When it comes to new technologies, today’s innovation is often tomorrow’s scrapheap. For that very reason, some landscape contractors are reluctant to embrace hi-tech devices such as landscape design software. But in this day and age, contractors who don’t use design software will soon go the way of horse buggy whip manufacturers and 8-track tapes.

For the technologically challenged, computers can be intimidating. But they are a fact of life. There is a learning curve you must get past, but once you “get it,” you’ll be hard pressed to recall how you got by without it. The same goes for landscape design software.

Like all tools, design software is only as good as the person using it. So let’s start with the assumption that you are knowledgeable in the basic principals of landscaping, but have never used landscape design software. You’ve been successful without it. You know that at some point, you’ll probably break down and take the plunge. You just don’t have the time right now; you’re just too busy! Well if you want to stay busy, you’ll want to start using landscape design software sooner than later.

As a professional, time is money. Landscape software will save you time in numerous ways: as a design tool, a sales tool, and in pricing and estimates. That improved efficiency will increase productivity, and that should make you more money. And it’s the design imaging feature found on most programs that will help you achieve that goal.

So how does it work? You start by taking a photograph of the property you’re bidding on. You load the photo into the software. Then with the imaging component you can easily add plants, grass, mulch, hardscapes and water features. What you’re doing is creating a visual design for the customer using images of actual materials superimposed on their property.

Photo courtesy: PRO Landscape
Of course, at this stage of the project you can design it by hand, but you’re losing out on a valuable sales tool right out of the gate. You’re drawing symbols and beds and trying to explain what they mean to the customer. In your head, you can visualize exactly how it’s going to look; still some customers will have no idea what you’re talking about.

That’s not the case when using landscape software with an imaging component. It gives the customer a realistic, professional-looking photographic rendering of a project before they spend their money. “It’s clearly communication with the customer, says Peter Lord of Drafix Software, Kansas City, Missouri, manufacturer of PRO Landscape software. “It’s being better able to communicate your design ideas to the customer, which is the ultimate in sales tools.”

Picture this scenario. You have a laptop or tablet PC with you, and you’re sitting with the customer designing his landscape. The customer says, “you know, I don’t know that I like that plant.” So you point and click on the software’s plant selection menu and put something else in its place. You’re acting more like a consultant than a salesperson. And by putting in elements they like, you’re not trying to convince them to buy anything. They’re selling themselves.

That’s exactly the circumstance Chris Walter of Computerized Landscape Design, Kansas City, Missouri, often finds himself in. He uses the PRO Landscape Software. “I do a lot of front foundation plantings. I take a picture of the house, download it, then with my tablet computer or laptop in hand, the customer and I design it right there on the spot. I’ve given them what they want and they are involved in the design process. They’ve got a photograph of their house with realistic looking plant material so that they can make a good buying decision.”

That’s only the beginning. The imaging program allows you to make a very professional presentation instead of scribbling down design ideas on a piece of paper. The amount of time spent on design and presentation of the job are also greatly reduced.

Tom Riccardi, of Visual Impact Imaging, Akron, Ohio says their software can cut down on the amount of time you spend designing a project by as much as two thirds of what you were doing before. “When you go out to present a job to a customer, you spend an hour or two going through catalogs, showing them pictures of what the plants look like. Here, once the customers see the photo image, they fall in love with it and they’re ready to sign the contract. So you’re in and out of there much quicker. And if there are changes that need to be made, rather than driving back to your client’s house, you can simply email them the changes.”

Photo courtesy: Visual Impact Imaging

For Virginia Aldridge, of A-TreeBiz, Edmond, Oklahoma, using the Visual Impact Imaging software cuts down the amount time she spends designing a project by as much as 75 percent. One of her favorite features of the software is its ability to erase the existing landscape. “It’s amazing if you go to a house, you clean it up and then put something else in, the client is amazed how much neater it looks.”

When using the software’s imaging program, Aldridge often prepares more than one design to show her clients. “Sometimes I’ll show them two or three different looks in one presentation, giving them a variety of options. For example, I’ll have an evergreen on one side and a deciduous on the other. Then I’ll flip-flop the trees and I’ll ask the client which they like better.”

That ability to easily make changes to your presentation not only gives you an advantage in getting the job, but it also gives you a huge advantage over your competitors who aren’t using landscape design software. Riccardi says that several landscape contractors who didn’t use his software have called him and bought the product after losing a job to a competitor who was using their software.

Problems associated with selling night lighting to customers can also be minimized. The way a lot of contractors currently sell night lighting involves going out to a customer’s house, setting up test lights and generators, and actually lighting up the house. With design software, you can use the same picture you took of their house for the landscaping project, add whatever light fixtures the customer wants, press a button and it shows you what the house will look like at night by darkening the photo and turning up the lights.

