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.