Q & A BUSINESS ADVICE
Business Advice for Interior and Exterior
Landscape Industry Professionals
by Joelle Steele
NOTE: THIS COLUMN IS NO LONGER ACTIVE
Q. I have a degree in business and about 20 years experience in the landscape industry. I would like to start my own landscape business, and I am currently studying for my contractor's license. I am considering purchasing two small existing businesses. What should I look for before I sign on the dotted line?
A. You should very carefully examine the maintenance routes and the contracts and pricing for those routes. Also, you should find out whether you will be able to retain the employees who are currently doing the maintenance. When purchasing accounts only, it is not unusual to lose at least a third to one-half of the accounts within the first year due to differences in the relationships with the clients and the methods used in performing the maintenance.
Q. Why won't my Web site come up higher in Google? I know it's lower than page 20 because that's how far I've looked for it without finding it.
A. It takes time to get to the top pages, but you can get there a lot faster with good content, which is number one with all search engines. Google's Webmaster tools on their Web site also state that to raise your page in their search engine rankings (SERPS) you should also get incoming links from other Web sites. To do this, you need to find Web sites with good rankings that sell products or services to your same visitors but that are not in competition with what you sell. You write to them, and offer to exchange links. Since this is often very difficult, you should strive for good content above all else, and make use of RSS feeds and Google sitemaps to promote your site. Also, be sure that you have plenty of text on your pages, because search engines are word-driven and can't index you well if all you have are graphics.
Q. I seem to have nothing but problems when it comes to determining a good hourly rate for maintenance. I know there are lots of overhead costs, but how do you determine how much they are so that what you add on top of that allows you to pay yourself and make a profit besides?
A. Before you start pricing, you need to make sure you are being as efficient as possible and that you are not wasting resources. Your routes must be mapped out for the least amount of travel time (the biggest time-waster in service businesses), you must be buying in bulk to get the best discounts on fertilizers and chemicals, and your tools must be the sturdiest possible for the longest life expectancy. Once those elements are in place, you can start to analyze how much you spend in a year for overhead. Your first year in business should be the starting point for all of this, and during that time, you will be doing a lot of experimentation with rates, and will also be examining what the market is willing to pay in the areas you service.
Q. I am a client, not a landscaper. I saw your column and thought you might be able to help me. My husband and I hired a landscaper to design a replacement deck and a new patio for us. We approved a simple drawing and a price quote. When we got the final itemized bill, the design was $475. This seems excessive. Your opinion, please?
A. I haven't seen your project, so it is hard for me to tell if you were overcharged, but I can tell you as a landscape designer that a simple drawing does not always reflect a simple or uncomplicated design. What you are paying for when you buy a design is the expertise of the designer, both for the creative aesthetics of that design, and for the horticultural and product knowledge that is behind the materials selection. The drawing is the end result of that expertise, which involves listening to the client's wants and needs and how they envision using the space; considering the client's overall budget for the project; analyzing the area to be landscaped; determining the type and placement of hardscape elements; and selecting the proper plants to be used that will not only look attractive, but will serve a function and be maintained within the client's budget for upkeep. This takes considerable time, and most of my own designs start at around $500 and go up from there.
Q. How do you get bid amounts to match the actual costs? I can bill a client less if my costs are less, but I can't bill them more when the materials end up costing more.
A. To avoid discrepancies in costs, you need to create your own price list based on the quality, quantities, and prices of the items you install most often, as provided by your local suppliers, and at their most recent prices. If you have a supplier who is always a little higher but provides superior goods, then use their prices to assemble your bids. For specimen plants, custom-built planters, etc., get separate quotes and state that the bid price is the maximum, or is a price range, or is subject to availability.
Q. Do I own the copyright to the landscape designs I do when I subcontract my services? The contractor who recently hired me won't give me back my original illustration and says it belongs to him.
A. Copyright doesn't really come into play with landscape designs, since they can only be sold once to one buyer. So, unless stipulated otherwise in the agreement you have with the contractor, the contractor normally owns the plan on paper, and his client owns the design. However, it is usual and customary practice for a subcontracted designer to make a copy of the work at his/her own expense. However, if that is not possible, it should be provided to the designer as a courtesy by the contractor, at his/her expense, for portfolio use.
Q. What is the difference between subcontracted work and a joint venture?
A. In a joint venture, two businesses get together and start a third business to do either a particular project or a series of projects, none of which they would be able to do alone as individual businesses. They then share in the profits of that third business. In subcontracted work, a business contracts for the services of another business or individual (an independent contractor) to do work for them that they do not otherwise offer their clients. The subcontractor is then paid for the work they perform for a particular project.
Q. Our service routes are always being modified to accommodate new accounts and cancellations. We have ended up with a very confusing, disorganized series of routes. I'd like to completely reschedule everything, but I'm not sure how often something so drastic should be done.
A. I would just start with a couple of routes in one general area and work up from there. I always recommend that all routes be evaluated yearly. In a labor-intensive industry it is important to be working at maximum efficiency on the road. By rescheduling each year, the entire process will not get so far out of hand. This is particularly important at this time, with gas prices so high. Every block, every mile, every minute counts. I also recommend that you target your marketing geographically so that you end up saturating certain areas with your service routes, further reducing truck/travel time.
Q. Do you know what happened to NCIHC? Is it still around? Is that the best place to get certified for interior landscape, or should I go for the CLP designation from PLANET?
A. NCIHC is long gone. According to PLANET, the National Council for Interior Horticultural Certification (NCIHC) was absorbed by the now defunct ALCA, was additionally developed by that organization, and when ALCA evolved into PLANET, that organization developed it further and/or replaced it entirely, with their CLP certification.
Q. My salesperson started out great and brought in lots of new business but in the past few months he seems to be sitting down on the job, if you know what I mean. Sales are down and he doesn't seem to be motivated. I don't know what to do to get his motor going again. Suggestions?
A. Salespeople need sales goals and those goals must increase over a period of time. If your salesperson has no goals or too low goals you should establish some new or higher sales amounts for him/her, maybe with an additional override if those goals are exceeded. Salespeople can also become stagnant if they are paid on-going commissions on maintenance accounts or receive base salaries that are too high.
Q. Can I require that a contractor put my name on a design plan that I created while I was subcontracted to do the work? Otherwise, when I show my designs to prospective clients, they don't see my name anywhere on the plans.
A. You can certainly request that your name be included on the design plan, but whether or not it is included is usually at the discretion of the contractor. Some designers simply sign the plan, small and discreetly in ink.
Q. How do you know when it's time to move your business out of the home and into an office building?
A. You know it's time to move your business out of the home when your home disappears under a barrage of files, buckets, and recycled plants. When your den becomes a storeroom. When your guestroom becomes a storeroom. When the hall closets are filled with office supplies and equipment. When the computers, typewriters, fax machines, calculators, copy machine, coffee maker, and phone systems blow out the circuit breakers on a regular basis. When the garage becomes a warehouse. When the patio becomes a greenhouse. When you need a machete to get from the living room to the kitchen. And, most importantly, when you can no longer tell the difference between work and play.
