Clients window shopping are wasting my time

Hi everyone,

Having recently moved i am having trouble securing work due to clients window shopping.

I primarily build entire gardens and where i lived before work came through the door by recommendation. As such, clients tended to already understand what i am about and so the design and quote process was generally just a formality.

However, where i am now, trying to re-establish myself, i feel i am being led a merry dance by clients using me for design ideas, unrealistic price expectations and generally just shopping around.

A huge issue at the moment is that i am giving away my so called intellectual property in the way of design work and i need to stop this. Recently designed a 25K garden with 4 different areas that took a week of my time only for it to become a dead end lead.

My question is how do you guys in the design and build side of the industry sort the wheat from the chaff.

At present the format i work to is, i meet a client, discuss there needs, go off and tidy up there design ideas or come up with complete designs, sometimes i make a second visit to approve the design idea and then i still have to price it and then don't get the work. Sometimes i can find out the budget but to often i find i am working in the dark regards budget. As one client once said, "If I tell you the budget available you will just spend it all." The implication was that if i could do what they wanted for less and i knew the budget that i would just load up the quote. Not my style but i understand the sentiment to a degree.

So i need to find a way to stop wasting my time on jobs i'm not going to get, find out the budget and get re-emburshed for the design process.

Iv'e been chatting to various people in various trades so have some ideas but i want to get it right as so many people give free estimates and i don't want to lose out to those guys by charging for estimates.

Problem as i see it is it is difficult to price something if you don't know what you are going to build which is why i have always designed first and then priced second. However i generally have a pretty good gut instinct about what a job will cost once i have an understanding of what the client wants but it is a ballpark and when sitting down to seriously price it i can still get variations of 2-3K either way depending on final material and detail choices.

So the main idea to get round this is,

1) Use my gut to give a quick free estimate. Verbal or written??

2) If the basic estimate is approved by the client, charge a fee to finalise a design and produce a fixed quotation that may/may not be redeemable in part or in full if they give me the work.

3)In conjunction with the above have a contract of some description that sets out the above and binds them into paying for the design and quotation process so at least any time spent on it is compensated for. Contract ideas welcome.

On point 2) I have never really charged for designs but feel there is a case to have a charge of some nature to cover intellectual property which would be the design itself.

Also - methods to get a client to divulge their true budget, and not the one they tell you to get the cheapest deal but the budget that they are really prepared to spend?

My main intention is to weedle out the chancers as quickly as possible and move on if they are not interested. I'm wasting way too much time on stuff that comes to nothing and i've got plenty of better things to do than quote stuff i won't get.

Love to hear feedback and any thoughts and ideas on the above.



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  • PRO
    Can't help much as I cut grass! but can ask you a silly question maybe!
    How are you design people supposed to make any designs without a rough idea of budget. Makes no sense to me
    • PRO

      Hi Richard,

      You would be amazed how many people don't want to give you a budget.

      To me its like buying a car. You know how much you are willing to spend before you go to the showroom. No good dreaming of a ferrari if you only have enough for a mini but loads do exactly that.

      I've worked for someone that spent 20K+ on a kitchen and when i priced his garden at £10k he told me he expected me to do the garden for 3.5K !!!!!!!!

  • PRO

    Hi Edward, 

    We are a design and build company. However we won't commit to a full scale design process unless the client is willing to commit to a sensible budget. The most they will get is a 'Concept Sketch' which includes a few terms and conditions thats cover the fact that it was our idea etc etc. Sometimes people are happy to go with this concept and want you to quote straight from that. which is absolutely fine and in all honesty they are not detailed enough to pass on to other potential contractors.

    I also state that we charge for our site surveys and design packages because of the amount of time and resources it takes.This usually gives us an idea of the customer that are more serious about the project. This includes a quotation to complete the work in which the cost of the design is then deducted from the quotation if we are given the project if not the customer pays for the design and then it becomes their property to do what they like with. 

    so its pretty much similar to points 1, 2 and 3. 

    I always put quotes into writing. Much prefer to have paper trail. even if something was verbally agreed I will always follow up in writing.  

    I am just straight to the point when it comes to budget. Ask them what they are willing to spend and explain that you will design the garden in accordance to the budget they give. If they are serious they will know or at least understand that if they don't give you an honest budget it will have an impact on the design that you can offer and they certainly won't be getting the best option.

    Alternatively you could throw in a few options. One that is working on their budget and 1 or 2 other concepts that might not necessarily cost more but gives food for thought. 

  • PRO

    I don't know how to resolve this either Ed , I often come away feeling my communication skills are poor and realise i have given too much away , to some extent you have to sell yourself and reassure the potential customer you have the knowledge and experience to do the work to a high standard . 

    I was asked recently for a long  list of suitable plants for an area , colour , variety , height , price and you find yourself between a rock and a hard place , out of politeness do you oblige and trust or be evasive which makes you look as if you are stupid and lack knowledge when your intuition tells you your brains are being picked . 

    I really struggle with the communication side of this business , short of delegating this task to others, (  I would rather remain anonymous , keep out of negotiations and just do the work )  i think T & C's and contracts are the best way forward but how do you initiate this at the early stage during the first survey . 

    frustrating also when they will not reveal their budget obviously because they believe you will devise ways of stretching the work to comply within that figure   

  • PRO

    Surely there should be a fee for proving a design or plant advice, that can be credited against the final invoice if they proceed? It's a specialist knowledge required and clearly most clients are seeking your advice otherwise they would not always be asking in the first place. I may be going off on a tanget but if I wanted to get an extension only home, I would not expect the architect to design it and give me the plans, etc for free. That can help get round the client no revealing their budget issue. If they don't proceed you get fairly compensated for your time and effort. 

