By Bruce Zaretsky
We landshapers can and should attach a dollar figure to our knowledge, experience and integrity. That’s a lesson I had to learn the hard way.
About fifteen years ago, I was in need of a new dump truck for my growing business. I wasn’t rich, so I decided to buy a used vehicle and found one in the local truck-trader newspaper. After looking at the truck with my trusty mechanic, I made an offer to my fellow landscape contractor, and he accepted.
As we entered his office to complete the necessary paperwork, I came face-to-face with a landscape plan that looked very familiar: It was one I had drawn for potential clients. In fact, it was the colored plan I had presented to them only a few weeks earlier. I felt violated: That was my plan sitting on his desk.
I asked him where he’d gotten it – an obvious and unnecessary question – and he told me that the clients had asked him to give them a price on the installation. As I walked out of his office, I grabbed the plan and promptly disposed of it.
So why was I so upset? After all, they’d paid for the plan, right? Well, not exactly – in fact, not at all. I had designed an entire landscape plan for free, expecting the clients to have me install the work. Apparently, they had other ideas.
In my naïve, early-in-my-business mindset, I felt that I couldn’t possibly charge for my plans. I looked at it as a cost of doing business, right? I needed to design free of charge because I needed to line up good clients, right? No one would pay for plans when there was always someone else drawing them for free, right? Wrong on all counts! From that moment, I realized something had to change, and that something was charging for my designs.
I learned a valuable lesson that day, and going forward, I decided that no matter how small a potential project, I would charge for my time. Unlike landscape architects (many of whom only design projects and do not install them, thereby generating their income strictly from design fees), many landscape designers – including those of us who started in this business working for others and have taken no business courses (guilty as charged) – don’t know the protocol of how to handle clients.
I certainly didn’t know any of this going in and operated with the thought that, as a design/build contractor, I would make up for the lack of fees when it came time to do the installations. I just plugged along designing gardens and retaining walls and patios, presenting them to clients and hoping for the best.
In all fairness to the process, I did manage to install about 80 percent of these projects myself in the early days. But as time went by and my costs (and therefore my pricing structure) went up, I started to see this percentage go down. I also saw a potential client or two install my plans without my help.
The truck incident was the last straw. I’ve been charging for my time ever since, and I haven’t regretted it one bit.
CHANGING MY WAYS
Initially, of course, it was very difficult – very scary – to tell a potential client on the phone that there would be a fee for my design work. Many people had to be educated about this, as they hadn’t encountered it before.
Many of them informed me that the person who had referred me to them had not paid any such fee, which was true. In these cases, I offered to “refund” the design fee if we ended up doing a substantial portion of the project, a step that eased me (and future clients) into the process. I no longer do this, however, explaining to anyone who raises this point that my design time is completely separate from the installation process.
So how do you go cold turkey from designing for free to charging for your time? What it means is that you now have to quantify your time, experience and talent – and then be able to ask clients to pay you for it.
The first thing you need to do is look in the mirror and see if the person looking back is qualified and talented enough to be in demand. Is your phone ringing? Are potential clients waiting for your service? Are they willing to wait? If you answered any of these in the affirmative, you should be charging for your time. If you’ve never done so, it’s a daunting task, but if you’re confident in your abilities, then it’s a no-brainer.
Through the years, we’ve also learned how to weed out “tire kickers” and those on the hunt for “free estimates.” When the potential client calls, our first questions go directly to the work they are seeking, whether it’s design work or “just an estimate” on a retaining wall, deck or garden project.
We immediately let them know that there will be fees charged for any site visits, any design work, any consultation or even a quick estimate on a walkway, shade structure or deck. Many of the “free estimate” people will respond with a quick “no” or tell us they’ll call back after talking to their spouse.
“But hold on a second, Bruce,” you say. “How do you know you wouldn’t get the job if you went over to meet with them and impressed them with your knowledge, experience and raw, wondrous talent?”
Truth is, we’re more than sure we won’t get those jobs. In my experience, free-estimate people are almost invariably price shoppers, and because we don’t offer the lowest prices in town, we typically don’t win such projects anyway. The time I save by not chasing unlikely prospects is time I spend instead on clients who expect and are willing to pay me for my time: These clients recognize that my time is valuable and that they are paying for a service that is backed up with experience and skill.
While I am willing to meet with just about any client in order for us to interview each other, I make it very clear that I will not talk about site design without a verbal commitment to the design fee. And I will not put pencil to paper without having received half of that fee up front.
Because of my experience, I pretty much know how much time it will take me to design a particular site, so I mostly charge flat rates. By contrast, if a site is large or the client wants to have many meetings in between the initial meeting and the final presentation, then I’ll charge an hourly rate. I still will not do a thing, however, without a commitment check in hand.
One more story: I recently met with a potential client about designing all the exteriors for his newly built home. He was a bit evasive on the phone about paying a design fee but finally relented. When I met with him, he began to wrangle with me again about the fee: What does it include? Why is it so high? Why did I charge?
I explained to him why we charge what we do and what he could expect from us and added that I would be leaving now but would be happy to send him many references that might help him decide if we were right for the job. He was somewhat convinced, but not entirely in our camp, so I closed my portfolio, repeated my intention of leaving and my offered again to send him some references so he could decide to use me or to find someone else who did not charge for their design services.
Stopping me, he produced a cheap 3-D image of a plan another “designer” had done for him. At a glance, I could see that it was a stretch to call it “design” and smiled inwardly as he proceeded to tell me all the things he didn’t like about the plan. I didn’t really absorb what he was saying because I only had one question for him: “How much did the ‘designer’ charge you for this?” His reply: “Nothing.”
I didn’t have to say another word.