Q. How much time and effort do most small businesses spend in the bidding process? I was recently asked to submit a bid for a project which would have taken about 4 hours of calculations. I do not feel comfortable about spending so much time when award of the contract is not guaranteed.
A. The award of a contract is never guaranteed. Some industries require more time and effort in the bidding process due to the nature of the project being bid, and sometimes a lack of internal organization is to blame. For example, I once helped a salesperson prepare a bid which would have taken half the time had the price lists and labor tables been current, complete, and legible.
Q. I did a landscape installation without a contract. It started out as just a few trees and then gradually grew into a much bigger job. I got only a very small deposit, the owner got panicked when the stock market took a drop, and I didn't get paid. I can't afford to sue. What can I do?
A. I won't lecture you about the need for a contract because you just learned that lesson the hard way. What you now need to learn is how to tactfully negotiate a payment schedule with your client. This should always be done before you ever consider filing a lawsuit. Make the payments affordable to the client, don't press for interest or late fees, set a reasonable term over which payments must be made, and get it all in writing!
Q. I have been working as an interior landscape technician for the same company for two years and still no promotion. What can I do to make them promote me?
A. You can't "make" anyone promote you, but you can meet with your employer and show them what you have done to "earn" the desired promotion, such as any classes you've taken; certifications you've completed; ideas you've had that saved the company time, money, or resources; etc.
Q. I tried to start a cut flower service but my clients didn't like the prices. How much should I be charging?
A. This is the kind of question that your accountant should answer, because pricing varies from city to city and state to state, and no two companies are the same in terms of their overhead expenses (rent, vehicles, employees, etc.) and their costs of goods sold (the flowers).
Q. Do I have to pay a technician while I am training them? It seems like they are getting an education and I'm not getting anything during that time.
A. You have to pay anyone who works for you, and if you require that they undergo training in order to work for you — and most companies do and should train — then you have to pay them while they learn. It may not pay off during the training period itself, but if you train them very thoroughly, it will be an excellent investment in your staff.
Q. What is the 2010 mileage reimbursement for employees? For an owner?
A. If you are reimbursing an employee for their use of their own vehicle during the course of working for you, the amount you pay them is entirely up to you and what the prevailing gas prices are in your area. However, when you file your taxes this is deductible on Schedule C as a cost of transportation at the rate set by the IRS for that year (50¢ per mile driven in the course of business as of January 1, 2010). As for the use of your own personal vehicle during the course of business (that is, any vehicle not owned by the business and for which you do not file a depreciation schedule when you do your taxes), the mileage rate deductible is also 50¢ per mile for business miles driven. I am not an accountant, so you should check with yours and with the IRS to be sure exactly how much to deduct each year and how to document mileage reimbursements.
Q. I have all part-time employees (30 hrs or less per week). I don't have enough clients in any one geographic area for a full-timer (yet). Two employees are urging the others to join them in pressuring me for paid vacations and health insurance. I already pay a very generous wage, provide flexibility in scheduling, and allow time off for vacations and three-day weekends, etc. How can I stop this rebellion?
A. You can't stop employees from talking, but you can try to address the underlying cause of their "rebellion." Talk to them, individually, and find out exactly what they want that you can deliver. Have a company meeting and explain your situation with regard to the geographic areas they service. Ask for their input. When employees "rebel" it is rarely a single simple issue. You need to communicate with them better and more regularly before a situation ever escalates to this level.
Q. One of my interior landscape techs is growing his hair into dreadlocks. This doesn't look professional. Can I require him to cut them off or comb them out? He says they are not for religious purposes but he said I was violating his freedom of expression. Am I?
A. This is one of the reasons why a written policy manual is so important. You can dictate a dress code for your company, as long as it is to maintain an overall company image or to comply with safety standards. Even a casual dress code can specify what is acceptable and what is not when an employee deals with the public. The important thing is that your code be very specific and that you apply it to all employees consistently.
Q. As an owner-operator, should I lease/purchase a second vehicle that is only for my business use, or can I use my personal vehicle for work?
A. This is best answered by your accountant. It is going to depend on a variety of things such as your ability to separate the personal and business usage, whether or not you need to be filing a depreciation schedule with your tax returns, and whether you can afford a second vehicle.
Q. I am starting an interior landscape business. Could you tell me how to price my service to include free plant replacements for any plants I might lose?
A. It is hard to establish an amount when you are first starting out, because you have no way of knowing exactly what your annual plant replacements might be — and much of that is based on your level of interior landscape maintenance experience. I would make a ballpark estimate of how many plants I might possibly have to replace at no charge, and incorporate that into my hourly fee structure, then reevaluate it after a year in business.
Q. Last year we started our Christmas sales push in early November. Apparently it was not early enough and there was a mad last minute rush to get poinsettias and other holiday plants ordered, and we ended up not having enough for our last minute shoppers. How early can you approach a client for holiday items? I'd like to start in early October but I don't know if they'll even want to be thinking about ordering that far ahead.
A. I always started taking Christmas tree and poinsettia orders in October. It did seem a little premature, but on the other hand, we rarely ran out of materials that way. We didn't have much of a choice since our Christmas tree person hand-selected trees for our residential clients and he had to plan far in advance for his trips to the mountains. Since we were calling to take orders for trees, we just ended up taking orders for other holiday plants at the same time. Some clients were a little surprised, but they were, on the whole, very cooperative.
Q. How long should I continue to follow up on a prospective client?
A. I usually make about six attempts — by phone and/or E-mail — over a period of maybe two months or so, and if they don't respond I figure they aren't interested and I call it quits.
Q. I get a lot of unwanted mail, mostly spam and phishing. I used a spam blocker for awhile, but it was blocking E-mails I wanted, and I felt it was inhibiting for my visitors who I want to turn into customers. Is there a solution to this?
A. I get very little spam, but when I do I just delete it. I can always distinguish legitimate E-mail from the junk, and it only takes a second to hit the delete key. The subject lines are usually nonsense words or are unrelated to the subject matter of my Web sites. In addition, many have file attachments, and I know who I receive files from and who I don't. As for phishing, if I get something from eBay or PayPal or my own bank asking me to update my account or fix some problem, I just delete the E-mail and go directly to eBay or my back and see if I have messages there.
Q. One of my employees is pregnant and wants to continue working in her current position as an interior landscape maintenance tech. I am concerned about health issues for her and liability for me. She doesn't work with pesticides, but what about standing on a chair or a ladder or lifting things that seem light but aren't? I don't want to fire her, but she refuses to take a leave of absence. What are my options?
A. Unfortunately, I can't help you because I am not a lawyer, and I am not well-versed in the employment laws of Canada where you are located. I strongly urge you to consult with a local labor attorney. It is a small investment that could prevent a serious lawsuit down the line.
