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Operating on a Higher Level
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Operating on a Higher Level



Over and over at seminars and trade shows, watershapers ask me three distinct but interrelated questions: “How do you get into the high-end market?” and “How do you deal with wealthy customers?” and “How do you handle those kinds of jobs?”

The short answer to all of them is that I’ve set myself up for it and am prepared to tackle these projects and clients as they come. To me, it’s as natural as breathing.

The deeper answer is much more complicated, obviously, and has to do with my understanding that working with upper echelon clients means accommodating an entire range of issues that cut to the very core of how I do business.

Let’s dig in here and take a look at that range of issues with an eye toward establishing relationships at the highest levels of the market – and along the way defining principles of client relationships that have a role in watershaping at every level.


As I’ve mentioned before in this column, my approach all flows from attitude.

Let’s begin with one of my main axioms for life as well as business: I don’t look up or down at anyone. I’ve learned through the years that the people who seem the happiest and most successful appreciate people who toil in the fields as much as they do the local neurosurgeon. They appreciate the hard work other people do because they don’t want to do it themselves. They also appreciate the craftsmanship they witness in those who have it.

I’m pretty much that way myself. Having come originally from the pool-service business, I respect the person who does a quality job of digging trenches as much as I do the person who has achieved a great enough level of economic prosperity to be able to hire a whole bunch of trench diggers. But where people I know in the watershaping trades have no trouble at all relating to working-class people, they tend to freeze when they encounter people of wealth or fame or power.

Avoiding that freeze is why, through the years, I’ve worked hard at learning to relate to people who lead lifestyles that are beyond the comprehension of some of us mere mortals. It’s not unusual to find it tough to understand the way rich people think. After all, we’re taught in this society that rich or famous or powerful people are “special” and that we should regard them with awe. It’s not that I don’t respect my wealthy clients or appreciate their sometimes dizzying levels of success, but I’m not awed by them to the point where I’d think there’s no way to bridge the gap between my world and theirs.

Yes, it’s easy to be intimidated by those who’ve reached for the stars and actually grabbed a couple of them. We do live in a materialistic society, and it sets up unequal relationships – financial, educational and social – between people who, for whatever reason, are in need of working with each other.

I’m not pretending to be a sociologist here. I’m simply pointing out the fact that we are raised to think about successful people in certain ways – and those thought patterns need some retooling if you expect to cross over social barriers and work effectively and efficiently with our society’s elite.


I didn’t start out with an innate understanding of these relationships: I first came to realize that I was a victim of a sort of “accept the difference” mentality in the early days of running my service firm.

We had a multi-millionaire client who lived in a beautiful estate so grand that there was a separate service entrance. My staff and I always used the service entrance – naturally enough, since that was its intended purpose. No big deal: Every time I showed up at the property, for whatever reason, I always used the service entrance, and this was true when I was arriving to pick up a check or to discuss some specific service issue with the client himself.

This went on for several years without question, but then one day the client told me it would be more appropriate if I came to the front door. It seemed a minor distinction at the time, but it represented a turning point in the way the client thought about me and what I thought of the client. Since then, I’ve come to appreciate that one of the most difficult aspects of working with upper-end clients is that you need to see them eye to eye and to some extent that you need to be able to think the way they do.

As I’ve moved deliberately toward these clients in my career as a designer and consultant, I’ve worked hard to place myself in their mindset and give myself the tools required to step into their shoes when I work with them on projects. To be sure, there are some of these ladies and gentlemen into whose shoes I am reluctant to insert my feet, but I find that thinking in this way enables me to do a better job of meeting their expectations when the opportunity presents itself.

Basically, I don’t want to get trapped in my own thought patterns and operate based solely on my own standards, values and experiences. I see this as limiting my ability to relate. Instead, I work with the fact that even the rich and famous and powerful are human beings like anyone else and seek out people who are similar to them in certain respects, whether it’s economic status, level of education or a simple understanding of their realm of experience.

Obviously, the extremely wealthy or famous or powerful among us have unique lifestyles beyond our reach, and I don’t mean to suggest that you should be dishonest about your own lot in life for the sake of making inroads with the upper crust. Frankly, this “strategy” is almost always transparent and doomed to failure.

What I do mean is that we need to equip ourselves with frames of references that cross over into their realm so we can conjure comfort levels that work both ways.


Your purpose in interacting with high-end clients naturally focuses on the creation of watershapes and exterior settings, so the first, best place to seek commonality with these clients is in your own appreciation for excellence when it comes to product and job performance.

