Most contractors in the business have a fairly lengthy wish list. Some guys want a few more hours in the day; others want to close more sales or boost their business volume. Some folks want to look more professional; others long for simplified estimating and billing. If any or all of these items appear on your wish list, or better yet, your business plan, it may be time to open up your wallet and invest in the latest generation of professional landscape and irrigation software design programs.

Many landscaper contractors have overlooked design software, but these magnificent tools can save design, estimating and revision time, and create high-quality presentations to help close more and higher volume sales. And with all that extra time on your hands, you can also bid more projects to ? you guessed it ? grow your business.

Jim Vazzana, owner of Design Imaging Group, Holtville, New York, says the contractor who isn?t getting into computer imaging is really missing the boat. Still not convinced? Most contractors that have sampled the benefits of software design tools swear by them. Chris Walter of Computerized Landscape Design, Liberty, Missouri, has been using Kansas City, Missouri-based Drafix Software?s Pro Landscape software for more than ten years. He confides, It?s made me very successful.

I use it on every project I design.? Software tools for landscapers can create great photo presentations and site plans, and facilitate estimating and billing. Some programs are geared to irrigation professionals. Doug Goodwin of Irrigation Services in Magnolia, Texas, uses RainCAD from Software Republic, Houston, Texas. He admits, ?It totally changed my business. The presentation process is invaluable. If a customer wants quality work and you show them a CAD design, they?re sold.? Technophobic contractors or those who have tried (and failed) to master the nuances of AutoCAD may still be a bit gun shy about software programs. The good news is that design software has gotten much easier over the last ten years. Most contractors can learn how to use a professional software design program in a matter of days. Walter says, ?Ten years ago, this was hard. Now the tutorials walk you right through the program.?

Click, click, click

Most software design tools are comprehensive programs that consist of several modules. The first piece is typically imaging. The contractor uses a digital camera to snap shots of the property, or he scans photos into the computer.

The magic is worked via a database of images of trees, plants, shrubs, groundcover and hardscape, which are dropped into the original photo on the computer screen to create the landscape design. Most contractors report that it takes about an hour to draw a design by computer, compared to an average of 5-10 hours for a hand drawing. Every contractor in the business knows that no design ever goes in as first drawn. Designs may be revised and re-revised throughout the process. Revision is a breeze with design software.

Instead of erasing on vellum or redrawing, a mouse click can delete items or add new elements.

These time savings represent one important benefit of design imaging programs, but they are certainly not the only advantage. The presentation value of an actual photograph depicting the planned landscape is tremendous. Some particularly savvy contractors take a laptop to the first meeting with a client and create the landscape with them.

This may add a bit more time on the design end, but it is a surefire way to close the deal. Ryan Sutton, director of marketing for Drafix Software, says, ?This is a very compelling sales tool. We found that contractors are more apt to win jobs working this way.? Tom Riccardi, president of Visual Impact Imaging, Akron, Ohio, estimates that his company?s clients bat 90 to 95% in landing their work. These results are fairly constant no matter which professional design tool a contractor uses. John DeCell, president of Software Republic, surveyed his customers and found that they were able to close 55 percent more sales calls by showing the design. But there are other financial benefits as well. Contractors using professional design software can also bid more on each project. Professional design software provides a great way to escape the low-price trap.

How does it work? If a customer is holding a simple paper proposal, he typically relies on price to differentiate contractors, so he selects the contractor with the lowest price. The rejected contractor may resort to lower prices. Professional photographic presentation differentiates the contractor from the competition. DeCell?s customers report making an extra $400 per project with Photoscape imaging software, because they don?t need to be the lowest bidder, with a value-added photographic design. Rick Hente of Hente Gardens in Winfield, Missouri, adds, ?Customers trust you more. With a professional photo-quality presentation in hand, they know you will go a step farther with the installation.? Design software also opens other moneymaking doors. It?s a virtual snap to upsell by dropping in lighting or additional plants right before the customer?s eyes. It only takes a few high-margin items, such as light fixtures, to pay for the software; some contractors sell those within a week of using design software.

There are other ways to do the math as well. Jeff Vancil of Hart?s Nursery, Bushnell, Illinois, says professional design software is an investment that really pays for itself. He spent approximately $1,000 on EarthScapes landscape design imaging software from Visual Impact Imaging, and calculates that a few $4,000 jobs paid for the program. Furthermore, software?s utility does not expire. Hente notes, ?A software program pays for itself again and again.