Q. You seem to know about a few legal matters. How do I collect the money I was awarded in Small Claims Court? The client still hasn't paid me.
A. This process can vary from state to state and county to county, but in general, you go to the sheriff's office or to the courthouse and you fill out a writ of execution, which the sheriff will use to enforce the judgment by going out and collecting the money for you.
Q. If I write my description meta tags on my Web site well enough, will they improve my search engine rankings?
A. The meta description tags do not guarantee better rankings, but with some search engines, they give you the ability of showing what your page(s) is about as displayed in the SERPS (search engine result pages). Not every search engine will use your description meta tag, but some will give it a little more attention if it contains your keywords.
Q. Is there a difference between a proposal and an estimate? Can a contract be a proposal? I am confused about what to give to a prospective client to sell them on my services.
A. An estimate is an oral or written dollar amount that may be subject to change once a proposal is written. A proposal or bid is a detailed description of all the items and services to be provided for a fixed project price. A contract is a legal document (that may have the proposal attached to it or included within it) that contains all the necessary legal language to enforce the agreement between the contractor and the client. The proposal is the closest thing to a sales tool. A contract is never a sales tool. Selling yourself first is your best shot at getting a project.
Q. I'm relatively new to the landscape industry. Last winter, business really fell off and our income dropped by half. What do other landscapers do in the off-season to counteract harsh weather conditions?
A. From what I have heard from clients over the years, landscapers generally turn to a combination of things that revolve around snow removal and de-icing at the height of winter, and building/construction of hardscape elements such as ponds, pathways, pergolas, etc., during the early fall and late winter just prior to spring when planting and maintenance are not possible.
Q. I hired someone to write my Web site, and it turned out terrible. I already paid them and they won't give me back my money or rewrite anything for me. How do I find someone who can write well for me?
A. Find Web sites that you like that are well-written and ask them who did their writing. Always provide a writer with written information about your business that they can use in writing your Web pages. Hire someone who agrees to make a certain number of rewrites of each page until you are satisfied. Expect to pay a good deal to have this all done. Writing well is a real art and skill that many do not possess these days, and writing for the Internet requires additional writing abilities just in order to make Web pages search engine friendly.
Q. My employer and I keep debating about the design and sales process. I want to draw a design plan (a quick sketch or schematic) and have it approved by the client, then draw up the plant list and estimate and have that approved. My employer insists I am wasting time and energy on the drawing. What do you think?
A. I think you are correct. A plan, no matter how roughly drawn, gives a potential client a clear idea of what goes where. And in the installation stage, it ensures proper placement by the crew. The design process in general continues to be undervalued by our industry, and therefore by prospective clients. Not only do I think you should be drawing a plan, I think you should be charging for it as well.
Q. Can you tell me how to charge for landscape design? When I price by the project, I almost always lose money, but when I don't quote an exact amount I don't get the job.
A. I always quote a range. That leaves the client with a high and a low amount, so there aren't as likely to be surprises. I also make sure that I am factoring in any travel time and presentation time, in addition to anything else I may have to do, such as a trip to the nursery or a meeting with a contractor.
Q. I am an in-house interior landscaper for a large hotel. I have had this job for three months. The company that used to do the plants quit when asked to make several large replacements. The hotel replaced the plants three weeks ago for a total of $4,800. My boss now wants to sue the plant company and he wants me to go to small claims court on his behalf and explain why they should reimburse us. He doesn't have a copy of the contract. Can I still go to court?
A. You can go to court but, having been to small claims many times myself, I can tell you for a fact that small claims court judges demand paperwork. When they don't have it, it is just one person's word against the other's, and the judge will likely throw the case out. I suggest you explain this to your boss and have him dig a little deeper to find that contract.
Q. I hired my first employee six months ago. She had five years experience in interior landscape maintenance. I have more new business but my accounts don't look as good as they used to. I need to hire another person to handle the new accounts, but I'm afraid I'm going to lose my existing ones. What went wrong?
A. Probably training, or lack thereof. Before you keep selling maintenance, you really have to train your technician(s) more fully. Just because someone has five years of experience doesn't make them a good technician. It should, but it doesn't. You need to spend at least a week with this tech and find out what she's doing and correct it immediately before you hire technician #2. When you hire your second tech, spend at least two weeks training him/her.
Q. Will adding a blog to my Web site help me get better rankings?
A. Possibly, if you have something relevant and literate to say and you fill your writing with great keywords and keyphrases so readers can find it. If you just want to get better rankings, go for relevant content in informative articles and get incoming links from sites that cater to your market.
Q. How do I go about registering my Web site with all the search engines? How do I know I'm getting full coverage with them?
A. You don't actually have to register with anything other than Google, and even Google will eventually find you, as will all the others. But, if you want to register your site, just search on the keywords "free search engine registration," and you should get plenty of places where you can register with a hundred or more search engines all at one time. Your Web host might have a tool for doing this.
Q. Why do I end up spending so much money just repairing tools and equipment? I've been in business for three years and I'm afraid I'll go broke soon. How do other companies handle this?
A. Buying the very best tools and equipment and practicing preventative maintenance. Your tools will take a real workout because they are used about 30 hours or so each week. They need to be the sturdiest, professional quality tools on the market. And you have to know how to take care of them, at least keeping them clean, sharpened, well-oiled, etc. If you have employees, they need to take care of the tools and equipment as well, and it's up to you to be sure that they do.
Q. I want to start an interior landscape business. I am a green thumb, but I don't have any experience in doing this work. Should I look for a plant maintenance job to learn it, or would I be better off learning sales?
A. I would definitely do sales. It will teach you more of what you need to know if you plan to start this kind of company. With any kind of business, you need to know far more about the business end of it than anything else.
Q. I work for a garden center as a salesperson. I have been there for eight months and I get paid hourly with a very small commission. I frequently have to work overtime and sometimes I work as many as 11 days in a row without a day off. I have never been paid overtime, and when I asked about this, the owner said, "this is a retail business and that's how retail is." Is he right? I just can't believe it.
A. You need to contact the U.S. Department of Labor Employment Standards Administration Wage and Hour Division for your state. Because you did not fill in the information about where you are located, I cannot give you that information. Please visit the following website and select your state office and contact them directly to find out if your employer is in compliance with the law: www.dol.gov/esa/contacts/whd/america2.htm
Q. What is the difference between a janitorial bond and liability insurance? I do interior and exterior landscape. Do I need both?
A. Janitorial bonds pay in full for the replacement of something that you or your employee damages, but you then have to reimburse the bonding company for that cost in full. Liability insurance pays for damages up to a specified limit and usually has a deductible that is fairly high. So yes, you probably should have both.
Q. Some companies in my area are relying on credit reports as a tool for hiring. Is this a better way to weed out potential problem employees?
