How to move clients from design to construction (faster)

Pitch Box

By Shah Turner*
Monday, 25 September, 2017


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Most residential landscape designers and design-build landscape contractors take longer than they should to guide their clients from the design and costing phase of a project into the construction phase. As someone whose entire business is based around helping landscapers move more designs into construction, I come across this all the time. I’d like to discuss it with you here, in the hope it might help business owners to assess and address their own situation.

Although there’s no definitive time frame that projects ‘should’ be measured against, we may as well quantify it for the purpose of discussion. I think if the process is dragging on beyond around eight weeks after the initial concept has been presented and priced, there’s room for improvement.

The reason I view a lengthy time frame as negative is because, in my experience, there is a direct, diminishing relationship between a client’s willingness to invest fully in a project and the time it takes to make the decision to buy.

In other words, the more time that passes, the less likely it is they will move forward — and the less likely they will invest to the extent they might have if only they’d had the confidence to make a decision earlier.

That exciting, emotional energy that surrounds the presentation of a new concept will soon be smothered by practicality, questions of “Do we really need this?” and the proverbial ‘sharpening of the pencil’. Give it too long, and you won’t just be leaving money on the table, you’ll find yourself having the conversation everyone loathes: “We’re just going to sit on this for a while, but thanks so much for the work you’ve put in.”

Given that locking in new projects is something of a numbers game, it makes sense that the more efficient you are at moving clients through the process of designing and pricing a project, the more opportunities you will create for construction. Even after you drop projects for one reason or another, you can still achieve your revenue goals for the year because you have so many irons in the fire.

Of course, there are all sorts of reasons a client might stall in making a decision, many of them completely out of your control. In this article I’m going to focus on two things that are within your control that will assist you to:

  • Maintain client confidence;
  • Efficiently manage time frames; and ultimately
  • Give yourself the best possible shot at moving a project from design into construction at the highest value, in the shortest time.

But first, you need to put yourself in your clients’ shoes (something we should all be doing more often — right?).

Try these on for size. [Image of a pair of flip flops.]

Try these on for size

Imagine you’re an office-dwelling Human Resources Manager for a medical supplies manufacturer. You’re good with people and paid well, but you haven’t got a creative bone in your body. You’ve been referred to a landscape professional who you feel you can trust to translate your aspirations for a new lifestyle at home into a design that will make it happen. You’ve discussed everything with them about the plans you have for your property over the long term, your family, your likes, dislikes, wish list and the budget you have in mind.

Three weeks later, the day arrives for the ‘big reveal’ and the concept for a shiny new landscape is presented to you. There’s a lot of information you need to take in, from bigger picture issues like council permits for the retaining walls (if that’s what they are) to the tiniest details like the shadow line they keep talking about that is supposed to make everything look like it’s floating. You’re feeling cross-eyed and tongue-tied by the names of a million different plant species and hoping your partner shares the same love you have for the colour of the tiles.

As the haze of information overload begins to clear, your client will find themselves asking two fundamental questions that are in your best interests to answer. These can take many different forms, but the general theme is always the same:

  1. What exactly am I getting?
  2. How much will this cost?

Granted, these seem obvious or even trivial at first glance, but I’d suggest that if you don’t help your clients gain absolute clarity on the answers to these two questions, you are doing your business and clients a disservice.

If you’re not sure where you sit on this one, here’s a quick test to see how you’re tracking:

If you’re a landscape designer: Try to recall how many of the last 10 designs you prepared were accompanied by a cost estimate at the time you first presented the initial concept to your clients. Designers (myself included during the early part of my career) are notorious for preparing designs without truly understanding, or even deliberately neglecting, the cost implications of each stroke of the pen or click of the mouse. They’re great at inspiring clients with jaw-dropping designs but this can quickly turn sour when the initial price comes in substantially higher than the client’s budget and expectations.

If you’re a contractor: Try to recall how many of the last 10 quotes you produced were accompanied by a professional set of plan drawings or, better yet, a collection of 3D imagery that gave your clients a crystal-clear understanding of what you’ve quoted. While designers are notorious for ignoring budget, contractors have a reputation for assuming that everyone can understand plan drawings, despite the fact they’re from outside our industry with zero experience reading plans. One of the worst feelings a contractor can experience is a client dismissing the last two weeks of gruelling labour with, “That’s not what I thought we were getting done.”

Just because your client might not say they don’t understand the drawing or seems indifferent to the design concept being presented without an estimate doesn’t mean those two fundamental questions aren’t at the top of their mind.

Once that first presentation is over, it won’t take long before the design is being discussed at the dinner table, in bed, with work colleagues, friends and next-door neighbours — and that is precisely when your under-informed client is at risk of drifting away from the Island of Confidence into the vast Oceans of Uncertainty.

