Psych 101

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

June 19, 2012

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 Northridge, 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?

Basically, Cohen is learning how to become a couples therapist, and it’s what’s necessary when you’re delivering luxury spa and hotel caliber projects to high-end clients who desire an unforgettable landscape. To achieve this goal, a connection between the company and client must be forged from the beginning.

“Every project you walk into is different, but what is unique about working with high-end clients is that I start with a very extensive design questionnaire,” says Cohen, noting that the purpose is not to discover whether the clients want a fire pit or a pool. “I want to get to know the client, to get into their heads a little bit so I can design specifically for them.”

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 back yard 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. “Are you kicking back on a raft or hiking – are you loungers or active?” he presses.

How did the couple meet? What are their motivations for this landscape? “People want to be the grandparents with the better pool and back yard,” he says. “I have a single client whose angle is to make sure his house is more fun to hang out 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. And it’s never as easy as rolling out a design that includes the features they think they want. This information comes forth after Cohen and his clients grow comfortable with each other.

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 points out. “If you say, ‘Do you see,’ and the clients says, ‘I hear what you mean…’”

Also, we all have catch-phrases we use in everyday conversation. Cohen is listening for those and taking notes on those key words. “I will speak to clients in the same words they use when speaking to me,” he says. “It’s an instant way to bond and increase their comfort level with me.”

And Cohen isn’t just speaking to the man of the house – a natural tendency since the majority of landscape professionals are male. “The mistake men make when they go out on sales calls or design consultations is they bond with the other man, talking about sports or cars,” Cohen says. “But more than 90 percent of the buying decision is weighted with the lady of the house. Women make the decisions on what we buy. So it’s very important that we, as designers, bond with the lady of the house.”

Cohen shares this example of the power of a decisive woman. When a wife called him and requested scope changes, Cohen tallied the amount and it added up to $50,000. So he visited the clients and presented the new additions. “The husband said, ‘Thank you for coming here. I told you we are not spending a single dollar over what we started with. I’m shocked by your audacity to present me with $50,000 worth of extras.’ He basically threw me out of the house,” Cohen says.

Then the wife popped out the front door as Cohen was walking back to his car. “Can you start on Monday?” she asked him. Cohen was shocked. “I said, ‘Did you hear your husband?’ She said, ‘I know what he said, but can you start on Monday?’”

Cohen agreed if she would email him the paperwork. “She said, ‘Depending on what kind of weekend he wants to have...’”

Sure enough, the paperwork arrived Monday morning approved and Cohen’s team started the project. “The message here is never underestimate the voice of the lady of the house,” Cohen says.

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. The meeting always occurs when all parties are able to attend, and generally 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, adding that clients are encouraged to save questions for that meeting. “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, 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 had that scope change,” Cohen says.

Projects do 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 come 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.”

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