Meeting the needs of your landscape-design clients

Whether new in the business or possessing decades of experience, as a landscape designer or installer you have heard every possible reason for why your client wants this installation. Their reasons are intricate-or sometimes not-and their concerns for detail can be possessive and excruciatingly ever-changing. Sometimes clients are willing partners-even too willing, as they leave decisions to you and offer little but incoherent shrugs or unconvincing assurances of their satisfaction.

The initial phone call from a potential client to a landscape-design architect could be the result of a number of things: The client thinks making changes to the landscape will increase the value of his or her house A client thinks this project will enliven his or her family's interests in their home and surroundings The client is bored and needs a venture on which to focus his or her energy The client appreciates the natural balance and serenity that thoughtful landscaping creates.

The specific reasons are as varied as the number of jobs in a year. Their motivations often are obscured behind clippings, ideas and images they have collected or seen elsewhere and simply must have in their Taj Mahal.

Whatever the size of the budget, the project scope or the opportunities the given landscape presents, stress can develop between the client and the designer. The client's expectations and what you feel would work best-considering all the factors-usually require a little compromising. On a few occasions, the design process flows smoothly, and a great joy arises as the completed landscape grows into a mutually shared expression of quality, balance and delight.

How is it that these projects develop this character? How do you ensure that more of your work creates this sensation of accomplishment for both you and the client? The answer: You find the solution that is hidden underneath all the client's concerns and that is the driving stimulus behind the project.

Listen with an open mind How do you ensure that you ask the right question? How do you ensure that-having asked the right question-the right answer arrives when you need it?

As a designer, the blank sheet of paper is your best friend. As simple as it sounds, a blank sheet of paper can help disarm the strong-willed or empower the most unsure clients. It gives you the opportunity to ask sincere questions about what led the client to want this project, what they expect to see, what they are trying to express, how important this project is to them and why. All of these answers help shape your understanding of the client's needs. Beginning with the blank sheet of paper shows that you are non-judgmental. It allows you to enter into a discussion with clients where they see their ideas and questions put onto paper and can visually see what is important to them laid out unedited. It is at this point that they begin to feel you are listening.

Do not misunderstand: Such an inquiry never denies the designer's responsibility to perform design. You do not conduct your business by asking your clients to vote on what looks best to them. Professional judgment means you take into account all the issues behind the conception of the project, including the desire to make the space beautiful. By entering the process with a "blank sheet of paper," you can concentrate on the client's point of view, which gives you a good framework within which you can do your best creative work.

As you talk to the client about your ideas, you should begin to convince them that you understand what they want, you know how to achieve the results and you are enthusiastic about the project. However, whatever ideas you throw out may bounce around the target without hitting it, which is central to enabling the client to accomplish his or her objectives. Listen as the client shares his or her ideas and values with you. Subsequently, where your design honestly respects these values, the client feels you captured the intentions they sought to achieve.

The "program" for design works like a recipe Each design you make as a landscaper is with absolute certainty unlike any other you have ever produced-even if all things were equal, the microclimate, soil, drainage and views differ from spot to spot. For example, when you cook something new, to assure the highest likelihood that you produce a delicious outcome, you follow the printed recipe. If you were making a garden, you might not need a written plan. However, with such a large degree of success dependent on the client's perception of success, you need to get their expectations out, written and agreed upon-thus, your recipe.

Next, you can begin your work responsive to the shared set of objectives, keeping everyone focused on the same outcome. Where disputes arise, you can resolve them easily because you have the original intents written down, which the parties built on a degree of trust.

The program explains the "mission" of the landscape project, or what you are expected to create. A mission statement might be, "The garden is to create a dramatic approach, celebrating the formal entrance to the house, with the rear becoming a private space that is colorful yet serene." To achieve this vision, you will have to accomplish certain objectives.

Objectives are measurable outcomes Objectives are outcomes with measurable dimensions, such as, "We want the west side of the house to be shaded in July and August." In the programming process, as you interview the client, you observe the site, develop a rough budget and begin to envision some possibilities. You then go back and forth between the mission statement and the objectives you must accomplish to achieve the mission. You can refine and redefine the objectives until they are in their simplest form, achievable and prioritized. In reading the objectives and the standards of each, you and the client can see that you have achieved the mission.

