It’s now been a month since you first dropped by Jim and Heather’s home to discuss their hopes and dreams, needs and wants, likes and dislikes. You’ve put together a design which they’re clearly very excited about, you’ve spent hours with a ruler and calculator nutting out the details of how you’re going to build it and all the costs involved. Again they seem happy with everything, they just need some time to think it over so you leave it with them for a few days.

After not hearing from them for almost two weeks you follow-up the last meeting with a quick call to see how they’re going but you notice a different tone in Heather’s voice.  She sounds more awkward, more sheepish, almost guilty compared to the last time you met with her and you suddenly know exactly what’s been happening…

They’ve shopped your plans around without telling you and are going with someone cheaper! And that “someone” has happily taken that project from you on a silver platter..the bloody bastards! (an Australianism, apologies to our northern hemisphere friends for the language).

Why would they go and sign with someone else, rather than you, when you’ve put in all this time, your price is completely reasonable and you know you can do a better job?

Sound familiar? This scenario is one of the biggest problems you might face as a landscape contractor and a major fear commonly cited by business owners in many other industries too. It’s a bi-product of our increasingly consumer oriented economies where healthy competition is encouraged.

In this article I’m going to challenge the assumption that the reason clients “shop around” is because they’re motivated primarily by cost ie. they’re looking for someone cheaper. If you make decisions in reaction to this assumption, then you’re competing on cost which is a downward spiral; nothing good will come of it so best leave that game to others to lose.

In my opinion, except in very rare instances, using cost as the reason for losing a client to a competitor is really an excuse or “smoke screen” to avoid dealing with the real shortcomings in the way a contractor and his/her business interacts with clients.

The reason this is important is because those same shortcomings are also inextricably linked to and result in, a referral rate that is lacking both in quality and frequency.

Taking time to understand and evaluate individual client motivations will give you the best chance of detecting and addressing their concerns in a way that not only builds trust and loyalty, but ultimately the kind of relationships that lead to the quality word-of-mouth referrals you’re looking for.

First let’s dispel a few common misconceptions around the subject of cost.

A client who shops around signals trouble from the start.

The fact is, you can’t really stop your clients from shopping around, so you’re better off focusing on what you can do to encourage them to come back to you.

We all shop around and we do it for various reasons depending on what it is we’re going to invest in. Unlike a simple retail purchase, when it comes to investing in a new landscape the decision your clients need to make is complicated and driven by a complex array of personal motivations.

A client who shops around is just like you and me, they’re doing their home work before they go ahead and spend a lot of money. If they’re not coming back to you at the end of that process, perhaps the “problem” doesn’t lie with them?

No one’s spending money, they’re just shopping around for the cheapest price.

As you probably know, cost is the single biggest reason that contractors claim causes clients to shop around “behind their back” and then decide to have the work undertaken by someone else.

Yet according to a recent survey by Houzz* just 6% of homeowners investing in renovations to their home, make their decision based on cost alone. That’s less than 1 in 15!

Further to that, the same survey also found that over 40% of people investing in their homes exceeded the initial budget they nominated in order to achieve the outcome they desired.

So not only is cost less important to the vast majority of your clients than you think, 2 out of 5 of them are likely to end up spending more with you than they first said they would!

What I’m trying to say is that cost is undeniably a significant motivation, but certainly not the only one and rarely the primary reason that triggers a client’s decision to finally sign a contract.

No-one wants to pay for a good job.

I hear this throw away statement made time and time again by contractors who are struggling in business, but never by those who are doing well. So does it have merit? Surely everybody wants a good job done on whatever it is they’re exchanging money for?

In my experience, an educated client will almost always make the decision to go ahead with less of their wish-list and do it right, rather than choose to spread their investment thinly across all of them and deal with the re-work in later years. Those that do otherwise have probably not been adequately educated by the contractor they’re dealing with.

Experience, quality of materials, workmanship, ability to solve problems on site and attention to detail are all incredibly important to your clients. The more they understand about how that is achieved over the long term, the more likely they will invest in you doing the job well and not cutting corners that will ultimately come back to haunt them, and you.

It’s this area, it’s not like other places where people are open to spending.

Of course, like you, I’m no fool. Statistics like those from Houzz are great for generating discussion at a higher level, but they should always be taken with a grain of salt because we’re all in the midst of different circumstances on the ground.

Then again, I guess this is a higher level discussion though, so, if you’re willing to hear me out, let’s continue the conversation in that context for now.

If we agree that going by these statistics, then even if your clients do shop around, less than one in fifteen of those that also go on to sign with that person rather than you, will have done so based on cost alone.

So what about the other fourteen? Well, given that everybody out there seems to be a multi-award winning specialist in every aspect of landscaping, offering the highest standard of workmanship, experience and service on project of any scale (I’m being facetious) we can assume it’s a level playing field on that front.

And if we also assume that cost plays a limited role, but your clients still shop around and then still sign with another contractor, what else are they looking for they you’re not giving to them?

Here are 5 things that are more important than cost to your clients.

#1 Someone who is on their side

The waves of contractors that have passed through before you have probably washed away almost all of the trust that your new client might otherwise feel for you when you first meet. Of course they’ll appear cheerful but remember there’s every chance they’ve been burnt before and are suspicious or fearful it might happen again.

Through your words and actions, you need to reassure them that you’re on their side. Help them to avoid over-capitalising on their property if you feel that to be the case. Help them to identify where their money is best spent, where they shouldn’t cut corners and elements they can get to down the track (more work for you anyway).

I encourage all my clients to speak with as many other designers as they can, it’s more important they find someone they feel comfortable and confident with that to feel obliged to stay; they always come back!

Treat your clients and their project with the same honesty and loyalty as if they were in your own family and they’ll treat you the same.

