Creating Sophisticated Outdoor Living Areas –

Time.  It is a limited resource and ultimately a good contractor’s most valuable asset.  When you carve out and hold sacred the personal time needed for God, Family, Friends, Fellowship, Rest, Relaxation, and Recovery, the decisions you make on how you spend the time allocated to the “work-day” become even more imperative.  Successful contractors are purposeful with how they spend their time, always cognizant that wasted time is something that can never be recovered. 

Eliminating wasted time is one of the motivating factors that drive good contractors to improve themselves and their companies. Managing time becomes a differentiator that sets them apart from their competition.  Contractors invest in developing systems and processes that pay dividends as their companies begin to run like well-oiled machines. 

The best contractors devote themselves to improvement through industry education across all facets of the business — from design and construction to sales and business.  They allocate resources to building a company that values relationships built; both internal with employees and sub-contractors and external with their customers and the communities in which they thrive.  They desire to leave a mark — to weather the storms and to stand the test of time. 

In my role as a traveling design professional, I have had the opportunity to meet many of these visionary contractors at all stages of their journeys. Through our interactions, I have watched and learned from them as we have partnered on their designs.  We have discussed their successes and struggles alike, and I have been inspired by the insights learned from them.  I hope that sharing these will help others facing similar questions and challenges. 

A unique aspect of my travels is the unique regional differences, biases, and issues that our partnered contractors face in their businesses.  Whether it is a product that is considered a necessity in Richmond, VA, but would never be considered in Charlotte, NC (which is only 5 hours away), or how a contractor in Port Charlotte, FL deals with labor issues differently than another in Denver, CO – each with their own success.

Sometimes the issues are climate-related, and in other places biases appear more psychologically motivated.  Each region seems to have its own set of specific conundrums to work through.  But one truth that I have found to be universal when working with these quality-focused contractors from across the land is their frustration when their market competition actively works to label them to prospective clients as “too expensive” and uniformly undercuts their pricing – often to disastrous results.

Good contractors know that time invested into the client relationship is time well spent. - Luxury Pool Design: Jason Brownlee
Good contractors know that time invested into the client relationship is time well spent. – Luxury Pool Design: Jason Brownlee

Time Invested Into Your Clients

The client relationship process takes time — valuable work-day time that cannot be recaptured if something or someone takes it awry.  It takes time to properly vet the prospect, work through a design process, and establish a solid relationship base where you feel comfortable moving forward into construction.  It takes time to provide both rough framework estimates and detailed project bids, and then often to revise both the design and bid to best suit the needs of the client. 

This allocated time is an investment on your part and should be reciprocated in kind on your client’s part as the purchase they are about to make as they add to the value of their home is, for the most part, the second largest they will make in their lives — more so than luxury vehicles, lavish vacations, college tuitions, and children’s weddings.  As such, this investment should be treated with the respect it is due by all parties in the process (which is an entire another topic for a future article). 

What often takes this process off the rails is when a third-party “spoiler” enters the mix and actively works to sow the seeds of doubt in the mind of the client.  I have seen this spoiler come in multiple persons — from a client’s homebuilder who likes to use his pool guy (often cheaper and with a kick-back), to the infamous “neighbor at a party” who brags about the “deal” that he got on his pool. 

The most common spoiler is direct from a competitor pool company, who actively uses the fact that quality-focused contractors are not cheap against them with phrases like, “he sure is proud of what he does”, or “pools should never cost that much.”  Or the best one that I hear, “he is just trying to get rich off of one project, we just make a little off of each project that we build.” 

Where you have invested time, effort, and attention to detail to prepare and plan the seamless execution of a signature project, the competitor is looking to swoop in and derail the entire process you have built with either a smoke-and-mirrors sales number deception or a true blissful ignorance of actual project costs when completed to high-performance standards. 

It is human nature to be frustrated with your client when they question why you are so much higher than the other builders in their market.  So how do you educate them as to the valid reasons why good contractors cost more than their competitors? 

As a professional serving in an owner’s representative role in reviewing contractor bids for high-end clients, I have three criteria that I look for in the reviewed proposals.  I believe these are the differentiators that separate quality-focused contractors from their market competition.  Quality-focused contractors will:

  1. Consider and Include Everything
  2. Build it Right
  3. Offer More
A good contractor considers and includes everything the client needs into their plan and contract.
Credit – Luxury Outdoor Living Designer: Jason Brownlee

Consider and Include Everything

When a quality-focused contractor Considers and includes everything, it eliminates the “I didn’t include that” or “We don’t do that” comments from the bid comparison that are either intentionally or artificially deflated to make the number look better. 

Every contractor has to pull permits, handle excess dirt or spoils, build an access road to the backyard, provide dumpsters and a portable bathroom, bring in a gravel sub-base, handle drainage, and provide utility extensions to the spaces (gas, electric, low voltage, etc.), include fencing (both during construction and final security enclosure), consider landscaping, lighting, irrigation, and on and on. 

Many bids I see leave these and other necessary line items off in order to make a number look better. But at the end of the project, the costs are similar between the low and higher bids.  This is a smoke-and-mirrors deception designed to get the client on the hook, then deal with the “misunderstanding” aftermath later.  Almost every contractor has the same built-in profit margin –assuming they know it.  The difference in the proposal price does not come in how much money the owner is bringing home.  Instead, it comes in the process, how they operate, and what they choose to include and exclude.  

Build It Right

When a quality-focused contractor commits to building it right, this means he holds their construction processes to a higher standard and will not deviate from that.  It is not enough to meet the “minimum code” and expect to build a structural vessel that will not have issues down the road.  There are standards that need to be adhered to in order to build a quality vessel because there are so many ways to cut corners and literally bury them underground. 

When reviewing bid proposals with owners, I sit down with them and get very technical, discussing and reviewing bullet-point style construction standards in a proposal before they make their selection.  This shows the owner that a contractor has a working knowledge and understanding of what it takes to build correctly and indicates if they have pursued the advanced industry education available and understand the importance of a quality build.  

Offer More

Finally, when a quality-focused contractor offers more, it means that they are abreast of the full scope and range of features and options available and either addresses or include them in their proposal to allow the client an option to select yes or no.  This includes equipment options such as alternative sanitizers, heating option availability, automation control, lighting systems, water and fire visual features, finish and veneer selection upgrades throughout, outdoor kitchen components, etc. etc.  The scope and scale of the final project with its ease-of-use options should ultimately be up to the client to decide and not pre-conceived by a contractor who may not know their personal preferences, needs, or desires for the space.  

A favorite saying that we use in our classes is, “Don’t let your Middle-Class get in the way of that man’s money!”  I have seen a contractor or pool designer / sales person end up talking a wealthy client out of an all-tile pool finish or automated chemistry control system, simply because it is out of the contractor or designer’s personal budget mindset.  But to the client, it might be nothing more than what they would have spent on another toy in their garage.  It is not your money to spend!  Instead it is your job to know and offer all of the options available and then allow the client to decide what they like and don’t like, or need and don’t need for their own personal outdoor living experience. 

Final Thoughts

In the end, when the client signs a construction contract, he or she is buying into you.  Show the client that you have considered and included all aspects of the job and they will not have hidden charges that could have been known.  Demonstrate that you are committed to building to a higher standard with industry integrity that is backed by educational certification.  Show all of the options that they may wish to consider, not just the few that are easiest or readily available and let them decide the scope and scale of the project they want for their family. 

If you can prove these points, you will have transitioned that client away from a price-point buyer over to an investment-focused mindset. Now the time you have invested into the client relationship as well as in the systems and advancement of your company – will pay its dividend. 

Photo Credit: J Brownlee Design

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