For expert insight on outdoor room trends and tips, Landscape and Irrigation magazine recently spoke with Kris Holland, owner/operator of Black River Landscape Management, Randolph, N.J.
L&I: Please tell us a little about your business and your work with outdoor rooms.
Holland: We’ve been doing landscape design from beginning. But I learned my way through, and I have been doing this for a long time now. I’m trying to separate myself from the pack. This industry is highly competitive, and the biggest problem in the industry is lack of real know-how and professionalism. Anyone can rent equipment and get the tools to install a patio. We try to be professional above all else, and please people above all else. People in this field seem to be less interested in their business, and they don’t feel they need to evolve. For us, customer satisfaction is above all else…that, and transparency. Traditionally in the industry, people would be getting a pond installed, and would get a big lump price. With us, everything is broken down line item by line item. We are giving them the freedom to add or subtract from the project. When it’s a big lump number it’s scary. When it’s broken out, it’s easier. We have a patio estimator on our site that people can use (www.blackriverlandscaping.com/estimates). So, transparency is key.
L&I: What outdoor room trends are you seeing, or what are clients seeking from their outdoor living spaces?
Holland: The biggest, most popular thing is fire pits. With all the new kits, whether its Techo-Block or Cambridge, you can add a feature like that for less than $1,500. Outdoor kitchens are a lean group [of clients]. We just did an outdoor kitchen for $23,000. But you can sell a fire pit to anyone. It makes their patio a three-season space.
It’s few and far between that I have to upsell a fire pit. People want it as part of the show. It’s an easy sell, because it makes the outdoor living space more usable. People love being outside. Trends are health and hiking; and fire pits are earthy and woodsy. The outdoor kitchen is something you have to work toward upselling.
L&I: What advice do you have when it comes to designing outdoor rooms?
Holland: Everyone handles the design portion differently. When we started, we would do design for anyone who requested it. Now we have so much work in our portfolio. We advertise, and we use Facebook and Instagram, so people are familiar with my work. Before, you had to bring a book to show examples of your work. I’m sure some companies still do design work for everyone, but that is a lot of additional work. That didn’t seem to be working out for me. Now, we give a rough estimate, and if they agree to that, we move forward with the design.
L&I: You mentioned Facebook and Instagram. Do you have a dedicated person handling your social media, and how important is social media to your sales efforts?
Holland: That’s part of my full-time job. I’m the owner, but it’s a big part of what I do. I was very passionate about social media from the beginning, and I’ve learned a lot about it. There are a lot of companies you can pay to do it. But your money is better invested if you can find the time to do it yourself. Sharing testimonials is important. Anything in this field is visual, so Facebook and Instagram are ideal for that.
L&I: Have you dealt with any out-of-the box requests from clients beyond the typical outdoor room?
Holland: There’s one we are working on right now in Montclair, N.J. The family gardens a lot. And scattered all throughout the lot are garden beds. But they were extremely dated. So they requested an outdoor living space that includes garden areas. So we are doing an entire landscape that includes tiny little gardens throughout the landscape, next to the patio and walkways. And I’m not talking planting beds — these are food gardens. We have had projects that include a vegetable garden in one area of the landscape, but for this project we incorporated gardens throughout the property. This job is gardens everywhere. I think people will really like it.
L&I: What recommendations do you have with regard to hardscapes and materials selection?
Holland: We do paver work. I take it house by house, but I try to stick with one material. Cambridge is the primary material I use. I think their warranties are better, service is better, plus they advertise themselves. When you present their product, people are already aware of it. Other products are sellable, but when the company markets itself it makes it easier for us to sell.
L&I: What recent projects really stand out to you, and what did you learn from those projects?
Holland: We did one that was published in the Star-Ledger (N.J.) and on its website. That was a full backyard remodel. We learned a lot there because of the job and how it went. We took a big hit on the job because we had planned on excavating 100 yards of fill dirt, and it ended up being ledge rock. We learned that there needs to be a contingency for when something like that happens. It cost us two weeks and an immense amount of work. There was nothing in the contract that said if we ran into anything unforeseen that we could adjust the contract. So you have to be a good businessperson and honor your work. But we learned that you need to cover all your bases, and make sure that’s accounted for. If there is anything I can tell other contractors, it’s be prepared for the worst that can happen. If you don’t prepare, it’s on you to be a responsible businessperson and take care of it.
But the client on that project was interviewed by the Star-Ledger about how we honored the contract, and about the work we did. So the word-of-mouth and goodwill we gained was great, and actually led to at least two other projects.
For more information about Black River Landscape Management, visit www.blackriverlandscaping.com.