Tag Archives: payments

Do the banking scandals have any relevance to Landscape Design?

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.

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