While the landscape industry was deemed essential early on during the pandemic, companies still had to pivot and change some of their operations to continue doing business safely.
One aspect of that is meeting with clients virtually to go over their landscape designs. Josh Robinson, design and sales manager for Todd’s Services Inc., based in Hamburg, Michigan, and Terry Hubbard, president of Peak Environmental, based in Round Lake, New York, both say the main advantages to doing virtual design consultations are saving time and gas.
Prior to COVID-19, Robinson says that they very rarely did virtual design meetings but moving forward virtual appointments will remain an option for clients.
“Some customers are not going to want to meet in person long-term,” Robinson says. “Everybody has a different viewpoint on how long to wait before meeting again. So some people are going to want to wait longer and we still want them to be potential customers. It’s really important that it’s noted that you offer this and it might put people at ease about contacting your place. Right on our connection page, it states that this is something that we offer.”
Likewise, Hubbard says they will continue to offer virtual design meetings even after the pandemic subsides.
“You get the same connection whether you’re in person or if you’re on a video chat and that was the biggest surprise for me,” Hubbard says.
Aside from saving gas and cutting down travel time, Hubbard says sharing the virtual tour is easier as well.
“Trying to sit next to somebody and share that laptop screen and show them the virtual tour, it doesn’t present as well,” Hubbard says. “They’re looking over your shoulder and checking it out whereas if they’re in front of a computer they’ve got their own screen and we’re walking them through it. I think that’s the best part and something that I think was missing from other design meetings.”
He adds clients tend to be more available for virtual meetings. He says he can do 3:30 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. meetings because customers are home and can take the time for the meeting and then keep working after that. Hubbard says people like the convenience of it because they’re at their computers already and nothing else is required.
“If we can take the commute out of the mix, we can get more work done each day,” Hubbard says. “I wasn’t a big printer before this, but you don’t have to print everything up. You just send it all over digitally to them. You can share the screen, do a 3D tour. We’re able to talk to them and present a model and zoom in and out. I think it’s a better experience as we explore the project versus paper.”
For Robinson, he says face-to-face meetings are still important. He says the process can take a little bit longer if they are working on a highly particular client and it can be harder to pick up on unspoken cues virtually.
“It’s harder to have a deeper relationship with the client when you’re doing things virtually,” Robinson says. “It’s hard to get to know them as well. It’s one of the things that people love about this business is meeting their clients and their pets and their kids and there’s just less of that virtually.”
Robinson advises diving deeper with your questions to find out the client’s style and preferences.
“If I’m not getting a sense of what their style is sometimes I’ll have them send me pictures online of things that they’ve liked just so I have a good idea of their style,” Robinson says. “If you find something that you just love that’ll give me a flavor for what you like.”
Hubbard says he doesn’t feel there is a deficit when it comes to getting to know his clients virtually. He says as long as you have good designs and good stuff to say, the connection will be there as you discuss, analyze and see each other via Zoom. He says it’s not hard to pick up on unspoken cues as long as you’re doing a video chat.
“I think it’s just as good, believe it or not,” Hubbard says. “You want to meet in person to get a connection with people for sales. It’s hard to give that up -but Zoom isn’t that far off from face-to-face.”
Hubbard advises prequalifying potential customers to make sure these are viable projects that will happen in the near future. They will have their leads send their budgets and pictures of projects they like prior to the meeting.
“Make them do a little a work before we engage them,” Hubbard says. “If you don’t do that, it’s very easy to get sucked into doing design work for folks who aren’t going to build with you. At the end of the day, we’re trying to sell a landscape job. We’re a construction company. We don’t make a whole lot of money on design, so we don’t want to spend a whole lot of time designing just to design.”
Changes Moving Forward
Peak Environmental is looking to hire more designers and is considering both doing design work for clients based in other parts of the country or hiring designers in other parts of the country to do their work.
Robinson says they haven’t considered doing design work on a national scale with the virtual option.
“Our niche is designing and building,” Robinson says. “It’s more important to us that we sell the project than we sell design. So for us, that answer is no. Now I’m sure for some people that’s absolutely the case. We’re not doing that just because we have enough work to keep ourselves busy in our own area we don’t need to expand we’re very busy thankfully.”
Robinson says they’ve gotten more efficient with clients and internal meetings, knowing when a 10-minute Zoom meeting might be better than driving all the way out to a site.
At Todd’s Services for design and sales positions, Robinson says it’s worked out great having them work remotely and COVID-19 has solidified there’s no reason to have them work in the office. He says even after COVID-19 is completely gone, he’ll still do 50 percent of his meetings virtually.
“There is still a value to getting together and having face-to-face time but there’s also value to efficiency and so I’ll probably do 50/50 even after this,” Robinson says.