The Customer Service Equation Includes Education

by Cris Blackstone, NHCLP
September 2019

When a customer has purchased plant material that may not be of the best quality, or may not be suited for the location they imagine, just what do you do? It’s important to maintain the great working relationship you’ve diligently worked to develop, and it is as important to help your customer know the real possibilities present in the landscape you are working with. It’s already difficult enough to have a customer present you with a photo of a glamorous yard, complete with water feature and a restored stone wall and fire pit nearby, and try and explain the differences between that location and theirs. Now throw in the ways customers can now purchase their new “favorite plants” online, and have them staged for you in the desired locations, as you watch the plants acclimate to our heat, water, fertilizing, and even wind conditions. What can you do?

The answer is: be patient. Continue to work on the communication you have with the customer, and then, set out to help educate the client about your goals and interpretation of their vision. Explaining from the outset how any nursery, garden center (independently owned or large nationally recognized) or online source will have varying return policies is integral in the customer service equation. Homeowners can be smitten by very gracious return policies and it’s important to look behind the policy to see what it actually entails. It can be a valuable use of your time to learn the different return policies stores or plant sources have in your catchment area. If you know the policies, you can be ready to have these discussions if they come up with your customers when they consider adding plants to their properties.

Speaking with P.J. Beaulier, Manager, NH Hostas & Companion Plants in South Hampton, NH, the many ways plant purchases vary is evident. NH Hostas is an online source for quality hostas as well as their companions, ferns, hellebores, and heuchera. While this business is also open for walk-in sales three days a week, their focus is the online market. The online plant sale market is growing!

What should plant buyers look for in an online plant sale? We’re advancing our goal of customers appreciating what it means to be a Certified Landscape Professional (NHCLP), or a member of a formal professional organization. NHLA’s goal is to help customers be confident that standards are being met and responsibilities adhered to. Now, customers can look for similar credentials when buying plants from online sources. In the case of NH Hostas selling online, check for memberships and credentials. In the case of this online plant source, an important marker could be their membership in the American Hosta Growers Association. Helping your clients understand the importance of recognitions, memberships, credentials, and then, policy for returns is helpful for you, in the long run, to be able to help keep the landscape design functional, shapely as it grows in and matures, and pleasing throughout the seasons for years to come.

P.J. Beaulier comments that he teaches his customers that it could take fully three years for a hosta to look as imagined. This online business has a thirty-day return policy, which is coupled with a strong interactive component revolving around further educating the client. Helping the customer understand how much is going on beneath the visible plant is important! Educating is about more than just “transplant shock,” its helping the client understand how the plant sets its roots and works on next year’s growth. It will take patience, P.J. explains, to see what that material really looks like next year. Of course, the thirty day policy is in place, but when customers learn more about what to expect and about the plant’s timeline, there is more than the impetuous, immediate need to see the yard as already filled in and fully mature — blossoming three seasons with winter interest firmly in place. They will understand it takes time and you, the landscaper, to get there and keep it that way!

Sourcing plants isn’t always up to the landscape designer once the initial installation is completed. As homeowners become more involved in their gardens, or as properties change ownership, we see ideas about the garden’s mood or styles changing significantly. Sometimes the designs have competing or overlapping styles, and the homeowners may take on components of the landscape that had been taken care of by a landscape company. As that happens, it’s important to keep in mind that an involved customer can be your best customer if you keep the communication and reliability you demonstrated evident in your work and business relationship.

Discussing your ideas about businesses you know of who sell dependable or healthy, trendy plants, is going to go far to help your clients understand their goals for the yard and garden. Helping your customers understand the highly-touted return policies of many garden centers is important, since they can be disappointed to learn what could be involved in a return, let alone avoiding the problem that is the cause of the return in the first place. Reading what’s involved in sourcing plants from online sources is the next new thing, too, as customers respond to the publicity about the health benefits of plants year ’round and how they may increase plant design on porches, screen rooms, or interiorscapes.

Help educate the people you work with on the ways we can promote and respect the many professional organizations who share the love of horticulture, its design process, and the maintenance required to keep plants vigorous, healthy, and able to express the features that drew them into the design in the first place.

The more you know about where the plants under your care come from, the better that landscape is going to look over time. Stay up-to-date with your professional development and take pride in what you can share and how you are helping educate your customers.

— Cris Blackstone, NHCLP, is a freelance garden and landscape writer, and member of the Garden Communicator’s Assoc. (GWA) She serves on Newmarket’s Conservation Commission and the NH DES Lamprey River Advisory Council.

Becoming History

by Dr. Dirt
September 2019

— in which Dr. Dirt muses on the end of all things, mostly himself

The unique mission of Strawbery Banke Museum in Portsmouth is to interpret the post-Columbian evolution of a New England seaport neighborhood over time. Unlike similar “village re-enactments” such as Plimoth Plantation, Old Sturbridge Village, or Colonial Williamsburg, Strawbery Banke is not time-locked to one period of history but illustrates the evolution of this ten-acre cluster of houses from 1696 until becoming a public museum in the late 1950s. Thus, you can tour a merchant’s shop from 1705, a wealthy sea captain’s home from 1780, a Victorian politician’s manse from 1870, a Jewish immigrant family’s humble apartment from 1920, a 1940’s corner store, and so on – each furnished to its period and to its occupants’ economic status. Imagine my surprise (shock!) when I entered my own middle-class home from the 1950s: Linoleum “throw rug,” scratchy overstuffed sofa, Formica dining table, two-tub wringer washer, and a television set with a tiny curved screen, rabbit-ears, and a cabinet the size of a refrigerator. I thought, “Holy crap! I’m now history!”

