Clearly one who pays on time! Well now we have got that out of the way, let’s look at the issue in a little more detail. Our clients come from all sorts of different disciplines – architects, property developers, interior designers and private individuals, who are of course infinitely variable. Some things are constant though. Here is my (by no means exhaustive) take on the subject. A good client is:
One who gives you a good brief. Not all clients know what they want, perhaps most don’t. It is part of our job to talk to them and ‘tease out’ the details of what they want (and what they will want to spend). However, we have all experienced clients who don’t know what they want but when they see the project nearly finished they know what they don’t want. So I guess the key here is if a client can’t give you a good brief, write one yourself and communicate really well throughout the project.
One who doesn’t tell you what to do. This is of course an over simplification, but there is no doubt that it can be frustrating to have a client who constantly explains to you how you should design the job. Often, this is followed up with a deconstruction of what you have done. By this, I don’t mean a critique, more an unravelling through a series of alterations that mean the scheme no longer makes sense. At this point I always ask myself why I was taken on. I guess the key to this is that clients should give designers enough room to think creatively. Of course, we can all think of schemes that we have looked at and thought ‘that designer was given a bit too much free rein’ – or maybe it’s just me that thinks that.
One who understands the true meaning of value. Clearly what I don’t mean by this is someone who wants everything at a reduced price. As designers, we all know that cheapest is rarely best. Also that ‘whole life cost’ is an important principle – cheaper light fittings for example are rarely a saving in the long run. Cheap hedges grow quickly and – well it’s obvious.
One who understands the balance between programme cost and quality. To be fair, most clients do these days, but we do still come across the odd person who wants a high quality job quickly and cheaply.
One who respects your professional skills and experience. By this I mean one who doesn’t just expect you to ‘fill in the green bits’ but will give you the room to do a good job and will support you against the occasional forays into our zone by other professionals. Also, a good client will get you involved early on in the project, before all the essential decisions have already been made.
One who recommends you to friends. Obvious really.
Finally – One who enthuses! For me this is the most rewarding. I had a client a few years ago who was buying the garden along with everything else – pool, kitchen, interior design etc. By the end of the project two years later he was completely addicted to his garden. At the end of each day who he would come back home and go and sit in his garden to unwind before he went inside. Every time I saw him all he would talk about was how much he loved it. I would never have predicted this from our first few meetings, so it was an added bonus for me. Clients who really love gardens are a relative rarity but they always lift my spirits.
Perhaps this all sounds rather negative? Clients are actually what I love about this business, people in all their random variety with their foibles, likes, dislikes and baggage that they bring to a project. Our work could not function without them.
The revelations this week at Barclays represent the latest peak of a range of mountainous scandals in the banking industry. Each time, we think that all the worst excesses have been revealed, whereupon the clouds part to reveal yet another mountain. The final summit may as yet be hidden. What relevance has this to our industry, one might ask, other than the fact that many of our client base are bankers? There are few parallels. Perhaps the only one is that we, like bankers, operate in an area where the degree of specialist knowledge and skill required means that many aspects of it are beyond most people. But given the specialisation of modern life, that could be argued for most fields – getting your car fixed for example. Well actually, that is quite a good example. There are many reports of malpractice with unscrupulous garages. We have to trust them, we have little way of knowing whether they are taking advantage of us or not. What is more worrying about the Barclays (and other banks) scandals is the sheer scale at which the company culture has resulted in a failure to deliver in the customers’ interests.
These things do not happen by accident. Of course, all acts within an organisation are based on decisions taken by people, many by individuals and these individuals must take responsibility for their actions. But it goes further than this. How individuals behave in organisations depends on the prevailing culture, on what seems to be ‘acceptable’ behaviour. If the directors of a business are regularly seen to have their ‘hands in the till’, then employees will also consider it acceptable to partake in petty fraud and dishonesty. If managers place huge importance on hitting targets and say things like ‘I don’t care how you get there’ then they are sending the message that targets are more important than customers, and damage to customer interest is inevitable.
Many landscape practices and contracting firms are small businesses where the behavioural tone set by the leader/s of the business will have a disproportionate effect on the organisational culture. In the long run, it is pretty obvious that honesty will lead to higher profit levels, that the ‘quick buck’ may be tempting, but the slow bucks will be more numerous. Despite this, there is still a great deal of short-sighted dishonesty in our industry. Business owners treating their firms like an extension of their personal spending, over-charging customers where they can get away with it and bad-mouthing the competition whenever the opportunity arises are just some examples. There are also many cases of opaque charging – commission payments are commonplace. In a post a few months ago called ‘Should garden designers take commission payments’ (http://www.bowleswyer.co.uk/blog/?p=197), this topic released a flood of comments on LinkedIn, all of them condemning the practice, which would make you think it no longer happens. I know for a fact it is still widespread. this raises a further interesting point. The issue of ethics and culture goes beyond single businesses into the relationships between businesses. In that way it affects all of us, even sole traders.
The same applies in our dealings with clients. We are often a little in awe of them, particualrly if they are rich and famous. We can get nervous when being questioned about our choices. I was listening to that former political bruiser John Reid on the radio this morning talking about what to do when wrong-footed in an interview. “If in doubt, tell the truth. If you’ve changed your mind, say you changed your mind. If you don’t know, say so. If you’ve made a mistake, admit it. If you do that, then you can move on to what you want to talk about.” Good advice indeed.
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.