Do you discuss project budget with your clients?

Written by Shah Turner

I don’t just mean a passing question you might ask during one of your early client meetings, I mean actually have a conversation about money; determining what the realities of their financial capacity to pay for the landscape they want, actually are.

From my standpoint, it is absolutely necessary to discuss budget, and it’s unprofessional if you don’t.

But I recently had a conversation with a freelance landscape architect who told me quite matter-of-factly that she never asks for a budget from her clients and prefers to avoid talking about it.

“If they want to provide a budget, that’s up to them,” she said, “I prefer not to get involved in the financial side of a project.”

I was somewhat taken aback to learn this. So I asked her what made her take that position.

Her reasoning was that, “Discussing budget affects my creative freedom. My clients and I develop a design brief together and I want to be able to create a design that tastefully accommodates all their aspirations. They can then get it priced and pick and choose which parts they want to install.”

“It’s impossible for me to know how much things cost, if I have to work to a budget it adds a lot of extra time and work to my scope that I don’t get paid for and I don’t benefit from like the contractor who’s building it does. I just prefer to design what I’ve been asked to do, get paid and move on.”

I acknowledge we all have different approaches, and yes, it can be difficult for a designer to estimate how much their design will cost, especially if they haven’t had a lot of experience working to budgets.

Which is why I think there is enormous value and clear advantages in discussing client budget at every stage of the design process. Your client’s budget is rarely set in stone, it will always move, flex and be reallocated as a project unfolds.

In this article I am going to offer you three reasons why you should make a point of discussing budget with your clients followed by three things you can do starting today to get (or keep) the budget ball rolling..

“Research overwhelmingly suggests that talking about money makes for a happier relationship”

#1 Discussing budget builds a trusting relationship

As a designer, you assume an incredibly privileged position in every landscape project.

You’re invited into someone’s home, you learn intimate details about who lives there, what they do with their time, what their plans, hopes and dreams are for the future.

As their designer, it is your responsibility to step into a state of rapport with them, to act in their best interests, to represent them and ensure they are getting the best possible result for their investment and for their family.

If we look outside the professional realm and into personal relationships, research shows that “approximately 31% of all couples — even the happiest ones — clash over their finances at least once a month. The most common points of disagreement: Major purchases (34%), decisions about finance and children (24% of respondents with kids), a partner’s spending habits (23%), important investment decisions (14%).”  Source: Artemis Strategy Group 2016.

There is a tonne of research on this topic (look here) that overwhelmingly suggests that talking about money makes for a happier relationship. I don’t see why this should be any less applicable to the relationship a designer has with their clients.

The key is to create the opportunity to have that conversation, to review what is put on the table and respectfully work together to arrive at a budget that is realistic and workable in the context of the project at hand. Keep reading for ideas on how to achieve this.

“Understanding and working to the extents of your client’s budget forces you to be more creative in the decisions you make with the resources you have at hand.”

#2 It continually refines your skills as designer

“Kaizen” is the Japanese concept of “Spirit Improvement” with particular reference to matters of business and finance. It’s one of our three core values at Pitch Box alongside Courage, and Integrity.

Kaizen refers to any activity that continually and incrementally improves all business functions or processes and involves every employee from the CEO to the assembly line workers. Kaizen was formalised into a way of operating by Toyota in the 1950’s and attributed to their immense global success after World War II.

Why am I mentioning this? Because striving to continually improve, to evolve professionally is something we should all be doing throughout our careers. I think that discussing a design brief with your client necessarily goes hand-in-hand with a discussion about budget; if that’s not something you’re doing now, it should be added to your list of areas to improve.

Design isn’t about having total creative freedom, it’s equally a process of problem solving and considered decision making. We all know landscape design is just as much art as it is science, creativity as it is restraint. Every science experiment has constraints, limitations and controlled values that enable us to determine whether the final result affirms or disproves the original hypothesis.

Your commitments to develop better practices as a designer should include developing your understanding of the construction process and costs involved. This is turn will help you to become a better decision maker, make better recommendations to your clients ultimately a evolve as both designer and business owner.

Rather than suppressing your creative freedom, understanding and working to the extents of your client’s budget forces you to be more creative in the decisions you make with the resources you have at hand.

“Many designers inadvertently overlook what they’re like to work with, and instead focus too much on what their work is like.”

#3 It makes you easier to work with

Put simply, which of the following statements would you prefer to be associated with, by your clients and the landscape contractors you work with?

  • The designer wasted a lot of our time because their design was way over budget which caused tension between us and set the whole project back.
  • The designer helped us understand what things cost every step of the way so we felt confident and excited to move forward and didn’t have any hidden surprises.

I think many designers inadvertently overlook what they’re like to work with, and instead focus too much on what their work is like.

