Builder Voice 2013: Scott Cohen

Eric Herman Headshot

For the builder segment of our State of the Industry issue, we spoke we three industry leaders to serve as our “builder voices.” In these profiles, they share how their businesses fared last year, their strategies for success and their vision for the future. For 2013, we spoke with Carvin DiGiovanni, Scott Cohen and Brian Van Bower

Scott CohenScott Cohen Owner The Green Scene Chatsworth, Calif.

Scott Cohen is owner of The Green Scene Landscaping and Pools, a licensed contractor in landscape, swimming pool and general construction located in Chatsworth, Calif. He offers landscape design, and construction defect expert witness services nationwide, and has served as an expert witness for the CSLB for over a decade. A 3-time Masters of Design Award winner, Scott has been featured on several television shows and published in numerous local and national print media. He is the award-winning author of “The Candid Contractor,” a discussion of common and uncommon mistakes made in landscape and swimming pool construction; “Outdoor Fireplaces and Fire Pits;” “Poolscapes;” “The Big Book of BBQ Plans;” “Scott Cohen’s Outdoor Kitchen Design Workbook” and “Petscaping.”

When I think about the state of our industry, I can’t help but believe we still have a lot of growing up to do. Some among us seem to be plagued by a lack of sophistication and self-confidence that comes across in all sorts of ways; particularly so in how many builders are weary of close scrutiny from potential clients during the selection process.

Often when I’m amongst others who design and build swimming pool environments, I hear bitter complaints about “shoppers” — meaning those homeowners who are talking to three, four or more designers/builders before they make a selection. The big gripe is that in an initial meeting with potential clients, the contractor’s time is essentially worthless because other companies are in the running.

Sure, I can see how it’s frustrating to be part of a panel that’s being vetted (I guess) but we all need to realize that clients are making an extremely important business decision. They’d be crazy not to go through a selection process, whether we like it or not.

If you’re among those wary builders, consider for a moment that we provide an expensive product, the relationship with the contractor can go on for years and we’re being hired to come into someone’s home and basically destroy large portions of their property in order to build spaces that will later become a significant part of the homeowners’ lifestyle.

With all that in mind, isn’t it wise to find the right partner?

The process should work both ways. When you go out on a call, you should always be trying to determine if you’re a good fit with the homeowners and they’re good fit for you. Not every project is for you and not every homeowner is someone you want to let into your own working world.

There are situations, for example, where the buyers are simply shopping based on price and will wind up hiring the low-end company. If that’s the game you play, then you’re probably in the right place. On the other hand, you might be like me and never compete on price, but instead strictly on the ability to give the clients what they want while usually exceeding those expectations.

From the homeowner’s perspective, they should be looking to find the right match for their project, whether it’s a $50,000 or $500,000 project. Fact is, in most cases it’s going to be a different firm who specializes in more affordable projects than those working in the six-figure range or higher. The requirements in terms of design repertoire, material selection, technical ability and client interaction, among a dozen other factors, will differ dramatically depending on the scope and complexity of the work.

(I’m not knocking price-based work, but simply acknowledging that it’s a completely different animal than the custom market.)

On top of that, we need to keep in mind that homeowners most likely come to the process having heard all sorts of horror stories about our industry. As a result, they rightfully believe they need to go through a careful selection process in order to avoid the nightmare scenarios they’ve heard about over and over again.

On that front, we should all be sensitive to the fact that over the past five years or so, the economic situation with the recession has only made matters worse when it comes to our industry’s reputation. Many contractors have gone out of business and in many cases left projects unfinished or cut corners to the point where there were massive problems. In many situations, those companies weren’t around to even attempt to correct those situations. The nasty truth is our industry did not have a sterling reputation prior to the recession and the economic pressures made matters even worse.

Unfortunately, ours is a business with a relatively low bar of entry. People think they know what it takes to construct a pool and they start up fly-by-night companies presenting themselves as professionals. In fact, they might have little or no experience, no education in design and they figure it out as they go — often at the cost of tremendous hassle, frustration and expense. Those of us who do know what we’re doing realize there are thousands of ways large and small that lead to any number of serious problems, all of which is part of why our prices may be higher than other firms.

This is all why I think it’s wise to find the right partner on both sides of the equation. We might not like being compared to our peers, but we should look at it as an opportunity to make sure everyone’s a good fit. After all, didn’t we all date a little bit before deciding whom to marry? Like it or not, when you first kissed your spouse, he or she was probably comparing you to everyone they kissed before. That’s just human nature.

When we’re meeting prospective customers, the same cautious tendencies apply: We need to be aware that both parties are considering entering into an ongoing relationship, one in which the right choice will lead to wonderful outcomes and the wrong choice to great inconvenience, unneeded expense and possible legal woes.

Yes, there are going to be situations in which a client has come to you by way of referral and is presold on your company based on your reputation and/or the positive feelings of past clients they know. That’s great when it happens, but that doesn’t mean that client is in today’s market; those situations don’t always come your way.

Besides, those exclusive situations are not always as great as they’re made out to be. Sometimes in situations where the clients have not talked to anyone else, there’s a tendency for them to start to think that you’re taking advantage of them in some way. Having not done any comparisons, there’s a strange sort of paranoid second-guessing that can creep into their heads. That’s less likely to be a problem when they’ve invested time and effort in their own research. In the long run, they’re more confident in their decision.

When I meet people who tell me they’re talking to other candidates, I tell them to continue shopping. They’ll be more comfortable hiring me and will feel better about spending money because they’ve done some research. Taking it all in stride reveals a level of confidence homeowners will respect because it speaks volumes about your belief in your own abilities. It also sends a message that you’re not desperate for work, that you’re successful because of your professionalism and competence.

Maintaining that aura of cool confidence can be tough in times when work is slow, but you never want to reveal any level of insecurity with potential clients. No matter how good an actor you think you are, if you resent the selection process, it’s likely to show through and that does not paint the picture of a self-assured professional.

I certainly do not advocate making comparative statements about other companies. Simply telling homeowners you’re better than the other guy often gives the exact opposite impression. It comes off as petty and runs a huge risk of reinforcing all those negative stereotypes about our industry. It’s far better to let your own personal and professional qualities do the talking. Insightful questions, quality design ideas, examples of past work and confidence are the most persuasive selling tools you have.

In that sense, the selection process is an opportunity to shine and set a tone that your work has tremendous value that stems from your own unique set of talents and values. It’s all in how you look at it.

Comments or thoughts on this article? Please e-mail [email protected].

Content Library
Dig through our best stories from the magazine, all sorted by category for easy surfing.
Read More
Content Library
Buyer's Guide
Find manufacturers and suppliers in the most extensive searchable database in the industry.
Learn More
Buyer's Guide