Perfect Landscapes with Design Software

Even if you’re a top-notch landscape designer, your greatest ideas won’t put much in your pocket if you can’t translate them effectively for your clients. And people are accustomed to seeing everything in great detail.

For example, once simple weather maps on TV have been replaced by computer-generated images that depict everything from heat waves to blizzards, as they offer rotating 3-D images to show different perspectives.

And—perhaps subconsciously—your prospects expect the same from you. Who can blame them? They’re debating whether or not to spend thousands of dollars on a project that you think they will like (based on your discussions with them) and that they hope they will like (after you’ve translated the discussions into reality).

That’s the kind of challenge you face when you try to sell a new landscaping job, or even an upgrade project. Rough sketches won’t do. Your verbal descriptions won’t do—especially when you can’t be sure that your mental image will even come close to that of your prospect.

Sure, you can present isolated pictures of hedges, flowers and hardscape elements, and spread them on the prospect’s table. Talk all you want about how the colors and shapes will coordinate with each other, and with the existing architecture. But when you ask them to visualize how it’s all going to be pulled together, you’re likely to encounter a blank stare.

There’s a fairly simple way to solve that problem—landscape design software. “Unfortunately,” says Anne Behner, sales manager at Visual Impact Imaging, Youngstown, Ohio, “the green industry has been pretty slow in coming to the computer-graphics table. That’s not necessarily a bad thing,” she says. “It just means that most landscapers would rather be working out in the field instead of being stuck behind a desk, tapping at a keyboard.”

But getting out of that mental rut might be essential to keeping your business moving forward. After all, although many of us can still remember the days when nothing was done by computer, today we take them pretty much for granted. It’s practically impossible to find anyone who still insists on using old-school technology.

It’s easier than ever to overcome that hurdle. Several companies offer landscape design software that can create a form of virtual reality, right on the screen of your laptop.

They won’t make you a better designer; your vision for the perfect landscape comes from your own talents. But the software can make it easier and faster for you to execute designs.

Think about that—easier means you can spend less time on putting them together. Faster means you might get your proposals to your prospects well ahead of your competition.

And it’s not just marketing hype.

James Baron, president of Pacific Landscape Services and vice president of Baron Brothers Nursery, Camarillo, California, cites two very profitable times he’s capitalized on the power of design software.

“One of my clients had just made his fortune. He was in his 60s and said he didn’t want to wait for trees to grow up—he wanted mature trees now! I used images of mature trees that we had at the nursery, and presented him with a realistic depiction of a tunnel of trees along his driveway,” Baron says. “He signed the contract after he saw that, and the $350,000 project went very smoothly. The software made the installation job easier, too, because I could ‘rearrange’ those big trees until the customer was satisfied with their exact placement.”

A businessman bought up 32 lots in Las Vegas, Nevada, and started building homes valued at between $3 million and $7 million each. “After determining what should be planted, we used the software to create custom landscaping designs for each lot. The customer’s representatives reviewed the designs and we got the job,” says Baron. “It’s a multi-phase project that will have a total value of around $200,000.”

These powerful programs can be relatively inexpensive, and are generally easy to use, even by computer novices. And in today’s business climate, you need every leg-up on the competition that you can get—making these software packages a wiser investment than ever.

Let’s take a look at some of the common features you’ll find in them.

Photo-insertion and image libraries

Digital cameras have revolutionized picture-taking. We point, we snap, we upload, we share electronically. No film, no waiting for developing, no negatives to file.

You can turn that little camera into an important sales tool. After you snap some photos of the prospect’s home, it’s a simple matter to upload it to the program, where it will become your basic canvas. (Of course, you can still use a conventional photo, but you’ll have to scan it first.)

Once it’s in the program, you can save it as a “before” picture. With a few clicks, you can electronically erase any elements you no longer want to see. Then you can turn your imagination loose.

Design software packages have built-in libraries of thousands of high-quality images, including plants of all sorts from azaleas to zinnias, as well as assorted grasses, mulches and other landscaping features.

Click, drag and lock in place— now you’re creating a realistic picture of your plans, with the prospect’s own home as the backdrop.

Chris Walter, owner of Computerized Landscape Design, Kansas City, Missouri, uses Pro Landscape, and has experienced solid results. “I’ve always said—show them a picture of their own house with plants in place, and they say, ‘WOW! When can you start?’” You can develop the digital design right in the customer’s home—with their input—or at your own office. Either way, when you’re finished, you can take the digital design straight to the customer. If changes need to be made, you just click-and-drag some more.

But that built-in flexibility gives you an edge in another important area: upselling.

