Feb. 1 2006 12:00 AM

Enhance Your Business with Landscape Design Sofware

You have some choices. You can go back to the office and carve out time from your already overloaded schedule to work on the revisions by hand, prepare a new estimate, and drive out to your clients? home again. Or you can spend a few minutes and a few mouse clicks back at the office and pop a new design to your clients by email. Or, better yet, you can make the changes right in their living room and wave to two happy customers who know exactly what they?re getting as you walk down their sidewalk, check in hand.

Sound like a fairy tale? It isn?t. This is exactly what you can do when empowered by professional landscape design software. A growing number of green industry professionals are demanding the kind of efficiency that landscape software provides.

Professional landscape software can impact your business on many levels. First, it can enhance your ability to sell projects by allowing you to provide clients with captivating, professional presentations. Some even allow you to include photorealistic images, showing exactly how their property will look with your design. Second, software can greatly increase your own efficiency by enabling you to create designs in minutes versus hours, and produce accurate estimates at the same time. Finally, some can even help you manage your business by allowing you to monitor your projects, track your profits, prepare schedules, and more.

With this kind of performance, it?s easy to see why professionals who try landscape software are quickly hooked. Andrew Sykes, owner of Garrett Churchill, a residential design/build firm in Abington, Pennsylvania, purchased DynaSCAPE Software in part to help streamline the design and revision process. ?I was tired of erasing hand drawings and redrawing,? says Sykes. ?I also wanted a complete package. With this, we can do a drawing, tag all the elements in the drawing, and have a complete estimate done. It has simply made us more efficient.?

8_1.jpgIt starts with a great presentation

One of the most important jobs of landscape software is to create standout professional presentations that sell projects. The designing and imaging components create site plans and powerful images that instill confidence in clients in a fraction of the time it takes to produce them by hand.

?It?s much more versatile than drawing by hand,? says Leedell Scott, owner of Leedell?s Loving Hands Landscaping in Houston, Texas. Scott uses PRO Landscape, by Drafix Software. ?It?s so much faster, especially on revisions,? says Scott. ?You can save your old drawings and incorporate pieces of them into new projects.?

Scott, who offers design/build services and consultation, finds that using the software removes frustrating obstacles that come with hand drawing. ?Some contractors think they?d rather do it by hand because they feel that the computer will interfere with the design process,? says Scott. ?But for me, it was the opposite because it was so easy to use. I found it actually enhanced the design process.?

Some customers and designers prefer the softer hand-sketched look. Fortunately, many programs allow designers to choose among several artistic rendering options for a variety of hand-sketched effects.

Some packages include an imaging editor to show clients their dream landscape transformed into a very realistic image. Starting with a digital photo of the existing property, the designer simply drags and drops new landscaping elements onto the property (and erases old ones) to show clients a ?photo? of exactly what?s to come. Image libraries enable designers to choose from thousands of images of plants, grass, mulch, hardscape materials and other elements.

?The imaging part is new to some contractors,? says Tom Riccardi, president of Visual Impact Imaging. The company?s Earthscapes software features super-sharp, realistic high resolution images and a 12,000 plant library. ?We all learned how to do everything on a 2D site plan,? says Riccardi, a landscape designer himself. ?Now, new technology comes along and we can generate these very realistic pictures using the computer.? Realistic images can be a powerful motivating tool for the customer.

?Every customer I?ve sold to has just loved it,? says Scott, who uses the photo editor provided with PRO Landscape. ?They get really excited about it. They?ll call their neighbors over and say, ?You?ve got to see this!??

9_1.jpgImaging software is especially effective for up-selling, according to Pete Lord, president of Drafix Software. Are you adding holiday lighting to your list of services? Why not show your customer a computer image of their home all decked up for the holidays, complete with falling snow. Maybe you think a retaining wall would make a nice addition to their landscape. ?If you can suggest a retaining wall to your clients and show them exactly how great it will look on their property with their own slope and their own home, it?s very easy to sell,? says Lord. ?If you sell that wall, you?ve paid for the cost of the program. We have people tell us all the time that they?ve paid for it with one job.?

Contractors can also add photos to their image library for use in later projects. ?This is especially important when you?ve created hardscapes,? says Lord. ?When you finish building a wall or sidewalk or patio, take a photo of it so you can show how it will look on another house.?

Efficiency is king

Selling projects may not be your issue. You may have so many clients interested in your services you couldn?t possibly find the time to get to all of them?or could you?

