Through the years in these pages and elsewhere, I’ve been a persistent critic of the shortcomings of the watershaping trades in general – and especially of the pool and spa industry in which I’ve operated for more than 25 years.
Sometimes I’ve been harsher than others, but my intent has invariably been to define the difference between quality work that elevates the trade and the junk that’s held back our industry’s reputation. I’ve never named names, but I’ve been particularly hard on practitioners who seem eternally stuck in old ways of thinking and working: Their work seldom lines up with the best efforts of which the industry is capable.
Just recently, I had a long talk with WaterShapes’ editor in which we discussed the development of a new approach to
conveying my message about the need for new ideas, techniques and attitudes. You’ll see the results in the next several issues, in which my column will be dedicated to what I consider to be the building blocks of success and the keys to working at a truly professional level.
It’s a systematic approach that will look at each phase of the design/construction process, but rather than attempt to teach you how to build quality pools and spas, my aim is to trigger thoughts about issues, ideas and actions that separate our industry’s best efforts from those that simply don’t make the grade. It’s all about moving forward in a positive direction – and it starts below.
We’re in the middle of a process of stratification of the watershaping trades. It’s not the old layering of high-end, mid-range and cookie-cutter operations as it was in the old days. Instead, this current stratification has to do with levels of quality – and it’s a process that was initiated by our clients, not us.
The people interested in purchasing watershapes and exterior environments these days are more sophisticated than ever before, no matter their economic level. The Internet, ease of travel, media interest and the emergence of four- and five-star resorts that distinguish themselves through incredible watershapes have made the world a much smaller place and provided consumers with unprecedented access to information that energizes and shapes their attitudes about what they want.
The result is that today’s consumers are better informed about our products than ever before. They are also educated, have an appreciation of art and art history and are equipped with a better appreciation and understanding of design than they were when I started in the industry in 1979.
More than ever before, they appreciate the proper use of color, get excited about design ideas and motifs and know the value of spatial integration – and when they call in a watershaper to discuss an environment that will suit their needs, they expect us to be up to the task of providing them with a sophisticated product that reflects true quality in design, engineering and construction.
It’s my observation that this demand for an intelligent, quality approach reaches from the high end on which I operate all the way through to clients with far more modest budgets.
If it’s not clear so far, my focus is (and will always be) custom work. This is the field in which quality designers and builders are thriving and doing increasingly exciting work these days.
If you’re a volume operator, what you’ll find here won’t be of much use to you because your approach to the market is the antithesis of custom. Your business is about templates and margins and time and impulse buying, whereas custom work is about thoughtful responses to a site and the clients.
My intention here is not to convert volume operators to a new way of thinking; rather, it is to inspire designers and builders who traffic in custom work: If you’re among those who’ve been stretching your abilities in more creative, design-based directions, odds are you’ll find value in much of what I have to say.
For starters, every one of my projects is about presentation. As I’ve mentioned many times in this space, I don’t view the interactions I have with clients at the outset of a project as selling; rather, it’s a sharing of ideas. I don’t discuss price with respect to option A or B or get into associated costs. Instead, I start as a designer seeking to collaborate with clients so they’ll wind up with something that makes them proud and happy.
It’s all about design in the truest sense of the word. In my book, those who use the design process as a sales tool have fallen into the trap that has hog-tied our industry and led consumers to see us as a clattering collection of suede-shoe hucksters. Using a quick, template-based design to close a deal devalues the design process, guts any sense of creative interaction and basically removes the process of creating watershapes from the realm of design.
I’m equally offended by those who call themselves “designers” without having the education, training, experience or talent required to do so. They lack credibility and fall short when it comes to insight into basic issues that drive good design (such as understanding the architectural context and recognizing that a watershape should usually be just part of an environment, not is focal point). Their work simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.
You decide: Are you in the business of selling something that anyone can have at a price anyone can afford? Or are you engaged in an artistic process that has value far beyond time and raw materials?
I’ve worked for decades at building client relationships that, from the start, are defined by open dialogue and trust. In that light, I’d be hard-pressed to identify the exact moment when any client is “closed” in the traditional sense. What happens is that, through a process of discussion and inspiration, the relationship unfolds naturally and has to do with the clients’ response to my credentials, the expectations we establish and the rapport we build in discussions of design possibilities, materials, style, the setting and the clients’ desires.
I’ve never done it any other way, but I’m convinced it can work for others because of what I’ve heard from those who’ve reshaped their approaches based on what I’ve conveyed to them. By taking the selling out of sales and replacing it with design discussions and collaboration, they say, they’ve redefined the nature of the work from the first “hello.”
THE PHONE RINGS
This approach should be reflected from the moment you pick up the phone.