Once the customer likes your plans, the job is half-sold. Now’s the time to suggest some enhancements: “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” you say, “I’m glad you’re pleased with the design, but have you ever thought about . . .” and then you can add new elements to the plan, such as retaining walls, raised beds, water features and even outdoor lighting schemes.

And if you don’t do lighting work yourself, it’s not necessarily a problem. Partner with someone who does . . . and be sure to get a “finder’s fee” for any business you throw his way.

Pete Lord, president of Drafix Software, Inc., Kansas City, Missouri, points out that “you can shrink the images to show how the plants will look when you install them—in one-gallon tubs, for example. Change the picture to show the mature phase, and customers will often go along with using the mature—and more expensive—plants.”

You can use these capabilities to re-sell older jobs. “I go back to jobs I landscaped in the ’70s and ’80s and take pictures of their current state,” Walter says. “After deleting the old, overgrown plants, I add new ones and show the prospect what his property could look like with a makeover. I close a lot of deals that way.”

There’s plenty more you can do, too. Take pictures of your finished jobs, and use them later as part of your sales presentations (a lot simpler than lugging around a portfolio); or take your own detail photos—a custom water feature, for example, or a personal bed design—and drop them into the program’s stock library.

Changing perspectives

Your prospect is happy. Everything looks good . . . at the front of the house, anyway. But nobody spends all of their time standing directly in front of the door.

Some programs offer rotational capability—you can use it to give your prospect a virtual walkthrough of the job. See it from a corner of the property. Zoom in, or zoom out. Take a “stroll” from one end to the other. Or change perspective completely, and present a view from inside the house!

You can also reshape design elements to your needs. Change the angle of a wall to match the actual placement in your design. Bend it to conform to a curved flower bed. Or adjust it to fit an existing slope.

Better estimating, better presentations

There’s no margin for error in bidding—the smallest mistake has the potential to throw your estimate way off track. Many design programs offer built-in bidding capability that can help you keep track of the number of plants you specify, the areas of pavers and other materials, even the volume of mulches or rocks. They’ll cross-check the itemized list with your own customized pricing and tax rate schedules, and then produce a clean, detailed estimate.

You can also build on that information and produce professional-looking sales presentations—including a cover sheet, the estimate, a materials list and information about the various plants you’ll be using—in as little as five minutes.

“Some contractors print their proposals on the spot,” says Lord, “put everything in a binder and leave it with the customer. That can be a good selling tool in itself. Give your prospect a blueprint, and he won’t share it with anyone. But he might show your detailed information to his next-door neighbor” — who just might become your next customer.

Not just for landscaping

Design software developers offer products that can help irrigation designers, too. Irrigation designs may not be as pretty as landscaping is, but they can be plenty complex—and they’re subject to many rounds of changes, too.

Brett Berry, owner of Berry Irrigation in Tyler, Texas, saves plenty of time and effort by using Rain-Cad Accelecad version 9 from Software Republic, Hockley, Texas.

“I used to do everything manually,” he says, “but now I draw the layout, enter size and pressure data for a water meter, and add heads wherever I want them.” The program calculates the system’s total flow, sizes the pipes, and determines the proper number of heads.

When the basics are finished, irrigation system designers can go out in the field with a laptop and, with a few clicks and drags, easily move pipes, heads and valves and make other refinements to the original plans. It’s faster and more efficient than relying on someone else’s scribbled notes, and can cut down on driving back-and-forth from the jobsite to the office.

The program can also help keep estimates on-target. Berry prints a material take-off and faxes it to his distributor. “I get real-time prices, and that takes the guesswork out of material costs. I just have to get the labor part right, then I’m confident that I’ll be competitive. There are no hidden numbers to jump at me later,” he says.

As you might expect, design software doesn’t come cheap —but the expense must be weighed against boosts in your business’s productivity, efficiency and accuracy.

Earthscapes from Visual Impact Imaging will set you back $1,095 for a complete package. “It includes full licenses for Corel’s Photo-Paint and Designer programs,” says Behner. Her company releases new images and features every 12 to18 months, and they’re available as reduced-price updates.

Software Republic goes down the middle. It offers the RainCAD package for $895-$1,295 (depending on capabilities) as an outright purchase. Pro Contractor Studio had been available by subscription only—ranging from $30 for 30 days to $3,238.50 for a full year— but that’s changing. President John DeCell says users can now buy the program directly.

Of course, there’s a learning curve associated with any new computer program, but these have been designed to be simple to learn and easy to use. The companies offer a wealth of support to help you through sticky points, too.

And after you’ve mastered the program’s capabilities, you’ll be on your way to a more productive and more profitable business.

Why wait?