A well-run office keeps customers happy and informed. It facilitates smooth scheduling and helps ensure you’re getting paid for all the work you do. Better yet, it can make it easier for you to do every job more profitably.

It doesn’t have to look like an office, and it doesn’t have to have a large staff. No matter what size the company, though, an efficient office can help keep your business healthy.

Spreadsheets, phone systems, keyboards, data entry. When you think about landscaping and irrigation, these words don’t usually come to mind. These are office terms—not words that say, “Gee, it’s great to be working outdoors.” But behind every successful green industry company, there’s an efficient office to keep things humming along.

Replicable systems

For many businesses, the development of replicable systems for common tasks is an important step toward efficiency.

“We work in systems and processes as much as we can,” says Jan-Gerrit Bouwman, ASLA, MLA, senior landscape architect and partner with Grant & Power Landscaping, Inc., a full-service design/ build firm serving suburban Chicago. “For any task you do two or three times, you should create a system. There’s always a system for those things and you need to find it.”

Documented, repeatable processes are powerful tools. They can make tasks faster because they eliminate guesswork and unnecessary decision-making. They make it easier to identify redundancies and eliminate them.

Written systems also make training easier. Instead of a knowledge base that resides in a manager’s head, companies that document systems always have a template that can be adopted quickly by new employees.

Quality control is another benefit of this approach. When companies establish and practice replicable processes for each job, employees don’t often overlook key steps. As Bouwman points out, this is especially important in the current economy.

“With the recession, you often have people doing more multitasking.” When employees need to wear different hats due to layoffs or restructuring, having reliable systems for every job helps keep details from slipping through the cracks.

He says the systems established at Grant & Power also help build customer relationships and increase sales. The company has a very clear outline for their sales process, from the qualifying questions asked at the first contact, to the proposal turn-around time to the schedule for follow-up contacts. From an early stage, customers have a very clear idea of what they can expect from the company. “It takes a lot of the variables out, and you get a higher success rate with closing,” says Bouwman.

As with all of their systems, these steps are based on thoughtful analysis of what works. “You think about what you do, what makes you successful and how you can copy that,” says Bouwman. “The owner, Gene Grant, started the whole process and we continue to build on it.”

Identifying and documenting systems does take time—time that’s difficult to sacrifice when faced with putting out day-to-day fires. But investing time now to find the optimal processes for each task can pay off by minimizing those day-today fires later.

“It takes some of the anxiety out of it,” says Bouwman. “In the springtime, I call it organized chaos. At every other time, it’s just organized.”

Crunching numbers

Many thriving green industry providers say their success is more about numbers than it is about landscaping. Creating office systems that make those numbers crystal clear is a top priority.

“It’s such an important part of knowing what you can bid your job for,” says Jeff Rak, president, Land Creations Landscaping, Inc., a commercial and residential design/build firm in Columbia Station, Ohio. “If the numbers are too high, you’re not going to get the job. If they’re too low, you’re not going to make any money. You need to have the confidence that you’re doing it for the right amount.”

Like most contractors, Rak didn’t get into landscaping for a love of spreadsheets. “I started as a technician in the field and ended up running a business. Now I come to work in dress clothes and rarely get my hands dirty, even though that’s what I love to do.”

He learned to play the numbers game well by connecting with other professionals. “I’m strongly involved in our local organization, the Ohio Landscape Association,” says Rak. “They offer many courses and seminars and I took advantage of a lot of them. I also spent time working with other contractors in the area who had more of a business mind than I did.”

Jacobsen Landscape Design and Construction, Inc., Midland Park, New Jersey, is another thriving company that makes tracking profitability a top priority.

“We analyze virtually everything we do for profitability,” says Donna DeLuccia, office manager. “For construction, analysis is on a per-job basis. For irrigation and residential maintenance, we use weekly service reports to make sure profit numbers are being met.”

Crew members and supervisors hand in time sheets and receipts every day. These are tracked into a computer system by DeLuccia and other office staff. “A sales person can ask for a report at any time and then make adjustments as needed,” says DeLuccia.

Continuous reporting keeps the company flexible. “There are no surprises at the end,” says DeLuccia. “We can be a lot more proactive with decision making because we know at any moment how we’re doing. If you wait until the month is over to look at your profit and loss statement, it might be too late. This way, you can react immediately to issues that need to be addressed.”