To be sure, clients who call me almost all come from some type of referral, so my leads are rock solid. I know there are companies that will canvas an area with mass mailings or door hangers that promote a given type of pool at an appealing price. Almost invariably, the response to these promotions is from unsophisticated people – and I’m just not interested.
Even so, and even if you are determined to pursue only quality projects, you still need to qualify the clients in their first call: None of us wants to waste his or her time chasing someone who’s looking for a product we’re not prepared to offer. So when I get on the telephone, I’m after a few key pieces of information and can usually get what I need in just a couple minutes.
My first question, always, is about how they found me and why. If the lead has come through the phone book or through the Internet, I’m immediately skeptical – and it’s not because I’m in the business of turning people away, but because it’s unlikely such a prospect understands the nature of the work I do.
I’ll stay on the phone for a few minutes to find out if they’re a good fit for my approach, but odds are, if they’re shopping and don’t want something purely artistic, it’s probably going to be a very short conversation. I never hesitate to tell random callers to look elsewhere, but sometimes I refer them to my web site for a close look so they’ll develop a clear impression of what I do and the level on which I operate. If I hear from them again, we will have something to discuss – but usually they disappear and never call me again.
If, by contrast, they’re a referral from a former or current client, a quality supplier or another professional (architect, landscape architect, designer, soils engineer, structural engineer, geologist) who’s familiar with my work, then the conversation will continue.
If we stay on the line, I try to determine what they want. If it’s a “cattle call” in which a parade of ten companies will make presentations, I’m never interested. (I can tell an awful lot from the list of people they’ve contacted. If there are any volume operations on the list, I’m gone. If there are quality names on the list, however, I’ll maintain contact until the picture becomes clearer.) I don’t object to my clients looking around or talking with other people, but I do want to shake out those who are obviously shopping for the best deal rather than looking for a quality design.
I’m clear throughout that I only do quality work based on sophisticated design principles and that, for many people, that’s not “competitive” with respect to the correlation I see between money and gorgeous. If I get immediate questions about what something’s going to cost, I’ll quote a ballpark price that makes the tire-kickers jump way back.
I do this for good reason: In custom work, there’s really no way to know a price range until you get into the process, review the soils and geology reports, confer with the engineers and start looking at materials – things I don’t do for free in any event.
If the conversation gets past the often-insurmountable “price-first” hurdle, we keep talking and my next need is for some sense of the site and the project’s scope.
I’m not trying to qualify the client any further at this point; instead, I’m trying to key my thinking in the right directions. I’ve done a great many projects that are quite small in terms of size and scope, and not only doesn’t that bother me, but some of these projects have been among my favorites. The point is, by learning just a little bit about the site and the clients’ desires, I can begin the process of educating them.
If they tell me it’s on a hillside, for example, or in an area that I know has variable or problematic soil conditions, I immediately start talking about soils testing and structural engineering.
Often, people don’t really have any idea about the value of those functions, but as they must know (and we all should know as watershapers), the entire program with respect to price and just about every other aspect of the work really flows from soil conditions.
Once that’s been covered, we move on to talk about the nature of working in concrete and steel and the education process really gets going.
These basic discussions set the stage for every conversation that might follow, because they need to understand that all design must be predicated on reliable engineering and construction relative to the conditions at hand. Then the nature of quality hydraulics enters the scene and I begin the process of defining the nature of my approach to the work in a way that distinguishes me from almost every other watershaper they might encounter.
In essence, what I’m defining for the client is that, with me, they’re either going to get the best, most reliable structures and systems I can design and build – or nothing at all.
Assuming they’re still interested at this point, I’ll start setting expectations for what’s to come: that we’ll get together at their home for an hour or two to talk in depth about what we can accomplish together and that, after our meeting, I’ll go back to my studio and create a design proposal for which they must pay. There is no further mentioning of cost until I have processed all the reports I need to move forward with confidence.
I don’t want them thinking that this meeting will produce a design, as would be the case were they speaking with a production builder. Instead, I let them know that we’ve just entered into an ongoing design dialogue.
If their interest survives this far into the process – and mine does, too – I’ll set up a face-to-face meeting at their home (or on site, if it’s somewhere else).
That meeting will only happen if all decision-makers are present. That is, if it’s a married couple, I make it clear that I will not meet with only one spouse or the other, because experience tells me that’s quite often a waste of time. Too often, such discussions devolve into a series of deferrals pending conversations with the spouse or partner who’s not present. Just as important, I want to get to know these people: There’s really no way to do that unless they’re both there.
If all of the above comes up in the affirmative, we’ll proceed to the next step – the meeting – which we’ll discuss next month.
David Tisherman is the principal in two design/construction firms: David Tisherman’s Visuals of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Liquid Design of Cherry Hill, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is also an instructor for Artistic Resources & Training (ART); for information on ART’s classes, visit www.theartofwater.com.