The future is now
Jack Shaw opened up the Lawn & Landscape Technology Conference with specific ways new innovations will affect the industry.
Jack Shaw knows it’s tough making predictions, but he opened up the Lawn & Landscape Technology Conference by forecasting what a future in landscaping might look like.
He offered a hypothetical couple, Luke and Annie, who live in Atlanta. In his scenario, Shaw told attendees that the couple lives in Atlanta and contacts a landscape designer to complete a new design/build project. Then, Shaw walked attendees through a technology-assisted pitch the company might use to sell their services to Luke and Annie.
Shaw described a scenario where the contractor used walkthroughs with augmented reality and virtual reality glasses. Luke and Annie asked about an irrigation program, which the contractor says can instead be an AI-powered, weather-based irrigation controller and system. And, to sign contracts at the end of the virtual tour, Luke and Annie use facial recognition technology and fingerprinting. Within minutes, the necessary plantings are automatically ordered and the company’s best landscape designer is assigned to the job.
Sound like a fantasy? Shaw warned attendees this could be the way their competitors get a leg up on them if they’re not fast enough.
“Your competitors are going to be doing most of these very same things within the next few years,” Shaw said, “and in some cases, much sooner than that.”
So, Shaw broke down some of the emerging technologies for landscapers in his keynote address at the technology conference.
Augmented and virtual reality
First, Shaw made sure to outline the key differences between augmented reality versus virtual reality. AR takes the physical reality in front of you and it overlays the existing reality with additional information like images and data. Shaw likened it to the yellow first-down marker football fans might recognize on broadcasts. Meanwhile, VR means an entire field of vision is covered by glasses or viewers and is a new environment entirely.
Shaw said some of the benefits to both AR and VR include better design renders for client pitches. This means contractors can have more accurate quotes, more precise assessment of a project’s timeline and a better understanding of the necessary construction materials and labor needs. Plus, there’s no need to present physical samples with AR/VR — a design/build contractor doesn’t need to pull out hardscapes to show off how they might look in an environment.
Internet of things
Any physical object can become connected through sensors, processing abilities and software — this is the Internet of Things. Shaw said fleet services is a great example of IoT.
Vehicles and landscaping equipment can communicate to one another through IoT. “This way you can not only track the location of equipment,” Shaw said, “but even the utilization of the equipment.” He told attendees they might be able to track how many hours they’re getting out of each piece of equipment, which might help contractors evaluate whether they have equipment on trucks they don’t need or how they can better price jobs.
Blockchain allows you to create data that’s signed, time stamped and cannot be changed. This could be records of identity, ownership of assets, business transactions like purchase orders and payments, and of contractual commitments. These records could be shared among two or more entities without an intermediary providing a master set of records. The information is globally available with complete transparency to anybody authorized to see the data but un-hackable security to anyone who’s unauthorized to see the data.
Shaw clarified that blockchain data is not stored on any one computer system; it’s stored with identical copies on hundreds or thousands of systems all over the world. If someone hacks into one of those nodes, Shaw said that synchronization technology on any of the nodes will spot the inaccuracy or change in data. A Harvard business professor recently calculated how much energy it would take to use the computing power needed to hack into the blockchain. To do it successfully, it was roughly equal to the same energy emitted at one time by the sun.
“And I know some of you are thinking, ‘So you could do it then!’” Shaw joked. “So if you were able to hack into the blockchain, you’d have to hack into a majority of the nodes on that blockchain, and you’d have to do it simultaneously and very fast.”
Shaw also covered autonomous mowing with cameras that can stop the machine when they encounter an unexpected obstacle and machines that are purely electric and are much quieter.
He also dissected artificial intelligence like IAs, or intelligence agents, that can help coach newer employees by using prompts like “are you sure you want to make this decision?” or “do you want to consider this alternative?” Shaw believes IAs can get so intelligent soon that they can lay out preliminary landscape designs and factor in material/labor costs, climate change considerations and even anticipate when faults may occur.
— Jimmy Miller
Adding autonomous to your services
It may not be perfect, but panelists at the Lawn & Landscape Technology Conference broke down how and why to introduce robomowing.
