The conclusion of the pond installation process offers moments to create lasting client impressions. As Dave Garton points in this final entry in his series on client relations, it's a critical juncture where all of the physical work and management of expectations come together.
By Dave Garton
The process of creating beautiful ponds, streams and waterfalls is very much like composing a piece of music, and the phases are like movements in a symphony.
In the first movement, we planned the project, selected materials, laid the groundwork for the installation, and we established our working relationship. We did the heavy lifting in the second movement, excavating the pond, installing the liner, the circulation system and rock work. Now in the third and final phase, we bring the entire process to a crescendo in a flurry of final details.
While creating a beautiful work of watershaping art is the essence of what we do, keeping the customer happy is the primary objective. As I described in the first two parts of this trilogy on customer satisfaction, managing expectations and mood throughout the life of the project requires constant attention and deliberate intention pays huge dividends in a variety ways.
In this concluding movement, we come to the art of finishing, the last steps before the clients are set off on life with their new watershape. If you’ve done the job with care, the ongoing sense of satisfaction and happiness that begins with the first site visit to last symphonic notes.
Here’s a how I approach this all-important finishing phase.
THE FINAL FRENZY
The growing sense of anticipation is a natural part of the creative process. Up and until the feature is filled with water and the final details are completed, the clients have had to rely mostly on their imaginations. I’ve done my best to keep them engaged and smiling, all the while picturing in their mind’s eye what their body of water will look like.
In pond installations, this final phase is where visualizations become reality and it can be a surprisingly delicate transition. There’s a frenzy of activity, and it’s the richest time in many ways. We’re placing plants, tucking in the remaining pieces of exposed liner, making final adjustments to the rockwork and, of course, filling it with water and turning on the system. It’s a time of the greatest activity and sometimes, the highest anxiety. It is very much a messy birthing process and I do what I can to make sure the clients more or less stay clear of this last day or two.
As much as possible, I don’t let the customer see it as it fills or when we first turn on the water, because there will inevitably be areas that need adjusting; such as moving rocks here or there to keep the water flowing where you want. We use a black waterfall foam that we add in certain places to lift the water up or prevent it from escaping its intended course. We might build small dams in some places while opening up the flow in others.
Those adjustments often make the difference between a finished system that meets the clients' expectations or one that looks chaotic and not fully finished.
At this point, the clients are eager for the finish, and I let them know we are right there, but we need just a little bit more patience as we complete the scene. That tiny bit of deferred gratification ratchets up the excitement, all in anticipation of the moment when they see the feature come to life, when in a very real way the watershape begins playing its own music.
This is also a time when my crews get excited. They know what’s coming and as artisans themselves, they too gain a sense of tremendous satisfaction as we approach the end. That excitement usually transmits to the clients. We make a point of enjoying the work and there are usually lots of smiles on everyone’s face, laughter and what feels like a form of celebration.
It’s funny how the last phase is in some ways the most challenging, but it’s also the most fun and we do allow ourselves to enjoy those final steps. Naturally, different clients respond in different ways; some are extremely engaged with this final approach, while others are much less so. I don’t worry about that and simply accept that some people reveal their interest, their joy and their anxiety in differently.
Experience has taught me that when you’ve done the work of keeping the clients engaged along the way, they’re usually ready to be amazed and delighted. Because they have high expectations and are paying hard-earned dollars, they might also be critical of certain aspects of the work. If that’s the case, we address those issues with the same enthusiasm and pleasure that has defined the entire process.
The adage about the value of under-promising and over delivering almost always holds true and especially so in this finishing phase. On every one of my projects, from the start, I’m looking for something unexpected I can give the clients as a surprise gift at the very end. It might be something they wanted but decided they could do without to save money; or it they might something completely unexpected that hadn’t even considered.
One of my favorite little extras is to harvest moss and right as the final work is taking place, I go through the rockwork and strategically place the moss in nooks and crannies where it will take hold, and over time cover more and more of the rock surface, giving the work a wonderful aged look. I’m trying to create a lasting impression that will stay with the clients long after we’re gone, which is the main point anyway. Simply adding moss will continue remind the client of the positive feelings they had during the installation process, and amplify those feelings as time goes by.
I do the same thing with plants, which share the effect of increasing in beauty over time as the clients live with their feature and develop their own relationship with it. It might be some emergent dwarf grasses, or some type of water lettuce, or lilies or lotus flowers. Whatever species, all of the plants have a story and when you add them you can share specific information about the plantings, which again adds interest and encourages involvement.
