May 9, 2013

Top 3 Sales Blunders


Now that we’re into the spring season I thought this would be a great time to create a top three list of landscape/design build sales mistakes to avoid. Although the reality is I probably could make a top 300 list, I am just going to focus on the basic blunders that are so easy to make.

Whether you are going out on your very first sales call or have been doing this for 20 years or more, a quick review of these three common errors can help avoid turning a good sale into no sale or even a lawsuit. If you avoid these blunders, you are bound to increase your sales and profits this year. But if you make these blunders, prepare yourself for another lackluster season, whining about how low-ballers are taking away your sales.

Although we all think of “the sale” as the actual signing of the contract and giving of the deposit, this step is really just a legal formality. The true sales work is the millions of big and little things you do that help form a bond between you and a client, building trust so they will ultimately pay you to do the work. You might be surprised to learn that sometimes the simplest thing can trip you up. Here are three to watch for:

#1 Not listening
The number one mistake you can make is simply not listening to your customers. So, before you start rattling off your marketing spiel, grab a pen and pad and ask your customers some good questions. For those of you that are trying to be technologically efficient by taking notes on your smart phone, don’t. It just looks like you’re texting. Sorry, guys!

#2 Bad communication
Communicating is as simple as returning a phone call or sending a text or email as a follow up. If you keep your clients in the loop, you will have fewer problems before, during and after the installation. There is nothing more infuriating and at times frightening for your clients than not knowing what is going on, especially when substantial amounts of money are involved or you just finished doing their “rip-out.”

#3 Poor documentation
I doubt any of us are literary professors or attorneys. Which means that, as an industry we don’t like to write and we are certainly not known for crossing our “Ts” or dotting our “Is.” Most contractors that I know actually find sitting at a desk hard work and lifting two-ton boulders fun. The number one reason why contractors get involved in lawsuits is not because of their work but because of their sloppy paperwork.

One of the biggest and most costly mistakes that I made involved all three of these blunders on one project. Ironically, it was a very simple mistake, but one that caused me to lose my largest sale ever — all because of a spelling error.

I had been working with these particular clients for more than two months, designing their entire property. It was a complete landscape renovation, including a new pool and pool house, an outdoor kitchen, retaining walls and steps, paver driveway and courtyard, mature plantings, a complete lighting and irrigation system and even a regulation bocce ball court. Pretty much anything that could be included in a residential landscape was included the design.

I was doing everything right. I had a great rapport with both the husband and wife (even the kids and dog liked me). We had worked and reworked the layout until it was exactly what they wanted. We selected all of the materials, colours and finishes. Walked around the nursery and tagged all the plants. Essentially, everything was done, now all I needed was a signature and a deposit for the installation and we were good to go. It was a slam dunk.

In hindsight I should have seen it coming. There were many signs along the way but I just ignored them. I was so caught up in the project and its dollar value that I completely lost sight of the one thing that was most important to my clients. It was their last name.

When they first called to schedule an appointment, my office manager never asked for the correct spelling of their last name, so it was entered into our system incorrectly. It was an easy mistake to make. Their name was Smithe but we had spelled it Smith. No big deal. I met with the clients several times before the subject ever came up. It wasn’t until I presented them with a preliminary budget, which included their name and address, that we became aware of the error.

The problem was we never corrected it, not in our system, not on our proposals, not even in the title block on the drawings which read “Smith Residence.” Each meeting it was wrong and for a while they asked me to correct it, but I never did.

So now here we are at the “sign the contract, get the deposit meeting” and Mr. Smithe looks me in the eye and says, “Look Jody. We really like you and think that you are an incredibly talented designer. We love your ideas and appreciate all your hard work, but I have to tell you that we have asked you half a dozen times to spell our name correctly and even today it is spelled wrong on the proposal. How can we expect your company to provide us with a proper installation on a project as involved as this when after two months of working together you cannot even spell our last name correctly? I’m sorry, but as much as we want to work with you we just can’t. Thank you again for your time and efforts and please feel free to come back and take photos for your portfolio when we have the project installed.”

Needless to say, this was one very expensive lesson, but one I hope you can all learn from. So listen to your clients, communicate with them often and be sure to always, always, always spell their name correctly.

Jody Shilan, MLA is an award-winning designer and former design/build landscape contractor. He now uses his 35+ years of experience to help other contractors learn from his mistakes. In addition, Shilan is the executive director of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors, and hosts FD2B “talk” radio, a weekly live internet radio show, where he interviews green industry members.