A. I am very opposed to the use of credit reports in hiring. Not only is this a completely unnecessary practice since it is no match for thorough interviewing techniques, it also violates an individual's right to privacy. The majority of information in these reports has no bearing on a prospective employee's suitability for employment. Credit reports even reveal the year of birth, and since that is not allowed on most employment applications, why should it be obtainable from a credit report? Our Federal Labor Laws are meant to protect employees from such possible means of discrimination. That's why we have the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII (an amendment to the Civil Rights Act), and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. And if the potential for discrimination doesn't make you stop and think about the ethics of using credit reports, how about the growing problem of identity theft? How many companies pull credit reports for an active job seeker, and how many of those credit reports can fall into the wrong hands? Learn how to interview correctly so that you do not need to waste money on unnecessary credit reports that violate the privacy of employees.
Q. Do I need to create an RSS feed for my Web site? How will it benefit me?
A. If you have new products and services, or new informational resources on a regular basis, an RSS feed would expand your coverage on the Web and draw more visitors to your Web site.
Q. I have sent out several press releases to local newspapers about my business and my Web site, but they never publish them. How can I get people to visit if they don't know I'm there?
A. Your press releases may be too promotional when they should be more informative. Try to focus your press release on something you're doing at a particular time of year (e.g., planting bulbs, trimming trees, etc.), and make it read more like an article that provides advice for a newspaper's readers. Also, try to find an angle that will get the attention of a newspaper editor, since they are the ones who have to find it interesting enough to print.
Q. I want to hire a young woman for one of my maintenance positions, but I am concerned about how little time she has spent with her five previous employers. I hate to invest time in training someone who may not stay.
A. Many people cannot hold onto a job. The best way to get a feel for whether you should hire this person is to ask them why they left all these jobs, and don't be afraid to ask for clarification if you don't understand or if they are vague in their responses. Also ask specifically why they think you should hire them when they have such a poor track record.
Q. If I give someone an estimate using formulas that give me ballpark figures for my tree services, am I then obligated to adhere to those estimates if, say, one tree turns out to be double what I quoted?
A. This depends on how your estimate is worded. The term "estimate" means that a figure is an approximation. Your written estimate should therefore specifically state whether or not you always adhere to that estimated figure or if it may vary on closer inspection and, if so, would necessitate a work change order to adjust the price and complete the work.
Q. I started a website for my tree service, and I want to do what you have done as far as providing information in the way of articles for my potential clients. I'm not sure what to write about that won't prevent them from just reading my advice as opposed to paying for my consultations.
A. My business used to be about 75% consulting to the horticultural industry back in the late 1980s. Most of the questions people asked me required only very brief and simple answers, so I sure do wish I'd had a website back in those days. I suggest you write articles that cover only the most common and easy-to-answer questions that people normally ask you. Leave the more complicated issues to your consultations.
Q. When a client doesn't tell you that something is wrong for several months and there is damage as a result, is it the landscaper's fault for not seeing the problem before the client did? A client is taking me to court for $4,000 in damages that resulted from a sprinkler head malfunction that I never saw, nor did anyone on my maintenance team.
A. Unfortunately, I can't answer this for you. You will need to contact your attorney. I am only guessing that the responsibility might be a shared one, but certainly the client should have informed you sooner, if they were aware that the damage was occurring. But if they didn't see the damage and you didn't see it either, I don't know how the law might view it.
Q. For over a year I have tried to do interior and exterior landscape maintenance but I keep losing clients when I lose employees. I can't find qualified employees who can cross over from interior to exterior, even the ones with degrees in horticulture. What do you suggest?
A. People in every industry specialize these days, and your employees are no different. As an owner, surely you must be aware of how different interior and exterior horticulture are. An employee who can work equally well indoor and out would be a rare find in most markets. If you do manage to find him or her, train them well, pay them well, and in all ways treat them like gold.
Q. My business just changed its name, and we now have a new URL (domain name). Do I have to run duplicate Web sites until everyone knows about the new URL?
A. No, just one site using the new domain name. You can redirect the old domain name to the new one. That can be done through the entity where you registered your domain names, or through your Web host.
Q. Can I use a form, such as the one you use for this Q&A column, to avoid having to publish my E-mail address on my Web site?
A. You can, but why would you? Studies show that 80% of all people faced with filling out a form will exit the Web site instead. E-mail is the primary means of communication on the Web, and the whole purpose of having a Web site is to get people to contact you and to do business with you. Publish your E-mail address and answer your E-mails at least twice a day.
Q. In October of 2004, I told a new client that I could not maintain her trees because they were over my 8' limit — some were 25' tall and more. I recommended a tree service but she never had any tree work done. Over two years have passed and she is threatening to take me to court because the trees look so bad. I don't have anything in writing about the trees; do I have a verbal agreement?
A. You have a verbal agreement if she agreed to hire your services after you told her to contact a tree service. Whether or not that verbal agreement will be honored in a court of law is another story. I recommend that you first try to resolve this with the client, and if that is not possible, that you speak with an attorney as soon as possible. To avoid such problems in the future, be sure to state in your written maintenance contracts any exclusions, such as not servicing trees over 8' in height.
Q. I purchased one of your contracts but it does not thoroughly explain my services. Why?
A. Because all of my contracts are written to match as many of your services as possible, when possible, and it is up to you to customize that part of the contract to meet your exact needs.
Q. I'm an interior landscape maintenance tech, and I want to move up. The company I work for could use a maintenance supervisor but the position does not exist. How do I ask for a job that isn't there?
A. Write down all the benefits to the company of having such a position and all of the duties it would entail, and then explain why you are a good choice for that position. Make an appointment to meet with your employer and then present him with the information and tell him you want to fill the job.
Q. How do you feel about membership in trade associations? My partner wants to join and I just don't see the point.
A. Trade associations are supposed to offer a voice for your trade as a whole. They are supposed to support your trade and provide you with whatever information you need to succeed in your business, including networking. For that reason, membership would be a plus. But I am not always supportive of trade associations, because of how they define members. For example, to me, a trade is composed of everyone who works within a trade, not just one small faction. I think that a landscaper and a wholesale nursery should be in the same trade because one does not function without the other. They may run different kinds of businesses, but to me they are in the same trade, the same industry. I think that the best trade association for the horticultural industry would be a horticultural industry association that encompasses all of the many kinds of businesses that operate under the heading of horticulture. Having all these little associations for garden centers or interior landscapers or florists or growers is just a sign of how disorganized the industry is as a whole and how unsupportive it is to all these different horticultural business. I especially don't think that one member or another should be labeled by an association as a so-called "affiliate" or "allied trade" and then soaked for higher membership fees than the other members. Anyway, I don't think I answered your question — it's for you to decide — but thanks for the opportunity to express my opinion.
Q. I got your website book and it was very helpful. But I don't like your idea of using my E-mail address as a means of contact. I don't want to get a bunch of spam in my mailbox.
