By Heidi Coffee
Coffee Grounds Garden Design, LLC
I love my job as a landscape designer. I love the sparkle that my clients get when I show them the new plans for their gardens. I treasure the beautiful notes I receive after a landscape is installed, and the photos they send showing how they’re enjoying a newfound peace in their outdoor space.
Landscape designed by Heidi Coffee. Photo by V. Gevers
One of the highest compliments we can get in our industry is repeat business and word of mouth recommendations from our clients. There is so much more that goes into a successful design than just a finished product. It’s working with people, and creating an experience where our clients feel heard, nurtured and secure. It’s a bond of trust and respect.
Often, as landscape designers, we have to employ skills that go way beyond knowledge of plants, placement, and design. Before we can put any of those elements into play, we have to have the psychological skills to interact positively with people. I am constantly in a state of learning when it comes to communication and relationships, whether with clients, colleagues or family and friends.
The human connection is the most integral part of our businesses, because without it we would be dead in the water.
Like a well tended garden, our clients will thrive when they know that their desires are understood and they feel comfortable knowing we are looking out for their best interests and are advocating the best possible outcome for their outdoor space and their future enjoyment of it.
Landscape designed by Heidi Coffee. Photo by Heidi Coffee
Fostering this kind of trust and relationship involves many skills that are applicable to all layers of life. This article focuses mostly on client relationships, however, these skills are important at all levels of the business process. Whether it’s working with other designers and contractors, dealing with the people that work in municipalities, client’s neighbors, or our own employees, we will get further along when we take time to practice building the human connection.
Client DIYing the design by Heidi Coffee. Photo by J. Wilkie
Start with Listening. People want to know they are heard. When a prospective client initially reaches out to us, they are already expressing vulnerability. They need our help. They are often inviting us into their living space, where many of the people they interact with every day have never even been. They are showing us their needs and risking being judged by the state of their current landscape. Many times, my clients don’t even know what they want, they just know that what they currently have is not working. This is where listening to what frustrates them about the current layout, and how they interact as individuals, couples and families/groups is key. We have to read between the lines and see the heart of the issues. After listening for awhile and only asking clarifying questions, I will respond with, “It sounds like you hope to be able to do…..with your outdoor space.” The looks of relief on their faces usually tell me that I’m on the right track. They feel heard, even when they did not even know how to articulate what they wanted.
Landscape designed by Heidi Coffee. Photo by Heidi Coffee
We can often find ourselves not only bringing unity to a landscape but also to relationships. I have to smile when I meet with people who have known each other for years, and then find out, with surprise, things about each other’s desires that they never realized before. They thought they were on the same page about what they wanted with their outdoor space, only to discover that they have some radically different ideas. That is where the creative challenge of intermixing personalities and creating something fresh comes into play. The satisfying finished result is when all the faces involved are smiling and they are excited to get started on spending time in their new landscape.
Take time to respond. When people contact us, we need to respond to them. I know this may sound like a common sense thing to do, but I am constantly reminded that this courtesy is highly lacking in our industry. Even if we cannot take on more clients at the time, we foster respect and the prospect of future work commendations when we respond in a timely manner to requests, inquiries, and comments. Even if I don’t ultimately end up taking someone on as a client, they usually express their thankfulness for the interaction I had with them.
Landscape designed by Heidi Coffee. Photo N. Rivenburgh
I encourage all the entities I work with to take this very seriously, especially if I am recommending them to my clients. If my client reaches out to someone I recommend to them, and gets no response, my client comes back to me and lets me know. It’s disappointing, and I feel like it not only reflects poorly on the business I recommended, but it reflects poorly on me as well, as the recommender. I want to make the people and businesses I work with look good, and in turn, when they deal positively with my clients, I also look good. To put it in gardening terms, it becomes a symbiotic relationship that is healthy for all involved.
Lastly, follow up. This last element can solidify a long term feeling of well being in our clients. I will often send a thank you note with a picture of one of the sketches I did of their finished garden on the face of the card. The response from clients is 100% positive. They contact me and let me know how much the card meant to them. They will send me pictures of their garden and update me on how they are using it. I even had one client express that receiving the card was what pushed them to complete the DIY installation of their design and were so happy to be enjoying their landscape.
Landscape designers have the very special opportunity to inspire joy, relationship and community. We do this by bringing nature to our clients’ doorsteps.
Most of my clients sheepishly admit to me at our first meeting that they don’t have a green thumb and really don’t like yard work. They want maximum beauty, with minimal upkeep. However, as we work together, a seed of excitement about spending time and actually caring for their new garden starts to grow and leaf out. I desire for my clients to know that getting their hands dirty once in a while can be the best cure for what ails them. There is something about nature that revitalizes the soul.
Landscape designed by Heidi Coffee. Photo by P. Koransky
Being a landscape designer is a distinctive calling. We work with people (and often animals as well!) on a psychological level, we work with nature on a physical level, and we are the catalyst to make both thrive together. We have to envision the future and plan gardens accordingly, keeping in mind plant growth, utilization, and upkeep. We can help bring beauty and well-being into the lives of our clients. Ultimately we want to create a vital atmosphere and a landscape that will bring rejuvenation for years to come. Then, when our clients go out into the world, they will bring a sense of those things to others. Julie Moir Messervy sums up this mindset in her book The Inward Garden when she observes, “ A good garden is taken by foot and through the eyes and heart.” Our touch is long reaching, and impacts people and communities in ways we may never know. Let’s never underestimate the importance and power of the human connection.
Resources and further reading:
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey
Love is a Verb and The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman
Love Does and Everybody Always by Bob Goff
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
Talking to Strangers
and Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking
by Malcom Gladwell