Career Track in Residential Landscape Design

Landscape Architecture for Landscape Architects Forums PROFESSIONAL PRACTICE Career Track in Residential Landscape Design

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    Katherine Jacobs

    Hello all,

    I completed my MLA about a year and a half ago. I had no particular interest in residential design, but I took the first job I was offered, at a residential design/build office. I’m more or less happy with the work, but the only opportunity for growth in our company is to be a sales person/project manager. 

    I think I would be a good project manager and I am great at customer service, but sales is not for me. I am terrible at it and I’m not really interested in getting better at it. Do other residential design/build firms have different structures, where a PM’s main responsibility is actually project management, and not chasing leads? Or would I be better off trying to get a job at a bigger design firm?

    Thanks for your help.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    Get the idea of being a salesman out of your head. Talk about design and construction. If you demonstrate your knowledge and give the prospect confidence the sales will follow. If a sales person is not a designer working for that company, they won’t sell a thing. You can’t pick and choose the things you like to do. You can only fill a need or not.

    Soft sell is very effective. Keep your confidence and work with what you know. If you know your stuff, are responsive to the prospect, and demonstrate your knowledge you will sell a ton of design without acting like a salesman. When you sell design, the build is yours to lose.

    The only reason someone hires a residential landscape designer is to remove doubt from the outcome of the project. Concentrate on that and prospects will become clients without a lot of sales talk or technique. That is all about being a designer and nothing about being a salesman.

    Are you a good designer? Then you are a good salesman.

    Katherine Jacobs

    Thank you so much for your reply, Andrew. I’m curious, is your experience in a residential design/build setting? I’m trying to understand how roles differ in different kinds of business structures. 

    In the company I currently work for, the owner understands our role as sales staff. There is considerable pressure on the sales staff to sign now and build tomorrow. The senior LA I work under is a remarkably talented salesman, but in this workflow there is very little time for him to do any thoughtful designing. 

    I’m curious to hear whether designers are asked to take on this kind of role in other residential design/build firm, or if this is unique to my current employer.

    Andrew Garulay, RLA

    After I got my LA degree I worked for three design/build residential landscape contractors. All of which used the position for design/sales/project management … with a shovel in my hand as well for two of them.

    You have to understand why the company has a staff designer. It is not necessarily to create more creative landscapes, but it is necessarily to gain more opportunity to get jobs.

    YOUR VALUE TO YOUR EMPLOYER (and reason to be on the payroll) is to turn a prospect into a client and to attract more prospects. Some people do that using slick sales techniques while others do it by focusing on their craft and communicating.

    YOUR VALUE TO YOUR PROSPECTIVE CLIENT (and reason for them to contract you) is to make them very comfortable that their landscape will be what they want it to be and at a good value. I would suggest, through my own experience, that this is done by focusing on your craft and not on slick sales techniques.

    The “thoughtfulness” of the design MUST be in line with the clientele (your market) that the company you work for is attracting and to the ability the company you work for has to execute the design. If you go further than either can handle you are not being effective.

    I am currently a one person Landscape Architecture office (licensed since 2000) that does 95% residential design. I very seldom do project management or contract administration. My sales technique is to concentrate on discussing the design and being very open about where I would go with it (no sketches, just discussion). I send a proposal for design within a few days and very few do not come back signed with a retainer (only 2 in 2014, so far).  As I said before, the more that you remove doubt from the outcome of the project, the more the prospect wants to hire you over anyone else.

    It is far better to waste an hour and a half talking (my typical initial meeting that I don’t charge for) than to waste 5 seconds drawing a sketch or 2 hours doing a free concept plan in my opinion.

    I know a lot of LAs get upset that contractors under price design, but the fact of the matter is that if a design/build gets paid to do a design (even if it is under priced) the build is theirs to lose. It is far easier to sell a design as a flat fee than as an hourly rate (hourly rates = doubt of cost). You have to cover yourself by limiting the revisions (I suggest 1 revision) and having a higher hourly rate for additional revisions (it keeps your client engaged to make sure you can complete it within the revisions allowed). The amount of money you charge has to fit the market that the company that you work for is working. If you push it too high, they won’t bite, but the more that you charge the more you are covering your salary and the more commitment your client is showing. You’ll have to rely on the experience of others in the company to get a handle on that.

    As a designer (and apparently a salesman) we got the build on about 90% of the designs. That is why I say that once you sell the design, the build is yours to lose. … not true for free designs.

    I started out doing flat rate designs to build a body of work and a network. Now I mostly work at hourly rates, but still do some flat rate projects. I never feel like a salesman. I am a designer and the more I demonstrate that, the more that they are sold on ME.

    Realize that you are selling YOURSELF and not a product. Make them understand that they need you. The product is a matter of fact that will follow. The portfolio and any sales propaganda should not be presented as the reason to hire you. They need to see them, but they can not be presented as being bigger than you. 

    That is one person’s opinion. Hopefully others will tell you how they go about it so that you get a wider perspective. I have learned that I am unconventional on a lot of things.

    Dave McCorquodale

    Wow, pretty tough to add anything to Andrew’s thoughts here.  I went through school half asleep in residential design courses/lectures because I thought that would never apply to me.  Turns out that’s where I’ve been for 10 years.  The first couple years were spent trying really hard to learn how to “be a salesman” since I felt my personality was the opposite of what I needed.  Much like you, I thought I was terrible at sales and had no interest in getting better at it because it just “wasn’t me”.  Then one day I got some great advice:  You are always selling.  Everything, all the time.  In a larger firm you’ll sell ideas, yourself, your skills, etc to others in the firm.  

    I tell colleagues and others in the industry that I don’t have a sales shtick, I’m just going to be more professional than the next guy with a better solution than what they have.  Once I adapted a better way of thinking about what I was doing and shook off the “salesman” mentality I had great success despite not being the typical personality type for job.  

    I’d suggest that the salesman mindset isn’t a requirement for the residential industry, but could be part of your company’s culture.  That would be for you to decide.  I’d suggest if you show results doing it your way then the owner won’t care what approach you use.  


    Katherine Jacobs

    Thank you both for sharing your thoughts and experiences! It sounds like both of you sell work by being good designers and good at communicating the value of your designs, and I am comfortable with my abilities/potential in those arenas. There’s hope for me yet!

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