Through the years, more than a few watershaping professionals have asked me how to break through and start working with high-end clients.
I respond by giving them the disappointing news that there is no magic key here: Serving the high end takes commitment, hard work and a willingness to focus your thinking on a distinct set of fundamentals that must take over and guide your work. Depending on the level at which you’re currently functioning, getting to the high end may involve climbing a mountain or might simply be about making a series of crucial adjustments to the way you do business.
Figuring out where you stand involves asking and answering the following questions: Are you doing quality work? Are you able to do quality work? Affirmative answers here mean that you’ve probably spent years in the business; know quality materials and construction techniques inside and out; have a good working knowledge of hydraulics; are familiar with principles of exterior design, design traditions and maybe even art history; and finally, have a firm grasp on client relations and the business of contracting.
Point blank: If you’re internal responses in any of these areas leave you with additional questions in mind, then you need to examine your work with a fresh perspective – and keep on being brutally honest with yourself.
THEY FIND YOU
This subject of approaching the high end has been much on my mind lately, as my Genesis 3 partner and co-founder Skip Phillips and I have been developing a seminar program on the topic. It’s been a useful process and has brought some distinct patterns into focus.
We reinforced our sense, for example, that self-aware, brutal honesty is vital: You must be candid with yourself and avoid making the mistake of thinking that putting beer in a champagne glass is an elevating behavior. To reach for the high end, you must truly be doing top-flight work. If you’re not, you have to step up your game in every area: Trying to perform at the high end with mid-level skills is a formula for failure.
In my experience, I’ve encountered firms that try to have it all ways, working with mid-level clients as well as high-end ones, and some even structure their businesses with two divisions to keep things separate. It’s not impossible to make such arrangements work, but there’s great difficulty, even if it’s only at the ownership level, in maintaining that kind of split focus. I won’t say it’s impossible, but the constant shifting of gears between mid-level and high-end work seems undesirable at best and probably unworkable.
To advance this discussion, let’s assume that you do top-level work and want to pursue the high end with a single-minded focus. How do you find these high-end clients? How do you work with them once they’re on board?
Project acquisition at the high end is different: Usually, it’s not about advertising or marketing in the traditional sense. Yes, slick ads in quality publications geared to the affluent may work, but experience tells me that attracting high-end clients is more about connections and penetrating groups of people who, while they may live in far-flung locations, all know each other and socialize when circumstances bring them together.
I’ve had high-end clients in Bermuda and Florida give me referrals to their friends in New York and California. These people, who are generally well-traveled in addition to being well-heeled, operate in a world without borders and expect those who work with and for them to do the same. In this world, the significance of word-of-mouth referrals is amplified exponentially.
For one thing, people who enjoy lives of privilege and prestige also enjoy sharing what they know and experience with their peers. They also take pleasure in seeing those peers follow their lead. In my own business, fully 95 percent of the projects that come my way are through referrals. I might have reached some of these folks through conventional marketing, but that’s highly unlikely.
To win these referrals, it is absolutely crucial to do quality work, but there’s more to it than just that: You must also leave your clients smiling and feeling good not only about the end product, but the way the process has unfolded from beginning to end.
These people become your advocates and can be extremely forceful in convincing their friends when it comes to those with whom they simply “must” work. I’ve had clients introduce me to their friends and say words to the effect of, “This is Brian. He’s the one who must design your pool, and it’s going to cost a fortune!” They take pride in that kind of statement and I’ll be darned if their peers don’t respond favorably.
On the flip side, you’ll find that many of these people are extremely private and tend to be reserved in what they say to others – a habit of the mega-wealthy I’ve known. Even here, however, high-end performance on the job will stand you in good stead because the word about what you’ve done still travels, albeit more slowly.
There is a catch here, of course, in that getting high-end clients to push you along to their friends, families and business associates involves landing one of them in the first place. Breaking through in this case is probably best accomplished by getting good press.
I have been extremely fortunate in working with the press and give the writers and editors I’ve worked with a lot of credit for helping me establish my high-end chops. I’m not talking about the trade press in this case, although working with magazines such as WaterShapes is a wonderful thing. What you need is exposure through the consumer press, which is a different animal altogether.
I’ve known people in our trade who have told me that appearing in print has transformed their businesses. The best way to get to that point is to be systematic and start by making yourself known to local publications – city business magazines, regional home and design publications and even newspapers. Once you’re published in one, it’s much more likely that other will follow suit. Indeed, there’s a real snowball effect that comes into play: Much like clients who fall into a referral base, editors and journalists gravitate to resources they’ve seen in other magazines.
A NEED TO COMMUNICATE
The key to working with these professionals is to be responsive to their needs. Often, that comes down to a topic I’ve brought up time and again: You need to return their phone calls!