After you’ve sold the job, landscape software continues to help in ways that will save you time and money. Several software manufacturers include design programs such as Computer Assisted Design (CAD) modules, along with billing and estimate programs.

The CAD program allows the landscaper to render a base plan into a computer in the same two-scale, top-down view he’s traditionally drawn by hand. While you’ll still have to draw the outline of the house to scale, some programs allow the information stored in the imaging module to automatically be loaded into the CAD program. Landscapers can use a computer’s mouse to draw the base plan, or if they prefer the feel of a pen, a digitizing tablet can be used.

Once the base plan and plant materials for the landscape project have been loaded into the computer, the software pretty much does the rest of the work for you short of installing the plants! Exact measurements and calculations are just a mouse click away.

”The nice thing about the CAD module,” says Lord, “is if you draw the front foundation of a house with an area of edging and a nice curved bed, the software is going to tell you the exact measurements. If you then fill that area with mulch, say a depth of three inches, the software is going to give you the exact calculations of how much mulch you’ll need.”

It doesn’t stop there. Estimating and billing programs take the guesswork out of what is probably the most crucial part of staying in business; getting paid. “Our estimator is generated from the site plan,” says Riccardi. “For example, the plant symbols all have properties assigned to them. When that plant symbol is added to the landscape, the software picks up those properties, and exports it to the estimator. You can completely customize your own prices and names.” It also helps with the calculation of material and labor costs.

Walter says the software is an invaluable tool in helping him accurately bill his clients. “If you’re designing by hand, you’ve got to count everything, and transfer it to your estimate. The software I use does that automatically. It’s now a five minute deal. When I did everything by hand, I would often forget something and it would always be the most expensive item.”

In one trip, a landscape contractor can conceivably do the design with the customer, go out to his truck where there’s a printer, generate a bid right on the spot and get a check for half the money. Before leaving, he can stake out plant locations and spray paint the bed lines. The job is sold; a check in hand, the job is laid out. All that’s left to do is either go back and install the materials or send a crew.

“Before the software, I could see two to three people a day,” says Walter. “Now I can see five or six. It cuts my design time by 50 to 70 percent. The more people you see, the more you can sell them. You can double your income in a year. It’s the best sales tool I’ve ever come up with. It closes deals.”

Despite all that the best software can help landscapers accomplish, some estimate that only 17 percent of the industry is using some type of computer design software. Riccardi attributes that reluctance to the fact that people tend to be creatures of habit. “Folks have been drawing by hand for so many years; that’s the way they were taught. A lot of them aren’t real computer literate, so it scares them.

He also notes that some landscape contractors may have been scared away by the inexpensive homeowner programs “I feel a lot of people have been turned off in the industry because someone bought them one of those cheapie things for Christmas,” says Riccardi. “They’re a nightmare to use and have left a bad taste in their mouth. They think a commercial program would be even harder. And it’s the opposite. Our program is much easier to use than any type of homeowner program.” Both Riccardi and Lord say that for a person who is computer literate, it only takes a few hours to learn the basics.

Although there are hundreds of inexpensive brands of consumer products out there, only a handful of companies manufacture landscape design software for the professional. While price and features will determine what you buy, it’s hard to know what you’ll need if you’ve never used this software before. Speak to others who have used the software; see what brand and what features they like. Does the software company offer some sort of technical support; and if so, for how long? Some companies offer a free trial download; others, a 30 or 60 day money back guarantee. All reputable manufacturers allow some sort of test drive. Do a little research.

The top of the line software isn’t cheap; the price tag often discourages people from making the initial investment, but the software usually pays for itself within the first few jobs it helps you secure. When people are spending their money on their home, they are very particular and want it to be perfect. And it’s the attention to detail you can achieve with the software that will set you apart from your competitors.

“You’re not selling plants, you’re not selling trees, you’re not selling lights,” says Walter, “you’re selling yourself. The key to landscaping is getting your foot in the door. The imaging software helps you do that, and it helps you gain the customer’s trust. Everything else is service.”

Gaining a customer’s trust also leads to an increase in sales. Aldridge says that while the presentation she makes with the imaging software helps her get additional sales, often it’s just a matter of a customer trusting her judgment. “I’ll be on the job, and off the top of my head I’ll suggest something, and the client will say ‘well if you think that we need that, just put that in there.’ I think that goes with trust.”

You want the customer to be happy. The better they can visualize a job before it begins, the happier they will be. Landscaping software allows you to provide them with a photographic image of how the job will look before you ever break ground. They don’t have to know about the hours of labor the software saved you, or the additional jobs you now have time to bid. All they need to know is their landscaping came out exactly how they envisioned it. For them, a picture is worth a thousand words; for you, it’s worth thousands of dollars in increased productivity.