By Mark Landsbaum

It was inevitable that software that manipulates photo-realistic images would become all the rage in the landscape industry. After all, even beauty parlors use similar stuff to show brunettes how they would look as blondes, and all without messing a single hair.

But when it comes to shrubs, bushes, trees and ponds, are software visualization products just bells and whistles? Are they merely hyped marketing tools? Or do they have genuine value?

Software designers tout their products, as expected. They talk about ease of use, speed, power, rendering ability, and their vast libraries of foliage photos, and so forth. Landscape contractors, who make sales presentations with the software, have similar praise for computerized renderings.

But what about the most important parties in the buy-and-sell equation: the customers? After all, if landscape design software has no value for customers, why bother with it?

Does such software nudge customers closer to signing on the dotted line? Does it prompt them to buy sooner? Is it responsible for them spending more than they intended? Does it close the sale?

It would appear that the answer is a resounding ?Yes,? to all of the above.
?It was great! It was so fantastic because when you can see what it?s going to look like, it brings it to life!? crowed Stephanie Coates. Her husband, Rod, relied on the visualization software of landscape contractor Mike Imondi to plan $30,000 in improvements to their Westerville, Ohio home. This included ?about 21 tons of outcropping, large boulder stone. It?s beautiful. It?s very striking.?

The Coates are among a growing community of satisfied customers, who find that innovative software solutions, increasingly used by landscape designers, help them better envision their landscape contractor?s recommendations. Not surprisingly, it also prompts them to buy sooner, and often even to buy more than they would have otherwise.

Stephanie Coates conceded that the graphic design software Adobe PhotoShop, in conjunction with DesignWare (a dedicated landscaping visualization software package) which Imondi uses, resulted in the Coates spending more than they had planned.

?It probably boosted the cost of the job by 20 percent,? she said. ?I wanted it to look like it was going to look at maturity, so we bought bigger trees and bigger material.?

The ability to visualize shrubs and trees at varying stages of maturity is but one of the capabilities of software packages marketed by several companies. Options include PhotoShop, the standard tool of graphic designers, and stand-alone dedicated packages such as Drafix Software?s PROLandscape, Design Imaging Group?s DesignWare and Visual Impact Imaging?s Earthscapes.
Visualization software also makes closing sales easier. And it?s not just landscape contractors who say so.

?I would imagine this would sell almost every client they pitch,? said Bob Dice of Powell, Ohio. He was persuaded by an Imondi software presentation to incorporate irrigation, lighting and landscaping, including 37 tons of rocks, slabs and boulders into his $90,000 residential job that included a large swimming pool.

?I told him ?I don?t think you?re charging enough,? and I don?t tell that to many people,? chuckled Dice, who worked closely with his landscape contractor, requesting a final revision once the rock work and concrete were completed. ?I gave him a list of some plants I wanted to incorporate, and deleted some he had recommended that I didn?t like. It was fantastic.?
Near Kansas City, Missouri, Craig Partin had a similar experience with his landscape contractor, Chris Walter. Walter, of Computerized Landscape Design, prepared a $12,000 job for Partin?s Lee Summit suburban home.

?It was an existing home that needed landscaping,? Partin said. ?I was pretty impressed by the software. It?s very hard to visualize what somebody has in mind without those kinds of tools. Once I saw the pictures that Chris could do using design software, I was pretty much sold. He obviously knew what he was doing, but the visualization helped us know what plants we wanted and where they would go.?

?It definitely made the purchase easier,? Partin said. ?It speeded the process up quite a lot, instead of just staring at sketches and 2-D plans. We had a competitor come over, who didn?t have the visualization (software) and there definitely was a difference. He showed some kind of a CAD overhead-type view. That just doesn?t really compare to being able to see the 3-D view from the front of the house.?

For Partin?s project, Walter used Drafix?s PROLandscape software to produce ?three different views; each corner and a frontal view. He was even able to show us how a tree in the front yard would grow over time and affect the house. That helped a lot to convince us to plant it a little farther away from the house. That really helped convince me to put it in the right place.?
?I don?t know that I spent more, necessarily,? Partin said. ?Probably the best benefit was that the sales process was short; I was able to make up my mind faster. It?s certainly possible that because I was able to see it, I just said, ?Yeah?.?

One of the benefits of visualization software is that landscape contractors don?t have to work so hard to convey how a project will look upon completion. ?It definitely was a lot less hand-waving and ?Picture this if you will,?? Partin recalled. ?I?m sure it helps (Walter?s) presentations.?
Another, not inconsequential, benefit: Partin?s wife ?was definitely part of the sales process, and she got it a lot faster? because of the lifelike renderings, he said. ?She was very enthusiastic.?

Cole Osborn, of Bethany, Missouri, another Walter customer, said the software presentation closed the deal as soon as Walter ?presented the pictures of what the house was going to look like. What?s great about it is that you see the finished product before you ever start,? Osborn said. ?You can make changes before they start the physical work.?

Without the visualization software, Osborn would have had to imagine $20,000 in improvements for the first phase of landscaping for his home. ?You just have to kind of go with the landscaper?s vision. For someone like me, it?s hard to visualize the finished product, so it?s nice to see how it would look down the road,? he said.

