Where to Embrace AI and Automation in the Lawn and Landscape Industry - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Where to Embrace AI and Automation in the Lawn and Landscape Industry

Lawn care and landscaping are very hands-on tasks, but there are still ways to take advantage of tech innovations like AI and automation.

Colin Bemus, president of Bemus Landscape Inc., based in San Clemente, California, says it’s short-sighted to assume AI and automation don’t apply to the landscape industry.

“I think we should promote it,” Bemus says. “Use it responsibly and use it to pick ourselves up from where some people internally or externally view our industry. I think we should adopt it and embrace it, not try and hide from it.”

Overlooked Opportunities

Adam Swank, director of technology for Ground Works Land Design, based in Cleveland, Ohio, notes that some may be intimidated by AI, but it can be used as a resource to explain things you may need a deeper understanding of.

“It’s a really underutilized tool for this industry to learn about things,” Swank says. “I use it all the time for very high-level, technical understandings for things.”

Justin White, owner of K&D Landscaping, Inc., based in Watsonville, California, says you can also use ChatGPT as your board of advisors by setting up multiple chats and having it roleplay as your CFO, chief technology officer or chief marketing officer.

“I think with the right prompts, you can use it as an amazing tool to bounce ideas off of, but you really have to set it up and get it to understand you before you just start asking it to do that,” White says.

Skyler Westergard, learning and development specialist at LandCare, LLC, based in Frederick, Maryland, adds ChatGPT can also roleplay for other situations like interviews by posing questions and help people feel better prepared.

Westergard says AI has been beneficial in taking large amounts of information and summarizing it for him. For instance, he was able to put in hours of interview notes he had from production managers and was able to get a one-page summary.

“That just saved me hours and hours and hours’ worth of work,” Westergard says. “Now I can take what it gave me, and I can verify it. I can go back and read my notes. I can see if it’s accurate. It was pretty accurate; it wasn’t 100%. There were other things that I needed to include that it didn’t capture. The way it worded the summary wasn’t exactly how I would say it, so I need to go clean it up and make sure it’s accurate before I provide it to other people.”

AI can also be used to help generate quick conceptual designs when talking with clients to show them what they’re visualizing.

On the automation side, you can have systems set up to automatically respond when a customer fills out a form to set up an appointment or to let clients know when your crew is on the way after they tap a button.

“We’ve not had a single person come and be critical of any of the automation that we have for production communications for our site notifications,” Swank says. “It’s actually been the opposite. They’ve been very happy with that. They got to the point of giving us Google reviews over it.”

Even small things like messaging employees on their birthdays and work anniversaries can be automated. Dani Gowda, human resources manager with Dennis’ 7 Dees, based in Portland, Oregon, says their employees get an automated text and their manager gets an automated email a few days before these events so they can tell them in person.

“Employees have responded very well to this and appreciate the acknowledgment,” Gowda says. “If they reply, I try to respond so they know their message has been received.”

Swank says oftentimes adding an automation to solve one pain point provides other benefits like an improved customer experience.

“We implemented auto payment through a completely different system for the first time this year through HubSpot,” Swank says. “Just the simplicity of adding automation into that process, it allowed us to eliminate two complete softwares and so just the cost savings of just removing those off of our P&L. Also the time that was saved because before it was a very call-heavy process.”

The Value of Human Connection

While there is a space for AI and automation, it does not eliminate the need for human connection. If anything, it makes these types of interactions more important.

Colin Bemus, president of Bemus Landscape Inc., based in San Clemente, California, says the ability to crack a joke, say ‘I’m sorry,’ and go the extra mile to evoke the right emotion in people is where humans have the edge for now.

“One of the benefits that we do have in our industry is for a lot of people, it’s very emotional,” Bemus says. “It’s not transactional. In my experience to date, that’s something that a robot can’t replace at this point.”

Tasks like sales, hiring and onboarding should all still be done in person.

“Am I telling you something where I need to get a decision from you or I’m trying to influence your mood or feeling about something that we’re doing with the project that’s going to involve an emotional experience?” Swank says. “Anything like that you should be with a person.”

Most landscape companies that are implementing AI and automation prefer to keep it internal versus using external-facing features like chatbots. White says when they briefly used a chatbot on their website, customers weren’t following through with making a request.

“We felt like the chatbot was actually distracting the clients away from what we wanted them to focus on,” White says. “We decided to remove that from the website. And now it’s a chat with us box and you click on it and then it just basically is like, ‘Hey, you can text us’ and it goes through a live human at our front desk now.”

He says the chatbot was also giving false information, telling customers they offered weed control in areas they don’t service. White advises using caution when programming what your chatbot can say. You also need to be very proactive and follow up with the people who have conversations with your chatbot.

“There’s a place for the human conversation, the human touch,” Westergard says. “I think there’s still a powerful need in our landscape world for a landscape professional that’s warm and empathetic and understanding to connect with a customer in person. That kind of stuff I don’t think that AI is going to be great at solving that problem.”

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.