This is another lesson I learned in my service business (in which I dealt with a great many wealthy clients) and extended from the challenge I faced in getting my staff to appreciate the fact that the people they were working with were accustomed to having everything go their way. That was difficult with a staff of mostly young people who were struggling just to get by, but I had to get them to appreciate the way our clients thought for them to be able to provide service on par with high expectations.

I found myself in a constant process of changing my employees’ mindset and getting them to work beyond any sense of minimum standards. What we were after was a sense of the need to maximize the quality of what we did. Simply put, we were pursuing a strategy that said quality and excellence offered the surest path to the common ground we wanted to establish with our clients – at every social level, not just the rich ones.

That said, however, the ability to relate to very high-end clients also involves frames of reference that are outside the watershaping industry and the services we typically perform. On some level, that means knowing a thing or two about the fine arts, for example, or about automobiles, architecture, interior furnishing and the like. Yes, excellence speaks volumes, but to me, forming good relationships with high-end clients is also about reaching beyond our own paradigms and moving things up a couple of notches.

I don’t think you need to know all there is to know about every upscale thing: Just pick out a couple of areas you appreciate and try to be knowledgeable enough about them that when you meet with these clients, you can express an appreciation for some of the finer things in life with which they tend to surround themselves.

A couple years back, I wrote about the value of understanding the good life and don’t particularly want to repeat myself here. Suffice it to say that people of means often actively seek the good life and express it in an infinite number of ways. Few of us would think of chartering a jet to fly to Switzerland for the weekend, but you don’t have to be a passenger on the plane to appreciate fine wine or good food (two of my favorites) or the thrill of travel, the beauty of art, the rush of deep-sea fishing or the intensity of participating in an auction.

Being fortunate enough to experience some of these things won’t necessarily spoil you when it comes to more common pleasures, but they will show you that there are many levels of enjoyment to be sought.

It’s also another example of the way knowledge is power: By knowing art history, for example, not only will you be more comfortable talking with clients about their tastes, but you’ll also improve your ability to design projects worthy of being called “art.” Knowledge can give you the confidence you need to move in such a direction.


All of the knowledge in the world is wasted, however, if you’re unable to perform at the promised level of excellence. It cuts back to the initial idea that you should always strive to exceed expectations, and nowhere is this truer than with wealthy clients. For myself, I work to under-promise and over-deliver and, more important, work to exceed my own expectations for quality.

I’ve also found it helpful to break this down and think in terms of exceeding expectations in the process by which the end product is created and in the end product itself.

Clients who can have whatever they want (and have it done by most anyone) will naturally have high expectations for both the process and the end product. Starting with the process, for example, success has everything to do with the way you communicate. That can mean simple things such as sending personal thank-you notes, keeping clients informed, returning phone calls and, in general, being responsive to client questions and concerns.

I write this knowing full well how easy it is with big projects to get excited, over-commit and unwittingly create false expectations for performance. That’s a classic problem – and something that many of us who’ve worked at this level have had to learn the hard way. When a project comes with a high price tag, resist the urge to make unreasonable promises about performance – particularly those having to do with time frames. Rest assured that, if you do, clients will hold you to your word and too often you’ll find yourself locked into a commitment you can’t meet.

It’s far better to stand your ground and be realistic and open with the client about what they can expect. If you can improve on those promises and over-deliver, that’s fantastic – but it’s not wise to count on being able to do things faster and better than you normally would just because the bottom of the contract holds a bigger number than you’re accustomed to seeing.

At times, you may need to look the client in the eye and say you can’t deliver in the expected time frame or say “no” about some other issue, but I’ve found that these clients usually respect you for being truthful and letting them know what’s going on. This is certainly preferable to having to come back after the fact and make up an excuse for the fact that you’ve failed to meet a commitment you made in the excitement of the moment.

As a practical step, I take notes on projects as I converse with clients so that I can remember what I said. Sometimes, people will forget, and if you can’t specifically reference the conversation during which a particular subject was discussed, you can find yourself at odds over a detail that would otherwise be a non-issue.


The reason you need to be realistic, open and honest in working with high-end clients is because the one thing that you can count on with complex, higher-profile projects – without fail – is that they are subject to change without notice. In my role as a design consultant, I’ve had many conversations with contractors who’ve been caught up short by this, and it’s my observation that those who fare best under these conditions are those who can take things in stride.