A. Spam rarely comes from having your E-mail address on your website. If it did, I would be receiving spam by the bushel since my E-mail addresses are all over my websites. I rarely get any spam at all. Spam mainly comes from two places: 1) ISPs who don't screen it out, and 2) you, as the user (or your kids or your employees), going online and putting your E-mail address on forms that are going to allow you to receive a free prize or sign up for computer dating or some other kind of website that collects E-mail addresses and then shares them with everyone under the sun. Once you are on one of those lists, you will be bombarded with spam, non-stop.
Q. Are there any formulas I can use to calculate the amount of time it should (or usually does) take to maintain each individual plant, maybe based on size?
A. I don't know of any specific formulas, but when I used to bid maintenance I always used an average of 1 minute or 1.5 minutes per plant, based on the condition of the plants at the time the bid was submitted (new or previously maintained by others), the environment in which the plants were located (warm, no A/C, dark, cool, etc.), the containers and condition of the roots (rootbound, in controlled irrigation, drip system, etc.), and the types of plants (mostly 6", mostly 6', ming aralias vs. massangeanas, etc.). I could also add another half minute more for up to 2 minutes per plant, if necessary.
Q. How much HTML do I need to know in order to create my own Web site?
A. Not that much, but you should have a working familiarity with it so that you can insert titles, descriptions, and keywords, and add things such as PayPal shopping cart buttons, etc. It's actually pretty easy to learn and there are tons of Web sites that address its use.
Q. Does it matter whether my image files are JPGs or GIFs when I use them on my Web site?
A. The rule of thumb is that a GIF is better for graphics (like logos) that have only a couple colors in them, while JPGs (JPEGs) are better for photos. The newer PNG format will probably ultimately replace the GIF. I have found that GIFs work better for graphics with transparent backgrounds than do JPGs, but in most cases, a JPG works just as well as a GIF. Try both formats to see which works best for your particular image.
Q. It seems like I lose a lot of money on my maintenance due to travel time. I'm not sure how to handle this to keep all my clients happy and also reduce the travel time.
A. Regularly revising your routes is pretty much inevitable in most small companies, at least until you have enough clients in a few areas so that you don't have to drive all over the place every day. To that end, it is a good idea to try to concentrate your sales and marketing efforts in certain areas to beef up the business in them. As far as your clients are concerned, you may have to change their service days from time to time in order to accommodate your growth and the changing patterns of your service areas, and a nice letter stating just that whenever you make a route change should help smooth over the transition for them.
Q. Four years ago, I took early retirement from teaching horticulture at a university and purchased a small interior landscape maintenance company. I have almost doubled the number of maintenance accounts, and I would like to start adding other services. I have lots of space for inventory but only a small greenhouse space. What would you suggest?
A. How about a fresh-cut flower service, or flowering plants, or even artificial plants? Short-term plant rentals is also a possibility, depending on how small the greenhouse space is. You might also want to sell a couple lines of decorative containers or subirrigation devices/planters. What you decide to do is really just a matter of what will fit in the space you have available and what other personnel or equipment will be necessary to make it happen.
Q. I would like to sell my interior landscape business. I have been in business for 14 years, I have 72 maintenance accounts, three vans and a truck, a computer system, some office furniture, and a small inventory of plants and supplies. What should be my asking price?
A. It's not possible to give you a price for a company sight-unseen. You should start by getting individual values for all of your assets. Your maintenance accounts could each sell for anywhere from two to five times their monthly rates, depending on their condition. A business broker or your accountant can assist you further and in much greater detail.
Q. Do you ever provide individual consultations to interior landscape companies? We have a lot of questions, more than would fit in your column. How much would this cost?
A. I do mostly E-mail consultations these days, but sometimes phone consultations as well. The best thing to do is E-mail me your questions so that I can see whether I can answer them by E-mail or if we need to talk. I bill by the hour at a rate of $25 for 15 minutes whether it's E-mail or phone. You can get a lot of questions answered in that small amount of time.
Q. What is the best way to determine a good hourly rate for services? I am in the ballpark with other interior landscape companies in my area, but I'm not making any money.
A. There is not enough space in this column to fully explain this but, in general, you take the amount of annual income you want to make (to fully support yourself) and add to it all of the yearly expenses of running your business (office rent, employees, insurance, vehicles, supplies, tools, etc.) and then divide that total dollar amount by the approximate number of billable hours in a year. Billable hours is how many actual hours of service you provide for which you bill a client, not the number of working hours in any given week. For example, if your income and your business expenses total $70K and your billable hours are 30 per week times 52 weeks in a year or 1,560 hours, you divide $70K by 1560 to get a rate of approximately $45/hour.
Q. I am currently a sole proprietor of an interior landscape company. Do I need to incorporate? What is the advantage of doing so?
A. I am not an attorney, so all I can tell you is that when you are a sole proprietor, you and your personal assets are always at risk from any company loss or damage or lawsuit, etc. When you incorporate, the corporation is the entity that is at risk. So usually people incorporate in order to protect themselves from personal losses that result from whatever happens in the business.
Q. I want to be sure that my domain name does not get confused with anyone else's and that if someone types the URL incorrectly that it will still come to my Web site. Do I have to buy all the domain names that are similar to mine in order to do this? And how do I get them to all come to the same Web site?
A. You would have to register all the domain names, and many may not even be available. To get them to come to the same Web site, you can go to your Web host's control panel and set up domain parking, where you "park" all the alternative names at your Web site. That way, if someone types in one of those alternate names, they will be immediately taken to your Web site.
Q. What can I do to get clients for my new landscape business?
A. The same things that everybody else does to get business. You advertise in the newspaper and the Yellow Pages, set up a Web site, send out brochures, network with non-profit service groups, join the Chamber of Commerce, etc.
Q. At what point should plants in a takeover maintenance situation become guaranteed?
A. It would depend on the condition of the plants when the takeover starts. If they are already in poor condition, then they should not be guaranteed at all. If they appear to be in good shape, you can allow a period of three or six months, or whatever time you think is appropriate, after which they are guaranteed.
Q. My client moved some office furniture and plants and discovered that three large containers had leaked and left big, round, dark spots on the floor. He has asked me to pay for replacing the carpet. Am I truly obligated to do this?
A. The question of liability for the carpet damage rests on whether or not you caused the containers to leak, whether they have a flaw in their manufacture, whether they became unnoticeably cracked or in some way damaged and by whom, OR, if you caused the damage by spilling water over the edges of the container — which seems pretty unlikely. Personally, I think you need to examine the containers and the environmental conditions of the room they were in — perhaps they sweated over a long period of time? Examine the containers very carefully for even the tiniest cracks that might have caused the problem. Don't pay anything unless you are clearly at fault. If the containers are flawed, it is the manufacturer who must be contacted by the client.
Q. One of my clients brings mums to the office and places them around the base of a massangeana. The mums often have mites and now the massangeana does too. The tree looks bad and she wants me to replace it at no charge. I can't afford to replace it and maintenance is an ongoing battle with the mites.
