Backhanders in the business?
John Wyer FSGD questions the forbidden yet commonplace practice of designers taking commission from suppliers
There have been some interesting discussions recently about comparisons between landscape architects and garden designers, and how they are both perceived in the industry. Landscape architects are seen as more professional and independent, while garden designers are seen as more creative and glamorous. The flip side is that by extension one might argue that landscape architects are boring and lack creativity, while garden designers are – well – unprofessional?
The Landscape Institute code of professional conduct has quite a bit to say about what constitutes ‘professional behaviour’, best summed up by the introduction: “The Code should be considered central to the professional life of a Landscape Professional not only as a source of ethical guidance, but also as a commonsense indicator to principles of good practice. It is only through the maintenance of high standards by individuals that landscape architecture as a whole will be served, the public will be protected and the profession as a whole will thrive.”
This could be applied to many industries, not least financial services and banking. We have all been horrified by LIBOR fixing, mis-sold PPI and the commission scandals in the insurance world. It could never go on in our industry, could it? Apart from anything else, the SGD code of conduct explicitly forbids it: “As a member of the Society, you must act with integrity and avoid conflicts of interest”. Clause 3.3. and 3.4 are particularly relevant: “3.3 You must refuse any gift, favour or hospitality that might be interpreted, now or in the future, as an attempt to obtain preferential consideration. 3.4 When you specify or recommend a product, contractor or any other service, you must ensure that your advice is based on your professional opinion as to the relative advantages and disadvantages of alternative products, contractors or services and is not based on commercial gain.”
Despite this it does go on. I have been offered commission on a number of occasions. Only a couple of months ago, in the Garden Design Journal, a supplier offered “5% commission to SGD members on the first sale and 10% thereafter”. Firms would not still be doing this sort of thing if it was not (partially at least) deemed ‘acceptable’.
I suspect that it is quite widespread in the industry. And it shouldn’t be. I am against taking the payment on a number of grounds. Firstly, it clouds your judgement. I want to be free to make decisions, without the size of the bung being one of the factors. Secondly, we should be free to recommend others (and be recommended ourselves) on the basis of competency, skills and experience. We work with a range of other experts and specialists – joiners, artists, lighting designers, etc – and we choose them on merit.
And finally, it is dishonest. Not dishonest in the sense of illegal, but more in the sense of not being transparent. If you take such payments, do you tell your client? If not, why would that be? Commission admission I realise that this will probably unleash a flood of comments from designers saying this is the only way they can make a living: “It’s all right for you lot in Loaded London”. My answer to that is that you should charge more. Again, I hear the dissent: “All right for you lot in the southeast.”
More broadly, do we work in an industry which undervalues itself and if so, why is that? If you don’t try to charge a living wage for what you do, how will clients ever learn to value it? The more you attempt to compete on price, the more clients will perceive you as ‘cheap’. If you are not making enough from fees, the answer is not to take backhanders. What clients pay for should be transparent and fair – to both sides. If you want to be perceived as a professional, you should behave like one.
Response to this article – Talking Point ‘Dishonest dealings’, first published in the November 2016 issue of the Garden Design Journal:
“I agree fully with everything that John says in his article. In 32 years of being in practice, I have never lost a job on our fee proposal based on a brief, which we have given the client. We have lost work because the client has gone to others who have quoted less for less work which the client has not understood. We have also never quoted for work when the client has provided the brief. That brief is invariably wrong, you are the professional not them and it becomes a lottery.
Clients come to us because they have seen our work, they like what they see and what they have heard from others. However, we are only garden designers, I can hear them say - the same can be said for Landscape Architects. ‘It’s only plants and a bit of paving; there is not much required’. Well, in truth, there is a mass of info required, but we as designers do not half muck it up when we quote.
I was once told 25 years ago by a highly experienced designer to view clients as eagles on your arm. You have to get their trust; they have to understand you and you have to talk to them calmly. Any sudden movement or noise, and they will fly away.
Prospective clients are the same. They have never instructed a designer before, they have a perceived understanding of what you do but as for fees, well you are only a garden designer are you not. The laying out of a quote should be in fine detail with every item quoted for. A lump sum fee and you are finished before you start. It is often best to do some first stage work for a fee and build up from there.
I once asked three local garden designers to help us on a project and asked them for a brief and fee proposal. We got not only a poor brief with bad spelling but all was a single fee. We did not move on with them.
Quoting fees is a total art form in its own right but if the client is looking for cheap, cheap, cheap, it is up to the designer to gain trust and show exactly what you would do to meet the client’s needs. Only then will the client understand, and if needs be reduce expectations to meet their considered fee for the project.”
Tim Lynch, Lynch Robertson Landscape Architects
Reponses to Talking Point columns may be edited for length and clarity.