The next component in most software packages is a CAD or site design module. These modules typically feature tools and functions similar to AutoCAD, streamlined for the landscape or irrigation industry. These include area measurements for mulch beds and automatic pipe calculations. This module is handy on a number of levels. A CAD drawing provides an installation crew with clear directions. Better yet, for the calculator-challenged, most CAD modules can be linked to an estimate module, to calculate everything from plants to topsoil and tree stakes. The main work for the estimate comes on the front end, as contractors need to create a database with prices for materials. After that, a mere mouse click creates an itemized estimate. A CAD or estimate module can also be used to create a materials list, saving time and money. Goodwin says it?s not uncommon for landscape or irrigation contractors to forget one or two or more small items in an estimate. ?If it?s not counted, it?s money out of your pocket.? Software, on the other hand, doesn?t forget. With a complete materials list, there are no last minute runs to the nursery or distributor for missing parts. Some programs include a plant selector in the imaging module; others feature a separate plant selector. Either way, functionality is similar. This option allows a contractor to select plants by zones, colors or soils. It also provides the customer with a handy printout, explaining how to care for the new plants and trees. Contractors in the irrigation business may want to look into irrigation management software. These may be packaged as discrete programs that outline proper watering with a newly installed system. It sets the schedule, creates an annual water estimate and calculates peak flow and other measures. DeCell points out, ?Contractors can design and install an efficient system, but if someone doesn?t know how to run it, it won?t be effective.? Goodwin adds, ?My advice for any individual starting out in the irrigation business is that you are really missing the boat if you don?t get involved with CAD. It?s almost a necessity.? That?s because these programs can demonstrate compliance with water conservation measures.

Getting ready to buy

Perhaps you?re sold on the power of computerized design tools. Before ordering that software package, there are a few more issues to consider. For starters, software cannot make a designer out of thin air. Russ Prophit of Big Tree, Inc., Fort Meyers, Florida, says, ?A software program is a tool like a drafting board. The contractor still needs basic design tools and knowledge to make the most of these programs.? Next on the list is price. Expect to pay anywhere from several hundred to one thousand dollars for professional design software. There are less expensive options geared to homeowners on the market, but they won?t give the same professional presentation or contain the extensive library of professional programs. Vancil says, ?You can spend $49 on a mart-based program, but these really lock you in. You can?t design what you want with them.? The good news on the price front is that buying design software does not mean you need to lay out a few hundred more for new hardware. A digital camera or scanner allows contractors to make the most of imaging modules, and a decent inkjet printer of 1200x2400 dpi or 2400x2400 dpi will suffice for high-quality presentations. Prophit says, ?Be aware of what you?re going to use the software for.? Contractors who frequently collaborate with architects may require a tool that is compatible with AutoCAD, so that they can go back and forth between their drawing and the architect?s rendering. In that case, it is critical to find out if the software is compatible with AutoCAD, or if an AutoCAD purchase is required for true flexibility. Another key piece of advice? Go with a vendor that stays up-to-date with technology. Does the vendor offer a new release or updates every year? If not, it won?t be long before the technology is outdated. Updates don?t cost nearly as much as the initial purchase and allow you to stay ahead of the competition. Finally, user-friendliness, flexibility and integration are critical. Does the software tool allow you to duplicate what you draw and calculate by hand? Is it easy to move between modules? Can you customize the program to fine-tune it to your business by adding or revising items? And what type of customer-support does the company provide? These programs may have gotten significantly easier over the last ten years, but it?s likely that you will have one or two questions along the way. Go with a vendor who provides prompt customer support. Design Imaging Group eliminated many calls to its customer support center and simplified the learning curve by including 62 built-in training videos in its Designware program. One way to check out the company?s customer support record is to take the program for a test drive. Prophit suggests that contractors in the market for design software try before they buy. Most vendors allow contractors to download a trial version of the software for 30 days before purchasing it. The trial version may not provide all of the functionality of the software, but it?s a great way to dip your toes in the water and come up to speed before committing to a purchase. Most contractors agree that it?s worth taking the time to investigate, and compare several design programs. While you?re comparing options, take a good look at the photos in the programs? libraries. How realistic are they? Do they reflect your inventory? Can you scan in additional plants to build a larger library? Is the program 2D or 3D? What type of photo manipulation tools does the program include? Go ahead and start clicking. That professional software design program just might take your business to new heights. You can certainly expect to save time and increase your close rate. You just might find yourself selling bigger projects as well. All in all, it may be one of the best business investments you can make.

February 2004