A. This problem only emphasizes the problems of not having a proper maintenance agreement. You need one that states that you do not replace plants that are exposed to infested plants that the client brings in. That will enable you to handle these kinds of problems should they occur.
Q. In my Web sites, I have trouble making images line up with the text that goes next to them. What am I doing wrong?
A. You probably aren't working in tables or divs. When you create a table or div on your Web page to hold your text and images, you can then align the images with text right where you want it. It takes some practice to get the hang of working with tables and divs, but once you learn how to do it, it makes Web pages so much easier.
Q. Can I keep using my AOL E-mail address with my Web site since that's the one I've always used?
A. You can use any E-mail address you like on your Web site, but it looks more professional if you use domain E-mail addresses through your Web hosting service.
Q. Is it essential for an interior landscape company to have a greenhouse? My house is so full of plants already after only one year in business, and I don't see the problem improving anytime soon.
A. It is not essential, but it is desirable. Perhaps you can share greenhouse space with someone? You may also need to become a little more realistic about what plants you need to bring home and what should just make a quick trip to the dumpster.
Q. When evaluating two job candidates who are similarly qualified, what do you suggest as criteria for the final decision. I'm hesitant to just hire the one I "like" the best.
A. Hire the one who has the kind of personality that will fit best with you, your company, and your clientele. You can teach anyone how to take care of plants, but you can't teach them how to have a good personality, to be a team player, to communicate well, etc. Look for those kinds of qualities and you can't go wrong.
Q. I have been in business for almost two years and it has been a struggle for me. I'm in a large metropolitan area and the competition is tough. They seem to be able to give everything away and I can't do the same without losing money. Any suggestions?
A. Don't ever give away anything that will cause you to lose money. It's bad for business no matter what size your company is. In the end, your competition is losing money, but they probably don't know or don't care. You need to care or you won't grow. So find a niche for yourself that will allow you to showcase your skills and get paid for it. For example, if you have a real talent for doing cut flowers, add that service and let everyone in your route area know it. If you are great in a residential environment, try to specialize there or in a certain neighborhood(s). Sometimes you just have to find your true strengths and your place in the industry — and your success there — will be apparent.
Q. How long should a training period last? Mine is two weeks, and some of my industry associates say it is too short while others say it is too long.
A. The length of the training is not the issue; it is what it includes. For example, if you hire "green thumbs," their level of horticultural skill will dictate what their training should include. The same is true when you hire someone with a degree in horticulture. They may have tropical plant knowledge — or not. Since no two interior landscape companies are exactly alike in their business practices and how they handle their maintenance accounts, it is probably best to put everyone through the same training for those things. And when it comes to horticultural knowledge, I would play it by ear.
Q. Will I have to change from dial-up to DSL or cable modem when I start my own Web site?
A. From 1994 to 2005, I did my Web site with dial-up, and while it was pretty slow, it wasn't a problem until my Web site grew and grew and I started other Web sites, etc., and then I had to have the speed. But, if you are just doing your own Web site, and it doesn't have big files to upload, and if you aren't having any connection problems with your service provider, you should be able to manage your Web site with dial-up.
Q. I just started my own interior landscape company and one of my takeover maintenance accounts needs more than I thought it would — transplanting in particular. How do I get them to pay more after they already signed my contract?
A. Be direct and honest. Tell them that after performing the maintenance for however many weeks you've been doing it that you can now see that they need more time than their current level of service provides. Give them two alternatives: a one-time clean-up that includes all necessary transplants (and be very thorough when your create this bid); or an additional amount of time per visit (think this through carefully as well!).
Q. I am trying to purchase another interior landscape company to merge with my own. The seller wants an additional $50,000 as "good will" because he has been in business for over ten years. Is this a legitimate practice in our industry?
A. Good will is not a tangible asset, but for it to be part of a business sale, it must be measurable. This means that the company you plan to buy must be doing far better financially than other similar companies in your area, or it must be a household name, or it must be doing something that really distinguishes it in its industry as being worth that extra $50,000. This is extremely difficult to achieve in any industry. I recommend that you discuss this with your attorney or CPA before you agree to it.
Q. I have only a few lease accounts, and one of them wants to cancel after almost four years. The plants — over 70 of them — are in good condition, but I have no place to store them.
A. If you have recovered your initial investment and made a profit on the lease, perhaps you can either offer the client a buyout or just give them the plants. If the client is going out of business, maybe you could offer the plants for sale to the client's employees first and then sell the rest at a garage sale at your home or office. You might be able to donate what doesn't sell.
Q. I would like to design my own website and put up photos of some of the installations my company has done over the past 10 years. Do I need to get permission from the clients to use the photos I took?
A. A commercial client would probably not care, but a residential client might not like their living room featured for all the world to see on your Web site. To be on the safe side, I would type up a very brief release for everyone to sign saying that they are giving you their permission to use a particular photo or photos on your website as an example of the kind of services you provide.
Q. How much should I charge for a design?
A. It all depends on how long it takes you to do it and what you include in that process. You should figure your design rates based on the sizes and complexities of some projects you have done previously. For example, if it takes you five hours to do what you consider to be a medium-sized installation, then calculate five hours times your hourly rate (which should be whatever you consider appropriate for design in your area) and you've got your rate for a medium-sized project. Do the same for smaller projects and larger projects, and develop a pricing chart that you can refer to quickly.
Q. Do I need to copyright my Web site articles? How much does it cost?
A. Your articles are copyrighted as soon as they are published on the Web, and you can place a copyright notice on the individual Web pages where your articles occur. In addition, you can copyright the content of your entire Web site by placing the copyright notice on all pages. It only costs money ($40 per article) if you register the copyright with the U.S. Copyright Office.
Q. I read that it is not a good idea to use employee names in E-mail addresses. Why not?
A. Because if they quit or are fired, you have to create a new E-mail address for their replacement, and then you have to redirect the old employee's E-mails to the new employee's E-mail address. It's more efficient and certainly less time-consuming to merely assign an E-mail address to a department, e.g., firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, etc.
Q. Is it better to hire a green thumb or someone with a horticultural degree? I pay top wages and benefits but I can't seem to find responsible employees.
A. You can teach anyone how to take care of a plant, but responsibility can't be taught to an adult in the workplace. So it won't matter if you hire a green thumb or someone with a degree. When you interview, you need to ask questions that will indicate how this person handles certain kinds of problems and what their general attitude is towards work, clients, etc.
Q. Do you know of any resources to inform me of pay scales for an operations manager for a small but busy interior plant business in my area? I want to hire a someone to manage all of my business' accounts, supervise techs, field customer feedback, and assure quality of service at my accounts.
A. There are no real set salaries for particular positions in this or any other industry. What you can do is look through the local newspapers or talk to employment agencies to see what comparable jobs pay and offer for benefits in your area. The level of education, experience, and responsibility are what ultimately dictate the payscale for any job — in addition to your ability to pay, or course — so you need to look at what jobs with similar levels to yours are paying so that you can set your own payscale.
