One of the fascinating things about working with the different types of clients we encounter as watershapers is that we can never really know what to expect.
If my years of experience have taught me anything, it’s that perception is often very different from reality. Instead, what I find is that the basic assumptions we might be inclined to make about different “categories” of clients are, often as not, completely confounded by the uniqueness of every situation.
As a result, working effectively across a range of project types and client economic levels means being able to withhold judgment or at the very least avoid acting on the assumptions we can’t help carrying with us. The truth of the matter is that our prejudices may help at times, but it’s just as likely that they’ll make us miss the mark.
Striking the balance between those two opposing positions can be tricky if you don’t keep an open mind.
RIDING THE RANGE
Using my own practice as an example, I’m proud of the fact that we often work on elaborate, creative designs for well-heeled clients with spectacular homes and seemingly unlimited budgets.
These are the projects that capture the most attention, which is why I use them to promote additional business. They’re also the ones that enable us to stretch the artistic envelope and often involve us in team efforts directed at achieving the ultimate in watershape and exterior design.
At the same time, I’ve been noticing lately that we’re tackling lots of design projects at much lower levels with respect to budgets and project scope. These are clients who want pools that will cost less than six figures but who are also interested in having the project detailed beautifully and designed reliably. In fact, a great many of these “mid-range” clients are more than willing to pay thousands of dollars just for the design work, adopting a set of values for their projects that were once thought to be found only in working with the “private-jet crowd.”
Even ten years ago, the mere thought that a middle-class consumer would pay a separate fee for a pool design was laughable, and for years I faced an uphill battle convincing clients that they should pony up and that the investment would be worthwhile. Things have changed, so much so that these days any presumption that quality, custom design is the exclusive province of high-budget projects should be completely discarded.
Obviously, moderately priced projects aren’t going to have the bells and whistles or trick materials of their more fully realized cousins, but many do include premium elements such as the all-tile interiors I’ve written about for years, and I always make it a point to make these options available to people you might not think would be open to spending that kind of money.
Time and time again, in fact, I’ve found that by releasing my own thinking from the usual assumptions I am consistently surprised by what people want and are willing to buy to elevate their projects. By the same token, I’ve also run into well-to-do clients with more money than taste and who crave designs that are so unbelievably elaborate that the work suffers. Sometimes these people are also incredibly difficult, demanding and litigious, and there are occasions when it makes sense to “fire” them.
It’s something of a paradox, but I think all of us would benefit from opening our minds and questioning what we might naturally think about working with folks at different economic levels.
This undermining of preconceptions has led me to re-evaluate the term high end – a convenient phrase that is often used to describe projects with big budgets. Truth is, budgets alone are not what define true, “high-end” quality and value. I’d argue instead that creativity and a desire for something beautiful are far more potent ways to think about clients and what they want and need.
I currently have clients in the northeast, for example, who own sports franchises, have three homes in upscale areas and enjoy what seem to be almost unlimited resources. These are people who can pay for whatever they want and are willing to foot the bill for multiple site visits and meetings. They also enjoy fine dining and travel and are by all accounts sophisticated in addition to being wealthy.
Best of all, they are wonderful clients who have a joyful approach to the process of obtaining a beautiful backyard environment.
Just a couple of days after a recent trip north to work on that project, I found myself involved in a job with a middle-class couple and a modest budget. They live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and just like the wealthy couple, they want something that fits their home and will provide them with years of luxury and fun.
Yes, there are significant difference with respect to scale, budget and my need to travel. Yes, the project for my northeastern clients will take far more time than will the job for my mid-level clients – and there’s no question that to work at the higher level, I need to be comfortable with the trappings of wealth and in dealing with large dollar figures.
To my way of thinking, however, the similarities are far more important than the distinctions. The middle-class clients are just as passionate, excited and intent on obtaining work that has true value as is the family traveling among multiple estates. Ultimately, both sets of clients deserve quality designs. Heck, they’re both paying the same hourly rate for design services, and when you get down to the work we’re doing, the only real difference is that one is more elaborate and time-consuming than the other. The core values in play are really no different.
For my part, I enjoy both types of projects and gain the same sort of personal satisfaction knowing that work we’re doing will result in enjoyment and fun. It’s reached a point where we see our projects at all levels bearing a “mark of quality” that’s becoming the distinction that matters most.
In seminars, classrooms and casual conversations, whenever I discuss working with the broad range of clients who come our way I always start by saying that I don’t look up or down to anyone: Wealthy and not-so-wealthy people all respond to respect, good humor and a straightforward, truthful approach to doing business. For me, it’s a matter of certainty that human dignity and human nature are not the exclusive turf of any group, no matter how one tries to categorize people along those lines.
That does not mean, however, that we should ignore some of the differences that come into play with clients at disparate economic levels. In fact, recognizing that wealthy people and their projects often require a greater level of attention than will the work we do with the rest of humanity is extremely useful. The key to success on all levels, I believe, is being comfortable in your own skin regardless of the economic status of a given client.
