Different by design

Features - Design/Build

Lifestyle Landscaping takes the guesswork out of customer expectations.

January 8, 2014
Kristen Hampshire

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 North Ridgeville, 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,” he 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 interviews 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.

“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, 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.

“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.”

Little cuts can go a long way

When Lifestyle Landscaping looked inside for ways to lean its operation during the recession, managers were surprised to learn that they could trim a few thousand dollars by simply deactivating cell phones that were “in use” but not being used and reviewing their plan.

But other operational decisions aren’t so obvious.

For one, deciding to keep a full-time mechanic on board has saved the company significantly in the equipment repair and purchase department. Lifestyle Landscaping’s fleet mechanic has been on board for some 15 years.

“If the mechanic is highly skilled and he knows how to fix a hydraulic pump and install a $20 part vs. buying a $2,000 pump – If you have a mechanic with a good diagnostic ability and great mechanical abilities, that can save you money like you wouldn’t believe,” says Kevin O’Brien.

The savings add up to thousands each year – enough to justify the salary of a mechanic and then some.

But maintaining a holding yard for plants was another story.

The company cut out its 5-acre nursery about seven years ago.

“It got so expensive to maintain, and now we are relying on suppliers to find us the plant material that we need,” O’Brien says.

The challenge is accessing special material that can make or break a project.

“We just have to search a little harder for it now,” O’Brien says, noting that the company does not price shop its suppliers.

“We are relying on them to help us out. Your suppliers are your partners, so you have to treat them as you would want your customers to treat you.”

Typically, prospective clients Lifestyle Landscaping has not served in the past are shopping their project. The key to winning a project – and ensuring 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’s the one thing (or several) that is the make-or-break on the property?

“We do whatever it takes to address that X factor so our plans are different,” O’Brien says. “Whatever it is, I need to make that design different enough that our plan is on a different shelf (than 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.”

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.

And during presentation, O’Brien says clients want to know you listened to their goals. “It’s amazing how many designers talk about 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.”

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.

“We are their one-stop shop: there to install the work, help them take care of the property, and then 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.

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. “Customers were just cautious – they wanted to see the value.”

O’Brien notes 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.”

Over time, customers return to Lifestyle Landscape for enhancements, new projects and ongoing maintenance. 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. That close working relationship with long-term customers is something we have enjoyed for more than 30 years.”

Photos courtesy of  Lifestyle Landscaping