What’s so basic to me, it seems, isn’t all that obvious to some of these contractors. At times, I feel like I’m holding up flash cards that say, “Yes, there will be changes,” or “You should charge for these changes” or, most important and in the biggest, brightest letters, “You should make a profit on those changes.”

That’s the beauty of high-end clients compared to those at lower levels: Each time a change comes up – and they always do – you have an opportunity to make more money on a project. Better still, it often means that you’ll be building or designing a more involved and exciting project instead of just an expensive one.

If I had to underline one single point in this entire discussion, it would be this: It is absolutely essential to approach high-end work with the mindset that there will be changes, and those changes will occur throughout the entire course of the project. If you’re not one who copes well with making adjustments mid-stream, then high-end work is not for you. It’s really that simple.

Lots of people shy away from jobs that present lots of changes, basically because there are risks: Until you figure out ways to cope with change orders, it’s very easy to respond too quickly and under-price a change. That may not seems a big deal on a large project with a healthy profit margin, but the fact is that all those small concessions add up quickly, and your margin can disappear before you’re done.

You need to think proposed changes through completely, taking into account the fact that new orders affect scheduling for the project at hand as well as your other projects and can leave costly gaps that aren’t easy to fill. Perhaps you’ve already purchased equipment or materials, for example, and the change order means that you have to return certain things and acquire new ones. That costs time and money.

You needn’t necessarily explain all the ramifications to your client, but you do need to run through the permutations in your own mind and price the work accordingly and fairly. But if the client really wants to know why the cost for a change is as high as it is, you need to be sincere and honest in explaining the whys and wherefores.

Again, it’s all about managing expectations and positioning yourself whenever possible to exceed them. It also boils down to maintaining a conviction that your work exemplifies the highest standards: If you can’t do that, lots of these clients will chew you up; if you can and you deliver a product that the client appreciates more than he or she ever expected, then your telling the truth about what’s going on only works to your benefit.


One last thing I’ve been observing among my highest-end clients has to do with what they’re willing to accept by way of presentations having to do with a project.

These days, many of these people are purchasing their homes from great distances away using tools such as virtual reality tours that walk them through spaces using three-dimensional graphics. If you’re going to pursue these people as clients, you have to accept the fact that their graphic expectations are higher than ever before and that a flat plan or simple drawing is not going to cut it.

Whether you prepare hand renderings or work with a quality CAD program, you must be prepared to back up your words with strong visuals – and on a much higher level than was acceptable even a few years ago. Whether you subcontract the work, learn to do it yourself or put someone on staff to prepare the drawings, you need to understand that these visuals must reflect the quality of the end product. Otherwise, clients won’t “see” things the way you want them to, communication about your ideas will become difficult and chances are better than good that someone who makes a better presentation will get the nod.

If anything, presentation skills are the new frontier in watershaping. It takes time and money to get up to speed, but you need to get yourself there if you want a fair crack at the high-end market. Partly, it’s about separating yourself from the crowd. To a greater extent, however, it’s about conveying a message about quality that is clear to one and all with the very first steps in the watershaping process.

Within any profession, people perform at different levels. Some stand at the leading edge, gain big reputations and are among the first called whenever a client begins to look around. To compete at this level, you must strive to play the game as it is played by watershaping’s best practitioners, develop your skills and gain a reputation for excellence that makes you stand out among peers.

As you strive, you need to figure out what it takes to get everything done and, as important, figure out what to charge for the work. You need to make enough on these projects to justify your time, deal with the level of difficulty and make certain you can deliver everything you’ve promised while navigating a sea of change orders.

These projects are indeed complicated, they do take time (more than they should in many cases) and they do involve clients who want things to go their way, so price your work accordingly so that you’ll be inclined to come back and do it again, either for the current client or for someone else.


One of the unexpected benefits I’ve noticed from working with high-end clients has to do with the way it has affected my mindset when it comes to working on less complicated projects.

When you approach each and every project you do with the idea that you will exceed expectations with quality performance and excellent results, you’ll find positives in every project you pursue, even the modest ones. There’s also the fact that I keep running into projects that started with a budget of, say, $50,000, that ended up growing to twice or three times that limit because I work in a way that opens clients’ eyes and minds to possibilities they’d never considered.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that the “high-end sensibility” discussed here translates beautifully to work on mid-range watershapes: Mid-range clients respond to respectful treatment in much the same way rich folks do and enjoy working with someone who comes to the process more concerned with quality and excellence than with the price tag alone.

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].

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