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How to sell a landscape ‘experience’

November 5, 2014 -  By

Jim O’Brien encourages his customers to be active participants in the development of their landscapes. The owner of Wilmette, Ill.-based O’Brien & Co. Landscape, believes property owners are willing to invest more in their properties if he sells them as an experience rather than a landscape.

For example, O’Brien has been known to purposefully leave out a single patio brick or an unplanted plant after an installation job. “We tell them you are going to plant that, so you can have pride and ownership in your landscape,” O’Brien says.

His knack for connecting with customers on a personal level helped grow his residential landscape firm into a $3.2 million business over 21 years. In his first year, revenue was approximately $170,000. Part of O’Brien’s success is related to a focus on profit and quality instead of volume, he says.

Design/build accounts for approximately 80 percent of O’Brien’s business. The remaining 20 percent is lawn maintenance. With such an emphasis on design/build, O’Brien says he can’t afford to offer free designs to customers. Landscape contractors who don’t charge for designs set a bad precedent for the industry, he says.

“This industry is plagued with people giving away free ideas and free designs,” O’Brien says. “I firmly believe you have to charge for that stuff. If you present a nice product, people have to be willing to pay for it. It’s not a commodity or something that should be just given away. It’s intellectual property that you need to protect.”

While O’Brien has lost some potential jobs because of the design fees, he has secured many high-earning accounts with a niche sales strategy.

He’s always placed a strong emphasis on aesthetics and design integrity. His eye for design is rooted in his background as a certified landscape architect. Prior to starting his company, O’Brien worked as a landscape architect, designing large-scale projects for developers. He decided the work wasn’t gratifying, so he launched O’Brien & Co. in 1993.

He started with one employee, who’s still with the company, and a single client. He became involved with industry associations and began building a business he describes as a boutique landscape firm. The company now has 29 employees and operates four to five construction crews and two maintenance crews.

It’s all in the details

O’Brien trains his sales staff to educate prospective customers and learn about their personal preferences. The process does not involve a checklist or questionnaire. Instead, O’Brien and his staff walk the property and learn about the owner’s lifestyle and needs. For instance, if he sees a swing set in the yard, O’Brien may try to get the owner to think about how the property will look when the client’s children are grown.

“I don’t have prepared statements when I sell,” O’Brien says. “For us, every property is different. There’s no design formula with the same materials and same layout. We look at each piece of ground and mold it into its unique space.”

O’Brien also uses visuals to show customers different possibilities. That doesn’t mean pictures on a cell phone, he says. Instead, a portfolio should include professional, detailed pictures. O’Brien shows customers before and after photos on his iPad in a slideshow format. He also shows customers computer-generated designs on the iPad.

“You need to have pictures of the details, and that’s where you can convince customers to spend more money,” O’Brien says.

The focus on personalized service and profit margins helped the company weather the recession in 2008-2009, O’Brien says. The company didn’t lay off any employees during the economic downturn.
O’Brien preaches this consultative strategy to his sales team as part of an elevator speech he calls his “100,000 landscape challenge.” During sales training sessions, O’Brien challenges his sales staff to sell him on a $100,000 landscape job.

Twice a year, O’Brien asks his two sales staff members, who are also designers, and his irrigation manager to sell him on a $100,000 landscape plan. O’Brien started the “$100,000 challenge” about five years ago after learning about a similar competition while attending the Professional Landcare Network’s (PLANET’s) Green Industry Conference.

O’Brien’s entire staff participates in the judging process. The winner earns a prize, such as free tickets to a local sporting event. The point of the competition is to encourage employees to sell customers on a lifestyle rather than on materials and service. The standard pitch that a company provides “quality work” and “reliable service” isn’t a differentiator, O’Brien says.

“You need to inspire your employees to get your employees to think about why your company is in business,” O’Brien says. “I tell them, ‘I’m Mr. Smith. I have $100,000, and I want to hire a landscape contractor or designer tomorrow. Tell me why I should hire your company.’”

He recalls an experience with a high-end customer who loved peonies when he was a child. O’Brien told the client that peonies grow 6 inches to 8 inches a day. He gave the client a yardstick and asked him to measure how fast the peonies grow in a month.

“This guy got so excited about this, that I wasn’t selling him a landscape—I was selling him an experience,” O’Brien says.

About the Author:

Katz is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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