Q. Is it practical for an interiorscape company to attempt a cut flower service in addition to caring for plants?
A. I'm not aware of any reason why it should not be practical. A lot will depend on exactly how you envision this service, whether it is just a part of the plant service or a separate service. If it is a full-time service you will probably need a facility in which to prepare your arrangements and a refrigerated vehicle in which to transport them. I would not jump into this until you have investigated it more thoroughly and can fully envision it as a viable adjunct to your business.
Q. Is my credibility going to drop if I move my office back into my home? I prefer working from home and have a good space that I've used for an office previously.
A. There is not such a stigma attached to home-based businesses these days. As long as you continue to conduct yourself professionally, provide great service, and not disturb your neighbors or your family, I can't see any problem with working from home. I grew up in a home-based business and have worked from home myself for most of my adult life with no problem.
Q. My business is thriving but I am not. My doctor has advised me to sell and do something less taxing on my heart. I asked around and got so many different ways of pricing my business. Do you have any suggestions?
A. I spoke with an interior landscaper who recently sold his business to a fellow tradesperson. He sold it for the cost of his assets plus 6 times the monthly income from his maintenance. He said he went directly to a business broker after trying unsuccessfully for a year to broker his own deal.
Q. I recently started my own website, and I am having problems with making my images look correct color-wise on my rather expensive monitor. Any advice?
A. Even if you make your images look perfect on your monitor, it doesn't mean they will look the same on other monitors. Just do the best you can and make sure your images are clear and large enough to help your customers make buying decisions.
Q. How can I create a custom error page so that visitors don't get the 404 Page Not Found error pages when I move or rename a page?
A. First, don't rename your pages unless you are completely changing their content. That will eliminate 404 errors from occuring. Second, a custom error page is a regular Web page that looks just like your other Web pages, complete with all your navigation buttons, but you put your own "page not found" message on it. However, to activate it, your Web host has to designate that it is the page to use instead of the standard 404 Page Not Found page, and they may also ask you to name that page so that their system recognizes it.
Q. I have been accused of stealing a watch from a client. He wants my employer to pay him $5,000 from the company's bond. In less than six months he has gone through three maids and he always has some different girlfriend staying there. I don't want to be fired for stealing when I didn't.
A. I had a very similar situation occur some years ago with a technician except that it was a ring and not a watch. When I confronted the client and told him that he needed to call the police before our bonding company would pay up, he backed down immediately. He knew, and your employer probably knows too, that with so many people having access to the watch it would be very hard to prove who took it — or if it even existed. The client probably just sees your employer as an easy means of getting his money back.
Q. I am having trouble deciding how to terminate an employee because he is my nephew. I don't want to alienate him or his mother (my sister), but he just isn't working out at all. I think his talents do not lie with plant care.
A. Unfortunately, this is the downside to hiring relatives. But, when someone is not right for the job, what else can you do? If he is not suited to any other positions you might have open, you will have to sit down with him and discuss his job performance. Let him know that you think he made a good effort but that this just isn't the right position for him. Assure him that you care about him, but feel he has other talents (list them if you can) that he might pursue with greater success.
Q. My son will graduate this June with a degree in ornamental horticulture. He has worked part-time maintenance in the family interior landscape business over the years. Now he wants me to make him the supervisor of the maintenance division, which is small but has no supervisor. I'm concerned about his age — he's far younger than the people he would be supervising and he has far less experience than they do. Your thoughts?
A. I share you concerns. I think he should spend at least a year working full-time on the various routes to fully learn the ropes. Spend time discussing the business with him and ask his thoughts about how he would handle various situations. After the year is over, sit down and discuss that experience with him and ask for his ideas on how he would handle the supervisory position he wants, how he envisions that job, what problems he thinks he might face, etc. Handle the hiring of relatives the same way you would when hiring anyone off the street, because the criteria for the job is the same either way, and he may or may not be suited to it.
Q. I just picked up my first commercial account, an older shopping mall. The place is a mess, and I can fix it up and they are paying me to do that. What I want to know is do I need to have liability insurance and if I do, how much?
A. Anyone who is in a service business needs to have liability insurance. The amount of insurance is dependent on the potential for loss. The only one who can help you answer exactly how much you need is your insurance agent.
Q. Years ago I attended one of your seminars in which you encouraged interiorscapers to sell their designs. How do you stand on this today?
A. Right where I did when you attended that seminar. When you give away an important service, such as design, you diminish its value. And, unless you manage to somehow pad your bid to include the time you spend doing it, your "free" design is creating a financial loss. As for how it affects an industry, it destroys credibility. After all, if you can afford to just give it away, how much knowledge or skill or time can it take to do an interior landscape design? Helps explain why so many clients still think anyone with a pair of clippers can take care of houseplants.
Q. How do I make it possible for a visitor to download PDFs of my newsletters from my Web site? And where should I store the PDFs?
A. The PDFs go wherever you keep your regular HTML page files, or you can put them into a file folder of their own if you have a lot of them. You then put a link to each PDF on the Web page where you want the visitor to find it — you may have a list of such links all on one page. Your visitor clicks on a link and their Acrobat Reader software opens the PDF for them. They can then read the PDF or save it to their own computer.
Q. My Web site has been up for a couple months now, and I just showed it to someone on their computer and all my beautiful colors were murky and muddy looking. Some didn't even look like my colors at all. Any ideas about what might be wrong?
A. You probably used colors on your Web site that are not Web-safe (a.k.a. "browser safe") and the person's computer may be an older model or a hand-held device that can only display the 216 colors that are considered to be Web-safe or browser-safe. You can get a list of hexadecimal Web safe or browser safe colors online. Pick ones from those colors and you should not have this problem.
Q. How do I find out what the going rate is for mileage reimbursement for employees who use their own vehicles for work. I am in southern California, and I have been asking around and getting a huge range on this.
A. I asked some of my interior/exterior landscaper clients in your area what they pay, and I got only a very narrow range of 34¢-38¢/mile (1998). I always suggest that when in doubt you contact your attorney or visit your library to review the laws as they pertain to your state.
Q. My website has been up for almost a year and I have not received any new clients as a result of all the time and money I invested in this marketing tool. Is there something I might be doing — or not doing — that could be preventing me from attracting clients through my website?
A. Web sites are great, but you have to always be promoting them to get people to visit them. You need to have all the potential keywords present in the text of your home page. Your Web site address should appear on everything you produce in the way of advertising. If you aren't promoting enough, you won't draw visitors. However, if you are drawing visitors but they don't become clients, something in your content could be perceived negatively or it could be that you need to expand your content and become more of a resource. Without looking at your Web site, I can't tell you exactly what might be wrong, so I recommend that you ask friends, associates, and employees to view your site and give you their best and most honest assessment of it.
Q. I am embarrassed to say that I so severely underbid a maintenance account that I cannot afford to uphold the contract with my client. Is there anything I can do to raise the rate and keep the client?
