5 DO’S AND DON’TS IN MEETING WITH CLIENTS

June 15, 2010

So you’ve fielded the phone call, made the appointment, and now you are eagerly (or nervously) awaiting your first meeting with a potential landscape design client.  If you are new to the field of garden design, as are most of the graduates from the California School of Garden Design, you most likely are a little apprehensive, perhaps unsure of yourself, as you prepare for your get-acquainted meeting.  You really want the job, really need the job, but you  may not be sure how to approach the client(s) the right way. 

It takes years of experience to be able to quickly assess and get a feel for what people are like, what kind of approach works best for each individual, and that will come in time.  You will make mistakes along the way, meet people you absolutely can’t stand to work with, meet people who will try to take advantage of you, and people who just can’t seem to make up their minds about anything.  It takes all sorts to make a world, and it will be up to you to figure out how to navigate this challenging aspect of being a landscape designer.  

Pointer number one:  keep in mind that the success of your relationship with a potential design client starts when they pick up the phone and call your business number.  With that in mind, make sure your voice mail message, whether on your cell phone or a land line, has a professional and welcoming sound to it.  Avoid cutesy messages, weird sound effects or music clips when recording your message.  State your business name, your name, and other necessary information and reassure the caller you will call them back soon, and DO IT!  You would be amazed at how many clients have said that they left messages with this person and that person and never received a return call.  Did those people get the job?  Of course not.  To get a job, you actually do need to return that call, and promptly.  Returning a call promptly starts you off on the right foot from the get-go.

Pointer number two:  Okay, so you called, set up a meeting, and you are preparing for it.  Here is another important piece of information that landscape designers sometimes don’t get – when presenting yourself for the first time to your potential clients, you need to show yourself as a professional, capable of business and someone they can feel confident about.  Do dress accordingly.  We have all heard that piece of business advice, dress for the job you want, not the one you have.  This applies in landscape design, too.  If your appointment is with, say, working professionals, you can start forming a bond with them right away by showing yourself as a working professional, too.  Because, you are one.  So, no sloppy T-shirts, dirty jeans, mud-caked work boots.  Definitely no shirts with graphics or sayings on them that might offend someone.  Wash your hands before you go.  For a man, you should be perfectly acceptable in a pair of clean khakis or nice pair of clean jeans, with a proper shirt tucked in, and a clean pair of shoes.  No need to wear a tie or a jacket unless you want to.  Comb your hair.  For women, you have a little more flexibility in what you can wear to client meetings, but the same don’ts apply to you as well – no sloppy clothes, no dirty clothes, and do not show up in flip flops or sandals that could cause you to fall on your butt while walking around the yard.  And please, whatever you do, no cleavage displays, or too-short skirts.  You are not going to a Hooters audition, ok?  For both men and women, invest in a well-prepared portfolio, and be prepared to take your notes in a decent notebook, not on the back of a matchbook or old envelope.

Pointer number three:  Remember who is the designer here.  That would be you.  Your clients, whether they have a large space to be landscaped or just a side-yard in a subdivision tract, have called on you because they understand that this is something they need outside expertise for – they may have ideas for what they want, but no idea how to execute them.  We always try to start a client meeting inside the house, sitting down, talking about their lifestyle.  It is vital to get a feel for their decorating style, the architectural style of the home, how much time they spend outside and what they hope to do outside in their newly designed space.  You can best accomplish that by sitting down and chatting with the homeowners, taking your time, getting acquainted with them.  This is also the time to tell them about yourself.  It’s your time to start selling yourself to them.  Take notes.  Bring a camera with you and snap a few photos of the entry to the home, the outside of the home, the existing yard.  When you then move outside and walk around the area to be landscaped, take lots of notes.  Ask them what kinds of plants they like, if they are interested in attracting butterflies and birds, if they want a water feature, if they have problems with allergies, deer or other wildlife.  See for yourself how the light falls, whether the area gets a lot of south-facing exposure, etc. Ask about any possible drainage issues.  Take notes!  All of these things will vividly demonstrate to the homeowner that you know your stuff.

Pointer number four:  No matter how much the homeowner cajols, pesters, begs or just plain asks, over and over again, “What would you do here?” , never, ever start designing on the ground, while you are walking around.  Don’t let them drag over a garden hose and try to get you to outline a lawn area with it.  Don’t be specific about plantings, hardscape, shapes or placement.  This is the homeowner’s way of trying to get something for nothing.  You are just starting out, so you may or may not feel comfortable charging a consultation fee (we recommend you do charge a consultation fee, by the way, but in these uncertain economic times, it may not always be feasible), but if you allow the homeowner to milk you for your expertise, all you ever get from them may be that consultation fee.  So do your best to be general, not specific.  Politely tell the homeowner that you will need to think about their project and work up some ideas on paper.  The goal is to have another meeting with the homeowner, present your ideas, get their go-ahead, and then send them a contract to be signed and returned to you.  No actual designing should take place until you have that signed contract in your hands.

Pointer number five:  Make sure you have a clear idea about your potential client’s timeframe for completion of their project.  If you do not inquire about this, you may find yourself up against it when they suddenly tell you that their daughter is getting married in the backyard in two weeks and why isn’t that design done yet?  In addition to this important detail, you need to try to get an idea about their budget.  This is often challenging – people are naturally reluctant to name a set amount because they are afraid the designer will make sure they spend right to that limit.  But it is important to try to get some idea about how much they want to, or can spend, because this information will have a very real and direct affect on your design.  Water features, for example, can end up being quite expensive, and some hardscaping materials are pricier than others. 

When it’s time to go, shake hands, tell them you will get back in touch with them within a certain time frame.  Then DO IT!  Follow through, just like you said you would.  Returning calls in a timely fashion and doing what you say you will do can make the difference between getting the job and someone else pocketing that contract that could have been yours.  Even if your bid comes in higher than the another designer’s, if that person forgets to call them back, shows up dressed like a slob, doesn’t bother to take notes, designs a lawn with a garden hose, and doesn’t listen to the clients, you will get that contract, not the competition.  And after all, that is what you are aiming for.

There is a great deal more to learn about navigating the landmine of working with clients, and you will figure it all out in time, but before you will get that chance, you need to land the contract.  Follow this advice and you will have a better chance at it than the others.  Good luck!

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