If you want to stand half a chance of moving a project from design to construction quickly, the next words out of your mouth after you’ve finished discussing the plan should be something like:

“Now we’ve reached a really exciting part of the presentation: I’d like to show you a 3D visualisation so you can see exactly how it will look and feel, and then we’ll run through an idea of the costs so you can see where your money is being invested if you decide to go ahead. How does that sound?”

“How does that sound?” your client says to themselves. “That sounds like music to my ears!”

Boom! Client confidence boosted; professional service delivered; odds tilting in your favour right from the beginning.

Okay, so that’s the theory done. Now for the practical tips and strategies.

Strategy overview

At each step of the process your design and costings should be presented to your client hand in hand to give them the opportunity to make an informed buying decision at any time, rather than waiting on the pricing or design to be updated.

The level of detail in either the costing or design should step up together. The concept will initially be accompanied by an indicative estimate, eventually becoming a landscape plan with a firm quotation supported by accurate pricing by specialist subcontractors.

The golden rules:

  • Always accompany your designs with an appropriate level of costing detail.
  • Always accompany your costings with an appropriate level of design detail.

Companies that have an in-house estimator and design team tend to stick to the golden rules pretty well. They have the capacity to have more irons in the fire and in turn get sign-off on more jobs purely based on the number of projects processed.

Makes sense… but what about the smaller guys who can’t afford an estimator or a design team and feel suffocated by their existing workload?

Just because a company is smaller doesn’t mean it can’t compete with or even outperform larger, more established operators. We are fortunate that we live in a time where software and a global marketplace means small business can move faster, smarter and get the same results as the bigger players without the overheads.

Estimating and quoting

Pricing new projects and adjusting the price on existing ones is easily the most challenging bottleneck both contractors and designers experience on every project. This is the step that tends to slip through the cracks at the beginning of the design process.

The good news is there are a substantial number of off-the-shelf solutions out there that can perform hours of estimation work in a matter of minutes, as long as you’re prepared to put in the hours upfront.

Here are some of the better ones:

Design and communication

So, how can you make sure that the ideas you have in your mind can be communicated clearly to your clients’ minds? At the very least you’re going to need a legible, neatly drawn plan, perhaps accompanied by photos of completed projects. Ideally, you’ll develop the capacity to accompany designs with more visual imagery such as 3D renders, elevations or perspectives.

My advice? Learn CAD software. Although this tends to be the expensive, time-consuming option for a contractor to take, designers would agree that using any kind of CAD software helps immensely with being able to test new designs and represent them professionally. Perspective sketches and 3D renders in particular are effective for communicating more than just lines on a page; they hit those emotional buttons that give clients a sense of how their new landscape ‘feels’ and not just how it looks.

Some options to boost your design offering:

Or, outsource it! You already know the shape of the workforce is rapidly shifting towards a marketplace of freelancers and specialist agencies. Our industry is no different.

Besides accounting and administrative tasks, there is a growing trend towards small design and construct firms adopting the project management model where teams of subcontractors are assembled and coordinated by a Landscape Construction Manager and Estimator. There are always going to be advantages and disadvantages to both sides of the coin.

If you didn’t already know, Pitch Box provides landscape designers and contractors with 3D visual imagery, fly-throughs and professionally drawn CAD plans.

There’s a reason for this: they work! 3D in particular communicates ideas clearly, wins more work and makes life easier, not harder.

When you couple an impressive 3D visualisation with a professionally drawn plan (what they’re getting) and an itemised estimate for construction (how much it costs) it’s not hard to see why clients who experience this level of service in such a short space of time are more likely to feel confident, ask detailed questions and make informed decisions sooner.

This will either lead you towards a sale or to part ways and continue to pursue new opportunities, rather than dragging out the ones you already have.

You’ll soon sort out who’s fair dinkum about their budget once you put the quote in their hands and a clear picture in their minds.

So, what’s your opinion on that initial project timeline? Do you feel that you could improve the pace at which new projects are designed, priced and approved? Do you have any suggestions others could use to take action and improve their conversion ratios?

*Shah Turner is the founder of Pitch Box, a leading ‘on demand’ service provider of affordable 2D and 3D drafting solutions tailored to help business owners win more work in less time with minimal input. Small to mid-size businesses who want to retain a compact, flexible structure now have the ability to provide their clients with quality 3D renders, impressive fly-throughs and professional CAD drawings with no in-house design staff and no software experience necessary. You can learn more by visiting www.pitch-box.com.

Editor’s note: This is an abridged version of a longer article from Shah’s blog. You can read the full version at www.pitch-box.com/design-to-construction.

Main image credit: ©Gajus/Dollar Photo Club

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