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The marriage counselor

Features - Design/Build

Scott Cohen plays the therapist to understand exactly what his high-end clients want.

Kristen Hampshire | April 8, 2013

Landscape designers spend years perfecting their craft, studying plants and working with various types of materials.

They hone their project management skills and planning techniques. But that’s only part of the job, says Scott Cohen, president of The Green Scene in Chatsworth, Calif.

“Half of our job is marriage counseling,” Cohen says. He wants a fire pit where the guys can hang out with cigars. She envisions a romantic outdoor fireplace where the couple can sip Chardonnay. He’s focused on the barbecue setup and is satisfied with a modest dining area. She wants seating for 20 and plenty of room for grandkids.

“We are put between couples often,” Cohen says. “The husband wants one thing, the wife wants another. Meanwhile, we spend years becoming proficient at what we do for a living, but how much time do we spend becoming a therapist to resolve these issues?”

For the past four years, Cohen has been studying the soft stuff – specifically, bonding techniques, body language, listening skills and neuro-linguistic programming (NLP).

That’s how people “get” what is being communicated to them. Do they need to hear the message, see the idea, feel the concept or touch the actual materials?

Construction calamities

Hang on to customer complaints, and learn from them.

Scott Cohen, president of The Green Scene in Chatsworth, Calif., has seen his fair share of bloopers and blunders. Here are a few of the mistakes he’s seen:

1. Covering weep screed. The purpose of weep screed is to drain moisture from porous walls, such as stone, stucco and wood. When landscapers mistakenly put soil directly up to weep screed, they don’t allow water to drain away from the walls. “This can sometimes introduce water into the walls,” Cohen says, adding that the moisture can create mold issues.

2. Separating concrete and hardscape. When a landscaper pours a patio up against a home, there should be a separator – a felt or foam strip that allows concrete to move independently of the structure (home). “When that is not done, the concrete has trouble shrinking and expanding and we get cracking and heaving problems,” Cohen says.

3. Construction over clay soil. “Clay soil is expansive when wet,” he says. “It will shrink and expand depending on the moisture in the clay.” Landscape contractors must take this into account when building surfaces such as patios. The surface should be moistened first.

Cohen wants to get past the jittery first date and move into the getting-to-know you stage. And his design process depends on this trust-building process. The client relationship directs the project and ultimately determines the results.

“No matter how far away from high school we get, we are still in high school,” Cohen says. “People hire who they like, and they like people who are like them.”


The psychology of the sale.
The design questionnaire is a project primer and an ice breaker, and it helps Cohen figure out not just what a client wants, but why.

“Anyone can design for the landscape,” Cohen says. “I’ll sometimes meet a client who walks me into the backyard and says, ‘What do you think we should do here?’ But I don’t know that answer until I have spent an hour talking to the couple about their desires and tastes, their style preferences, their plans for entertaining.”

Cohen asks where clients like to vacation. How did the couple meet? What are their motivations for this landscape?

“I have a single client whose angle is to make sure his house is more fun to hang out at than his ex-wife’s.”

The goal may be as simple as to make the family happy. But Cohen doesn’t know this until he does some digging – he must find out exactly what will make the clients swoon.

Cohen knows how to fast-forward that relationship.“You ever meet someone who you bond with instantly?” he asks. “Well, that isn’t usually by accident.”

That connection is because of how people communicate with each other – whether or not they speak the same language, essentially. This is the crux of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP,) which Cohen has been studying with a therapist. Some people are visuals, others are kinesthetic. Some are emotive, others are aural – they need to hear, listen. “None of us are one or the other, but all of us have a preference,” Cohen says.

For example, in an exchange with a client, Cohen may ask, “Do you see what I mean?” and the client responds: “I hear you.”

“We are not speaking the same language,” he says, “if you say, ‘Do you see?’ and the client says, ‘I hear what you mean.’”


Trust pays off. By scheduling regular, standing meetings with clients, Cohen can continue nurturing strong relationships with the families he works with and streamline communication.

At least every two weeks, he sets a day and time with clients – every Tuesday at 5 p.m., or every Friday evening, for example.

Meetings always occurs when all parties are able to attend, and usually that’s after work.

“If it’s after 5 o’clock, we may have a glass of wine and talk about what’s going on with the project,” Cohen says. “Sometimes I have a lot of things to go over with a client. Other times, I have nothing to go over and it’s an opportunity to touch base and make sure they are happy with the service and to keep the bonding experience going.”

Not only do these meetings strengthen connections and ensure that all concerns are addressed and questions answered, but the scheduled time keeps Cohen focused on existing clients. “With pre-set meetings, we are guaranteeing that we have time set aside for each client and we are not just pursuing new business,” he says.

Also, these meetings tend to spur new ideas and project add-ons. This was not Cohen’s initial intention, but clients often catch the “might as well” syndrome.

“If we’re having a glass of wine in the back yard, admiring the space, getting close to the end of the project … and we say, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we had outdoor speakers and some great classical jazz playing in the background? Wouldn’t that enhance this experience?’

“So then, we are adding a $4,000 outdoor sound system to a job that we might not have,” Cohen says.

Projects tend to grow in scope, and that’s not because they aren’t properly estimated or due to cost over-runs. “People add things as their confidence builds in our abilities,” Cohen says.

Meanwhile, Cohen keeps the relationships going well after project completion. Projects are photographed at each stage, and Cohen returns after plants have matured to capture a final portrait of the work.

Plus, the photographs are filtered into a series of landscaping books Cohen has authored on topics ranging from high-end pools to outdoor kitchens and, the latest, petscaping.

“Our next job always comes from our last job,” Cohen says. “We work to keep in communication with clients, because down the road, there will be others in the neighborhood that want similar work.”


Photos courtesy of the Green Scene

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