Crossing The Line: Interior Crossover

Landscape companies are working double-duty, adding interiorscape services to the mix to tap into the expanding market and boost revenue.

A winning strategy for contractors aiming to team landscape and interiorscape services involves more than filling bleachers with customers demanding indoor attention. The right equipment and plant know-how combined with a starting line-up of technicians that can tackle customer relations andprovide detail-oriented service helps build a competitive, successful crossover business.

Interiorscape, a flourishing market, can stimulate a company’s growth by attracting customers interested in improving the aesthetics of their home or office, which in turn, increases the client base for the exterior portion of the operation. One-stop shopping is a feature consumers seek in service businesses. Together, exterior and interior landscape open doors to a more profitable, customer-service driven operation, explained Sue Tufenkian, sales and marketing manager, Gardeners’ Guild, San Rafael, Calif.

"Offering both is a tremendous advantage," she noted. "Providing multiple services is also a coordination puzzle that needs to be worked out. The interior and exterior divisions need to work hand in hand with continuity in scheduling, communication and even simple choices like design and color."

Contractors achieve this balance by understanding both markets and molding their businesses to respond to the challenges each facet presents, whether it be dedicating professionals to indoor projects or educating current technicians on interiorscape installation and maintenance techniques.

"There’s an economy of scale and efficiency that can be sold if you offer both services," Tufenkian added. "You can coordinate colors depending on the job and you have efficiencies with mobilization and logistics. There are advantages and opportunities to explore when doing both."

THE STRATEGIC ADVANTAGE. Partnering interior and landscape holds consolidation advantages for contractors and consumers. Companies who add interior-scape streamline management, resources and labor while offering opportunities for technicians to fine-tune customer service skills – a crucial requirement for interior jobs. Clients gain the convenience of working with a single-service provider.

"You can coordinate the two and have a flow of the same style," described Linda Novy, president, Gardners’ Guild. "For jobs where interiorscape is a smaller piece of the contract, we train exterior crews to care for the plants – it passes savings on to the customer."

Compacting certain costs is advantageous, but companies that offer both services must realize the contrasts between indoor and outdoor pursuits and hire or train employees accordingly. For example, interior-scape technicians must gauge environmental conditions, such as lighting, room temperature and traffic, stressed Toby Langner, president, Langner & Associates, Chicago, Ill.

   Expansion Tips

    • Bring in a consultant or institute a training program to educate employees.
    • Hire experienced workers and qualified technicians.
    • Don't overextend yourself by growing your interiorscape business too quickly.
    • Be available to clients so you can respond quickly to their needs.
    • Don't invest heavily at first – take it slow.
    • Because interior and exterior are two separate entities, work together to help each other, but develop an interiorscape plan.
    • Don't give up easily. "It's hard to break into the business, but once you get established and people understand that you are service oriented and have a good work ethic, it will show."

    – Maureen Connolly, interior manager, Kujawa Enterprises, Cudahy, Wis.

"The biggest difference is in some of the care and the function that we have to provide," he explained. "The scheduling is more intricate as far as access to areas and the housekeeping requirements are higher for interiorscape services. The adding of chemicals and treatment of pests and diseases is more demanding in interior.

"The size of the equipment used is limited," he continued, adding that overhead equipment costs pale in comparison to landscaping. "You need more housekeeping items, like protection materials that minimize the effects of chemicals and wash that can occur on an interior service."

Technicians on an interiorscape team boast qualities such as knowledge of plants and their needs beyond watering. Some hold degrees in horticulture or design orhave nursery experience. Interiorscape is a detail-oriented, human relations image service where technicians manipulate indoor plants to thrive in an artificial atmosphere. Stacy Richie, new business development, North Haven Gardens, Dallas, Texas, said maintenance means playing the role of a magician.

"How successful you are depends on how your technicians can trick plants into thinking they are in a tropical environment," she ovserved, adding that detail-oriented care plays a part in plant mind games. A customer’s magnifying-glass view of indoor installations allows little leeway for mistakes.

"Plants are in the lobby, they are the thing you sit next to and stare at, they are in the boss’ office, they are in the board room," Richie listed. "So, the level of grooming and detail work is more intense."

DRAFTING A TEAM. The defining characteristics of an ideal interiorscape technician are different from those of a landscape crew member. Much how right- and left-brained people might choose contrasting careers, the winning personality for interiorscape technicians often differs from their exterior counterparts. For starters, customer service is more important for indoor employees who are in close contact with customers.

"We have to rely on our people to put out our image for us," Richie emphasized. "The personalities that our technicians have – how good they are with customers – is important. I’ve had technicians who are wonderful plant people but not good with the client."