As an example, I’m currently working on a design for a well-to-do couple in Georgia who want their project to include an almost unbelievable range and number of features: pools indoors and out, both with spas and both with multiple additional elements including fountain features, perimeter-overflow details, multiple swim jets and all-glass-tile interiors. The outdoor pool is to be the primary focal point for the surrounding house.
Again, it’s all about the fundamentals – paying attention to detail, providing a range of material options, being responsive and having respect for the process – and it’s no different in this case from those of projects at a fraction of the cost. What is different is that these clients are going to require multiple meetings, near-constant attention, accommodation of a steady flow of changes and almost daily answers to a bevy of questions.
I’ve known from the start that this project would continue for a long time and that I’d be engaged in it up to my eyeballs every step of the way, right up to completion.
Furthermore, this project means that I need to be completely comfortable talking, among other things, about tile installations that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’ve known people in this industry to get tongue-tied in discussing those kinds of costs – and I also know that if the conversation were about my own resources being spent that way, I’d do more than stutter. But when I’m working with these clients, I understand that affordability is relative and that these folks don’t have a problem with spending large sums of money for beautiful materials and special details.
In other words, their comfort translates to mine in making extremely expensive products available to them.
There’s an opposite, yet quite similar, process at work with mid-range clients. Just as I’ve known watershapers who almost choke on big numbers, I’ve similarly known many who assume they shouldn’t make expensive products available to clients of more modest means. And some have even told me that they avoid presenting too sophisticated or upscale an image for fear of alienating these clients.
Both assumptions are flawed.
As I mentioned above, we should present a range of options to all clients, because you really never know what they’ll want. More than a few times, in fact, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the value that people place on beautiful materials, so I make a habit of talking about the benefits of upgraded materials and the aesthetic power of vanishing edges, the exercise opportunities of swim jets and the decorative exuberance of laminar jets. You never know what will strike any client’s fancy, so why not make the offer when it is appropriate to the overall design?
And when it comes to issues of personal image, I just don’t understand the idea that we need to dress ourselves down for a certain class of client. Just as I don’t believe in putting on airs to impress anyone, I see no reason to hide from the fact that I drive a nice car, wear reasonably stylish clothing and enjoy talking about fine wine, great food and nice vacations.
In my book, those things let clients know that they’re working with someone who enjoys luxury, fun and the good life – and isn’t that the largest part of what our products are all about?
I would never presume to dictate your personal style, but allow me to suggest that there’s nothing wrong with presenting a positive, professional image. If a nice watch on your wrist or a quality vehicle intimidates a prospective client, then that really is his or her problem. Conversely, if you’re the sort who’s comfortable meeting with clients in shorts and a T-shirt and it’s working for you, then more power to you.
For my part, these days I’m placing the greatest value on projects that are going to be fun and, for the most part, free of the potential for conflict. As far as that goes, there really isn’t any difference at all between clients based upon their financial status: It’s all a matter of attitude and the spirit of collaboration they bring to the table.
FUN IN MIND
Just before writing this column, I terminated a relationship with a wealthy potential client who, frankly, showed all the signs of posing wall-to-wall problems: She was, for example, unable to see value in paying me to make a site visit, despite the fact she wanted me to assess an existing project that she’d recently had installed.
She was, she told me, extremely unhappy with the work and basically wanted me to offer a critique that might become the basis of a lawsuit. I responded that I was unwilling to adjust my fees for travel, that I was unwilling to work via e-mailed photographs (as she had suggested) and that I certainly was not interested in participating in her desire to seek a pound of flesh.
I was polite and professional, of course, but it was extremely satisfying to hang up the phone and move on to more enjoyable work – and in this specific instance, a project for clients of more limited means. Taking this step away from a lucrative hell to deal instead with people who are upbeat and positive idea about what we’ll accomplish made perfect sense to me. The point is, good and bad clients exist on all levels and, again, making assumptions based on economic status is simply a poor way to go.
Yes, it’s easy to pigeonhole clients. On a certain level, that’s human nature, and stereotypes exist because there are often kernels of truth in them. Just the same, whenever I find myself falling into some sort of prejudicial thinking about clients, it’s usually at those times that the assumptions fall to pieces.
There have been times, for example, when I’ve met wealthy people who, upon introduction, seemed like members of the maintenance staff. Fortunately, I’m seasoned enough to avoid saying anything dumb to anyone under those circumstances. To my mind, however, incidents such as these drive home the point that you can’t always judge a book by its cover.
Bottom line: The things that make for good clients and great projects don’t necessarily revolve around wealth. Instead they boil down to the value that we and our clients agree to place on the tasks at hand. When you look at the art of watershaping in that way, you’ll find that working with clients across the spectrum isn’t difficult.
If you’re true to yourself, if you free yourself from assumptions and if you recognize that, for the most part, clients all want the same things, the complex issues of client relations will far more easily fall into place.
Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].