The 75-plus member staff at Jacobsen Landscape includes a team of eight office professionals. But DeLuccia points out that profitability data is just as critical for companies with a staff of one.

“For all companies, this is key information. It doesn’t matter if you have one truck or 45. It’s translatable to a company of any size and can help any company react more proactively.”

Software savvy

None of this tracking would be feasible without adequate software systems and computer-savvy office staff. Whether you track data using Excel, generic business management software, or with applications created specifically for green industry companies, the computer is essential for efficient office management.

The right software can streamline many aspects of operations.

Some packages are used primarily for financial tracking. Others are designed as complete management suites that coordinate multiple processes including scheduling, routing, estimating, invoicing, and payroll.

No matter what product you choose, it pays to take time to study the options and pick one that fits your needs. Land Creations Landscaping is currently implementing its own custom-designed estimating program.

“We had a system we were doing by hand,” says Rak. “It was working efficiently for us so we decided to get it computerized in order to streamline it. We’re currently working with an outside computer company to get that going.”

As both a retail and service company, Lammscapes, Jackson, Wisconsin, had special software demands. The company recently implemented a popular small business financial management package to better integrate their landscape company and garden design center.

“We went with this one because it included POS (point of sale) software,” says Laurie Lamm, vice president. “It holds all the inventory for the company. We can use it to track inventory for customers coming in, and sales people can also use it to know what we have available for use on a job.”

This consolidation greatly increased office efficiency. “Before, we were using a combination of Word and Excel,” says Lamm. “Everything was separate—the proposal, work order, invoice, etc. Now we only have to type the information once and it flows through the whole process. We’ve been able to eliminate a lot of paperwork, a lot of time and even an office position.”

Guidance from within

Lammscapes knew it was time for a change when labor and paperwork got out of hand. “We were doing the same things too many times over,” says Lamm. “When we brought in our current business manager, Betty Pries, she had some really great ideas. We had brainstorming sessions and put everything out there to see how we could change things to reduce costs and increase sales.”

Brainstorming sessions, committees and other methods for gathering ideas from employees are useful for improving office flow.

“Seeking input from employees is key,” says Bouwman. “Have committees from top to bottom—for everything from safety to marketing. Employees are key to the company, so listening to them is important.”

Jacobsen Landscape uses kaizen, the business philosophy of continuous improvement that takes its name from the Japanese word for “improve.”

“Kaizen is all about small incremental changes over time,” says DeLuccia. “It always makes us look at what’s inefficient.”

Every department sets kaizen goals for the year and for each month. “For example, it could be to make a new spreadsheet to track things differently so it’s easier and saves time,” says DeLuccia. “That’s a kaizen.”

With kaizen, every employee has something to contribute and something to gain. “Every employee has ideas because everyone has a different job,” says DeLuccia. “Only you know what would make your job better.”

Jacobsen Landscape adopted kaizen after owner Glenn Jacob sen, CLP, introduced it to the company about two years ago. DeLuccia says the process gives employees a sense of control over their job satisfaction and outcomes.

“Now it’s part of our office culture and we embrace it,” says DeLuccia. “To get to our kaizen each month, that’s our goal. We implement them and they do make our jobs easier and better.”

Guidance from without

While employee input is essential, from time to time an outside perspective is also invaluable for spotting inefficiencies.

“Each year we bring in a consultant to help us with our business,” says Rak. “A private consultant can come in, dig into your company and tell you what you’re doing right and wrong.”

Rak chooses consultants based on the current needs of the company. “For example, we’ve had a financial consultant to get our books set up in a way that allows us to check ourselves against industry standards. We had another this June who’s more of an operations consultant.”

Rak also stresses ongoing mentorship and involvement with professional organizations. He shares his expertise with other companies through consulting, tours and public speaking, but he also takes advantage of mentorship opportunities for himself. He lauds PLANET’s Trailblazer’s onsite mentorship program as an excellent source of expert help.

Rak became involved with the Ohio Landscape Association early in his career. He spent eight years on the board and served as president. He also serves as the Landscape Contractor Committee Chairman for the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association.

Inexperienced contractors are sometimes hesitant to mingle with their competitors in this way, but those who do know the value of networking know it trumps this concern.

“You develop friendships and relationships that you can’t get from school,” says Rak. “I have people in direct competition with me, yet we can go out and talk business for hours.”

Networking offers one of the best opportunities to check your office efficiency against others in the industry. By sharing your successes, you and your green industry colleagues both prosper.