Richie’s "wanted" ad admittedly targets a split personality, meshing qualities like "friendly" and "organized" with "hermit," because technicians often handle routes solo. This is why a starting line-up of qualified employees with a polished appearance will be crowd pleasers.

"You look for such a combination of skills because interiorscape is very personal," Richie explained. "The person has to be someone who looks good and can carry on a conversation with someone at this level."

Interior and exterior departments at North Haven operate like separate businesses. Richie staffs the interior division with a general manager who oversees the department and an operations manager who imports plants from Florida and supervises the greenhouse, inventory, deliveries, installations and special services. Four team leaders mimic the role of landscape foremen and 20 technicians service accounts, she explained. Sales people also are divided, with one representative dedicated solely to new accounts and another focused on evaluating satisfaction.

"Clients don’t want new faces, so we try to keep the same people on a route,"Richie added.

Maureen Connolly, interior manager, Kujawa Enterprises, Cudahy, Wis., added that the knowledge interiorscape work requires demands specialized employees, and she finds that cross-trained employees are not always experts in addressing specific plant needs. Her two divisions are team-oriented, she added, but a healthy rivalry existed between the two branches when the interiorscape division launched. "When they worked with us at holiday time, we earned their respect," she said. Though the exterior division outnumbers interiorscape 130 to 15 employees, their revenues closely match.

Connolly earned this success with the help of employees who are not only plant-people, but also people-people.

"You have to love plants," she stated simply. "If I don’t see this quality on an application, I don’t look it over much."

Connolly learned the importance of instating an organizational strategy through trial and error, citing her company’s initial plant tracking system as a cumbersome practice that eventually was replaced by labeling plants in each container. Learning from inefficiency and changing the system improved overall operation in this case, she noted. Hiring employees is no different.

THE GROWING GAME PLAN. Whether a company divides interiorscape and landscape services into two divisions or cross trains employees to play both fields, most contractors see a growing demand for indoor installation and maintenance.

Connolly saw her interior division grow from seven to 158 accounts in four and a half years, and while this influx of customers reaped generous profits, she stressed the dangers of growing too quickly. Most contractors find that shoddy service chips away a solid reputation.

"Our company has grown and grown," Connolly noted. "For a while we were getting nervous because we wanted to meet the demand for services. We wanted to find people who were going to make it a career. We didn’t want to grow too fast."

Connolly didn’t seek additional sales representatives during her division’s growth spurt, so interior accounts remained at status quo and technicians preserved quality service.

Langner’s small company approaches interiorscape expansion differently. He doesn’t focus at all on growth. He trains employees in both areas for versatility and maintains his company philosophy, which is to commit to attractive projects that fit his goals for quality service, he said.

"We look at all of our projects, no matter what the task is, as a function of how the job best fits into our company and our direction as far as the size and quality of the work and the company mission," he explained.

Langner does not recommend exploring interiorscape unless contractors can deliver a first-class job, listing employee motivation, attentiveness and housekeeping as common pitfalls. He avoids common pitfalls like housekeeping and attentiveness by training employees in both realms.

Whether a company controls quality by dividing interior and exterior work into two segments or training employees to take on both tasks, there is more at stake than retaining clients when delivering consistent, impeccable results, Richie reminded. "You have to make sure you have good, knowledgeable people who know the business, so that the industry keeps its integrity."

SCORING A PROFIT. The swelling popularity of interiorscape service is a profit prophesy for contractors exploring the market. A healthy economy combined with customers’ desire to improve the aesthetics of indoor spaces creates a ripe opportunity.

"People spend more money on plants because they have more money, they want to look affluent or they want to make their company look established," Richie said. "We’re brought in to enhance image.

"Interior landscape is a great indicator of the economy," she added. Though interior-scape businesses suffer the same low price problems that exterior operations face, as long as the building cycle continues to flourish, people will seek "extras."

Richie commented that her interior and exterior divisions rake in comparable annual sales dollars, but the difference lies in the number of accounts each branch manages to achieve this profit. Four hundred clients comprise the interiorscape client list, while 50 accounts form the landscape roster. "There are little things interior accounts want done daily, so there is a lot of interaction and little things that add up to dollars."

Selling customers a package with both interior and exterior services is another way to build a company’s profit margin, Tufenkian suggested. This method of piggy-backing services and providing clients with a single-source contact offers a one-stop shopping approach and saves the company money on hidden costs, like transportation, she said.

The services sell each other and the nature of interiorscape appeals to customers, who respond positively to technicians’ regular "check-ups." Just as contractors welcome new accounts, clients enjoy opening their doors to visual enhancements for their homes.

"We’re the plant people," she piped. "They’re happy to see us."

The author is Assistant Editor of Lawn & Landscape magazine.

October 2000
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