Janet DeNicola believes implementing autonomous mowing is the easy part; adoption is much tougher.“(When you’re implementing), you get good training, you get explained how you need to lay your perimeter wire, and you get good training on the people that are going to need to maintain them,” says DeNicola, the chief technology officer at The Greenery in South Carolina.
“Adoption is a whole different animal. Adoption is cultural and involves people and how we think about it in our company. You still have to get everyone marching in the same direction.”
DeNicola admitted to Lawn & Landscape Technology Conference attendees that she’s still trying to get everyone fully on board. Her co-panelists, all speaking during the “Analyzing Autonomous” session, seemed to be in the same boat. Michael Mayberry, the CTO at Level Green, says executives trying to incorporate robotic mowers should start the process of easing nerves now – it could be a bumpy road.
“It’s really important to talk to your crews now about what’s happening because you need to get their buy-in,” Mayberry says. “Their mindset may be that these robots are going to replace me.”
And that’s not the case, Mayberry adds. He, DeNicola and Ben Collinsworth from Yellowstone Landscape all believe autonomous mowing could actually enable crews to do more work.
Imperfect in the present
Collinsworth began looking into robotic mowers two years ago, and when research at the time indicated markets would more commonly have them by now, Mayberry started his search three years ago. DeNicola says she started weighing robotic mowers in 2017, and the first one went out into the field in 2019.
She says she narrowed down the scope of what she wanted the mowers to do or have. For her, it was all about safety, ensuring it had lights on it, and whether or not it had smartphone controlling capabilities. Of course, price also factored into the equation.
DeNicola did not see an immediate return on investment with the mowers. It was more about getting the process right than trying to roll them out widescale.
“It’s such a learning curve. It’s going to take a lot to get them up and running,” she says. “To be successful, just buy one and put it on one property that you trust so that if it flops, it’ll be okay. Pick a client you trust and have a great relationship with.”
Mayberry says there were issues he didn’t think would come up that did when they got their robotic mowers. For example, his crews aerated the perimeter wires by accident even though they knew they were there. Also, they deployed their mowers on a large sports field (DeNicola says her machines wouldn’t get to pointy areas of residential properties) but the machines kept getting stuck in soccer nets. To combat this, they’d sit on the property and just watch the machine go. That actually helped because it was seen as a major morale victory if they fixed the problems, Mayberry says.
“When we did have challenges we went out there to watch what was happening,” Mayberry says. “It’s about watching what’s going on and making small adjustments.”
For Collinsworth, he acknowledged during the session that labor was a major factor in opting for these mowers, adding that “we all have different ways to solve it.” But reassuring current employees that their jobs are safe is important.
“There’s many ways to fix (labor), but this is part of the solution,” Collinsworth says. “For me, it’s messaging, it’s going out and telling people the benefits of what this can do in the future even if it’s imperfect in the present.”
Of course, the other side to consider is client expectations. DeNicola says reminding clients up front that there’ll be a learning curve helps temper those demands. But the end result is totally worth it for the client, as a traditional mowing crew comes by once a week, but automowing is done three times a week. The grass never looks unkempt.
“Once you’ve got things cooking along, the client has a totally better experience with the product. The grass looks awesome all the time,” she says. “The end product is superior…not to mention (the robomowers) are quiet, they’re not intrusive, all these other benefits.”
DeNicola adds neighborhood associations might be quick to adopt these mowers, too, because then they look like a progressive area to live. The Greenery slapped logos on their machines and has constant branding going on near tennis and pickleball courts.
For clients, that could be the ultimate win-win: It’s branding for you and it’s image for them.
“It’s very focused-forward, it’s environmentally great,” she says. “You can sell it lots of ways.”
Collinsworth says it’s demoralizing for his crews and clients alike when you get them excited for the machines and then something goes wrong, but working through that is vital. He says 30-50% of the work his company currently does could be automated, but he wants to add even more properties and work that could be automated to increase that percentage.
“‘Just give me back my old mower,’” Collinsworth has heard them say.
Mayberry believes that even though his clients are buying into it in droves yet, it’s going to become widely popular. He’s actually lost some revenue on properties where they implemented robomowing, but it’s still done with an eye to the future.
When autonomous mowing is more popular, Mayberry believes his company won’t be one still trying to figure out how to set up and operate the machines. He encouraged attendees to all go home and figure out which properties might be good candidates to try out autonomous mowers.
