Rock on!

Hardscaping options can enhance outdoor living spaces and be a lucrative addition to your service offerings. Here’s how to get your customers excited about their very own backyard escape.

Summer is the time for stargazing, cookouts, entertaining guests, relaxing outside and enjoying warm weather, and you are in charge of making sure your customers have a nice space to enable those indulgences. The work you put into their yard creates an atmosphere for your customers to appreciate nature. Occasionally, you may have a customer who’s interested in adding an entire outdoor room – and it pays to be prepared for that.

Lawn & Landscape’s Grow the Market research found that 21 percent of consumers surveyed have done a major hardscape project in the last five years. Another 17 percent are planning on doing a major hardscape project in the next two years. The biggest motivation? Their ability to enjoy their outdoor space.

Large hardscaping projects including outdoor kitchens, fireplaces and pizza ovens are becoming more popular, says Joe Raboine, director of Belgard Design Studio. Raboine suggests getting the client to add incremental products, recommending additional features as line items that a customer can say yes or no to and including that as part of a larger package.

“These are features that consumers are definitely demanding,” he says. “All the trade organizations, data and surveys all support that – ASLA, National Homebuilders – they’ve all done studies that show that fire features and kitchens and those types of things are in the top two or three most wanted items in outdoor living.”

Raboine was a hardscape mason for 17 years prior to working with Belgard, and now is active with Belgard University, which teaches hardscaping techniques to contractors. He says adding hardscaping services can realize a profit margin of about 25-40 percent, on average.

Find the why. It’s not as easy as just pitching a project to one of your clients. Major hardscaping projects are large investments for consumers, costing anywhere from $10,000 to $400,000, and they often come with a healthy dose of sticker-shock. Knowing which clients are likely to make this sort of purchase – and why – is more of a listening exercise than anything.

“A lot of times, the customers are looking for a problem solved or an outdoor living solution,” says Dave Bowser, owner of Woodlawn Landscaping and Nursery, Chadds Ford, Pa. “Some of them call and say they want an outdoor kitchen. Most of them, when they see the price of that, decide on something less than that.”

Bowser says he works with clients by first asking how they plan to use the outdoor living space. Is it for entertaining? What are the traffic patterns? What are they trying to accomplish?

“It’s always about understanding what the customer need is and what’s going to fit that need. Sometimes hardscaping fits that need, sometimes it doesn’t,” he says. “But it’s certainly a tool that you should have in your bag when you’re out there working with the customers. If you’re not offering hardscaping, you’re probably missing out on some opportunities.”

The sales call. Maverick Pickering, owner and patio design expert at Maverick Landscaping in Overland Park, Kan., cautions against wasting time meeting with the wrong people. “I try and tell them prices before I go,” he says. “You don’t want to get going with the wrong client and spend 40 hours with some guy to find out that he’s got a $15,000 budget and champagne taste.”

Pickering says his typical client is between 35 and 60 years old, and they’ve been in their house five to eight years.

Ideally, you want to sit down in person with a customer and their spouse (if applicable) and show them sketches, photos, or even 3D renditions of what the project may look like based on their needs. Make sure to note what each element would cost, so that if they decide they want to add or eliminate something, they can see its immediate effect on the overall design. “One thing you’ve got to remember is that if you do your job right, you’re going to change their lifestyle,” Pickering says.

Using 3D interpretations of a design has proven to be quite useful as a sales tool, Raboine says. “The anecdotal feedback that we get is 85-90 percent close rates, customers are happy, and everyone’s on the same page,” he says. “Never before in the history of mankind has someone been able to take their imagination and show it to other people in such a lifelike way.”

Building blocks. Training your team properly and using the right materials can create very happy customers. Bowser’s team is ICPI (Interlocking Concrete Paving Institute) certified, which includes training, a test and continuing education. In addition, they do internal training with masons and apprenticeship programs.

“We try to hire most of the foremen and leaders with several years in the industry, and we try to put them with younger people,” Bowser says. Last year, the company completed an 8,000-square-foot internal project with pavers and stones to improve their own nursery while acting as an internal training program. This got the entire team familiar with the process, Bowser says.

Pickering and Bowser both recommend using natural stone such as travertine for high-quality hardscape projects. Despite its higher price tag than, say, common blue stone or cheap stamped concrete, your customers may appreciate its durability, beauty and functional benefits.

“The colors in travertine are much richer and deeper; it’s a natural stone so it’s just as easy to apply, but it doesn’t get hot in the summer,” Bowser says. “Because of the metal content in the blue stone, it’s very hot. Travertine doesn’t have the metal content. It’s cool to walk on even on the hottest days, which is great for a pool or patio.”


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June 2013
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