I love small water features! The simplicity of a patio pond or disappearing waterfall makes it easy for a crew to replicate a systematic process day after day, keeping your operation profitable while still delivering a custom product to your happy customer. Managing your all-important profit margin with a small water feature installation is a breeze when you are not affected too much by weather, site conditions, material staging and multiple pieces of heavy equipment.
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That being said, there is something very satisfying about pushing your creative talents with a challenging, customized water feature. Incorporating large boulders, fountainscape pieces, cantilevered structures or hardscape elements can be an exciting prospect that emboldens your inner designer to stretch boundaries and fulfill your artistic dreams.
More often than not, we as designers find ourselves faced with having to balance feeding our creative desires with actually making money (after all, this is our livelihood — not a hobby), so it is important to temper your design direction so that it falls in line with your client’s budget and provides a healthy profit margin for your company.
It’s not always easy to take on an interesting, one-off project without the risk of sacrificing your financial well-being. So, how do we provide that “next level” of creative design while insuring that we meet the profitability requirements of our business plan?
Define the Vision
Imagine standing in a suburban backyard, at the entrance to a large subdivision or in a courtyard for an assisted living facility. Each of these venues would require a distinctive design perspective to achieve the desired experience for that particular space.
The suburban backyard, as another example, is where the majority of water feature installers cut their teeth. So, when it comes to designing a custom water feature for someone’s home, it is important to first find out how the client’s vision fits with your own. Trying to force your amazing vision on a potential client is a great way to scare them off. So, perhaps spend some time getting to know how they plan to use the space or what their likes and dislikes are.
Ask Creative Questions
For me, this always starts with lots of creative questions. These types of questions will help your client envision the space they will be living in every day, in turn giving you the right direction take your design. Instead of asking the basic questions (e.g., “How large of a feature do you need?” or “How big is your budget?”), try taking it to the next level.
Some key, outside-the-box questions include:
“Could you paint me a picture of what you’d like to see when you look out the kitchen window?”
“Imagine sitting in a chair on your patio. What does your new water feature sound like?”
“When you come home from work at night, what would you want to see when you walk into the backyard?”
At this point, make a mental note of those features the customer desires that are beyond the standard feature. These items will then have to be priced accordingly in order to maintain your profit margin.
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Show, Don’t Tell
If a large pond is on their wish list, perhaps you could ask for more specifics or show examples, such as:
Personalize the questions. Ask a family, “Is there a deck hanging over one edge of the pond where your kids could put their hands in the water and feed the fish?”
Provide a photo album of any special features you have already priced out as options, but with additional cost. Examples include multiple waterfalls, larger boulders, fountainscape pieces and cantilevered structures.
Make a note of their current landscaping design, because it can be an indicator of their taste in style. The water feature should complement or add to the current look and feel. Examples include a natural look versus a symmetrical look, and lots of textures and color versus a consistent, streamlined design.
Or, is your client looking for lots of cascading water? A subdivision entrance would be the perfect place to recreate the big boulder waterfall from your favorite hiking spot or an over-the-top, custom fountainscape. The decision-makers for these projects will usually be looking to make a substantial impact, so having pictures of different water features will be important to make an impression. There are usually multiple people to convey your design ideas to — possibly even landscape architects or other designers — so starting off with a good presentation of pictures will be important. Helping these people understand the value of a custom water feature in creating a lasting impression for their location will be key in capturing the imagination of your audience.
Helping your client paint a mental picture will take a lot of ambiguity out of your design process if you truly listen to what they are saying. If you are asking the right questions like those mentioned previously, they will sell themselves on their particular vision of an aquatic paradise.
Know Your Numbers, Live the Dream
Regardless of how far outside the box you want to go to create a customized feature for a creative client, it’s extremely important that you first know how your business operates. Profit margins vary from business to business, and only you know your exact expenses and daily costs based on the size of your company. What are your financial goals for the season? If you can do three small, standard jobs and make more money than one custom job in the same amount of time, you need to revisit your business plan. We at Atlantis Water Gardens don’t believe in sacrificing profit margins for the sake of a single job. There is a creative fine line we all have to walk. In every job, little or small, if you define what the customer wants, ask the right questions and show the client what is possible, a little creativity can go a long way in increasing your sales without having to gamble on the profitability of a single creative experiment.
Personally, designing and installing water features has been like a dream for me, and I’m sure you may feel the same way. The possibilities are dizzying at times, and I’m continually impressed by the different ideas and configurations that come out of the many talented people in our industry. No matter your choice of equipment, methodology or skill level, as long as you get up each day and love what you are doing, you are truly living your dream!