Consider borrowing a leaf from the hospitality industry where a customer’s experience is taken very seriously, actually “crafted” and then enacted.

Think for a minute about the experience of arriving at a boutique hotel; the events that unfold are not by chance but choreographed perfectly.

You arrive in a wide circular driveway, a white gloved doorman opens the door of your car and welcomes you, while his team of porters handle your luggage. You’re guided into an impeccably clean and spacious lobby towards the reception desk, where smiling staff greet you by name before inviting you to take a seat on a generous lounge. Another staff member appears with a refreshing drink and hand towel while you wait for your room key. When you arrive at your room, there are fresh flowers and personalised note from the concierge,there are chocolates on the table, your luggage is already there and the porter quickly gives you a tour before quietly leaving the room with no expectation of a tip.

Discussing your client’s budget should be a standard part of the experience both clients and contractors have of working with you. As you can imagine there are good ways and not-so-good ways of going about this and it’s worth putting some consideration into the idea. How will you bring up the subject? When is the right time to talk about budget? What should they have experienced in the lead up to that moment and how do you ensure it’s an open ended conversation?

In the next part of this article I will share three things you can do to start having better conversations with your clients around the subject of budget.

In the next part of this article I will share three things you can do to start having better conversations with your clients around the subject of budget.

Tip #1 Start dating your landscaper

In all seriousness, if you haven’t already got a close relationship with an established landscape contractor, it’s time to make that happen.

Speak with the people who have quoted your designs and that you feel comfortable with. This may be an independent contractor, or it may be someone within your company, like the estimator, if you’re in a design & construct situation.

Either way, make it explicit that you intend to have discussions about budget with your client’s right from the beginning of the design process. Arrange to meet with them to go through a few projects together and don’t be too proud to be a little vulnerable; help them understand where your knowledge falls short on the subject of construction costs and ask for guidance.

In the spirit of Kaizen, you want to be working towards a situation where you can send them a basic idea of your current design with your ownrough estimate of probable costs and for them to be willing to have a quick (5-10 min) look at it and let you know if you’re on or off the mark and why. This will dramatically increase your chances of designing within your client’s budget, reducing the potential for wasted time later and subsequently improve the professional experience of working with you.

“..help them understand where your knowledge falls short on the subject of construction costs and ask for guidance.”

Tip #2 Storyboard the experience of working with you

Get a marker pen and a nice big sheet of paper out. Create a flowchart or even a comic strip style storyboard that describes in detail the events a client will experience from the moment they come into contact with your company and your brand.

Think of this as an opportunity to write chapters of the story your clients will tell others about you when asked what you were like to work with.

Consider some of these as a way to get started:

  • What’s something memorable that happens on the first phone call?
  • What do you bring for your clients on the first site visit?
  • What’s an experience they will have during that first meeting?
  • In what order do you discuss things, and why?
  • How do you raise the subject of budget?
  • When do they get their fee proposal and how is it delivered?
  • How do you follow up?
  • How do you finish a project?
  • When are they asked for a referral, and how?
  • And so on..

With each of these, think about the timing, the way the particular experience is delivered and what would make it memorable in the client’s mind.

“Describe in detail the events a client will experience from the moment they come into contact with your company and your brand”

Tip #3 Enrol in our course – FREE 😉

“How to Ask Clients For Their Landscape Budget” is a 45 minute online course

..that will give you fresh ideas for how you can tastefully, but also systematically, introduce a discussion about budget into your way of working.

Our step-by-step course offers you the exact strategy that I’ve applied hundreds of times not only to ask clients for their budget but to review and revise the initial figure they nominate in order to have something realistic and workable to start designing to.

Normally, enrolling in this course would cost $99.

BUT..

Seeing as you’ve read this far – if you can see the value in discussing budget and you’re serious about mastering it, I’m happy to give you one time access to the course for FREE if you enrol and attend this week. You’re welcome 🙂

“if you’re serious about mastering it, I’m happy to give you one time access to the course for FREE if you enrol and attend this week”

In wrapping this up..

I just want add that sometimes we avoid taking action on the things that we need to do most; things that would have the biggest impact. In doing so, we consciously and unconsciously put up all kinds of excuses and self-fabricated justifications for the thoughts we have.

The real reason I believe many people don’t properly address the subject of budget with their clients is because the pain of developing that skill set and knowledge about how landscapes are constructed, and how much things cost feels too daunting. Discussing something as finite as money creates a new level of accountability and responsibility that feels uncomfortable to deal with.

But the challenge here is not to make sudden, radical changes to what you’re doing, but acknowledge there are areas of your practice that could benefit from continual improvement.

Being more accountable and responsible for your actions is something to move towards over time that will ultimately leave a positive mark on your clients, your craft and our profession. It’s a Kaizen thing, you know?

 

What’s your opinion?

Leave a comment below!

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