The odometer keeps rolling through the numbers, on both my car and my body. In 1968 I owned a one-third share in a 1953 Chevrolet (an investment on my part of $16.67, plus gas). A major celebration was held to honor its turning 100,000 miles – a rarity in those days of leaky seals, ill-fitted parts, and homespun repairs. Today we might hold such a celebration at 200,000 or 250,000 miles: Vehicle life has doubled as machined tolerance levels have narrowed, lubricants have improved, and as we drive more high-speed miles in our daily Sisyphean commutes.
In similar fashion our human lifespans have almost doubled. From an evolutionary perspective, the design-life of the human body is around 38 years: Aging on the African savannah was severely limited. Common methods of death included childbirth (both mother and offspring), diseases without modern cures, abscessed teeth and infected wounds, starvation, and an abundance of cunning and well-equipped predators – especially other humans. So 38 years was the average lifespan. People living beyond that became highly valued cultural repositories and dispensers of wisdom.

Today our bodies last about twice that long, and if we’re lucky, our minds do too. Why so long? Statistics show much lower death rates for all the age-old causes, including death from other humans. But like a car with 200,000 miles, our aging lives are not what they once were: Hard to get started of a cold morning, more erratic operation, and more repairs and replacement parts as time goes on. Highly valued cultural repositories and sage teachers – not so much. It’s more about rectal suppositories and sage smudging.

I have a friend Walter I see once a week for lunch. His odometer hit 104 at the end of July. When asked to what he attributes this longevity, he replies with a wry smile, “I never married.” Well, I did marry, but I’m belatedly taking Walter’s advice. I have a long-term girlfriend (woman-friend?), but we keep separate housing – about ninety miles separate. As my teeth grow longer and my night vision fades, the commute is beginning to feel like a long haul. I finally broke down and bought a new used Lexus, to pass the ride-time in more comfort. The Lexus also has eleven airbags in case I doze off. (You may recall the incident a few years back when an elderly couple drove an air-bagged Cadillac off a steep section of the Mount Washington Auto Road, tumbling down a thousand feet. They walked away with only bruises and embarrassment.) Along with our bodies, our aspirations shrivel as we age: All I want is a good airbag.

As the actor Bette Davis reached her eighth decade, she wrote, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” a statement which these days appears in slightly modified form on coffee mugs and coffee-stained t-shirts worn by drooling geezers. A corollary I learned from a farmer friend with knuckles the size of golf balls is, “It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.” The most seriously sissifying or weakening agent, besides our own death, is the death of friends and relatives. As we gain in years, we lose through funerals. Causes are as diverse as the people. The quicker exits seem to involve the cancers: Brain, breast, prostate, pancreatic, melanoma. Then there are the more lingering ones: Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia seem to be particularly popular among the people I know. It’s very hard to watch (much less experience), and there’s little you can do to help, save simple friendship.

This was all brought home to me over the last year. I went to the doctor for knee pain: Arthritis and no cartilage left. Why? “Your age.” Fuzz in my eye with flashes of light: Vitreous detachment of the eyeball. Why? “Your age.” Abdominal pain: Diverticulitis. Why? “Your age.” Forgetting names and nouns: Memory loss. Why? “Your age.” Other vexing questions: Where is my phone/keychain? When did I take my last Tylenol/Advil/antibiotic? Why am I standing in the middle of this room right now?

The good news for me is that, so far, these problems are all pretty insignificant in the greater scheme – the Greater Scheme being Death. I’ve signed up for my first big replacement part, my right knee. As everyone says, “You’ll know when it’s time,” the right time for me including constant pain, a cane, poor sleep, and no hiking. As everyone also says, “You’ll wonder why you waited so long.” I anticipate that thought in about a month.

At the moment (and with much knocking on wood), my body is free of the serious auto-cannibalistic devastations like cancer and dementia. In this realm of innocence and ignorance, I don’t fear the Big D. I’ve had a pretty darn good life, and (so far) can intellectualize death as the final tattered satin ribbon on the package. Becoming compost even seems appealing, part of the wheel of life: From mud we are made, and to mud we return. I do fear the potential pain and deep malaise that may lie ahead. At the same time, I’ve been blessed with an ostrich-like ability to bury my head in the sand when these grim thoughts arise. Denial, as they say, is not just a river in Egypt, and I seem to be pretty handy with it. And I figure (hopefully?) that I’ll just get run over by a bus.

So I continue, happily and blindly, to carpe my diems. Head in the sand, I try to make the most of what’s left: Travel, reading/writing, design, cooking and dining out, making love, laughing, communing with nature, and visiting with the kin and kindred spirits who still walk the planet. It’s a great life if you don’t weaken.

Phun Phact: Scientists now refer to the current geological era on Earth as the “Anthropocene Epoch,” the brief period when the dominant force on the planet was the human being.

— Dr. Dirt, a mere stripling at 33, gives a nod to his elder John Hart, dba Environments LLC, Durham NH.