March 1, 2012

DREAM BIG: A new approach to selling landscape projects

Five Ds for successful sales

A tighter economy has made homeowners cautious, increasing competition for design-build sales.


The good news is, there is still plenty of profitable installation work out there, along with clients who are willing to pay for it. However, you may need to revamp your sales process, along with your thinking, if you want to be successful in the new economy. Truth be told, the new economy is the same as the old one. The only difference is, now you actually have to work to make your sales.

Anyone who has ever taken a sales seminar or read an article on selling has learned that people buy based on emotions. If you can get somebody excited about your product or service, there’s a very strong possibility that they will buy from you, even if you are more expensive. Think about your own buying experience. Do you always buy the cheapest products for yourself, or are you often willing to pay more for something that you really want, instead of settling for something that is just okay?

Create excitement with a dream plan
Well then, it should be no surprise that homeowners feel the same way when it comes to landscaping their property. If you show them a poorly written and boring proposal with confusing terminology and a big scary dollar amount, chances are you’re probably not going to get any work. What if instead, you presented a dream plan for their property, and showed how they could achieve it? Chances are, it’s going to be a very different story, with a much better outcome.

Believe it or not, you can do this — and I’m going to show you how. You just need to follow the process that I am going to describe and pay close attention to the details.

Now some of you may be thinking that I’m blowing smoke or that I’m just plain arrogant, but I can promise that I am neither. I can say this because I have sold tens of millions of dollars of landscape design/build work throughout my career, working for myself as well as both large and small landscape contractors.

Some of the ideas will seem familiar, but if you just say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I already know this,” then you are going to miss out on the nuances that make this approach more successful than what you are probably doing now. But hey, if you already know it all, by all means please feel free to skip the rest of this article and keep doing things the way you’ve always done them. It’s fine. I don’t mind. I’m sure your competition will be happy to take my advice.

To simplify things, I have broken the design/build sales process down into what I have coined the Five Ds for a successful sale.
The concept makes perfect sense, is easy to do, yet it took me over 20 years to figure it out. Fortunately, I am going to save you two decades, and break it down right now.

The Five Ds stand for:
  1. Develop the program
  2. Decide on the priority
  3. Discuss the budget
  4. Design the dream
  5. Do the deal
In a nutshell, what you want to do is first walk the property with your clients to develop a list of things they want to achieve. Next, let them decide what the first phase of work will be. After that, you should discuss the budget, or how much they want to spend, on this first phase of work. Once we have all of this information, we need to design their dream landscape plan and finally, just “do the deal” — sign the proposal and get a deposit.

I can tell right now that many of you think that this is exactly what you are doing, but I can guarantee that you are not. The rest of you are thinking, I wish it were that easy.

1. Develop the program
A program is a written list of goals and objectives that a client wants to achieve with his property. This list can contain items that need to be completed in the near future, or ideas that can be addressed later. A goal could be something simple, like replacing the front steps, to something more involved, like renovating the entire property.

Like all of us, your clients will have goals that are both wants and needs. Wants are things that they would “like” to have, and needs are things that “have” to be done. An example of a want could be a new swimming pool, while a need would be to stop water from getting into the basement.

I encourage all of my clients to tell me all of their wants, so that we can create a program that includes everything.

2. Decide on the priority
Now that you have them excited about all of the things that they could do with their property, you want to help them narrow their dreams into priorities. Decide what’s most important through to what’s least important. To put it another way — if your client could pick just one project or area to start with, what or where would it be?

Since most people realize that it is financially impossible to do everything they want all at once, you want them to focus on what’s most important, their first priority.

Is it the front walkway, steps, landing and foundation plantings? Or would it be a new patio with a fire pit or fireplace? Or maybe it is an intimate shade garden with a gravel path. Maybe it’s the swimming pool project with all of the desired amenities. Let your clients decide, and tell you.

3. Discuss the budget
Now that your clients are dreaming about their fantasy landscape, and have decided what they would like to do first, there is only one step left — putting a dollar amount to the project. It’s not as hard as you think, and if you have done this correctly they are less guarded about giving you a price range.

As we all know, clients don’t like to give us a number and will do every thing they can to avoid telling how much they want to spend. They will say things like, “We don’t know what things cost,” or, “We’ve never done this before,” or “We’re not sure.”

If any of these excuses were really true, why is it that when we come back with a price, it is always more than they wanted to spend? How could it be more than you wanted to spend, if you had no idea what you wanted to spend?

The best way to do this is to just give them price ranges: $0-5,000, $5-10,000, $10-25,000, etc. They will jump in and stop you when you’ve reached their comfort zone. I’ve written entire articles on this topic; I can promise you that if you do not get a budget number before you leave, everything that you do moving forward will be a complete waste of your time, and theirs.

4. Design the dream
Whether you work on a computer with a program like SketchUp or Dynascape, or design old school like I do and draw by hand, this is where the fun really begins. With a laptop or drafting table in front of you, along with the list of your client’s dreams, it’s time to start designing — and designing “big.”

It doesn’t matter if their dream is an in-ground pool with waterfall, hot tub and sundeck or a formal garden with statues, sculpted hedges, fragrant roses and a fountain — just draw it in. Maybe their dreams are less dramatic but still quite important, like installing mature evergreens to screen out loud and annoying neighbors, immediately. Or maybe your clients have very limited space and their dream is to have a pond with fish that reminds them of their childhood.

Whatever it is, give it to them, and please make sure that you colour-render their dream or this will all be for nothing.

5. Do the Deal
Finally, it’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. It’s show time. Armed with a landscape plan in one hand that contains everything your clients have ever wanted, and in the other a proposal for Phase 1 that meets their agreed-upon budgetary needs, all that is left to do is get a couple of signatures and you’re ready to schedule the project and start building. Voila!

So instead of letting clients limit themselves to projects that lack enthusiasm and excitement, help them dream. Ask them, “If you could have anything you wanted, what would it be?” I’ll bet no one has ever asked that question before. You will be amazed at the ideas that develop.

I promise you, that if you follow my Five Ds for a successful sale, you will do larger installations, more profitable projects and have happier clients.

Who knows, this might be the year that you finally break into this lucrative market and enter your client’s dream project into your provincial awards of excellence program — and win!
Jody Shilan is an award-winning designer and former landscape design/build contractor. He now uses his 30+ years of experience to teach other landscape contractors how to increase sales and improve processes. He is currently president of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association (NJLCA) and can be reached at or 201-783-2844.