#2 Someone who listens and responds with empathy

As with any relationships, strength and success are earned by being able to listen much more than being able to talk. Empathic or empathetic listening is about more than just listening to words while you wait for your chance to reply to them. Stephen Covey, author of the “Seven Habits of Highly Efffective People” has probably written the most on this subject. Follow this link to see him giving a fantastic example of empathic listening in action.

Listening with your ears isn’t the only way, in fact listening with all your senses can give you a much deeper understanding of what the person you’re speaking to is trying to communicate.

Someone who “listens” with their eyes, to observe the other person’s eyes and their body language, who hears the pace and tone of their voice as well as the words they’re speaking has a lot more information on hand in order to respond to in a meaningful way.  

The result? Someone who practices listening and responding empathetically is able to interact with their clients in a way that helps them feel that they understand them, that they’re just like them and therefore that they might be able trust them

The next time a client is whispering about their neighbours, asking questions about the cost of demolition or boasting about who was around to dinner last week, take a moment to observe how fast they’re speaking, what are their eyes are doing, what their hands and shoulders are saying? Take the time to reflect on them what you understand about them from thes observations. You might just learn more about them than you thought was possible and be able to interact with them in a way that earns their trust and respect much faster.

Here’s an additional tip that has always worked well for me: wait until the person you’ve been speaking to has completely run out of steam, then take a breath, then speak – you will be amazed at what happens in both your minds during that brief, breath-long pause between words.

#3 Someone who is well presented, charming and likeable

Are you the contractor that stubs out a cigarette on the side of the ute before you walk up to the front door? Are you saving a chunk of pastry between your teeth for later? Is your designer stubble still acceptable or actually starting to get on the wrong side of pirate?

You might laugh and think this is trivial (“they’ve got bigger problems going on if they’re worried about what shirt I’m wearing mate”), but your appearance, your breath and certainly your odour is a huge deal to your clients, especially if you are also playing the role of designer.

Every time you meet with them, do you pay them a genuine compliment about their home, their taste in furniture or the artwork they’ve chosen to hang on the walls? Do you blend light-hearted banter with serious discussion or do you get louder and talk over the top of them when you disagree? Do you acknowledge their children and take time to learn more about them? Do you remember to thank them for the coffee they made and for inviting you into their home?

Clients warm to visitors who show gratitude, take an interest in them and their family and make an effort to make a small occasion of each visit. Try to organise meetings and presentations in such a way so you can front up looking sharp, fresh and in the mood for playing your A-game.

You can read about how to build rapport in the first few minutes of meeting a new client here.

#4 Someone who assumes responsibility and leads respectfully

Clients seek a confident person who will guide them through a process they’re not able to get through themselves and you need to be that person.
The higher value the project you’re working on, the more this will be the the case because affluent clients tend to be extremely time poor. To offer the “turn-key” service that nine out of ten clients are looking for, you need to show you can take the lead, lay out the road you’re going to drive down together and use your initiative to start the engine.

If you find yourself asking your clients, “Well, that depends on what you want? Do you want some screening along there? Do you want a CAD plan and a planting schedule or should we just work it out as we go? Do you want a treated pine frame or hardwood?” you’re soon going to be asking yourself, “Where did they go!?”.

Like team captain, respectfully leading a project means you take responsibility for the outcome. Through your experience and good judgement you give your clients someone they can to turn to when they need reassurance and answers to their concerns. The best captains lead by example, educating their team with the experience so they gain confidence moving forward.

I’ve written more about the subject of taking control of your projects in another article.

#5 Someone who is loved by others

“Social validation” is when other people genuinely vouch for whatever it is you’re doing. It’s the reason websites like Trip Advisor and Urban Spoon are so successful. Having another person validate your workmanship, your personality, the ease of working with builds instant trust, and that means a giant leap closer to making more sales.

It’s also extremely dangerous when it’s working against you. In the earliest stages of a new client relationship, your new prospect can be torn from you by the simple words of a friend, “Give this other guy a call, he did a great job for us”.

It’s much easier for us to feel confident if we know others have had a positive experience embarking on the same journey. Successful contractors, who run their business with a referral mindset have the ultimate weapon in this regard; a list of past clients willing to let any new prospect stop by their home, see the job and speak with them about their experience. The longer the list, the more powerful the impact.

Written testimonials on your website are one thing, an open invitation to meet your previous clients and be shown around their project without you even being there, is exactly the kind of confidence and social validation your new prospects want to see.

Bringing it all together

Notice that not one of the five characteristics listed above has anything to do with price, workmanship, years of experience, quality of materials or any other quantitative characteristics. These are all important, but in my experience, they don’t influence the decision to buy as much as qualitative characteristics.

The reason clients shop around is not because someone else is cheaper, it’s because they don’t feel the important personal connection they need to make such a significant financial and emotional commitment to another person.

That connection is t-r-u-s-t. TRUST.

You and I do exactly the same thing in the choices we have to make.

I’d be willing to bet you can think of a subcontractor right now who you’ve not engaged because something wasn’t quite right and it had nothing to do with cost so you decided to ring around to a few others first.

In fact I’d be willing to go double or nothing to bet you can think of two other people who you would hire without hesitation – it doesn’t even cross your mind to call anyone else and you’ll pay whatever they charge you. I bet one of them was recommended to you by someone you trust already. Of course this isn’t necessarily something that comes easily to everybody.

The challenging part is that every client is different.

That said, taking a moment to practice your empathetic listening skills and to evaluate the individual personalities of your clients will help you engage with them on a deeper level and in doing so, build a stronger relationship that will see them coming back to you time and again, no matter how many other contractors they speak to.

Now go pick out a decent shirt to wear to your next meeting will you?! And make sure you practice those jokes on your own kids before you inflict them on somebody else’s!