“No more for free!” That’s Stephanie Armetta’s business mantra. She no longer gives anything away to secure new work for Solutions Landscape Architecture in Los Angeles.

Armetta’s tactic is to just stick to the client’s budget. “Together we find ways to reduce or reconfigure the scope of my services to accommodate the budget,” she says. “If clients don’t pay for designs, I can’t absorb design costs when selling plants or installations.”

Some contractors see the giveaway of design services as a big and growing problem for the industry. “If we as a profession don’t value our worth, how can we expect prospective clients to?” asks Bruce Howard, owner of BHA, a landscape architecture and site-planning firm in South Florida.

As owner of InsideOut Design in the competitive market of Greensboro/Winston-Salem, North Carolina, Marcia Wood understands how difficult it can be to educate the public about the worth of design. “It’s a continual uphill battle fighting against ‘free,’ no doubt about it,” she says. “It’s especially difficult when we are fighting the HGTV-influenced people who never get the real story on design fees. It’s an awful mess that we must fight every day.”

To charge or not to charge?

Often, initial design consultations are offered free of charge. Industry consultant Steven Cohen observes that this is a simple strategy to prequalify clients. “During this time, you can identify the tire kickers who don’t pay versus the serious clients who often will,” says the principal of GreenMark Consulting Group.

Cohen sees free design and landscape improvement suggestions during a consultation as an integral part of the value proposition. “You are potentially going to offer them design services for free, but it’s after you secured the contract and have the flexibility to absorb some, if not all, of the costs,” he says.

Giving away a little something free—within reason—makes perfect sense to Ed Laflamme, a partner with The Harvest Group consulting firm. “Adding an extra service on an already scheduled job is a smart approach since you will already be there with your crews,” he explains.

Gestures such as offering a free sketch during an initial design consultation can convince a client to buy, adds Tom Barrett, owner of Green Water Infrastructure, Westfield, Indiana. But there is a fine line between giving away good ideas and closing a sale. “There aren’t any standards on what to give away to acquire customers or keep customers loyal,” he says.

“We still find ourselves offering free introductory services to show people our worth,” says Howard. “We are forced into doing this by some of our competitors who are anxiously seeking new work.”

Howard says he doesn’t charge prospective residential customers for coming out to look at their properties. “You need to see if it is the type of job and client you want to be involved with and get a feel for how much they are willing to spend,” he says. But commercial prospects such as homeowners associations must be assessed a consulting fee if they expect to receive any advice, Howard says. “Some want everything for nothing and are impossible to deal with,” he says.

Wood says her initial consultation is free. “We survey a client’s landscape,” she explains. “It’s as beneficial for me as it is for them. I need to take inventory of their land and what they want and need. By sharing a little information regarding what I find on our walk, they understand I am better equipped to give them a design they want and can use, rather than what the landscaper will ‘design’ for free.”

Landscape design consultant Zachary Berger, who works in New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, provides an introductory no-obligation site interview. In the future, he may add a nominal charge for design proposals that could be credited to an approved design contract. “We spend time creating custom design objectives for each prospective client,” Berger says. “If those do not convert to approvals, we have lost a few hours and possibly provided an outline for lesser-skilled and perhaps cheaper professionals who may end up securing the project. Yes, well-written design-services proposals have value. We must stop giving away our hard work and expertise.”

Chris Roma, president of Roma Design-Build in Pittsburgh, says he is careful not to propose a design solution until a preliminary design and budget agreement is signed. Generally, he reviews some of his design, technical and construction knowledge and relevant projects from the company’s portfolio during a consultation. “With certain client sectors, I also provide information on different funding streams I know about to potentially fund their projects,” Roma says.

Freebies vs. philanthropy

To reinforce customer loyalty, Laflamme believes there’s nothing wrong with giving something away of value that customers need but wouldn’t necessarily pay for on their own. Laflamme, who once ran a Connecticut landscape business, recounts that on a standard fall lawn maintenance job, a client had flower boxes in a front entryway containing mostly dead spring flowers. He refilled them with mums. “Not only did the client appreciate it, but he also told his neighbors about it,” Laflamme says. “The free mum planting resulted in several new customers from the neighborhood after they heard the story about it from their neighbor.”

Consultants like Laflamme agree there is a big difference between “paying it forward” with giveaways to nonprofits and communities where contractors conduct business and giveaways to for-profit private-sector customers. He adds that finding a community project to donate services for a half-day on the weekend or during off-season times not only is a feel-good move but also can pay off later. “We landscaped a neglected small park in a low-income neighborhood of Bridgeport, Connecticut, that was overlooked by the city,” Laflamme recalls. “It took one morning and a dozen crewmembers to get it done. It made the front page of the city newspaper the next day and gave us free publicity.”

The important part of donating is publicizing it, Barrett says. “Most of us prefer to give without any expectation of reciprocity,” he says. “However, donations are an important method of developing goodwill within a community. When a donation is made to a nonprofit, you can post the information on your website, put a note in a newsletter and develop a press release as well as ask the nonprofit to place you on their list of donors.”

Is giving things away free symptomatic of an industry that is guilty of overdelivering and undercharging? “What our industry is guilty of is not better educating the 95 percent of its own members [small independent contractors] who need to better deliver the message of value versus price,” Cohen says. “There will always be small contractors who diminish the value of what we do to make a buck. Our reasonability as industry professionals is to educate both the small contractor and the consumer on how to better compare services versus price.”