Values are tools centered on client's needs Values are those beliefs that the client uses to sort choices. For example, clients might offer the following beliefs: "Spend more now, save later." "Higher installed cost is acceptable, if it achieves longer useful life at less maintenance cost." "I favor complex arrangements over simple ones." "My house is Colonial, so our landscaping should look formal."

It is at this point that your client's values will find their way to your blank sheet of paper. The questions you ask the client will reveal answers by which you can discover the client's values. Once extracted, you can use these values to stimulate design ideas, and to revisit the client and ask more questions. Working with these values as stimulators of design ideas is what helps the client see the logic of, and then embrace, your vision.

What questions should you ask? The blank sheet of paper allows you to turn to the client-open handed, open minded, clearly in a listening posture-and ask: "What do we really need to achieve here?"

A newsprint pad on an easel makes for an easy helper, holding the notes up so both you and the client can see the written questions. Seeing the questions and the answers (perhaps in another color) stimulates more ideas and conversation. The client does most of the talking. As you fill the sheets, tape them up on walls to either side of the easel. The thinking process takes more and more of a central stage, symbolizing that it is the ideas that matter, not the individuals.

With that question on the newsprint pad, it is easier for you to ask the client to elaborate: "Do you mean you would rather have annuals, even if it meant you would have more maintenance on an annual basis?" "Explain further what you mean by that quiet sitting area." "Tell me more about why you don't like the look of ginkos."

The key project questions start with, "What do you need?", and move around the idea until the client's needs are well-described and no new information is forthcoming. One way to evoke more answers is to ask, "Why do you feel this is important?" The client should get into their basic reasons, such as, "I'm bored with how many house looks." Does he mean his house, the structure, or does he mean the house and grounds taken together? How did she notice this boredom?

"I saw my friend's rear yard, with its fountain and a little meandering pond, and I really want that in my yard too..." What are the reasons this is appealing to them? Is it the sound of the water? The goldfish in the summer? The coolness of a late spring evening? When you know their thinking, you can design to or help them understand their own directions. "Well, I just don't want to look like a second-class citizen...we all have the same friends..." In this case, you might be sensible to explore further how the client sees him- or herself, what distinguishes that person and his or her view of the residence from others'.

*When is always an important question. If a client is thinking you can complete the project by their Labor Day picnic, and your first interview is July 31, your likely to have a problem with expectations. Staging is a possibility, so the client can begin to see some changes, study them, adjust to them and then complete additional work when time or funds permit. Of course, you understand what many clients don't-that you can only establish new plantings within certain times in some climates.

* Where is obvious. Make sure the client understands the boundaries within which he or she wants you to work, and that you understand the same. This is one element that you cannot overlook when more than one person is acting as the client. The hardest part of the business may be accepting that some clients do not have good decision-making tools.

*Another essential question, usually resolved early in the first conversation, is who will be involved in the project. As the designer, it is your job to establish who is the responsible party for the project, and if there is more than one person, how decisions will be made. It is obviously important for you to get a sense for the level of experience this person has making decisions on a project of this type, so the design and installation team can adjust to the degree or lack of sophistication.

* How involves expectations the client has about the implementation of the project: Will the installer complete the project alone, or is the client hiring several subs and coordinating each themselves? Are you bidding this job or is it negotiated? The "how" also includes questions about financing. Is the owner paying for this with cash, or is he or she financing the project? Will he or she need some pre-project information to secure financing? What might this information be? Who needs to get copies?

The solution to the challenge of a quality design and installation lies in opening the decision-making to the pair or the group, using proven creative problem-solving tools designed for group decision-making. Literature such as "Participatory Design, Theory and Techniques," edited by Henry Sanoff (North Carolina State University School of Design) can be helpful references as you improve your ability to listen, build trust with your clients and gain clear project direction through qualifying questions.

Lawrence Goldblatt, AIA, AICP, is a landscape architect with Goldblatt Architecture Planning Development (Kansas City, Mo.).

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