Nothing causes finger pointing like changing plans at the last minute. Or maybe finger-pointing caused the last minute change. Either way, such antics are sure to dissolve any type of grower/landscape contractor relationship. And who suffers? It’s the customer who just wants a nice flower display for the home or commercial site. But it’s not just about avoiding pains for the customer.
It’s about making everyone’s life easier. And having a solid working relationship makes business a lot smoother, said Melissa Scherb, vice president of business development for the Chicago branch of Landscape Concepts Management.
“Our grower regularly shares their ideas about the latest and greatest plant material,” she said. “With that in mind, they are able to show us new species that may work best in our planting environments and have successful seasonal color gardens.
“It is also very important to have open lines of communication with the client at all times, particularly when you are in a jam and need plant material, ‘like yesterday.’ When a grower understands the pressure we are under in the landscaping business and appreciates a great business partnership, they are more willing to go above and beyond to get you the plant material you need, on time and looking fabulous.”
So, to help you keep your fingers pointing down, instead of at someone, we spoke with growers and contractors, to get their input on the keys to forming a good relationship.
Communication. Not to state the obvious, but communication is key to any relationship. “Our customers appreciate being kept apprised of crop status, timing and substitutes,” said Dan Hutton, area sales manager at Wenke Greenhouse in Kalamazoo, Mi. “All of this occurs prior to delivery to minimize surprises and offer an opportunity for advanced planning so receiving, loading to go to job and install is all as smooth as possible.”
Especially with contract growing, (see sidebar) both sides need to be in constant communication and on the same page.
“Contract growing requires a thorough understanding of both parties’ timing issues, the exact product required and delivery schedules,” said Tim Gravatt, division enhancements and regional irrigation advisor at ValleyCrest Cos.
“Contractors need to have a long-term plan as to what their needs will be and share these plans with their grower. This means looking ahead a minimum of four months, or six months on some perennial products. The plan should be broken out by job, crop types and installation dates. Communicating these details is critical, as the grower may need to stagger start times on different crops to ensure all your selections are ready at the same time.”
Scherb says the more face-to-face time everyone can get, the better. “It’s important to visit the grower throughout each growing season,” she says. “When you are in “their world,” you can see all the different items/species/varieties, their facility and how their team works in its own environment.
“It’s also equally important that the grower get to see their product and how it’s used. If you can show them your sites, they will get a better understanding of your clientele, the plant material and how it’s planted.”
The earlier, the better. Scherb says her company pre-books all of its plant material well in advance because it ensures that the company can grow exactly what it needs to grow for each season. It also allows the grower time to communicate any shortfalls in seed supplies or possibly recommend a different plant variety that may be a better performer based on the seed trials they have viewed or participated, she said.
“For spring, some of our numbers are in as early as the fall before,” she said. “For pansies, we usually create custom mixes and work with our grower to get the perfect colors and varieties within a timely fashion usually no later than Jan. 1, to ensure early April delivery.
“We know that to get the best product, giving ample time to our grower is necessary to meet the deadlines needed for planting season. It is critical that growers provide those timelines well in advance to contractors so that they can meet with their clients and create our pre-book order for them.
Rob Swanekamp, vice president and owner of grower Kube Pak in Allentown N.J., said he needs about 15-20 weeks’ notice for a product.“In mid-November, we are working on contracts now for spring,” he said. “We generally like to have all the contract work we are doing for 2013 finished signed and in our books no later than Feb. 1.
“That Feb. 1 date pertains to material that is probably going to ship in May. On average, I need about 15 weeks from the signing of the contract to the product being ready for delivery. Anybody that wants pansies in February or early March, we’re basically doing that work right now and we are getting contracts done, seed sown and moving forward. ”
Beyond business. Just like you may get to know co-workers or customers better outside of the work environment, the same can be said for developing a positive grower/contractor relationship, Scherb said. “We have also partnered with our growers on several pro-bono projects.
“Our grower has donated plant material several times to these efforts and has helped us be able to participate in great projects, including the tapestry planting we created at the John Hancock building where we used flowers to recreate Michigan Avenues Magnificent Mile for the Tulip Festival using a mix of Forced Tulips, sod and lots of spring annuals.”
Show your work. A plan is always great to have in your head, but try putting it down on paper and you’ll see a lot more progress. Letting your grower know what your customer wants in an orderly manner will streamline the process.
“For planning purposes, we consider it a best practice to write out an annual plan for each job consistent with the customer’s needs and goals,” Gravatt said. “Once we’ve shared the plan with the customer and received their signature on the written plan – a critical step to ensure there are no misunderstandings – we add their plan to a master spreadsheet.
“The master spreadsheet is broken down by client, delivery address, time deliveries need to arrive, crop type and quantities and date of installation. This provides an at-a-glance look at our overall schedule and product needs. Being thorough with this information alleviates confusion long-term by ensuring everyone is on the same page; it also acts as an internal scheduling tool for planning labor needs.”
Hutton says a grower should provide you with the resources and tools to effectively secure the order from your customer and subsequently place the order with the grower. “(They should) include images of the flowers that are available as well as accurate, updated and timely availabilities,” he said. “It is awkward for both our customers and us to present and order flowers that are unavailable.”
Check back often. Just because you finalized an order and you and your customer haven’t changed your minds about the plan, doesn’t mean the grower hasn’t hit a snag, Gravatt said. “Despite planning thoroughly ahead of time, sometimes crop delays can still occur. It is a good idea to review your seasonal color calendar every few weeks and follow up with your grower about the state of the crop. If a crop is delayed for any reason, it helps to know as far in advance as possible so plans can be adjusted as needed.”
Be realistic. Just because you see a flower in a catalog doesn’t mean your grower can get it, according to Swanekamp. When the company goes to tradeshows, Swanekamp brings catalogs from companies who make products that are easily attained. “We give them out so (landscapers) have them and when they are looking at the pretty pictures and they say ‘this would look nice, at least they aren’t looking at some company in Brussels that has a product I couldn’t get if I wanted to. It would cost me a fortune to bring it in.”
Swanekamp says a landscaper should talk with his or her grower about what is easily accessible for growing purposes, and to get recommendations for online sources or catalogs to look at before you visit your customer and promise anything.
“I don’t expect these guys to be knowledgeable in plant material,” he says. “They have enough on their plate. That’s our job. But, at least give us a chance to work smoothly with the customer.”