Jan. 14 2013 10:19 AM

Apps to assist our industry


Talk to any ‘old-time’ landscape professional about the business 20 years ago and you’ll see how different the industry is today, especially from the standpoint of technology. they’ll tell you that the good old days were both the best and worst of times. they were the best, in that opportunity was seemingly limitless. they were the worst, in that business—as far as computer systems go—was in the dark ages.

For the “young’uns,” who’ve been spoiled with the advantages of hardware—such as computers, tablets and smartphones, it’s difficult to grasp the amount of work that had to be done on paper. Financial operations, client lists, employee information, the all-important take-off sheets, the estimating, the scheduling and routing, and of course the billing—all of this and more was done by hand. There’s no doubt about it: today’s technology has made day-to-day job operations a lot easier.

All the same, it’s been just as difficult for the old-timers to keep up with the electronics that are rapidly being integrated into business practices more and more every year. It sounds shocking, but the days of showing up at a client’s home with a pen and pad of paper have pretty much become obsolete. Nowadays, it’s all about using the newest technology.

Specifically, I’m talking about applications, or ‘apps’—mobile programs that can be downloaded directly to your handheld device.

These days, how often do we hear, “There’s an app for that”? You might think it’s just a catchy exaggeration, but I assure you that it’s not.

Matthew Noon, the president of Noon Turf Care in Hudson, Massachusetts, recently made the hi-tech switch. Like many of us, he’s also been catching up with the technological times. “Since the pace of technology is moving so rapidly, one can’t rest for a minute,” he says.

His wakeup call came when he watched his three-year-old niece skillfully navigate her way through an electronic universe on her mother’s iPad. “The very next day, I went out and purchased one. Within minutes of turning it on, I was downloading apps for just about everything that I need to do during my day. I immediately realized how much easier and efficient life and business can be with these devices.”

You can get apps that help you with banking, filing taxes, scheduling appointments with doctors, and even catching up on the latest movies, music and games. The list is never-ending. Today, there are literally hundreds of thousands of apps that are available for markets of every kind—including the landscape industry.

Here’s an interesting fact: while writing this story, I made calls to landscape contractors throughout the country, and only a handful of them could tell me that they use mobile programs for in-the-field work.

Some explained to me that they’re in the integration process, but most answered me like I was a crazy person:

“Apps? Excuse me, but, uh, what do you mean?” Time has shown us that better technology leads to better business. For those of you who haven’t embraced technology, specifically in the form of industry apps on your smartphone, I’m here to tell you that by utilizing them, you can be light-years ahead of your competitors.

Like them, you’ll still have the same end product or service: building landscapes, designing them and maintaining them, cutting lawns and installing irrigation systems. But, by going mobile, your job can be a lot easier, more efficient, and a lot more fun.

“Apps are replacing the paper or email processes that have been used in our industry for years,” says Chris Angelo, president and CEO of the Santa Clarita, California-based Stay Green Inc. “Now, these processes are being moved to a more digital format that’s based on convenience and efficiency.”

For example, have you ever been out in the field and found yourself desperate for information that you don’t have on hand? Sure, you could go back to your office and look it up on the computer. But if it’s possible to do it from a program on your cell phone or tablet, why go through all the time, trouble, and gasoline?

With a tablet or smartphone, you can have access to apps that make it easy for you to stay out in the field— or in that meeting. I know, it sounds too good to be true. But fortunately, it’s very true. With today’s technology, just about everything can be done onsite. Granted, looking up information and a lot more can be done on an office computer. But can you really beat the convenience of being able to do it while you’re going from client to client during your work day?

Let’s say you need data on a certain species of turfgrass; there are a ton of apps that can provide you with a library of information on lawn care management. These apps have page after page of information that you might not know off the top of your head. Some of them also have a specialized calculator function that accurately computes rates like fertilizer needs, water and pesticide usage and mowing time, as well as fuel, water, and mulch costs.

You can also use apps to manage irrigation systems. For example, you get a call from a client while you’re on the road who says, “Hey it’s raining, my sprinklers are running, and I’m not around to turn them off.” No problem. Using your smartphone or tablet, you can remotely manage your client’s system. The applications allow contractors to monitor and adjust system flow rates, target where a mainline break is located, and view tracking reports.

There are even apps that can help you administer your business. Several of them allow supervisors to wirelessly connect their own device to each employee’s device. While in the field, the crew can message one another, send job details, check availability, assign tasks, take pictures and more.

