Different by design

Lifestyle Landscaping takes the guesswork out of customer expectations.

June 25, 2013
Kristen Hampshire
Design/Build and Hardscape

Lifestyle Landscaping doesn’t sell pavers, shrubs, annuals or stone. Brick and mortar is one business, but creating outdoor living spaces for clients who value a creative, naturalistic environment is another. “We don’t sell trees, we sell shade – and we sell color and outdoor entertaining space,” says Kevin O’Brien, landscape designer at the Grafton, Ohio-based firm.

Word choice can play a role in how clients perceive a plan, O’Brien finds. So he is sure to speak their language. “If a homeowner has two proposals to review, it’s not about the numbers,” O’Brien says. “I provide the numbers – and then something else.”

O’Brien and designers at Lifestyle Landscaping – including owner Don Hoffman and his brother, Dave – dig deep during initial interview with clients. They listen. They ask questions about family, hobbies, pets, outdoor activities, socializing preferences, down to whether or not the fence gate needs to be closed at all times so a dog doesn’t get out. They take notes, and come proposal time, they can reiterate clients’ demands in a way that strikes them emotionally. As in, wow – you really get me. You know what I want.

“We refer back to our notes and use their words to describe the project during our presentations, and they get this look on their faces like, ‘That’s exactly what we wanted,’ but they don’t remember that they told you that,” O’Brien says, adding that, “you really have to dig.”

So Lifestyle Landscaping’s “building” begins long before breaking ground. The full-service firm, which has a robust maintenance division to care for clients’ properties after completion, is keenly focused on nurturing client relationships. “A strong customer base is your bread and butter,” O’Brien says. “They pay for everything you own.”

Give them the details. Design is the differentiator when Lifestyle Landscaping holds its plans up against competitors. “If you have a customer problem, you don’t just solve it – you solve it creatively,” O’Brien says. “That immediately puts you in a different category.”

Solving problems with innovative solutions pushes competing plans “way to the side,” because clients are looking for a plan that speaks to their joys and pains. They want a plan that shows a designer listened and understands – and can deliver.

Typically, prospective clients that Lifestyle Landscaping has not served in the past are shopping their project. They want to get a couple of bids before they make a choice. The key to winning a project – and ensuring that the project is equally good for the business – is to stay away from price wars and focus, instead, on delivering creative ideas. So O’Brien is always looking for the X-factor on a project: What is the one thing (or several) that is the make-or-break on the property. What is the big problem, the big desire, the big picture?

“We do whatever it takes to address that X factor so our plans are different – and that could be because of the plant material we select or the design itself, or the functionality of it,” O’Brien says. “Whatever it is, I need to make that design different enough that our plan is on a different shelf (that competitors) in the customer’s mind.”

Differentiation begins with a deep interview. And it continues with casual conversation. It’s not unusual for O’Brien to pull out his notepad and whip up some sketches while walking the property. He’ll “test” these designs with potential clients. “It’s cheap at that point to change a design,” he quips. “So, spending that time upfront is well invested.”

He might draw up a quick solution to address a problem the client describes during an initial walk-through. “I’ll ask, ‘What do you think about this?’ and based on their response, I’ll know whether or not I’m moving in the right direction,” he says.

That way, when the time has come to present the design, O’Brien and designers at Lifestyle Landscaping know their work is an accurate reflection of their prospects’ wish lists. There’s no guesswork.

And during presentation, O’Brien says clients want to know that you listened to their goals. “It’s amazing how many designers talk bout materials and equipment and they are not talking about benefits for the customer,” O’Brien says. “You have to show them the benefits of the plan and show them attention to detail. Your project should look tour-ready or party-ready when you are complete.”

Smart by design. Detail-work is not only important for creating designs that make winning impressions – a careful eye is critical for the sustainability of a design/build firm, or any company, during tougher economic times. Lifestyle Landscaping was founded in 1976 by Don and Karen Hoffman, who began in landscape installation and eventually added maintenance services – an organic extension of their core business.

“It also keeps customers in the mix, so we don’t have someone else coming in to do the maintenance work,” O’Brien says. “We are their one-stop shop: there to install the work, help them take care of the property, and the we’re there for phase 2 or 3 work when they’re ready.”

Those second and third phases of projects weren’t happening when the recession hit hard. “Our customers were still spending money, but they were concerned about the amount, so they cut back,” says O’Brien, sharing a scenario that was familiar to business owners.

Lifestyle Landscaping did not cut prices. But the firm helped its clients cut costs. “We worked with clients to help them reach the desired price point,” O’Brien says, relating that perhaps mulching jobs were staged every other year rather than annually, or plantings were scaled back and entire yard renovations were limited to a section (side, front or back rather than the whole deal). “Customers were just cautious – they wanted to see the value.”

That attitude prevails. “They want to know that we will meet their needs and that the landscape renovation will have residual value,” O’Brien says, noting that many clients choose to work in phases. “We’ll do a patio and a portion of the landscape, and once we have shown them what their yard could be, then stage 2 happens – that water feature we talked about, or the landscape structure.”

Add-ons are an evolution of the client relationship. Over time, customers return to Lifestyle Landscape for enhancements, new projects and ongoing maintenance. And so, the company is structured to encourage and grow these trusted rapports.

Designer/salespeople nurture a client list and also oversee maintenance on those completed projects. They’re in touch with clients all the time, tending to their needs and anticipating what’s next.

“That personal relationship carries down to the crew level, where we try to keep the same foreman going to the same project, so there is some recognition there from the homeowner,” O’Brien says. “It’s gotten to the point where our guys know every single nuance on a property and how they can take care of it – like, you have to plant the annuals before Mother’s Day, whatever it is. That close working relationship with long-term customers is something we have enjoyed for more than 30 years.”