“For the future, it’s worth it. When it goes widescale, we aren’t figuring it out. It will be economically beneficial at that point.”
— Jimmy Miller
Behind the numbers
Selecting the right way to visualize data can be the difference between useless numbers and effective communication.
At the press of a button, modern software is capable of generating hundreds of insights that landscape contractors can use to monitor the health of their businesses.
It could be sales team data like closing percentage, cancellations or discounts; it could be statistics tracking the call duration account managers have with clients; or it could be metrics on how efficiently the crews are out doing the jobs.
But all those numbers are completely worthless without being able to understand them. That’s why Caitlin Justice, the director of finance at Blades of Green Lawn Care and B.O.G. Pest Control, walked Lawn & Landscape Technology Conference attendees through data visualization best practices. The advice she offered could help a contractor communicate the story numbers tell and let data guide their decision-making process.
“It’s critical to be able to turn (numbers) into meaningful insight,” she said.
Choosing your chart
Though there’s plenty of variations of these charts, Justice offered five basic types of visualizations: line graphs, number/gauge charts, bar charts, maps and heat maps.
Line graphs are mostly used to show how numbers change over a period of time. Justice showed an example comparing Blades of Green’s cancellations year over year. Each colored line represented a different year, and the y-axis represented each month of the year. Visually, Justice could quickly show what years had the highest cancellation rates and when.
Number and gauge charts could help quite simply show how close a team is to its goal (i.e., we’ve sold this much, here’s the end goal). They’re often stylized to look like a gas gauge in a car, showing how much of the variable remains.
Bar charts, like line charts, are also used often to compare multiple variables, though they’re better served in comparing and contrasting data differences rather than a change over a set period (i.e., how many clients have cancelled in just one year and which month, rather than a year-over-year analysis). Maps are great for showing data that deal with geographic numbers (i.e., cancellations by zip codes), and heat maps can show data density (i.e., where on your website people are clicking most).
Words of wisdom
It’s not all about the numbers; Justice reminded attendees that once you’ve built a graphical analysis of data, it’s about figuring out what the story being told even means. For instance, they were able to effectively prove to their team that cancellations were a big problem. But they were able to solve the problem because they determined the root cause.
“You look at it and go, ‘What is going on?’” Justice said. “This is a great communication tool for our team.”
Justice recommends some basic judgment when deciding how to showcase the numbers. For example, green numbers are often associated with good data, while red numbers will often communicate that the numbers have a negative connotation.
Additionally, she warned attendees that not everything is a key performance indicator – in other words, don’t just send out a bunch of graphs and hope someone knows what to do with the numbers. Provide strong recommendations and divide up the work among your team to let each division handle the data most significant to them.
“You need to make sure that the data that you’re sharing is being shared with those that’s directly affecting those individuals,” Justice said. “If you share too much information, it’s going to be overwhelming.”— Jimmy Miller
Knowledge at your fingertips
Making the most of technology can help you boost profitability and make informed business decisions.
With more than 18 years in the green industry, James Manske, owner of Elkhorn Lawn Care, knows how to generate more profit.
“For the first 15 years, I thought I knew everything,” Manske said. “But I was wrong. And I didn’t know I was wrong.”
With anything, but especially technology, Manske said it’s about first changing yourself before attempting to change your team.
Manske advised companies on how to use tech to improve processes while understanding the data and building your team concurrently.
“With every process in business you can reduce cost, increase output and define new sales all of these things you need to think about as you build your process documentation,” he said.
Make the most
Having a new client process cycle can be useful. Manske said it starts with identification before moving into estimating, routing, completing the job and then billing and follow-up.
“You can take this and run with it and create sub processes for all of these things,” Manske said.
Using follow-up as an example, a sub process might include making lists, establishing email/phone scripts, scheduling time to reach out and then converting these follow-ups into more sales.
“You need to have all this worked out so that a five-year old could do it,” he said. “It has to be as easy as possible.”
And once you have that overview it’s easier to improve process times and document stats. This can lead to creating key performance indicators and identifying areas of improvement.
“I ask why for every single thing in every one of my meetings,” Manske said. “Think about what areas have high cost. What takes the most time? And what’s overcomplicated?”Utilizing any and all technology from CRM, to estimating programs, GPS tracking and routing software, companies can truly understand its data and use it to grow.
