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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Baker

The Landscape Design Process. Garbage In, Garbage Out.

Updated: Apr 5

I had never heard this phrase until a meeting with a reputable design/build company at a landscaping brainstorming session at a mega water park in the Wisconsin Dells. I was part of the discussion, as they wanted to incorporate native plants into their African savanna-themed landscape design. We all sat around in high-backed leather chairs talking conceptual design over cups of jo. I was feeling pretty big-time operator as I was being reimbursed by the company who retained me as a consultant. When the owner of the water park left the room, I asked one of the reps from the Madison firm if he was charging for this meeting. He replied that the first meeting was exploratory and not charged for, but that subsequent meetings would accrue an hourly fee. Then he said, “you know, garbage in-garbage out.” I gave a knowing nod, like I knew exactly what he was talking about. I didn’t.

 

The quality of a product or service is linked to the quality of the underlying components.

 

At the time, my naïve self didn’t realize that when you assemble a bunch of professionals for too many free meetings, you’re going to start getting lackluster or “garbage” advice. “Getting what you pay for” is probably more straightforward….but doesn’t pack the late Jim Henson’s Oscar-the-Grouch kind of punch.

 

Garbage in-Garbage out has become my unspoken mantra every time I hear the following questions from a potential client:

 

·         “Do you charge just to take a look at my property?”

·         “What if I don’t like your design, do I get a discount?”

·         “Will you subtract the design fee if I use your company to install?”

·         “You charge for drive time? Couldn’t you just stop by when you’re in the area?”

 

Red flags. All of them.

 

These questions make me second guess myself. By wanting my foot in that door, to secure that first meeting, I consider negotiating to a fee that I know won’t be worth it.

 

I spent many years as a “beginner” in this field racking up miles in my car to stop at people’s houses “when I was in the area,” so they didn’t have to commit to a trip charge, or spending a week putting a freebie or discounted design together, hoping to make up for the lost hours by securing installation work. Truth is, I was never “in the area.” I would make a special trip, driving hours out of my way to meet with people who thought they were interested in my services. And those discounted or free designs? The installation work never panned out. I would have been better off spending those days in my own garden for the payback on the amount of effort.

 

Oh, how I love to spin my wheels on beautiful May spring days!!!-Said no landscape professional ever.

 

I blame myself though for not following my own rules. Every season I have to remind myself to trust my process and stick with the trip charges and design fees that took me years to develop based on my experience; not slash my rates at the first hint of hesitation because I want the approval that comes with their yes.

 

Bottom line is this. If I’m getting paid to be on your property, I will give you and your property my complete focus. If not, my mind will quickly wander to other thoughts like, ”I should be focusing on my paying customers right now,” or “I’d rather be running right now,” or “I’m hungry, I think I’ll stop at that bakery on my way home.” Un-paying customers get my monkey mind, which can be garbage.

 

Is it just me, or is it the native landscaping industry? Sometimes I get the feeling that just because people see that I’m passionate about my work, that I’ll be just as happy to do it for free. I’m on a mission to save the world! Who needs to eat?

 

So, every time you’re tempted to negotiate yourself into an embarrassingly low rate, remind yourself that your customers won’t value you if you don’t value you. You have to make money for the hours that you work, right? Do you ask a doctor to stop by your house “when they’re in the area” to check your sore back? Or ask for a discount on your oil change?

 

 I realize that we’re not all compensated for the hours that we work. There will always be exploratory hours meeting with new clients that may or may not pan out. There will always be those estimates that you provide knowing that you’ll probably be the highest bidder. But, in the triage days that define spring, your paying customers should always have priority.

 

Whenever I’m asked to justify my consulting rates, this story comes to mind.

 

A factory calls a consultant to take a look at a manufacturing line that was closed due to an unknown malfunction. The consultant wanders around the factory floor, listening to and poking the machinery.  Finally, he takes out a small hammer and gently taps a particular piece of machinery a few times. Ping! Ping!  The factory line roars back to life and production resumes. The factory managers are ecstatic. A week later, the factory receives the invoice from the consultant.

 

$900 for less than one hour of work!  The managers furiously ask the consultant for an explanation. The consultant offers to send an itemized invoice to which the managers say, “Yes, please do.”

 

A second invoice arrives with two line items. 

1.    Rectifying problem with hammer hit.                    $1 

2.     Knowing where to hit the hammer.                     $899

 

This consultant probably should have gone over his rates before meeting with the factory…..but, joke or no, this scenario could easily translate to a property evaluation prior to a landscape design. Several years ago, I put together a design for a client that wanted to re-do a landscape job that was originally completed by a friend and was struggling. When I got on site, I quickly realized that her deeply shaded property was filled with sun loving plants.  What a waste!

 

There’s a price tag associated with knowledge-just like the consultant with the hammer. But, in the long run, it saves a ton of money if your production line is back up and running or if you’re creating the best match of plants to place. Stick with the process that you’ve worked hard to craft and avoid the garbage in-garbage out trap.


Jennifer Baker creating a landscape design for a lake home owner in northern Wisconsin
Jennifer Baker creating a landscape design for a client in northern Wisconsin

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