It is not only recent or new firms that become aware that gardening skills alone are not all it takes to run a successful business. The fact that one feels confident enough to try to earn a living as truly Self Employed, and therefore responsible for their own actions, and bringer of monies into the household, is often tempered with the realisation that one requires an extra Special Skill which involves public relationships.
I suggest the following essentials need to be recognised and mastered as a very important part of that Skill.
It is always helpful to have a dedicated land line telephone as opposed to either a mobile or family telephone, in danger of being answered by a helpful three year old toddler. I appreciate that this is not always possible, but bearing in mind that a business line also gives you a free entry in a directory, and is 100% tax deductible, it is worth aiming for.
When you answer the telephone, even if you are apprehensive at the thought of it being a difficult customer, put your face into the ‘smile’ mode. This invariably lightens the voice and gives you a more pleasant and friendly sounding greeting. How you open the conversation will depend on your choice of business name, but it is always preferable to say ‘Good morning’ before you give the name, as the first split second of the voice sound may be lost, and you will find yourself having to repeat the company name.
Bear in mind, at all times, the most important person in your Company is not the Boss, not the Craftsperson, but the Person Who Answers The Telephone!
Mobile telephones, although becoming socially acceptable to more and more people, you should bear in mind that many of your potential customers are over sixty years old, and still think of mobiles as belonging to transients with no fixed abode. Seriously, you will find it almost impossible to get a multi-thousand pound contract without a land line and full address.
Operate a Day Book system, and record every relevant call including date and time, together with any details reference the caller, name and address and if they do not tell you how they got hold of you, ask them where they saw you. This is especially important if you have been recommended. It is very bad for business if you do not thank, either directly or via a bunch of ‘telephone’ flowers, anyone who has gone to the trouble to recommend you.
This day book has the added benefit of acting as your guide should anyone tell you something which you may not agree with regarding missed appointments for example, at any time in the future.
I also record any important letters or emails in the day book, almost as a diary.
If and when you start working for developers or other professionals, this day book will stand you in very good stead, it being a contemporaneous account of daily business. If you can quote dates and times of conversations, people soon learn to trust your word in such matters!
Even if you are in the area tomorrow, try to make appointments a week in advance – not too long, otherwise they may not wish to wait.
This hiatus gives you chance to do several things. First of all, write to confirm the appointment. This avoids any misunderstandings and missed appointments. Secondly, if you include any literature or information you may have about yourself and your business, this not only helps to break the ice at the first meeting, they will have a good idea about who and what you are.
It thus gives them an opportunity to decide that they do not wish to deal with you, for a whole variety of reasons – one the main sources of annoyance to anyone who designs and builds gardens for a living are those people who think that we are there to give free advice, free ideas! Once they know you are not simply there to provide a freebie service, they will soon find someone else if that is all they wanted.
By making an appointment for a week hence, you are saying that you are busy (good thing!) and you are professional in your approach to business.
The delay gives you an opportunity perhaps to drive past the address or around the area to assess a) is there any more potential work here e.g. new build estate or b) the place is an obvious tip and they have no money to employ you in the first place. (It is important that you do make the appointment as you really never do know for sure. I have been nearly caught out in the past. Sometimes you cannot judge from first appearances!)
It is held that the first three seconds of meeting someone decides the outcome of that meeting. I would not like to argue with that. I have met people I know instinctively that I will not be able to work for them. Some people you immediately warm to and know you can get along.
On a practical note, always turn off your mobile. You do not want any interruptions whilst in full flow! Make sure you have a clean notepad, spare pencil/pen together with a tape measure in your pocket.
It is a good idea, if you are able, to take a selection of photographs with you – it does not really matter if they are your own work – or good quality pictures cut from a magazine. You are not pretending they are your work but they will give the client a good basis on which to direct you by pointing out the style they prefer.
You also need a pad, preferably pre-printed or typed out in the form of a site report. This is not a survey report – more of surveys later on – but a means to record certain very important matters for your files.
Parking – on road or off road.
Materials storage available – dry shed or other cover.
Width of access (for deliveries etc).
Location of any taps.( Check water pressure if installing irrigation etc)
Nature and condition of driveway at time of survey (damage if any)
Electricity supply available.
Soil type esp. if difficult, clay, chalk etc. (Check Ph if planting)
Boundary fences – style and condition.
Overhanging trees and hedges – light restriction
Anything else you can think of relevant to the enquiry.
