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How to explain design fees

January 4, 2016 -  By

Landscape design expert Jody Shilan gives his perspective on this tough question. 

Q: How do you explain to clients why you charge for your plans while other companies don’t?

A: That’s a great question and one of my favorites to answer.

It’s amazing to me that in 2015 we still have to justify to ourselves and our potential customers why they need to invest in a drawing before having their landscape installed. Why do some people believe that all plans are created equal, regardless of whether they are “free” or have a cost associated with them? There’s no industrywide standard or cost structure to this process, and I’ve got some news for you: There never will be. So once and for all, we need to stop thinking that somehow we can get everyone in the design/build industry together to agree to charge design fees. Not only is it impossible, it’s probably illegal. (Can you say collusion?)

After 40 years working in landscape design/build, I can tell you, unequivocally, that you’ll have more success and install more work with customers who pay for plans than those who don’t. I acknowledge that it’s easier to charge design fees for master plans for the entire property, but you should still charge for partial property plans, as well. Let me add one caveat to that last statement. If you’re going to charge for your designs, they need to look professional. You must draw them to scale with colorful graphics and proper labeling. If the project is small it can still be done on an 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of paper, but at least do it on graph paper instead of notebook paper. I also recommend bringing some sample plans so you can manage client expectations.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s answer why you charge for your plans while your competitors don’t. Like most things in life, honesty is the best policy. All you need to do is educate your customers about what happens when they choose to participate in the “three for free” design/build process instead of working with a company like yours and paying for a design.

Your explanation should sound something like this: “Well Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, I certainly understand why getting a free design from other contractors sounds appealing as opposed to paying for one with us, but if you have a few minutes, I would like to explain why that approach is not in the best interest of you, your family and the project itself. You see, when homeowners like you call multiple companies to get a free plan, you’re taking the first step into a time-consuming and frustrating process that usually does not end well.

Let’s say you call five companies for an initial consultation. This means you’ll need to schedule five appointments when both of you are available. Next, let’s assume you like three of the companies and you ask each of them to provide a plan and proposal. A few weeks and multiple phone calls later, you finally line up a second round of meetings to review everything. Maybe you like the design from contractor A and the price from contractor B, but contractor C can start earlier than the other two. So what do you do? You ask each contractor to go back and make the appropriate revisions to the design, proposal or schedule, hoping to get the perfect outcome from at least one of them.

Several weeks and multiple phone calls later, you schedule your third round of meetings. Although each contractor has gotten closer to what you want, you’re still not satisfied. Obviously, you can send all of them back to the drawing board, again, hoping that at least one of them comes back with what you want. The other option is to pick one of the contractors now since the clock is ticking and you want to get on somebody’s schedule. For argument’s sake, let’s say that you choose to sign a contract now instead of having a fourth round of meetings.

A few months later your project is complete, but unfortunately you’re unhappy with the finished product. As you make your final payment you get that gut-wrenching feeling as you realize that you spent a significant amount of money on your landscaping project and you don’t even like it. Plus, it probably cost more then you wanted to spend.

So the reason that we charge for our designs is because we want to protect you from that scenario. We understand what it takes to design and build the perfect landscape for you and your family. At the end of the day we want to make sure that you don’t just like your landscape but love it.”

photos: Jody Shilan; ©

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