Plant warranties serve as a sign you stand by your work and can possibly even give you an edge against a competitor if they don’t offer the same. However, plant warranty policies need to be handled with care to avoid future conflicts with clients when a plant inevitably dies.
“I think we as an industry need to set the tone of the conversation early,” Chris James, president of Chris James Landscaping, based in Waldwick, New Jersey. “Proper plant for the location, proper time a year to plant that plant in that location. I think we’re all focused on the mighty sale. I think a guarantee warranty can be a great tool and set some boundaries. It also gives the consumer their rights. I think a lot of times we just say, ‘Yeah we can do that,’ and it dooms the project right there for failure.”
Honoring a Warranty
The main question for plant warranties is how long one should be. James says their warranty is for one year from the date of planting. They warranty the replacement plant as well. If the replacement plant should die as well, he says they’ll recommend something completely different as there might be something preventing that species from thriving.
Bob Hursthouse, president of Hursthouse Landscape Architects, based in Bolingbrook, Illinois, says they offer a three-year warranty on all their woody plant material. Herbaceous groundcovers and perennials have a one-year warranty.
“We are super client service oriented and found ourselves going back year two and, every once in a while, year three and replacing something anyhow, so why don’t we take credit for it?” Hursthouse says.
Hursthouse says they encourage their clients to give the plant a little more time to get established and the longer warranty gives them the confidence to do so.
While a client may think the instant the plant is dead, your company should come out and replace it, stress to them in your policy the new plant will be installed at the proper time. Hursthouse says they’ll work with the client to install the replacement plant at the time that will give it the best chance for success.
James says they have a standing policy where they will not plant after the middle of September as the plant needs time to get established.
“We try to do a couple days of warranty work every spring and a couple of days of warranty work every late summer or fall,” James says.
Hursthouse admits it’s hard to do a postmortem on a plant to figure out its cause of death and it’s better if a client has them look at it while it’s in decline.
“We encourage our clients to be in contact,” Hursthouse says. “If our maintenance teams are on-site, then obviously the maintenance team is reporting something’s going on. A manager or supervisor will go by and take a look, but a lot of times, we show up, the plant’s dead and they didn’t even realize it.”
They do have moisture meters where they can see if a plant is super wet or dry. Hursthouse says even if it’s clear the client did not care for the plant at all, they will replace the plant once.
“We try to educate them on what needs to be done,” Hursthouse says.
Reducing Warranty Issues
To avoid customer complaints and the frequency of plant deaths, it all comes down to client education and communication.
“We actually provide the warranty and guarantee parameters before we ever sign a contract,” James says. “That paperwork is sent out with the proposal. It’s not an at time of signing kind of thing. I think that avoids a lot of hurt feelings and confusion.”
In the past five years, James says they’ve had to add wording in their policies that clarify no plants are deer-proof, but they can recommend deer-resistant plants.
“We’re very candid,” James says. “Deer resistant is not what it used to be, at least in the North Jersey market. When Bambi’s hungry, Bambi eats.”
One issue you can mitigate is poor plant choices. In the case of a client demanding certain plants be used, James says they will write an email highly discouraging them from using that plant material and they will not warranty it.
“We’re the landscape professionals and we’re supposed to be selling them a value-added product or service,” James says.
Hursthouse notes that sometimes clients will see plants not zoned for their area at garden centers and want to use those varieties. He says they’ll have a conversation with the client, and most of the time, they can talk them out of it. In the few cases where a client insists, they’ll be disappointed when the plant dies, but Hursthouse is upfront about not warranting those types of plants.
James says they provide generalized plant care tips for their customers, but there are those who are highly engaged and those who are not. Hursthouse says they also provide written and electronic care instructions to their clients. Their document is around 25 pages, providing enough in-depth information for the DIYers.
A major element to consider is if you want to require the client to hire you for maintenance services in order for the plants to be warrantied. James says the client has to be using them for garden care; otherwise, they won’t warranty the plantings. He says irrigation systems are required as well. James says they do not warranty annuals, perennials or groundcovers, even if they are in fully irrigated sites that they maintain.
“You can be the nicest folks in the world, but if your site is not irrigated and we can’t set that system up and adjusted seasonally, we will not even offer you a warranty,” James says.
Hursthouse says while they restarted their maintenance division five years ago, they do not require clients to retain them for maintenance services for the warranty to apply. Even if they are handling the maintenance, Hursthouse typically does not handle the watering unless the client requests it and that is at a premium.
Watering is one of the main issues behind plant deaths. James says more than half of the warranty work they end up doing is due to overwatering, rather than underwatering. He says this is typically because some clients think if you’re supposed to water twice a week, doubling that is even better. Hursthouse agrees it’s typically overwatering that will kill a plant.
In the cases where the plant has been properly cared for and still dies, James says there’s no one major cause behind this. It could be several small factors that are too much stress for a new plant.
“We’re dealing with living things and sometimes it was the wrong selection for the spot,” Hursthouse says. “Sometimes the plant was damaged coming from the nursery. The root ball was damaged, and it wasn’t identified before it was put in the ground. We get into a real severe weather pattern where it’s too warm, too cold, too wet, too dry and you just can’t react to it.”
Factoring Cost and Customer Relations
If you decide to offer plant warranties, don’t forget to factor in their replacement costs and labor. James says they add seven to eight percent to the contract to account for possible plant replacement costs. In the case of an expensive specimen plant like an Alaskan cedar, they will charge double the cost of the plant material to cover for the installation fees.
Hursthouse says while they only lose a small percentage of plants, they evaluate the cost of their warranty plants every year when they review their budget and make adjustments as necessary.
While your plant warranty policy helps provide certain parameters as to when you’ll replace plant material, in certain cases, it’s better to just make the client happy.
James says if he has a client who doesn’t have a warranty and they’ve spent thousands of dollars on a project and they need to replace a $100 rhododendron, he’s not going stand in their front yard and have a battle of wills. But by the same token, if a client wants them to replace 10 shade trees that they watered to death or neglected an entire summer, they’re not going to foot the bill for that.
“90 percent it’s no, and 10 percent it’s let’s have common sense prevail,” James says.
Hursthouse says paying for a $20 shrub is worth it for a client’s goodwill. He says landscape companies need to understand their marketplace and customer base.
“It’s really all about serving our clients,” Hursthouse says. “Our number one most important thing is to have a happy client because they’ll become a repeat client and they will refer us. That’s how the majority of our work comes.”
Certain companies may opt to have strict plant warranty policies that will not assume liability for plants killed by pests or abnormal weather, but how well it is received depends on your market.
Because Hursthouse is located in a referral-driven market, they need to have best-in-class practices that are consistent from the first call through to their three-year warranty. Other marketplaces may be more transitory, and this may not matter as much to them.