“There’s so much tech you can put into any portion of your business,” Manske said. “You might only need one right now and that’s great. But you will need more when you grow. The first thing you should look for is what you need the most help with.”
Storing data, or intellectual property, is the next portion of utilizing technology. Manske compared it to a vault so you can keep everything together. He added that this even allows for more efficient training.
“Without having a system to show you what your data is you can’t analyze to make accurate decisions as a business owner… and you can’t create a pricing structure without knowing what your costs are,” Manske said.
And the more knowledge the better. Manske said he took the business from a simple one-page P&L to an elaborate 11-page one that broke out by every division and how it relates to profitability.
“This might be a good thing to do in the off season,” Manske recommended. “The more detailed you get, the more effective you can get in order to take you to the next level.”
Manske said with the detailed P&L, you can see what shifts in the company need made. A service might need cut, or prices may need increased. It can also be used to identify top performers and double down on marketing in certain areas.
“All this comes from having a great CRM for great financial software,” Manske said.
The 10% rule is another thing that can be analyzed from this detailed reporting. Manske explained the rule states no customer should allot for more than 10% of your revenue.
“I’m the devil’s advocate; I want to make sure I’m protected,” he said. “If it’s less than 10% of total sales we can easily pivot, and it won’t create a big impact.”
Leading into that is identifying your top personas or ideal clients. Manske said use the data you’re collecting to identify key characteristics in these customers to market for more of these clients.
It’s also useful in building your team.
Manske breaks it down into three elements — attract, reward and retain.
Attracting is using online employment sites and social media to boost recruiting. Manske added that referrals are another great way to attract new staff. Elkhorn has brought in over 18 new employees this season with a robust referral program.
“I’d much rather pay out people,” Manske said.
Using the data, if staff are meeting KPIs, then it’s time to reward them. You can also utilize progression charts to entice staff to want to move up the ladder.
“If you show them that in the beginning, they won’t want to just be a laborer all their lives,” he said. “If they don’t know where they’re going they’re going to feel stuck. You need to motivate them.”
Adding commissions at all levels of the business is another way to reward staff and can be easily tracked through proper software.
“I want people to make money beyond just clocking in and clocking out,” Manske said.
Retention is a huge component of success. Manske said clear mission and vision statements and a good culture help with this, along with regular team meetings where the staff can review all the data being collected.
“All this can happen once you start looking at the big picture,” Manske said. “There is always a lifetime of opportunities at your fingertips.”
— Kim Lux
Automating forms in sales and beyond has helped save Image Works Landscape Management valuable time.
Time is the one thing every company wants more of.
Mike McCarron, founder of Image Works Landscape Management, notes companies don’t value time until it’s too late and they are losing money.
“We were so worried about trucks and everything else running well that we didn’t realize the back of house wasn’t running well and we were losing a lot of time trying to manage the office part of the business,” he said.
Establishing custom forms can be a benefit as standardization saves time and gets everyone on the same page.
“If you create a form everyone is now using the same language so that’s ease of use,” he said.
McCarron added that it also helps to manage clients’ expectations because the communication is consistent all the way through the process.
“Information flows very smoothly,” he said.
McCarron noted it took Image Works a few years to perfect the custom forms they are using today. He said it takes time to get the right level of detail into them.
One example of a custom form they are using are hiring forms. Before the forms were in place, McCarron said whoever took the call or was sitting at the office desk when a prospective employee came in took down their information.
“We probably lost good people because we weren’t ready to capture that information from them quick enough,” he said.
So now there is a dedicated tablet at the front desk where prospective employees can fill out an application right there. McCarron noted that the applications, and really any documentation, needs to be multi-lingual.
“It’s easy for the front office to intake anybody at any time now,” he said. “You also can assess whether someone is good with a tablet right from the start. It’s a quick analysis because all of our techs in the field use tablets.”
Now that it’s all digital, it’s also easy to store the applications so they can find potential candidates when needed. And it eliminates any illegible handwriting as well.
On the sales side, custom forms help with consistency.
“We wanted to keep narrowing down the information and make it more and more accurate and consistent,” McCarron said of why they created the forms.
For most companies, speed may be the goal when it comes to giving estimates.