About three-fourths of the work done by Landscape Technologies? Randy Mardis of St. Peters, Missouri, is for commercial clients, such as shopping centers and office complexes; the rest is residential. Mardis has found that residential clients prefer images created with PROLandscape software, while commercial clients lean more toward CAD renderings.

Residential customers prefer the image output from PROLandscape ?because many times they can?t understand a plan drawing,? Mardis pointed out. ?You start with a digital camera and a picture ? even with mud and dirt ? and input the turf and shrubs and trees on top of that so you can get a before and after.?

Doug Winter, who uses Design Imaging Group?s software for clients at Winter Landscape & Design in West Islip, New York, found that, ?Any time I?ve ever used it for a customer, I?ve locked up the sale.? Moreover, Winter is confident that customers spend more than they would have without the aid of visualization.

?From a customer?s standpoint, it?s a lot easier to visualize,? agreed Brad Corso, who has used Visual Impact?s software on about 2,000 jobs at Corso Flowers in Sandusky, Ohio. ?A lot of people have a hard time seeing an overhead view and visualizing the job.?

The visualization software definitely closes sales and increases job values, Corso said. ?It?s a lot easier to talk the customer into buying. We?ll do a drawing for them and maybe they want to do just the front, then they get so excited over it that they want to do everything in one phase instead of three phases.?

Walter finds that PROLandscape design software, a color printer in the back of his truck and a laptop computer are effective out-of-the-office sales tools.

?I go to a client?s house with my laptop, I click a couple of pictures and download them,? Walter said. ?We?ll sit on the front porch and design it together. It takes about an hour ? bam, bam, bam ? you put them in. It gets the client involved in the landscaping. I?m filling their need right on the spot. Most landscapers do it in their office, then come back in a week or so. But I close nearly every deal I work on.?

Walter adds, ?Most people don?t understand a CAD plan, but the imaging they understand. It makes it a personal thing for them.?
Walter has found that the visualization software not only closes sales, but also is an effective tool for add-on services. The software not only enables customers to visualize a tree at six months or six years maturity, but also allows them to see how items such as pavement, boulders and even lighting will appear.

?I grab a light fixture and drop it alongside your sidewalk (in the rendering). I click a little button and it lights up the sidewalk, like it would at night,? Walter said. ?I can show you dawn, dusk or midnight. It?s pretty good. I can easily make another $3,000 on a job putting in landscape lighting ? one of the most lucrative areas of landscaping.?

?It?s a heck of a piece of software. If you?re a landscape designer and not using some type of CAD and imaging, you?re crazy. It closes jobs!? Walter emphasizes.

All of this is not news to Jim Vazzana, a landscape contractor by trade, and vice president of Design Imaging Group of Holtsville, New York. ?A visualization sales piece of software eliminates apprehension and ambiguity on the part of the consumer,? Vazzana said. ?The thing that keeps them from signing on the dotted line is that apprehension of not being able to visualize what they are buying. Every homeowner says the same thing: ?I just can?t picture it.? And this solves that problem.?

?Contractors are accustomed to using a bird?s-eye view,? he says. ?But when was the last time you saw a homeowner climb up on a roof and look down and say, ?Yeah, that?s going to look great?? He wants to see it from his perspective.?

Some landscape contractors recognized the value of visualization software early, Vazzana said. In the early 1990s when Vazzana was with Bissett Nursery in Long Island, New York, he recalled, ?We felt if we could help our landscape contractors make a better sales presentation in a shorter time, they would come through the gates that many more times in a season.?

?As an experiment, I took twelve contractors who had done business with us, buying under $15,000 worth of material per year. Within eighteen months, every one of the twelve firms had purchased more than $100,000 worth of material, after being equipped with visualization software,? Vazzana remembers. Bissett Nursery purchased the software company, brought it to New York from California, and then about four years ago separated it as a stand-alone firm, though Bissett retains about 60% ownership.

So, what really makes visualization software valuable? It?s not drop-down menus, or rendering shrubs realistically, although those are handy features. The real value to contractors is that it closes sales. That?s its bottom-line benefit.

Pete Lord, president of Drafix Software, said, ?Design software not only allows contractors to win more bids and close them quickly, but more importantly, to win more complete and more profitable bids. That?s a clear, bottom-line benefit.?

?We talk to contractors all the time who are losing bids to competitors who are able to show the customer a visual image of the finished project. The fact that PROLandscape is very easy to learn and easy to use means that contractors can put the software to use immediately after they purchase it,? according to Lord. ?And having the potential to sell a complete landscaping job in one meeting with the client means that it?s possible to see a return on investment in a software purchase with the first job.?

Whether to invest in visualization software is a decision that ultimately affects a landscape contractor?s bottom line, and the bottom line may be more important today than ever. Many businesses have deferred purchases with the economic downturn, and since September 11th the hesitancy to spend is exacerbated. A business needs to have strong bottom-line justification to invest in new tools, an assurance of a return on investment.
Perhaps customer Stephanie Coates best justifies use of visualization software: ?To me, it?s a great selling tool. And for people with budgetary considerations, you can show what it will look like and break it into phases for them. It really brings it to life.?

That?s the bottom line.

February 2002