There are times when these final gestures take on a larger form; maybe it’s an addition to a waterfall where there a small flow between a couple of prominent rocks, or some piece of decorative art or a place to sit they hadn’t anticipated. Every situation is different and from the start I’m looking for those opportunities. On one project, the clients were planning on getting married by their pond, so I edited together a DVD of the construction process and put the images to music. They wound up playing it at the wedding.
Another extra is the time I spend adjusting the rocks to create just the right sound of moving water. This is an entire discussion onto itself because it’s amazing what you achieve by “tuning” waterfalls and streams to hit just the right notes. It helps to remember that the sounds a feature makes can be as compelling as the way it looks, and that first moment when the clients hear the actual music of the water, they often become very excited.
They’ll almost inevitably remember the extra effort we made to be sure that their water is playing their song.
The moment the clients experience the finished work is usually something very special. This is where being good at creating beautiful and sustainable features really comes into play. After all, if the finished product isn’t up to par somehow, all the expectation and mood management in the world isn’t worth much. When the space is all cleaned up, everything is adjusted, every last little bit of liner is tucked away, the plants are in their new homes, the water is dancing and singing and the circulation system is humming, that’s when you bring the clients to the water’s edge.
Because clients are all so different, it’s important to not have your own expectations for how they will react. Some will be critical, others seemingly ambivalent, sometimes one of the spouses might not even be there for some reason. Most of the time, however, it’s an extremely positive and exciting revelation. This is when they will recognize the special rocks they picked out in during our tour of the rock yard back in the planning stages. It’s where they first hear the sounds, and see the light glinting in the moving water. It’s when they first come to the edge and discover the joy of looking into the water and seeing the plant life and cobble.
Rather than seeing this moment, or set of moments, as the end of something, it’s really the beginning of the clients’ relationship with the water you’ve brought into their lives. One of the many important reasons I involve the clients every step of the way is that I’ve seen the difference between those people that see their watershapes as purely decorative features, which they may or may not ignore, and those who see it as a living system that requires care and love.
Clients who participate in the upkeep are inevitably going to gain more satisfaction and joy as the plants and moss grow and they become more intimately familiar with the water and the life it engenders. Those are the clients that remain in touch and they are the ones mostly likely to offer a referral to a family or friend.
Fact is, I’ve never advertised because my clients have kept me busy through referrals and especially by showing off their watershapes to others. In that sense, all of this stuff that we do to keep them involved and happy is my marketing program. And while the work of installing these systems is hard and heavy lifting, the process of “selling” them has been almost effortless, precisely because I’ve invested in making sure my clients are happy start to finish.
When it comes to client relations, you can more or less look at it one of two ways. For many people in our business, it’s strictly a transactional relationship meaning money for services rendered and it doesn’t extend much beyond that. Companies that do large numbers of projects probably operate in that mode out of sheer necessity.
I go the other way and always have. Most of the time, although not always, my clients become personal friends. I view the process as highly personal in that we’re giving something that’s suited to the clients’ desires, tastes and personalities. In my case, it’s hard to do that correctly and not to at least become well-acquainted. Friendships are to some extent inevitable.
As a result of my hands-on approach with clients, I often find myself spending time with them after the installation is finished. It might be purely social, or they might call me with a question or concern that requires my attention. I give myself over to that part of the process. Yes, it’s about making money and doing business, but because of the nature (literally and figuratively) of these works of living art, the friendships become a delightful byproduct. We will always have the shared experience of creating something beautiful.
I also love it when the clients’ children and/or grandchildren get involved and we get to enjoy how they react to the water. Sometimes that involves teaching them something about the plants or the water, or even encouraging them to get in the water and experience it on a visceral level appeals to most children I’ve known. The point is you’re right there with them. You’ve become part of their experience at home, and via the beautiful watershape that becomes an ongoing part of their lives. All of that starts from our first hello and lives on through the finish, and beyond.
From my perspective there’s a joy and a melancholy that goes along with this concluding transition. I always feel a twinge of sadness as we pack up and move on to the next project. But when I see the smiles on my clients’ faces and hear their laughter and delight, the crescendo becomes much more sweet than bitter. It’s both an end and a beginning of a symphony written in plants, rocks and water.
Dave Garton, owner of Lawnchair Watershapes in Denver, is an expert pond and stream builder, as well as a an in-demand speaker and coach. He can be reached at davespeaks.com