Talk to any old-timer landscape professional about the good old days, and he’ll tell you how the fledgling years of our industry were the best of times and the worst of times. They were the best of times in that opportunity was limitless. They were the worst of times in that business systems were in the dark ages.

Paperwork flowed like water from a broken sprinkler head.

It’s hard to imagine that financial operations were done with adding machines, that accountability required surprise visits to jobsites to see if trucks were actually there, and that estimating a project was closer to guesstimating than to seriously running the numbers.

No doubt about it, hardware like computers, smart phones and iPads —and their attendant software— have made our jobs a lot easier. They help us run our office operations, estimate and bid new jobs, keep track of employees, do efficient work, and schedule our lives.

Yet just as a landscape professional can feel emailed, texted, cellphone-called, or Twittered to death, you can also feel “software’d” to death. Information overload is a real danger. As Dan Foley at the Brickman Group office in South Walpole, Massachusetts, says, “There’s no sense in having a program generate a spreadsheet, if that spreadsheet never gets used. When you’re bleary eyed from checking out useless information, crucial data can be overlooked.”

When it comes to landscape business software and apps, choose carefully.

These days, industry software can be broken down into one of two types. There’s what we’ll call “overall” software, that handles a plethora of landscape business operations. Overall packages such as HindSite, Asset, Groundskeeper PRO, and CLIPxe is software that you’ll mostly use in your office.

Then, there’s “pinpoint” software, which targets a single, discreet landscape contracting function. Examples would be PRO Landscape (program for computer-assisted design), Telenav Track Light (for GPS-assisted tracking of vehicles), Sprinkler Times (app for estimating irrigation schedules for turf without pricey central controllers and meters), and Go iLawn (for easy, computer-assisted measure of landscapes, hardscapes, etc.) that might well be used out in the field.

Let’s start with overall software. Though individual features vary, this software typically can handle billing and accounts payable, bookkeeping, customer prospecting and communication, job-costing and estimating, sales tracking, scheduling and routing, customer service, profitability analysis, and the like. Some go even further, branching into computer-assisted design (CAD) and employee tracking.

Precision Landscape Management, a full-service landscape firm of 250 employees based in Dallas, Texas, is a company whose moves to particular kinds of software have been carefully planned and almost uniformly successful, says owner Bruce Birdsong. Birdsong, who founded the company 31 years ago with just two employees, didn’t have an easy time figuring out which overall program to use.

About a dozen years ago, Birdsong was ready to move from manual systems to a software-driven office. He tried an off-the-shelf product like Quicken, and then two of the early landscape-industry-specific software packages, but still found them wanting. The biggest problem, he says, was that those systems, even many of those tailored to the landscape industry, did not include payroll or estimating functions. (EDITOR’S NOTE: It’s very likely that those programs have added these functions since.)

Ultimately, Birdsong settled on Asset, in 2002. “Within six months, we found that it was exactly right for us,” he says. “Staff members learned it quickly, and the return on investment has been enormous. It has allowed me to shave overhead to the minimum. I literally have two people running my office. The rest of the staff is making money.”

Birdsong is particularly fond of the way that field foremen use the program on their hand-held devices. “For every job, they use paperless employee time cards, keep track of materials, and keep track of overall time on the job. That keeps us efficient.”

You don’t need to have 250 employees to use a program like Hindsite or Asset effectively. You can even integrate them with operational systems you have in place already.

That’s the experience of Tim Jenkersen, who runs St. Louis Lawn Care, St. Louis, Missouri, with his fa- ther and brother. St. Louis Lawncare is a small concern, with eight employees in peak season. It was founded six years ago by Jenkersen’s father—a full-time police officer, who then became a firefighter. “My dad likes to work,” Jenkersen says proudly.

St. Louis Lawn Care uses Groundskeeper PRO as its core office software. Jenkersen likes its versatility. That said, he still does his ac- counting in Quicken, and uses Excel spreadsheets to do his scheduling, even if his core system could help with both functions. Part of the issue is that he’s just running three mowing routes, the other part of the issue is operational comfort and inertia. “We just find that at our present size, I can send our crews out using a simple Excel spreadsheet list,” he says. “If we get one of those drenching three-day Midwest rainstorms that makes us have to adjust our scheduling, we make the change on the fly, and send out our crews with with a different route spreadsheet.”

Jenkersen makes the software work for him, instead of the other way around. H e doesn’t shoehorn operations into the software if he doesn’t need the software’s help. For example, he visits every new customer to price out what he would charge to service their property, and knows the routes well enough to understand how much work a crew should accomplish in a day. “If they haven’t completed their route, I know there’s a problem.”