Many even allow you to monitor when employees clock in and out. Programs use a GPS system to pinpoint the exact location of each employee’s smartphone or tablet, meaning you can track their activity as they go from property to property. Hopefully, you can already trust your employees, but this technology ensures that you never have to think twice about it.

Another very useful ability that several of the administration-related apps offer is a design feature. Say a client wants to get an idea of what his landscape will look like when you’re all done. You can take a picture with the app and edit it to give your client a rough visual of what it could look like when the job is complete.

Can you imagine how this will look to your customers? Your competition goes out, assesses a property, and then returns to the office to type in the data and give the client a breakdown. By going mobile, you can do it all right there on their property—in real time.

According to Angelo, “There’s an app that allows us to take pictures of a jobsite, and write notes on the photo itself. We send that image to our clients and production crews. That way, we can easily inform both parties of deficiencies or enhancements, while working on a jobsite. It saves time, it’s easier than editing the photo on an office computer, and it’s something to show our clients.”

What an opportunity! By embracing the technology you’ll not only make your job easier, you’ll also ‘wow’ your clients. In this sense, going mobile can be thought of as a marketing tool.

“Using apps provides the client with a lot of comfort and confidence in our ability to handle different situations,” says Angelo. “In that sense, it’s a retention tool. It provides our long-standing customers with the confidence to say, ‘This company isn’t getting stale—they’re continuing to move forward with the times.’” By utilizing new technology, you’ll definitely continue to keep the clients that you’ve had long-term relationships with. In addition, because you can use these apps as tools to keep a customer’s mind at ease by including them in the process, you’ll likely bring in new business as well.

I know what you’re thinking—this transition sounds a bit confusing and expensive. I assure you that it’s not. According to a 2012 survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, nearly 50 percent of adults in the United States own a smartphone.

Designers of mobile programs know this, and they also know that in order for an app to be marketable, it needs to be as user friendly as possible. As far as the price goes, many of these applications can be downloaded for free.

The tough part isn’t making the mobile switch; it’s weeding out the best apps to use within the plethora that are on the market. Largely, this will be done through research and trial and error.

“I think the challenge for companies that are trying to move forward is in finding the best applications, and figuring out which apps you’re going to train your crew to use,” says Angelo. “We started a committee that consists of our IT department, and a few of our tech-savvy field managers. They survey apps, and test them out in the field before we install them into company hardware.”

There are well over 100 apps on the market that you can use in your business, but many of them can be used to perform the same operation. So, it’s a matter of figuring out which ones you like best. Test them out, train your crews, and soon enough your job will seem so much easier.

But remember, going mobile isn’t just about making it easier for you. Equally as important, it’s also about making it easier for your clients. After you’ve researched the possibilities of embracing the new technology and software, there’s another avenue to consider: developing a custom app for your business.

Noon and his brother Chris realized the benefits that could come from creating an app for their company.

“Obviously, things are going mobile. Lawn care consumers often think to order certain home services when they’re traveling from place to place during the day. We did some research, and couldn’t find any small landscape business that had created an iPhone app for their customers, so we made one,” says Matt Noon.

The layout of the app is very basic, making it extremely easy for clients to schedule appointments without ever having to pick up the phone. There’s also a link that takes them directly to Noon Turf Care’s mobile website, where they can receive a quote for a job in seconds.

“We created the app to make it easier for our customers to contact us,” says Chris Noon. “First, we hired a marketing company through a buddy of ours who works in the automotive industry. They found that 20 percent of homeowners search online through portable devices. I thought to myself, we’re missing out —we could make it a lot easier for our clients to get in touch with us.”

Think about the amount of time that both parties can save. Let’s pretend that your client is on-the-go, and suddenly remembers that he forgot to order an insect application. As we all know, many of the issues that we get calls about involve basic requests. These sometimes require a simple solution that the client can use to temporarily or permanently remedy the situation. To connect with you, all the customer has to do is press a button on his phone or tablet. Phone calls are minimized, and information can be expedited in seconds.

“Right now, our industry seems pretty slow to engage with this sort of thing. There aren’t a lot of smaller companies doing this yet,” says Noon. “Although we recently developed it, it’s created a lot of buzz. We’ve been monitoring how many people are contacting us by phone, the web, or our app—and the app’s been getting so many hits that we’re thinking about expanding it to the iPad as well.”

Take advice from other industry professionals who have already integrated the newest technology into their business. Doing so will make your job easier, and make you more efficient. What do you have to lose? With what’s available, it’s time that we start thinking out of the box. Step into the future. I promise, you’re gonna love what you see.