Should garden designers take commission payments?

Loadsamoney! - Commission? or corruption?

We were recently offered a commission payment by a firm that designed and built treehouses. We were recommending them on a large garden we are undertaking in Surrey. We did not take up the offer. Interestingly, shortly afterwards they put us forward for another job in the same neighbourhood and demanded a commission payment if we were appointed. We refused, saying that payment should be unnecessary. This resulted in quite a row between us.

We were against taking the payment on a number of different grounds. Firstly, it clouds your judgement. I want to be free to make decisions on a number of criteria, without the ‘size of the bung’ being one of the factors. Secondly, we should be free to recommend others (and be recommended ourselves) on the basis of competency, skills and experience. We work with a range of other experts and specialists – joiners, artists, lighting designers, etc. we choose them on merit. Finally (and most importantly) it is essentially dishonest. Not dishonest in the sense of illegal, but more in the sense of not being transparent. If you take such payments, do you tell your client? If not, why would that be? In other industries (such as the insurance industry), we all rail against similar opaque practices, calling them shady, dishonest or even corrupt. When it is us being offered the money it is a slightly different story. We either defend it saying it is an honestly earned commission, or keep quiet and take the money (which is what I suspect most people do). Even if one decides to take a stance on this, it is very difficult not to acquiesce when a supplier effectively gives you the money unbidden by inviting you to invoice them, as happened to us recently. Perhaps weakly, I didn’t invoice them, but I didn’t tell them I wouldn’t take the money either (although I won’t). I am not saying we haven’t accepted it once or twice in the past, but we have made a joint decision in the business to draw a line here.

In any case, most if not all professional associations frown upon the idea: it is strictly forbidden by the code of professional conduct of both the Landscape Institute and the Society of Garden Designers. I suspect that this does not stop the practice going on however. I also realise that I will probably unleash a flood of posts from other designers saying that this is the only way they can make a decent living; that it is alright for you lot in the SE etc. etc. My answer to that is that you should charge more. Again – ‘Alright for you lot in the loaded South-East’. But if you don’t try and charge a living wage for what you do, how will clients ever learn to value it? What clients pay for should be transparent and fair – to both sides.

John Wyer

4 responses on “Should garden designers take commission payments?

  1. Gül

    I am a landscape architect from Turkey. Sorry for my poor English in advance…

    We all take commisions here. It really annoys me. The customer needs to pay 6 times more money than the material costs. And you can’t even buy from the producer directly.They won’t give you anything. You have to buy from the commisioners. The products prices rises every time it change hands. Sometimes it changes hands 4 or 5 times before it goes to customer…
    I just want to say to my customer that “here is the costs of my material and other expenses. And here is my payment for designing and etc.”
    But the customers way of thinking doesn’t allow that.
    They give 3000 TL to buy a TV but they don’t want to give 1500TL to their gardens. And they want me to create design miracles with that kind of money which doesn’t even enough for lawn. For turkish people, the plant can grow itself, and design is something only artists do. You can’t say “I don’t want to work for you”, because all the customers like that and you have to fill your stomach somehow…
    And newly graduated landscape architect gets 700TL (approximate 350$) a month which is the minimum wage.
    Basically we don’t have any stage to perform, we don’t even have will to perform anymore…
    And with all that circumstances we are critisized about how Turkish landscape designers works such a failure in international arena…

    1. John Wyer Post author

      That is truly a tough market, you really have my sympathy. With regards to your comments on commission and ‘middle-men’, how is the internet affecting that? In theory it should allow designers and contractors to connect more directly with suppliers; is that the case? I sympathise with you over pay. It took many years before one could make a living here in the UK as a garden designer, and many designers still have to work on a design and build basis to make it work financially. Pay in landscape architecture here is a lot better than in Turkey – it is well above the minimum wage, but only a little above the national average pay. One way to get more money is to try and get a better name for yourself through press coverage and international competitions. Clients always like a little ‘gloss’. Keep designing, keep absorbing new influences and keep your spirits up!

  2. Gül

    Well, of course we can find new suppliers with internet. But what is the meaning of connecting them if I still have to buy from middle man…
    Minimum wage is 700TL , the hunger threshold (starvation line) is 900TL, poverty line is 3000TL. There is not much to say about that actually…
    Best advantage of internet is information.There is not much Turkish resouce. Things you can learn is university is limited. Even if I graduated one of the best universities in Turkey, I can clearly say that I graduated from Google. Sometimes I realize that some of university thesis are just translations of some other thesis in U.S. or U.K.

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