Front Office: Software revolution

The recent advent of landscape-oriented business management and design software is changing the way even the most seasoned landscaper conducts business.

Generally, most of the business management software on the market is used to manage a company’s customers, services offered and in-progress jobs. Some programs do their own billing, others work in conjunction with accounting programs such as QuickBooks.

Glenn Zior, vice president, CLIP Software, says the type of business management software a landscaper chooses has a lot to do with preferred customer management style. “When landscapers get about 80 to 100 accounts, they start to think about purchasing management software because their business volume begins to be overwhelming,” he says. With CLIP, landscapers can document every time a customer calls and assign tasks for the related project so additions show up in the customer’s file immediately.

Another problem integrating software into landscaping applications is that very few landscapers are desk-bound day in and day out. To meet that demand, “A lot of mobile computing solutions are hitting the market now,” Zior says. “We were working with barcodes 10 years ago. When Palm Pilots and other personal data assistants (PDAs) initially came out, we had those right away. Now that Windows Mobile is out, we have 90 percent of the available data on our CLIP 2 Go device, which is a hand-held PDA specifically designed for landscapers.”

Mobile devices allow landscapers to track the number of man hours and materials used on every job to determine whether they are making a profit. “One of our customers has 10 of the mobile devices, so all of his crews are using them,” Zior says. “We also offer the only Spanish mobile option in a market that really benefits from it.

If you’re intimidated by computers, turning to younger workers is a possible solution. “One trend I’m seeing is landscapers hiring people with good computer skills who learn the software first, then teach it to everyone else at the company,” Zior explains. “And many older landscapers are taking computer classes because they know how important it is to the success of their business.”

It can be tough for landscapers to decide to buy business management software because “the big commitment is they will have to change the management principles of their company,” Zior says. “They have to be flexible to let the software help standardize their business.”

Principles of design
Design software has been around in some form, namely CAD, for the architecture and construction industries for years. While general-purpose design programs like AutoCAD are popular, they don’t offer specific technology, tools or solutions for landscape design. Landscape-specific programs offer a visualization aspect that enables landscapers to upload a digital photograph of a project and then place plants, hardscaping and lighting to help sell the project. Most design programs also offer estimation services such as bids, material lists and plant information for a complete proposal package.

“First-time users are our primary market for this product,” says Dan Monahan, marketing director, Nemetschek North America. “One of the differential advantages of our program, VectorWorks, is that it is very easy to use. It is very analogous to hand drafting, so if you have any experience with that, you can leverage that background with the design software.”

With programs such as VectorWorks and Drafix’s ProLandscape, you get graphically rich drawings that can be e-mailed to a client, used as part of a portfolio, included in a PowerPoint presentation or posted to a Web site.

Drafix’s ProLandscape software is a CAD-based system specifically designed for the green industry. “A good percentage of our customers are not computer people, and we try to make the software as easy to use as possible,” says David Sloan, sales and marketing manager, Drafix. “In the background it’s still performing the engineering functions of CAD, and that makes the learning curve considerably shorter. ProLandscape is a three-in-one option comprising imaging, CAD and project estimation. It’s a design tool, yes, but it’s a sales tool more than anything else. It allows you to convey your ideas in a manner that the customer can readily understand,” he says.

One of the biggest benefits of design software is the ability to scan in property surveys, download GIS data from a county or municipality, use digital photos of site conditions or plant materials to create project plans.

“Sometimes, our customers will take pictures of every house in a neighborhood they are working in, do a few quick designs, and leave door hangars to grow their business,” Sloan says. “Some people would prefer to keep drawing by hand, but we offer a tool to help them create designs in an efficient and professional manner.”

If you are in the market for business management software:

  • Each software product comes from a certain background, i.e. maintenance, chemical application; that’s usually the strong point of the software. Try to find the software that best matches your company’s priorities.
  • Programs are meant to serve certain-size companies – some small, some large. Where do you see your company going?
  • Research the company you are buying from. Have they been around for a while? Do they have a good track record?
  • If you think business management software is worth it for your company and it can help grow your business, that’s the value you should place on it.
  • What are the support options, and how will you be trained?

If you are in the market for design software:

  • Look at new breeds of landscape design software. Analyze your business and determine what you want to get out of design software. Do you need visualization only, or do you want the ability to create plans for other contractors?
  • What processes would you like to automate?
  • Can you convey your ideas to the customer and grow your business without software?
  • Think about the complexity of your plans. Do you want to keep them the same or make them more or less complex?
  • In addition to the price of the software, be aware of training and support options.
The Attachments Idea Book
Landscapers use a variety of attachments for doing everything from snow removal to jobsite cleanup, and regardless of how often they are used, every landscaper has a favorite attachment.
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