I’ve had a great many experiences with the press in which a call from a writer who wants information on one topic – the latest trends in swimming pool design, for example – will open up conversations on a variety of others. These professionals are paid to be good listeners: By giving them the time of day and treating them with respect, you set up a relationship in which they will come back to you over and over again.
To be sure, some journalists seem to specialize in making silly inquiries and engaging folks in time-wasting diversions, and this has led some watershapers to treat them with general disdain. There’s also the fact that participating in the journalistic process can be intimidating – and more than a few cases in which the way things turn out can breed mistrust.
Let me say this clearly: You need to overcome whatever misgivings you might have about journalism if you want to garner the sort of exposure that will lead you to high-end projects. Media coverage leads to all sorts of unanticipated contacts and offers a level of exposure that will never come your way otherwise.
This leads to another important point having to do with the way you see and conduct yourself: Much of working in the high-end market boils down to developing a confidence level that enables you to move among these people with comfort and confidence.
Few watershapers come from the highest social strata, and I’ve known a great many people who are simply uncomfortable around and perhaps intimidated by wealthy people. This is a real challenge for regular working folks and is entirely understandable. But the simple fact is that, unless you happen to have been born into the social elite, you have to raise yourself to approximately that level in the way you present and carry yourself.
One of my guiding principles is that I refuse to look down (or up) to anyone. I treat the people who serve my food, wash my car and do my laundry with respect, and I know for a fact that people with money are no better or worse than anyone else.
In this business, we need to respect and understand people who earn their livings with their hands and their blood, sweat and tears to see our projects installed in keeping with our standards for quality. We also need to work with those who run major corporations and everyone in between to keep ourselves busy.
To function at the high end, you can’t be in awe of the prospect who flies to a meeting in a private jet. On the flip side, if you’re thinking about picking that prospect up in a car that might have a dirty diaper in the back seat, the odds of working successfully with the guy in the jet are going to be tremendously reduced.
This is why I believe that demeanor and confidence are so important: You have to exude authority, perspective and knowledge of your profession, and if you do so successfully, even the corporate-jet guy will respond to you. It’s something that has to come from inside you and can’t be faked. If your work is exemplary but you can’t communicate that excellence through your personal attitude and demeanor, you’re not going to get referrals, good press or high-end clients. Period.
Personal appearance, courtesy and ease all come into play here. If you go into a meeting with wealthy clients with the conviction that they are going to look down on you because you make a living doing something other than moving millions of dollars around on Wall Street, then you’ve basically lost without even getting into the game. By contrast, when you walk up to wealthy prospects, shake their hands with confidence and communicate with them eye to eye, they don’t see a designer or contractor; rather, they see someone worthy of respect who is approaching them with grace and confidence.
It doesn’t really matter if you’re a plumber or an entrepreneur (or both): You will always be your own best vehicle for communicating the values that permeate your business and your work.
I’ve worked many times with people who occupy stations in life and society far above mine, but it has never mattered because I approach these people as needing something I have to offer. I respect them, of course, but I go into these situations with a confidence that lets them know that when it comes to watershaping, I’m the authority and they must respect me in that capacity.
LA DOLCE VITA
Let me bring this discussion to a close with coverage of the part of the high-end equation I enjoy the most: the good life.
The way I see it, watershapes are about lifestyle, enjoyment and prestige. Most high-end clients live the good life and are comfortable working with people who have a sense of what that means and can slide into that mindset. This does not mean that you necessarily have to share the sorts of experiences that define the lives of wealthy people, but it is an enormous advantage to understand and appreciate what the good life is all about.
(This is why in developing the Genesis 3 schools we’ve always sought to arrange for experiences in beautiful locations with great food and quality libations.)
Time and time again, the work I do with high-end clients involves social situations centered on dining, travel, wine and discussions of the finer things in life. You don’t need to be a zillionaire to appreciate those things, but I must say that my experience with fine wine and dining through years of participation in the American Institute of Wine & Food has led to a great many enormously enjoyable situations with my clients. It’s a big part of how I operate.
I do this because, first of all, I enjoy it and don’t shy away from discussions of wine and great food with clients because I know it’s likely they’ll understand and appreciate what I have to say. But I could also fill page after page with descriptions of situations in which my work as a designer has drawn me into pleasurable social situations and great meals with clients. I’m not saying you need to become the world’s leading authority on 30-year-old tawny ports; what I will say, however, is that it hugely helps if you’re comfortable in conversations on such topics.
By the same token, if clients share something about aspects of their lives and you’re unfamiliar with a topic, don’t try to fake it. Just listen and learn, because it’s human nature to appreciate courteous curiosity and your clients will be pleased. But if you can chime in with your own perspective or, even better, offer an opportunity to share such an experience, then you’re almost sure to find a terrific chance to blend business with pleasure.
Ultimately, ours is a business of pleasure, and when you work with high-end clients, you’ll be exposed to elements of lifestyles that are going to enrich the way you live. Personally and professionally, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of Genesis 3, A 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].