Creating A Five-Star Landscape Design Build Experience

Masters in landscape design-build discussed their tips at an industry event.

By Jill Odom, NALP, with Christine Menapace
From the February 2024 Issue of Design-Build


Several masters of the landscape industry gathered together to discuss how their teams produce the impossible while keeping the customer experience second to none. The event took place at ELEVATE, the annual conference held by the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP). Speakers included leaders of companies that have joined the Mariani Premier Group.


In an industry where there are numerous landscape design-build companies to choose from, one differentiator that can help win and generate future referrals is providing superior customer service.

Choosing to develop a luxury, five-star experience can sound daunting, but it can be broken down into simple practices as revealed by these experts.

landscape design-build
This mountain retreat project by Designs By Sundown was named a Gold Award of Excellence winner by the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP). (Photo: Designs By Sundown)

Understand Your Client & Their Lifestyle

Jeff Berghoff, founder & CEO of Berghoff Design Group, based in Phoenix, AZ, says landscape companies need to understand the clients they serve and their lifestyle. “If you understand your client core, you know what design level to provide,” he comments. Berghoff’s clients are the top 1% of the 1% so they work to exhibit their expertise and knowledge of their craft to their client base. They hire a professional photographer to capture their properties and speak the client’s language. One ad says: “Building beautiful gardens is our business, what you do on it is yours.” Rather than highlighting every service they provide, Berghoff says they simply describe them- selves as ‘designers, craftsmen, and caretakers of distinctive gardens.’

“If you understand your client core, you know what design level to provide.”

— Jeff Berghoff, Founder & CEO, Berghoff Design Group

Robert P. Marzelli, founder and president of R.P. Marzilli & Company, based in Medway, MA, says in a saturated market, rather than compete, position your company as a trusted consultant. He says high-end residential work is very personal and very emotional. The ability to listen, collaborate, and build long-term relationships is key.

landscape design-build
This design-build project earned Mariani Landscape a Gold Award of Excellence from the National Association of Professional Landscapers (NALP). (Photo: Mariani Landscape/Neil Landino Photography)

Learn From High-End Hospitality Brands

When it comes to serving the client, it’s helpful to think of an opulent hotel and the elements that create the feeling of being catered to. Berghoff works to create a similar experience for clients when they visit his office. They have VIP parking. They are shown a tidy supply yard. It all conveys how the Berghoff Design Group will take care of a property with the same professionalism and detail.

Berghoff says they take employees to lunch at high end resorts so they can experience the expectations company clients will have.

Adam Hallauer, CEO & president of Designs By Sundown, based in Littleton, CO, adds that you need to think beyond the hard facts of the job. Focus on the intangibles and forming relationships. McDonald’s has customers, he says, design-build firms should have clients.

Hallauer explains that creating luxury outdoor settings is not about asking ‘What would you like in your landscape?” but knowing the why behind client requests. Ask questions to reveal the client’s core desires such as, “How do you envision spending time in this space?” Ultimately, it’s not about selling plants and hardscape, it’s about delivering an outdoor lifestyle.

Don’t Fall Into A Style Trap

Frank Mariani, executive chairman of Mariani Landscape and Mariani Premier Group, says one key is to avoid developing a certain landscape design style where you can identify which company did the work. He says they match their individual designers to clients based on the best fit. The company also keeps the outdoor furniture, design of the house, views, use of the space, and paths to doors all in mind when creating a design specific to a property. “We’re there to create the ‘Wow,’” says Mariani. “We are not the waiters or waitresses taking your order. We are the ones creating those delicious entrees for you.”

Berghoff Design Group
A Santa Barbara home by Berghoff Design Group. (Photo: Berghoff Design Group)

Think Big Picture

Project management on design-build projects of this caliber cannot be underestimated. The project manager has a high responsibility and really is critical, says Marzelli. They need to coordinate the craftsmen and the landscape architect. Having trusted artisans that provide top quality work for your projects is also of crucial importance. Mariani says in the mid-west they were subbing out a lot, but they will be changing that as they learn from partners in the expanding Mariani Premier Group.

Indeed, developing and learning from your team and other great companies is a constant process. Hallauer says a way they ensure their designs are successful is by involving the maintenance team from the beginning. He says everyone is a designer and is welcome to speak up and say if they see something that could be done better.

Mariani says he introduces the maintenance team at the beginning as well. He suggests talking to the client about ongoing maintenance early on, since they will ultimately be happier with the property if it’s well cared for from the get-go.

Being anticipatory, rather than waiting for a client to ask for maintenance, sets your team up for success with recurring revenue.

Discuss Timeline & Budget

R.P. Marzilli & Company
A project by R.P. Marzilli & Company. (Photo: Neil Landino Photography)

Making a point to communicate with the client clearly from day one will also help set your company above others. Mariani advises sending brief updates on what’s been accomplished and what’s coming up as you progress on a client’s project.

Strive to be proactive in your communication with clients — especially with anything unexpected that occurs. Berghoff says if the client is calling you, you’re already at a disadvantage.

One of the trickier topics is always the question of the client’s budget. Mariani says the client creates the budget by listing what they want in the design. Is it a pickleball court, a perennial garden? Those are the conversations to have.

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Hallauer says they advise clients that particular features cost no less than a certain amount. In this way, the clients get a better feel for what the cost of the project will be. He also emphasizes that if landscape pros are still doing free designs, they need to “get over that.”

Berghoff says when working with clients who are going to spend the money no matter what, he says they always drive home the question of “Do you want a reputable firm or a low bid?” Choosing a reputable firm serves as a form of insurance for clients.

landscape design-buildOdom is the content manager for the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP). Find the original article in the NALP Blog. ELEVATE 2024 will be held November 3-6 in Charlotte, NC. For information, visit

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