Not Working To A Client’s Garden Design Budget

Is this just plain irresponsible? Budget can be the most important factor in any client’s decision. Sam Hassall explains how preparedness, trust and clarity means there is no confusion over budgeting.

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It is very often the case that a design is submitted for tender to approximately four prospective landscape contractors. In a hypothetical situation, four contractors have confirmed that they will submit. Three tenderers submit viable bids – but one returns an overpriced ‘safe bid’. In response, the designer comes back and informs the tenderers that the project will either be shelved or severely modified due to not being within the client’s budget.

Let’s say that this was a domestic project worth £150k. The assumption would be that a good bid would have taken 16 hours plus a site visit, amounting to 20 hours to submit the bid. If we say that the estimator costs £40 per hour, then the total cost to the company is £800.

In addition to this, each of the four companies might have managed to complete a viable bid, meaning the total monetary cost to four companies is £3200, and the cost to the designer in lost time and damage to their reputation cannot be ignored.

Is this irresponsible or inevitable?

This is the kind of frustration we should strive to avoid. However, following sensible cost evaluation practices can prevent this from happening:

Smaller Budgets (up to 150k)

It’s necessary to get a budget before starting work. But how do you know the budget?

Scenario

At your first meeting, view the property and discuss with the clients their requirements.

Ask them how much they would like to spend. The client either tells you (which is always ideal) or says:

a) I don’t know
b) I’d rather not say.

This is where things become tricky and your mission begins. Firstly, there is your gut-instinct, the area, the type of property, it’s style and the design requirement. Then, there’s the client’s requirements. During this introductory visit it may be helpful to start by making a very rough little sketch right there on site.

For example, the client may tell you that they want a new patio, an outdoor kitchen, lovely big trees, quite a lot of screening and a new lawn and lots of colour. They also then mention that they want a little water feature near the patio and the driveway needs fixing and relaying out and surfacing, then you also notice that the patio will need a retaining wall.

A quick sketch produces this (right). Ensure that you make the point that this is schematic, and may bear no relationship to the final design. Hopefully, your prospective client loves your ideas and you can go away and design.

They love the concept you return with and after following a few small tweaks, you send it out to tender. The tenders come back at £120K and your client freaks out – they only wanted to spend £60K!

How can you avoid this?
The first way to avoid this is to be insistent, let your client know that you are on their side. It’s not going to be double their budget because you are trying to deceive them, it’s simply the cost of what they asked for. If they understand that, it’s easy to get on the same page and move forward. Ensuring trust is key.

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If they genuinely don’t know or you can’t get the budget out of them, then try going a step further by quickly producing a quick costing based on your initial sketch. It needn’t be accurate, but it is based on being informed. The GardenCOSTS site is very helpful in this regard.

The client may immediately react and say “we can’t afford that”, but then you can move on to talk about cheaper types of stone, leaving the water feature out and so forth. But you are now having a meaningful discussion and at this point you are about to walk away with some kind of budget in mind.

I would say that the above generally applies to projects that are in the £30K to £150K range, and is a more responsible methodology and often works out to be more profitable for the designer.

Higher budgets
In the higher budget areas, your client’s requirement may be a lot more flexible and are therefore subject to being able to move based on how impressed he or she is with you and your ideas in the proposal.

I would like to paraphrase a quotation by John Wyer and a discussion with Andrew Wilson I had on this subject, in which they both said that they don’t try to get a budget from a client.

The higher-end client may enter the process with a notational budget in mind but are often swayed by an excellent design proposal. In my experience, they would often reposition their budgetary goal-posts based on the creativity, advice and even the subtle salesmanship of their trusted designer. Hear John’s views at www.landpro.co.uk/JohnWyer

Conclusion

I think the most important conclusions to take from this are:

  • Get an approximate budget if you can, even if it’s just a rough number to work with and go from there
  • Build trust between you and the client from the outset
  • Explore www.gardencosts.co.uk and use it to help guide both you and your client on pricing.