NB Water pressure may be assessed as follows. Calibrate, using a small tank (one of the rubber/plastic garden ‘woks’ is ideal). Measure out five gallons using a known source e.g. watering can, and clearly mark the five gallon point inside the tank. Turn the tap on full and count the number of seconds it takes to reach the five gallon mark. Take the number 300 and divide by the number of seconds it takes to reach five gallons, then multiply by sixty to give you the number of gallons per hour. Simply convert to litres if you wish!
Having assured the client of your abilities to carry out the job, you need to supply a written quotation. If you are providing a design at this stage, you need to agree a formula for payment. Usually this takes the form of stage payments; initial survey/concept drawing, then detailed and specified construction plans and finally planting plans. All of these stages should be marked by payments.
Again, more about quotations and payments later on. It is important to take these matters step by step, as it is so easy to overlook something vital!
(As a matter of interest, it is not unusual to design to a time estimate, for an agreed hourly rate, plus whatever mileage rates and terms you decide.) Only at the construction stage do you need to become firm about rates and figures.
Identifying The Client
What is most important at the earliest moment, certainly before you start agreeing terms, is to identify the client. Under some circumstances you may need to ascertain the owner of the property.
I had the most annoying incident many years ago, whilst working on a large and very prestigious private housing estate – houses at today’s rates at least one million pounds each – where I built four gardens in a row. As each new buyer moved in, I built their garden. Wonderful!
Until I met one ‘client’ who wanted to have the garden simply turfed and tidied, with a small patio by the back door. ‘ Anything to keep the wife happy until we decide on a full garden package’.
We carried out the work and went to get paid on a Saturday morning – he left on the Friday night to a job in Canada. He had only been renting the property on a short term agreement – ‘I’ll pay for the garden in place of rent’ – then disappeared, without paying anyone (including the milkman, paperboy etc).
It is therefore very important to have, in writing, the name/s of the clients. These name/s will go on the contract agreement, and must be either Mr, Mrs, Mr and/or Mrs, Mr and Mr, Mr and Miss – any title they wish, but it must be all parties (if there is a partnership or marriage).
The wording is ‘The term client shall mean Mr and/or Mrs Smith’. If you leave one party out, you only have one client. Only one ‘Paymaster’. I have known several occasions where contractors have been given instructions by the wife, and the husband refuses to pay for the work because he did not authorise it.
These are affectionately known as Professional Non-Payers, and we try to avoid them like the plague!
By the time you are ready to leave that initial meeting, you should have a clear idea of the client’s wishes and instructions. Do not be frightened to request a second visit, even bringing a colleague with you should you feel that part of the job is beyond your skills. Never lose a job by being less than honest. Nobody expects anyone to have all skills and specialities, and if you want a hand with a pond or close board fence, treat that as a matter of fact.
Getting a Budget
There is nothing more infuriating to a potential client, than to be offered something they cannot possibly afford. It is very important indeed that you do not baulk at asking the questions, ‘How much do you want to spend? Do you have a budget in mind?’ So many times I have visited potential clients and been presented with a copy of a plan commissioned from a third party. This is normal practice, as most designers do not undertake construction projects, and restrict themselves to designing.
I survey the site, making all the relevant notes vis a vis access etc and go back to the office to produce a fixed price quotation.
Personally, I always present a detailed costings breakdown to show the client. So many people have no idea how much skips cost, or that York stone really is £100 per m2. They do not appreciate fuel and tyre costs, or that contingency sums are required to set up and dismantle sites, so a full breakdown, open and honest, is my approach.
I have lost count of the number of schemes I have priced and lost due to lack of budgetary understanding – one in particular springs to mind in Eastbourne. I costed the scheme, and proved my figures, at £45,000 plus VAT.
The designer had been given a budget of £5,000.00 inclusive! Not only was the owner really fed up, I wasn’t too happy having wasted a day or more on site and in the office.
The project never went ahead, and the garden looked the same when I went past years later. An opportunity lost!
Ensure that you have a follow up date for presentation (if required) or let them know when to expect the quotation. Leave them with any further details as you may deem appropriate – your Insurance and Bank details for example – and invite them to telephone or email if they have any further thoughts or wishes before you finalise the quote.
Make sure that you have all their contact details, and close the meeting by asking them if they have any timetable for the completion of works so that you can perhaps pencil them in. ‘If you don’t want to go ahead, that’s fine, but if you think you may do, I’ll pencil you in the diary. It is easier to cancel than try to fit in a last minute job’.
Follow up the quotation if you have not heard within a week or so, as they may not have received it in the post. This is where the Day Book and diary come into their own!
Whilst I fully appreciate that everyone will already use some or all of the above pointers, it is important to lay them before you as a ‘package’ as it is not possible to segregate them as individual items. They may of course be added to, should you have your own theory or Best Practice – one that works for you – and make them the backbone of your business.
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