By Dave Garton
Last month, we discussed the importance of creating excitement and anticipation during the early stages of a pond project. One of my favorite techniques I described is taking clients to a rock yard where we celebrate the process selecting stone material. As I mentioned, getting them revved up in the early going is vastly important, and most of the time it’s relatively easy because there’s a natural excitement that occurs at the outset of most projects.
Things can get much tougher on the mood-management front once the work gets started. We all know that installing a body of water almost always leads to temporary chaos and destruction of the property. It’s a stressful time for even the most tolerant clients and if you haven’t invested the effort in keeping everything on a positive footing, that’s when you can run into trouble.
Managing mood while their world is torn to pieces is not always easy, but it’s so important because it’s during installation that you can encounter multiple specific stress points.
There’s the physical mess, the noise and dust, and the feeling of intrusion that occurs when the property is crawling with workers, equipment and materials. There’s the disruption to the clients’ daily routines that can cause stress. There are concerns with neighbors who don’t like the noise or having trucks parked in front of their property. And more than anything, there’s the anxiety that arises when something goes wrong or you run into an unexpected challenge.
Some combination of those maladies is inevitable on almost every job. There are very few when everything goes exactly as planned. We know this ahead of time, which is why it only makes sense to deliberately, and with the power of forethought, take steps to stave off negative feelings, or at least moderate them when they do occur. Ultimately, the clients are investing in something that makes them feel good, or they hope it will, and it’s our responsibility to do everything we can to prove them right.
The foundations for durable good feelings start from the moment I drive into the neighborhood. Even before I arrive at the house for the first time, I’m actively observing the area asking key questions. Is it densely populated or in a rural setting? Is it upscale with expensive houses, manicured lawns and luxury automobiles? Is it a gated community with controlled access? Is the house near a school? Do hiking or bridle trails run by the property? It all paints a picture.
|I carefully plot out they key focal points from inside the house as part of the initial site-analysis process. Not only does it help me place the work for maximum visual impact, it also enables me in visualizing what the clients will be seeing during the installation process.|
All of those factors are important in understanding the situation and environment we’ll be dealing with. That process continues in much the same way when I meet the clients and see the property for the first time. Is the garage door open with all sorts of tools out? Is it a neat workspace or a chaotic storage area? Is the home tidy and organized, or not? I learn from their book collection and artwork, their style of furnishings, and especially family pictures.
What I learn from those kind of observations drives design decisions. By knowing as much as you can about the clients, you are better equipped to create a design for their project that is in tune with their desires and personalities. When clients are confident that you are on the same page with them, they relax and can enjoy the creative process. By paying attention to all of these details, you can demonstrate interest in the things you choose to say and the suggestions you make. All of that sets the foundation for positive feelings, especially trust.
Much of mood management involves small gestures. For example, I always take my shoes off when I walk into someone’s house. They usually tell me that’s not necessary, but I explain it’s because I’m a pond guy and I spend my days walking around in the mud. It’s a lighthearted moment that usually results in a chuckle, but also demonstrates that I respect their space and honor the fact that I’m a guest in their home – just by taking off my shoes.
In the same spirit, I make mental notes about their lives and what they choose to share. If their kids or grandkids are involved in sports and they are obviously proud of their achievements, I pay attention and will ask about it later. If they talk about travel experiences, that becomes a regular part of our conversations. Whatever it is they care about, so do I, because more than anything this work is about relationships. Sometimes we can be so anxious to get down to business, it’s easy to forget to slow it down and really listen to the clients. Active listening can yield a treasure trove of information, if we simply remember to pay attention.
Establishing expectations is always based on clear and consistent communication. I explain the process in tremendous detail in the early going, and I don’t minimize the intrusive nature of the work. We talk about the specific steps, when they take place and what level of noise and disruption can be expected. Then later on when it’s actually happening, I am constantly updating them on progress and what to expect next.
It’s amazing how much difference it makes in the way customers feel about the installation process when they know what’s going to take place on and in their ground. When we’re walking the property, I want them to visualize the end result, but I also want them to visualize how we’ll get there. I want them to know where the crews and machinery will be moving and working, where we’ll put the rocks when they’re delivered, where we’ll put the temporary outhouse, and all the stuff we’ll do to minimize the overall level of chaos and disruption to their lives.
If they point out that they love a particular plant and I can see it’s going to be in harms way, I offer to have someone come over and relocate it before the job starts. That does two things, it prevents the unhappiness that would’ve occurred had the plant been damaged or destroyed, and again, it shows respect for them and their property. We always take those little extra steps and simply view it as part of the work.
|There is nothing pretty about the pond-installation process. Establishing realistic client expectations and keeping them focused on the end product are keys to staying on a positive footing. The fact that our work unfolds in some beautiful environments does help mitigate the negative visual impact, but it’s our sunny approach and consistent performance that truly keeps them smiling.|
The one thing I want to avoid at all costs is having the customer looking out their back window at the warzone that their property has become and wondering what happens next and when. Nothing will obliterate a positive outlook more than uncertainty and unanswered questions. If they’re left to wonder about the work schedule and start to question the wisdom of going down this path and spending the money, imagine what happens when something does actually go wrong? It all tumbles from bad to worse, and then you’ve got a tough situation where it can be almost impossible to regain that positive psychological footing.
