Most people who know me will tell you just how independent I am. Some, in fact, will say that I’m too independent for my own good.
When it comes to business, however, I know that being a soloist carries me only so far: Rather, it’s the relationships I’ve established and maintained within the business community that have taken me beyond the independent realm and helped me achieve the success I was looking for when I started my business.
As a designer, I work primarily one on one with my clients to create a design. If I’ve done a good job with that work, I’ll need to call on a strong network of other professionals to implement that design. It’s not simply a matter of picking up the phone and calling contractors out of the Yellow Pages: That won’t cut it, particularly if none of them are familiar with my work.
I’m not alone in needing help. My clients, for instance, are constantly complaining to me that they’ve gone through hell to find someone “just to put in sprinklers and spruce up the yard” or do other basic work in their gardens. I face the same challenge in my projects and as a result treasure the relationships I’ve established in the trades through the years – especially when I need something done in a hurry.
Once a design is complete and my client says, “OK, let’s do it,” I start making calls to whatever collection of trades is needed to get the work done. That might include custom masons, electricians, plumbers, painters, landscape contractors, woodwork specialists, nurseries, furniture or upholstery specialists and/or various other professionals.
I didn’t start this contact list entirely on my own. In fact, one of my most valuable resources in finding subcontractors is a building contractor I met on a jobsite many years ago, when I was just getting started.
I needed some work done on my own home, so I hired him and took advantage of the opportunity to see how he worked, establish a relationship with him, and get to know his subcontractors and how they worked. Through the years, I’ve called him often (particularly as his business has expanded exponentially) to suggest the names of reliable subcontractors. I’ve also found that using his name as a referral tends to get me quick responses to my inquiries.
My point is that landscaping is just like any other people-oriented business: The key to success is networking, establishing relationships and keeping in touch with reliable resources who will also refer you to others. I’m certain this isn’t news to most of you, but those of us with independent streaks (which ropes in a whole lot of us in the design community) need to think often about the best ways to find the people we need to get the job done.
Here are some suggestions – some of them a bit unusual:
[ ] Take the high road. Find your subcontractors through a resource with a reputation for reliability. And if you’re lucky enough to have your own strong reputation, use it to your advantage: Many subcontractors are out there just waiting for the right opportunity to work with you, and you need to recognize the fact that one good referral can make your whole career.
[ ] Check out their work. When I was employed in a hospital years ago, I was told that the best way to find a good doctor was to ask the nurses – they knew them best by working with them. I apply this same principle to landscaping, talking with good building or landscape contractors to check out particular subcontractors’ reputations. I also use my eyes: Good subcontractors have portfolios and lists of references I can check out myself.
[ ] Don’t wait forever. If a subcontractor can’t meet with you for a week, he or she may be too busy or indifferent or egomaniacal to meet your expectations. Don’t be held hostage: Move on and find another subcontractor who’s eager to get together with you and start working right away.
This is a tricky area, because it is certainly true that some subcontractors are worth waiting for and that working with them can do wonders for your own reputation because of the caliber of their work. It may be my independent streak talking again, but I see responsiveness (coupled, of course, with a good reputation) as a key indicator of a subcontractor’s desire to work with me and eagerness to share my vision of a project’s potential.
[ ] Expect accuracy. How many times does a job go off course because a subcontractor has inaccurately estimated time or materials or didn’t anticipate potential problems that everyone should have been aware of before the work started?
There is indeed nothing worse than having to tell your clients they’ll have to pay more for the job after you’ve already begun. Of course, my own ability to anticipate potential problems has grown with time and experience, but I almost invariably ask subcontractors what might go wrong and if he or she has figured that potential into his or her estimate.
Having a clause in a contract that allows for adjustments is one thing; accounting for the problems ahead of time is quite another – and a helpful sign of experience.
[ ] Reinforce and compliment. I know this may sound a bit too basic, but it’s always important to let subcontractors know how you feel about their work. Using them on your next job is, of course, the best compliment you can offer – and keeping them busy is the surest way of guaranteeing their ongoing availability and reliability.
A phone call or in-person compliment, however, goes much farther than that. It also spreads your reputation throughout the community and will help you become someone with whom subcontractors are happy to work.
THE PLANT FACTOR
All of the various landscape and peripheral trades are critical to a landscape designer’s or architect’s success, and we all spend a good deal of time cultivating relationships with masons, electricians, plumbers and a host of other trade specialists. As you build these relationships, however, you can’t afford to overlook the one that might be the most important of all – that is, your relationship with good nurseries.
Nurseries work the same way as most other businesses in responding to the push and pull of supply and demand. Many of my clients find pictures in magazines or books and tell me about plants they want in their gardens, and then expect that I will be able to meet their desires. I, in turn, am completely at the mercy of nature and local nurseries and need their help in making clients’ dreams come true.
I’ve said it before many times in my columns: Having a good nursery to call on for information and the plants you need is crucial. You must remember, however, that plants aren’t like other commodities and that what your client wants isn’t necessarily what local nurseries will be carrying.
Can you work with your suppliers and make them more responsive to your needs? Yes you can, and here are some things to keep in mind as you complete your base of trade relationships:
[ ] Expect a slow start. Lots of people, from interior decorators to anyone else who has a resale license, try to find their ways around retail pricing no matter how remote their ties are to the landscape trades. That’s why most nurseries are wary of newcomers who claim to be “in the landscape business.”
If you know what you’re ordering and appear to be knowledgeable, you’ll have few problems. At first, they’ll probably ask you to pay for plants when you pick them up or even with order, and it’s all part of the game of establishing your legitimacy and credibility. Be patient: Before you know it, you’ll have no problem buying large quantities on credit.
[ ] Watch the calendar. Many plants are only available during certain times of the year. Nurseries are just as dependent as you are on growers who produce what they know will sell – in other words, plants that are in demand. The lower the demand, the thinner the supply, the scarcer the plant and the higher the price. It’s just like any other commercial venture, and your timing can be critical.
[ ] Be persistent. Many plants simply won’t be available through your nurseries, but that doesn’t mean you should ask for them anyway. I bugged my regular wholesale nursery about Oakleaf Hydrangeas for the first five years of our relationship and was met with a dismissive chuckle each and every time I entered my request.
Today, that plant is a regular staple for them. Again, it’s supply and demand. As a plant catches on in popularity (and I like to think I helped the process along in this particular case), the nurseries will ask for it more often and give the growers an incentive to provide it.
[ ] Stop by often. Just being around nurseries to check out their inventories from time to time makes you a known quantity to them and can gain you their trust and support. Don’t hesitate to ask questions: You’ll find after they get to know you that they’re your best source for plant information. They know what’s selling, what’s growing well in the area, and what other professionals are thinking.
They can also often be a good source for referrals to subcontractors – and help you complete your circle of contacts.
Stephanie Rose wrote her Natural Companions column for WaterShapes for eight years and also served as editor of LandShapes magazine. She may be reached at [email protected]