Professional landscape software is designed to give contractors the efficiency they need to make their company far more productive. Designers can quickly create professional scale drawings and generate accurate estimates at the same time. Most design software also performs all of the necessary calculations based on the measurements from the scale drawing. Once a design is completed, a few clicks of the mouse can produce a proposal complete with photos, site plan, bid, materials list, a plant list with horticultural information, and, of course, an attractive cover sheet.

?It?s very efficient for the contractor because you can turn out high-quality designs complete with estimates in a matter of minutes,? says Riccardi. ?It saves time and money both for the contractor and the customer, because it eliminates the need to go back and forth between office and client to make changes.?

?It?s an incredible time saver,? says Lord, commenting on the impact of time on profitability. ?Most people don?t put a dollar amount on their time, but they should. They should ask themselves, ?How long is it going to take me to get back to this client with a plan? How long will it take me to communicate this plan to the client?? Clients call you because they have money to spend. You want to get to them with all of the answers while they still have the money.?

Accuracy is one of the greatest efficiencies of professional software. Humans who stay up late working on bids are prone to error. Not so with the computer. ?The computer is accurate,? says Riccardi. ?It doesn?t make mistakes or forget things. It will count and price all of your items accurately, and it won?t forget to add the cost of compost or peat moss.?

The time savings and accuracy are especially important in complex designs, says Sean Flaherty, CEO of Nematschek North America, makers of Vectorworks Landmark Software. ?The more sophisticated the hardscape, the more useful this product is. You can maintain accuracy even with complex designs that include numerous curves. You don?t have to worry about field compensation. Materials use is also much more efficient.?

Efficiency doesn?t stop there. Through links with partner software or with their own integrated modules, professional software can help you manage your customers and projects, monitor costs, track profits, prepare schedules, and perform other tasks to help streamline your business.

?Our software is designed to serve as the center of operations for any kind of landscaping company,? says Everett DeJong, founder and managing partner for DynaSCAPE Software, formerly known as Garden Graphics. It can serve design/build contractors during the first stage of a project, and can later produce recurring quotes for ongoing maintenance. ?It?s a totally integrated system that can take a project from design, to quote, to invoicing, routing, and scheduling.?

In today?s market, business savvy is critical for landscape professionals. ?This product can help you allocate when and where your profits are,? says DeJong. ?It really helps you understand your business. Twenty years ago, it was landscape first, business second. Now it?s the other way around.?

10_2.jpgChoosing wisely

There are several excellent choices available in professional software, each with its own set of unique features. Choosing one that?s a good fit for your company?s specific needs will give you the biggest payback for your investment.

?Look at your own strengths and weaknesses,? says Flaherty. ?Pick software that will help you compensate for those weaknesses. That?s when you start to get big wins out of your program.?

DeJong agrees. ?Look at your own business and evaluate where your pains are. Are you looking to save time, improve images for clients, create efficiencies, control costs?? Choose a package that targets your own company?s specific inefficiencies.

Today?s professional landscape software is designed to make the learning curve as short as possible. However, it?s still important to keep user-friendliness in mind, relative to your own needs and experience. ?Ease of use is absolutely critical,? says Leedell Scott, who switched to PRO Landscape after starting with a much more complex program that was not a good fit for her company.

?The program had a lot of stuff in there that I didn?t need,? says Scott. ?The newer packages that keep coming out are so much easier to use. You can be practically computer illiterate and pick it up right away.?

?You also need to make sure you have a company that has good, speedy tech support,? says Sykes. ?You?re never calling them when you don?t need them right away.?


A smooth transition

No matter what program you choose, you do need to budget in some time to fully learn and implement a new program, especially for the estimating tasks. ?Remember, you need to enter everything you use on the job to make it really work for you,? says Sykes. ?This takes a while, so plan some time for this.?

Sykes implemented the DynaSCAPE program in two stages. ?We started in spring, about the worst possible time of year to even consider a big change like this,? he laughs. ?But we were able to implement the design portion within two weeks. We then waited until we had a bit more time to input the data for the estimating portion.?

Budgeting time up front for data entry will quickly pay off by saving hours that would be otherwise spent looking through catalogs and product lists. ?The integration between design and estimation offered by DynaSCAPE has saved us an enormous amount of time and effort, and increased the accuracy of our estimates,? says Sykes. ?It allows us to design and bid on more work without a lot of extra manpower. That?s having a very positive effect on our bottom line.?