If the clients are in the loop and feel like they are a key part of the project team and know what to expect, they will be much more understanding. They might not be happy that their neighbors complained about the trucks parked in front of their house, but if that’s one negative among numerous positives, they’ll work through it and see past it.
While communication is critical, it’s even more important to deliver on what you say. Not meeting an expectation is oftentimes worse than never establishing one in the first place. That means showing up when you say you will, answering their questions and concerns as quickly as possible, and if there is a change in plans, letting them know immediately. Never assume the customer understands the situation, and always follow through.
|It’s always a big moment when the rocks arrive. The sheer volume of material can be quite impressive and it reminds the clients of the selection process when we visited the rock yard. When we begin placing the pieces they chose, which I always point out, they feel like they’re an important part of the project team and the creative process, which they are. I find that celebrating these little milestones is one of the best ways to alleviate the anxiety that inevitably goes along with the installation process.|
Backing up words with action establishes trust, and trust is the most important factor in client relations. Your behavior on site establishes expectations for the way the work unfolds and your basic approach to business. For example, I make an effort to maintain warm and good-humored relationships with my crews. We joke around and laugh and I never get heavy-handed in managing their work. There’s warmth and fun that counterbalances the hard labor.
A relaxed workplace exudes confidence and civility and the clients pick up on that tone. We make a point of extending and amplifying the courteous and warmhearted attitude to everyone we encounter. If I see a neighbor looking over the fence, you can bet as soon as I see them, I acknowledge their presence with a warm hello, and if they want to chitchat about what’s going on, I stop what I’m doing and give them my full attention. If someone is riding or walking by on a nearby trail, we always wave and smile.
That kind of basic courtesy and attention sets the tone that’s reflected in the way the client feels about the process that’s taking place on their property. When we smile and laugh, most of the time, so do they.
All of this comes down to commonsense and the Golden Rule. If you treat your customers the way you would want to be treated, most things do seem to fall into place. That’s not to say there aren’t challenges or even the occasional conflict, but when those things happen, the degree of difficulty and upset is dramatically minimized when you’re working from a position of trust and compassion. Managing mood does not mean minimizing the significance of a problem or a customer concern, it simply means keeping it all in perspective.
One of the beautiful things about building naturalistic bodies of water out of rocks, plants and liners is that there is nothing than can’t be changed or fixed with relative ease. I’ve completely reconfigured ponds or large parts of them because the customer decided they wanted something different. That happens and it can be a source of excitement and joy rather than anxiety, so long as you communicate and act in good faith.
|Because we’ve kept everything upbeat and tolerable during installation when it’s finished clients will only see the beauty of their new aquatic environment. Had the process instead been defined by conflict and uncertainty, the end result would be far more bitter than sweet.|
ut there’s another side to this discussion. Managing mood isn’t just about working through the negatives, it also makes it easier to accentuate the positives. While it’s certainly true that there is inevitable chaos and anxiety, the process of creating a beautiful watershape also offers multiple points where you can celebrate the progress. Of course, the most obvious celebratory point is when it’s all finished and filled with water. But I never wait until then to start the celebration.
When we dig the hole, for example, it’s great to share that moment with the client. They can see more clearly how the pond will look in the space, its shape, size and depth. Just seeing the ground transformed can be a huge revelatory moment.
The same thing is true when the rocks are delivered. All that smiling that went on back in the rock yard is brought back to life. Now those pieces the clients so lovingly selected are on site and ready to be set in place. When we put in the plants, again we’re sharing the experience of seeing the physical transformation of their property unfold. Putting in the plumbing and equipment may not be visually exciting, but it is a critical step in making the dream real and certainly worth noting.
By the time you get around the filling the pond, the clients are accustomed to celebrating the progress every step of the way. And this doesn’t really take that much effort, it’s more a matter of simply remembering to look at the process through a celebratory lens. It might be as simple as a text message saying the liner is in, take a look, isn’t that cool?
That sense of celebration is particularly important when it comes time to hand over the pond. The clients’ involvement in the process establishes the foundation for their continued participation long after we’re gone. Happy clients are simply far more likely to spend time and effort maintaining and enjoying their pond because doing so reinforces the positive feelings you have nurtured and they have experienced from the start.
Next time, we’ll talk about supporting client satisfaction with their pond after the installation is complete.
Dave Garton, owner of Lawnchair Watershapes in Denver, is an expert pond and stream builder as well as an in-demand speaker and coach. He can be reached at davespeaks.com.