“These can be sent out within minutes,” McCarron said. “If you’re quick and efficient, the work will sell.”
And that helps Image Works rake in a ton of additional work in the $100-$700 range that they were just blowing off before because they didn’t have time to capitalize on it McCarron said.
“Work gets approved so fast now,” he said. “The quicker response time will allow you to sell $40,000-$70,000 more per account manager.”
These forms can also be beneficial during times of high fluctuation in pricing.
When fertilizing prices were skyrocketing, McCarron said they were changing their prices on the forms weekly. But having the custom forms kept everyone aware of these increases.
Image Works noticed that account managers were not upselling — leaving money on the table. So, a new custom form was established specifically for them.
“And it shows clients how a site has progressed since our company has been caring for it,” McCarron added as all the forms are sent to clients post visit.
McCarron noted it’s also helpful with turnover, as the forms are the same regardless of which account manager is handling a site.
According to McCarron, since implementing these custom forms, Image Works has saved over $14,000 in direct labor savings between the sales department, front office and account managers.
— Kim Lux
Patience is a virtue
Implementing a new software can be a tedious task, but a worthwhile venture to improve efficiencies throughout a business.
Installing customer relationship management software has made a major impact for The Finishing Touchez.
While it may have been a long process, Sarah Eckles, director of creative projects, and Jennifer Day, president and CEO, said it’s been extremely beneficial.
“Our journey was pretty challenging, and we expect yours might be too,” Eckles said. “We hope you won’t be discouraged if you run into certain failures.”
Before diving into software, most financial reporting in the office was being handwritten, and the company felt like it was behind the times. There was data being repeated and just inefficiencies everywhere.
“We had a really, really archaic way of doing business for quite some time,” Day said.
With some software background, Eckles decided to revamp the way things were being done. Finishing Touchez started working with a CRM designed specifically for the landscape industry.
But Day admits the first year, the software barely got touched. Even with training, it wasn’t being embraced.
Eckles added that it took tracking progress and projects to really get the ball rolling. She took on the role of project manager to do this.
Eckles said anyone working to implement the new software should be in constant communication with one another.
Day and Eckles recognize that having the time to dedicate to a new software can be challenging. So, they decided to really fine-tune the process during the offseason in the winter.
Hitting a stride
Once things got on track, Finishing Touchez start utilizing service estimates and timekeeping logs within the software.
“It’s reassuring that we’re doing things right,” Eckles said of using these features.
With this real-time data, the business also rolled out a bonus program for crews who completed projects faster than the allotted time.
“Because we had this bonus pull, it incentivized the staff to use the timekeeping app correctly,” she said. “It was a good way to marry the objects we had with buy in from the staff.”
Day and Eckles admit that having this software in place when the COVID-19 pandemic hit was a relief.
“It allowed us to focus on whatever our staff needed during those uncertain times,” Day said.
They also recommend breaking the implementation down into phases so that it seems less overwhelming. Start with one segment of the business and track that for a season before moving on to the next.
Eckles suggested any company looking to bring in software should start by establishing three things — an assignment log, software enhancement log and a monthly to-do list.
The assignment log lists due dates, priorities and a brief description. It can also function as a meeting agenda by filtering for specific tasks or staff members.
“Any time movement happened on a project, we just added to it,” Eckles said. “And we can all see it on a shared drive. It’s been a really instrumental way of keeping me organized.”
The monthly to-do list is also essential for Finishing Touchez.
“We have a lot of things that come up annually, so having a rolling que has helped bridge gaps with our software,” Day said. “Having those deadlines in place stopped us from having to recreate the wheel every time.”
Day said it’s also allowed the company to find gaps in the year where there’s downtime.
The enhancement log is where Day and Eckles keep track of any bumps in the road with the software. Therefore, they can paste any information learned in a place where everyone can find it.
“It also keeps our software company accountable to us,” Eckles said. “We can see how they’ve been serving us as their customer.”
She suggested sending a copy of the enhancement log to any new representatives from your software company.
By adding this software, both Day and Eckles said it’s allowed them to get back to what they love doing and spend less time worrying about the back-office tasks.
“The road for us hasn’t been easy but has been steady and exciting,” Eckles said. “While any software journey is going to have its challenges — we hope we’ve convinced you it’s worth it.”
— Kim Lux
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