Every one of his crew chiefs has a smartphone, Jenkersen says. “The software they most use on those smartphones is Google Maps.” As his business grows, he expects to be more reliant on his core software.

Beyond overall software, there’s a plethora of options for the landscape contractor. Computer-assisted de- sign (CAD) is a burgeoning area. While plenty of contractors still sketch out projects with a pencil and paper, there’s nothing quite like being able to bring up before-and- after imaging for the customer to visualize, even before the “after” happens.

Peter Lord, president of Drafix Software in Kansas City, Missouri, producer of PRO Landscape, says it’s important to look good when it comes to design software (photo imaging and CAD) and presentation to customers. “Whether you’re doing two-dimensional or three-dimensional design, to a potential client it doesn’t matter if the program response time is a few milliseconds faster or slower. What does matter is the finished product; that’s what sells the customer.”

There’s no need to be frightened off by the perceived cost of CAD software. Software Republic, based in Hockley, Texas, is one of the companies that offer software on a monthly or yearly use license, as well as licensed purchase. Available are Pro Contractor Studio for the landscape professional, and Rain CAD for irrigation design. President John De- Cell says the subscriptions end automatically at the end of the term; the user can re-subscribe if and when needed. “You pay for it when you need it; it doesn’t renew automatically.”

New software and applications are being developed all the time. One of the greatest areas of recent innovation is in keeping track of one’s employees. Programs like Fleetmatics GPS Vehicle Tracking Solution, IndusTrack, and NexTraq allow you to reduce fuel costs, improve productivity, cut your overtime, stop unauthorized vehicle use, enhance driver safety, and even lower your insurance risk. All this simply by having your fleet vehicle and its driver be accountable to you, or even them just knowing that she/he is accountable to you.

According to Allan Hansen, vice president of business development at IndusTrak in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, some of these programs don’t even require special hardware and can run through the GPS function of a cell phone. “The programs with dedicated hardware can be more robust, in terms of tracking metrics on daily activity, and vehicle maintenance information. They will even give you vehicle diagnostic codes.”

Larry Overley at Landtech Contractors in Aurora, Colorado, has been using GPS tracking software to track his company vehicles since 2000. He’s enthusiastic about how it has helped him. “Vehicles are our livelihood,” he says. “It just makes sense to know at a glance where they are.”

Knowing where your employees are is crucial, too. Cell phones have been used for wireless employee check in and check out for quite some time. One of the recurrent issues, though, has been to verify both that it’s the employee personally clocking in, and that your employee is clocking in from the right location.

“The Exaktime Suite gives the manager the ability to make time sheets obsolete,” says Anthony Alexandre, marketing development administrator at the Calabasas, California company.

Exaktime’s JobClock and Hornet systems lets workers clock in and out via either their crew chief’s GPSequipped mobile device or their own, and transmit it back to headquarters. The program even lets you set a virtual ‘geofence’ around the project. If one of your workers crosses the geofence—say, to run an unauthorized personal errand—the program will send you an alert.

Both JobClock and a new software program called FotoPunch (from a company of that name based in Provo, Utah) offer a new wrinkle to solve the employee clock-in problem: photographic proof. The employee actually snaps and uploads a cell phone picture of himself or herself to clock in and out for the day. Facial recognition software confirms the identity. Then, the program takes advantage of the phone’s GPS capability to show the employee’s location.

“No more punching in from the road, 7-11 store, or Denny’s,” says Landon Michaels, president of FotoPunch.

Finally, no discussion of software for the landscape business can be complete without at least a quick consideration of data backup. Businesses have been preached to for a couple of decades about how crucial it is for data to be backed up at some location other than the computer on which it is generated. Yet lost-data disasters due to hardware failure (most common), theft (next most common), and fire/flooding/you-name-it-nightmare (least common) still happen. These things are not a problem…until it happens to you. Then, it’s not just a problem. It’s a nightmare.

Birdsong has multiple redundancies built into his systems. All office data is recorded simultaneously on multiple hard drives. If one fails, another can be plugged in to take its place. Then, all critical data is still recorded to a tape backup on a daily basis, and taken offsite.

Even if your firm isn’t yet big enough for multiple hard drives and offsite backup, at the very least an inexpensive software program like Carbonite can automatically pick up new or changed computer files and back them up on an offsite server. Mozy does much the same, as does SugarSync. You can also download programs like Dropbox, Google Drive, or Microsoft’s SkyDrive to hold your most important files. They’re free or inexpensive, and your password-protected data is available from anywhere.

Let’s face it, no one ever says, “I’ve got too many backup systems in place!” No one also says that you need to use any of the latest software. The pioneers of the industry didn’t have it, and they did just fine. Given the opportunity, though, it’s a safe bet that they would have been early adopters of the latest in tech. You should be, too.