  • PRO

    Perhaps slightly off your question Edward but I hope this is of some use:

    Tips on choosing your customer
    Once a decision has been made to engage a landscape contractor, the client sets about finding the right one to do the job. It does not matter if it i…
  • I mainly work in garden maintenance now. However I used to be contracts manager for a landscape company, that offered everything from design, to build, to long term maintenance. The way it worked there was they charged a fee for a design consultacy visit. After this visit the designer would send them a quote for design work, if they wished to progress to having designs drawn up. The inital visit fee would then be taken off the cost of this design work, if they went ahead. That way if they were just after ideas, they paid for the designers time and expertise at that first meeting. If they However if they made a good spend with the company, that visit was effectively free and the company looked at it as a sales visit to secure the contract.

    Then when the design was delivered, it would be passed to me to draw up a quote for construction, as a matter of routine. They weren't committed to us, and could take the drawings and get another company to build the garden, but we always gave them a quote for us to do it. If they went with another company they were also given the option of paying for the designer to oversee the construction, to whatever degree they wished. So this could range from just going over to ok the initial marking out of the site and being available if the contractor had any queries regarding the plans, to having a project manager visit at regular intervals to supervise the construction in detail.

  • PRO

    Hi Ed,

    I don't do the constructions side of things, my business is higher end maintenance and design, but when I say design not full blown garden design, more small scale stuff planting plans etc...but what I have been trying out with a reasonable degree of success so far is the following.

    At the point that they initially make contact with you to discuss what they want, be that advice, design or whatever, is to get an email address and make it clear that the first stage of the process (before you visit them) is for them to fill out a detailed questionnaire about what they are after. That could include general history of the garden, how they feel about it now, what they want to achieve etc etc, and importantly indications of budgets. For me I get them to indicate budgets for initial works in loose price terms for example <2k, 2-5k, 5- 10k and so on. I also get them to indicate the same for longer term works or if they want to spread out the project.

    When they return the questionnaire to me I also state that I need at least 5 photographs of the garden.

    The reason that I am trying out this method is so that I can start to build a picture of who they are, what they want, what the garden is like currently, what their pricing expectation is before I commit to meeting them in person. That way you can start to weed out any that you know are having unrealistic expectations.

    It also makes them do a little bit or work which takes a bit of commitment, and may give you a hunch as to whether they are serious or not.

  • PRO


    I havent read your comments fully or any of the replies.

    I have been in this industry for almost 30 years. 

    When it comes to design do not waste time with the design unpaid. You need to outline that a design is seperate and if they want a design you need to charge accordingly. The design should not be part of the construction quote. But an aid to the quote. Like any build such as a house you dont get the builder to design the house for free, you employ an architect.

    Charge the client on a daily rate for the design if this helps, you have to cover your cost.

  • Hi Ed,

    I'm completely with on this one. I'm a garden designer, and when I first started working in this country, I spent lots of time going round looking at properties, just for it all to come to nothing - after the owners had picked my brains! 

    I started charging for a first visit, and I have done so ever since. I charge a flat hour of my time - £60 at the moment - however long the visit actually takes. During that time, I find out what they want, what they like, I ask them to show me pictures of gardens they find attractive, I find out how they want to use the garden, or the area, and what help they may want from me. 

    Then I go home and write a detailed fee proposal. It lists hours for survey, sketches, master plan, planting schemes and laying out, etc. I also include a 10% contingency, and all is expressed as "in the region of". I set out a payment schedule, with stages. If they are happy to go ahead, they then have to sign a copy and return it. I also give them my standard contract to sign.

    If I was design-and-build, I would do the same. Build in the design fee proposal, as one part of your quote, or do it separately, but don't produce any sketches, or designs, before they have signed up, whatever you do. Also, sometimes, if they refuse to give you a budget, then you just have to say," I then have to sit down a couple of hours and make up a fictitious project based on what you SAY you want, cost that, based on my previous experience (and a good pricing book, like SPON), and give you that figure, so that you can tell me, if you are comfortable with that as a budget" - and then you charge that time. That helps to concentrate their minds! It also helps those, who are genuinely unclear about what the project they have in mind may cost. 

    I also always double-check that my design fee is at least 15% of the total build value of the project, otherwise I'm under selling myself. 

    I then stick quite rigorously to my fee proposal, which probably means that I'm sometimes working quite a few hours that I can't charge; but that's my choice, as I want to do a good job, and I want the clients to feel they have had a fair deal. 

    As a designer, I help the clients find a landscaping company that can build their garden within their budget. This sometimes means, not using the "big name" firms, but finding a smaller, but still good, outfit, who have smaller overheads, perhaps, and who don't operate mainly in high end areas, like Sevenoaks or Tunbridge Wells (in my case). I don't know which part of the spectrum your firm falls in, but that's something to ponder. Are you not getting the work, because you are trying to work in a high end way, in a place where that's not matching people's wallets, or expectations? Or is it just a matter of needing to get those first few projects under your belt in your new area, and then word of mouth will do the rest? in that case, could you price more keenly to start with? Just ideas for you to toy with. 

    I wish you luck, it certainly took me a while to understand the best way to quote, and every person does it in a slightly different way. Quiet confidence in your own ability is key, without being overly arrogant.

    Best regards


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