option!

The reason is simple: they are basing their decision on the only thing they really understand about the transaction, which is money. The same goes for your “menu” of design options – when presented in this way, they can’t see the value in the $3,500 option when there is a $50 or $200 option that more or less appears to achieve the same thing. But does it?

Like wine, there is more involved in producing a great outcome than the physical tasks involved . Consider the experience and knowledge you’ve cultivated over the years of being involved in this industry, your exposure to hundreds of design ideas, real projects, mistakes you’ve made and the solutions that resolved them.

Leading designers provide just one choice, a tailored response to the problem that’s been presented. They frame the cost of that choice in relation to the overall project budget and their experience. They help their clients appreciate that the cost of good design is minimal in the context of the value it will bring to the project as a whole. Their fees are also reflective of intangible qualities such as taste, detail, knowledge, personality, experience and tested outcomes. Research and planning now will save time and money as the project unfolds.

By taking this approach, it doesn’t take long to accept that a $3,500 fee in exchange for innovative ideas and a clear course of action at the start of a project is completely reasonable (if not negligible) in the context of a $100,000 investment and the mistakes you might otherwise encounter along the way.

4. People spending lots of money don’t like making mistakes

Mistakes are frequently caused by miscommunication or to put it another way, mistakes are avoided when everybody is on the same page. Poorly informed clients, confused about what they’ve agreed to may find fault in all sorts of aspects of the project.

In their mind, these are “mistakes” were caused by you –  incorrectly built, incorrectly costed, badly detailed or simply the old, “I thought this was going to be X not Y, I didn’t agree to that!” scenario. Mistakes cost far more than money; they also cost time, lose referrals and damage your brand.

Leading designers protect their reputation and avoid mistakes by insisting their clients follow a consistent process that they know works. That process ensures that everyone involved in any project they touch is on the same page at each step: what we’re doing, how much it will cost, and where things could go wrong.

This ensures their Clients understand exactly what’s happening next, what they’re getting in return for their investment and most importantly, helps them avoid mistakes or misunderstandings as the project unfolds.

5. Adopt “best practice” principles.

You shouldn’t be guided by what every other operator is doing, but by what the best firms are offering. These are the ones who understand how to communicate ideas both emotionally to make the sale and professionally to ensure the job is constructed as intended. That’s why all leading landscape architecture firms provide 3D fly-throughs and a decent set of construction details – it client’s on board and then helps the contractor to implement the design as intended.

Leading designers remove the choice to include or exclude particular drawings, elevations, 3D imagery or otherwise. They determine the drawings they need make it a standard part of project delivery for projects of that kind. The best designers understand and implement current “best practice” because it offers clear communication and saves precious time later on.

If you can’t prepare proper working drawings or 3D images yourself, don’t let that stop you from providing your clients with the drawings and imagery you and they need for the project; outsource it.

The days of needing to be a huge company with an in-house army of high cost designers to deliver industry leading 3D imagery and 2D drawings are over. The world is a different place.

There are now fantastic “on-demand” companies like Pitch Box that serve landscape businesses worldwide than can prepare professional working drawings and 3D imagery for you, for a very reasonable cost, only when you need it.  All you need to supply is a hand drawn plan or blueprint to get started.

So, what does the alternative look like?

Remove the choices presented in a “menu” of services and instead tailor a single “fee” that is reflective of the drawings you know you’ll need to communicate and implement your ideas and the project budget.

Perhaps the most effective way to achieve this is to prepare a short written document such as a “Design Fee Proposal” in which you outline a Design Brief that reiterates all the main points you discussed during your site meeting to show your clients you’ve been listening to them, put their budget in writing and outline the deliverables that they’ll be receiving to support the project.

In other words you write down and show them exactly what they said they value, what they want to achieve and the steps you’ll take to help them get there as fast and cost effectively as possible. I always include a short paragraph on what I’m not doing for them as well.

If you frame the cost of your design service against the total project budget and offer transparency about how the fee was calculated (eg. time based or percentage based in the vicinity of 2.5-5%) this will further demonstrate to your clients that you offer a professional service at a cost that is reasonable given the overall undertaking.



As the owner of your business and builder of many landscapes, you will have the best idea of what works for you, so go ahead and make it happen. just because almost everyone else provides options to their clients, doesn’t mean it’s the right approach for you – unless of course you want a continual stream of clients who opt for the bottom tier. 

Do you offer your a “Choose your own Adventure?” approach to design delivery?

If so, perhaps it might be time to change your story.

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’ll 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 can build and host the entire presentation for you on it’s own web page featuring your logo and branding so you’ll look awesome and simply need to email your clients the link!

Sound interesting? Click the button below to see real customer samples now.