A. Maybe. I am a firm believer in being honest and straightforward when I make an error, so that is my usual approach to these kinds of problems. I would ask to meet with the client to discuss the account, and explain exactly why you bid it the way you did, why you erred on the money, apologize, and explain exactly what it will take to bring the rate into line with the actual work to be done. You basically have nothing to lose since you are already losing money. If they cancel the service, you will still leave with your self respect.
Q. For the past few years I have been doing all of my own maintenance accounts. I have health issues now and so I hired a full-time technician. She is very knowledgeable and gets alone well with clients. But she is so slow! She runs into overtime at least twice a week, and I just can't afford it.
A. This actually sounds like more of a training problem than anything else. Just because someone is knowledgeable doesn't mean they will do things the way you do. You need to observe her on the job and find out exactly why she can't finish on time, presuming you did not have the same problem when you did the maintenance yourself. Once you know why she is slow, you can train her to be more efficient in the use of her time.
Q. What is an RSS feed? Is this the same thing as Web syndication?
A. RSS stands for "really simple syndication." It is the same thing as Web syndication. It is a file you create in XML format that enables you to spread your Web content or Web news across the Internet. It ultimately can help you increase the traffic to your Web site. You need to update it regularly with new information.
Q. No one is visiting my website. It has been up for almost a year and it looks great, but I just noticed that it doesn't come up when I try to search for my services. Can you tell me why this is and what I might be doing wrong?
A. If your Web site is not coming up in a search, it is probably because it is not properly HTML coded, or the text is not written with enough keywords or the right keywords that potential visitors might be typing into a search engine. Or you may have used too many duplicate words that turned off the search engine robots that create the search index. A beautiful Web site doesn't mean much in the long run because the Internet is completely word-driven. You need to describe your products or services in words, preferably words that your prospective visitors would use to find you. You may also need a site map, and some search engines, such as Google, prefer that you create one to their specifics (which is really easy). Visit Google and read their Webmaster tips and instructions for Google sitemaps.
Q. I have two problems with a shopping mall account. First, I am not allotted enough time for grooming. The plants are very dusty, have a few dead leaves, and need new moss and chips. Second, I have problems with access because many of the plants are in raised planters and I have to actually climb to get to them and since my hose doesn't reach some areas, I have to haul buckets up.
A. Have you brought this to the attention of your employer? Underbidding is not unheard of in this industry. Perhaps the person who bid the job did not realize exactly how bad the access was, or they just underestimated the time. I recommend that all jobs be reevaluated from time to time to ensure that there is enough time for maintenance. Try to determine exactly how much additional time you need each visit and let your employer know so that they can take action to resolve the problem. As for the hauling of buckets, can you request a new hose or an extension to the existing one?
Q. When I complain about being harassed by a client, my employer just ignores it. He says I need to develop a thick skin. I need my job, but this client is way out of line. What should I do?
A. The question is what your employer should do. In your state, California, your employer must protect you from harassment from outside of the company as well as from within the company. In addition, you cannot be fired for making such a complaint. Show this answer to your employer and have him verify it with his attorney, and hopefully, if he is a responsible employer, he will take action to intervene on your behalf immediately.
Q. How much paperwork should be expected of a non-clerical employee? Our techs complain constantly that they don't have time to get theirs done.
A. However much it takes to adequately document the transactions for which they are responsible is how much paperwork should be expected. If your employees don't have the time it could mean just that — the paperwork isn't that much but the work is scheduled too tightly without allowing sufficient time to do the paperwork in addition to their other duties. It could also be the format of the paperwork. Keeping in mind that service people are not likely to be as clerically inclined as your bookkeeper, you may wish to analyze your forms and see if it is possible to eliminate some of them, (maybe by consolidating a few of them into one form), and making them as simple as possible. This saves on printing and filing costs and makes it easier for a service person to fill them out and keep them current.
Q. I have been working as a sole proprietor for several years and can no longer do "everything" by myself. I am thinking of hiring another person to help me but am not sure whether it is best to hire clerical or sales assistance. I can do both fairly well. How do I decide which to hire?
A. Even if you can do both equally well there is probably one that you like or enjoy more than the other. Clerical workers are likely to have strong organizational and administrative skills and would be able to assist you in fielding calls and assuring that correspondence and invoicing are kept up on a timely basis. Adding a salesperson would reduce your time out in the field and give you some time to streamline the operations side of your business. Which you hire depends on which will fill your greatest need.
Q. What color is best for the background of a Web page?
A. Just stay with black text and a very light background. No patterns on the background — looks amateurish and is too hard to read. Use color in your navigation bars, your photo borders, and your headlines.
Q. I have a website that is provided by my ISP. I want to take it down and get my own domain name, but I'm afraid I'll lose my existing traffic. How do I avoid that?
A. There are places on the Web that offer free URL/domain forwarding services. They direct your visitors from the old address to the new one.
Q. How do you decide what to delegate, how do you delegate it, and to whom?
A. You decide what to delegate by looking at what the business needs and what tasks can be better done by those more qualified for the task than you are. When you delegate you are delegating more than just a collection of tasks. You are delegating responsibility for their completion and authority to make decisions regarding variations in the way in which they are completed. To delegate effectively requires that you accept that errors will probably be made by the person to whom you delegate during the learning process. Also, not everyone will do things the same way you do. As for to whom you should delegate, look for the person or persons you trust and who exhibit the skills necessary to get the job done.
Q. Some things have been "missing" around the office and warehouse since a new employee started. I have no proof but I feel like he is the thief. How should I go about discovering the identity of the culprit and confronting that person?
A. I think a general company meeting is in order. I would let everyone know that you are very much aware that things are "missing" and that while you are not accusing anyone directly at this time, that you are advising all employees that you want the missing items returned, no questions asked. You can further state that if items continue to be missing and you catch the thief, that you will prosecute. Meanwhile, keep a sharp eye on your suspect and don't make any accusations unless you have hard evidence, e.g., you catch him/her red-handed.
Q. How can I get an employee to keep up on the latest industry technology if they won't crack a book or read a magazine?
A. It seems like nobody reads anymore, but in most trades and industries reading goes with the territory, and when you hire employees into positions which necessitate keeping on top of new technology, this should be something you screen for before and during the interview process. If you are trying to get current employees to read, try selecting articles you think will help them and highlight the important points for them. To supplement their minimal reading, try using videos, charts, graphs, etc., at meetings to keep them up to date on what's happening.
Q. I can't talk to my employees without flying off the handle. They always seem to make such impractical decisions and they don't seem to have the same priorities in mind that I do. Is it just me?
A. Sometimes the hardest thing for an employer to understand and accept is that employees will never make the same decisions that we would and they will never have the exact same priorities in mind that we do. If they did, they would have their own businesses and would not be working for somebody else. Employees do not have the same interest in the business that an owner does, so to expect them to act like they owned the business would be folly. You will probably find that you don't fly off the handle as much once you learn to accept that they have shortcomings like everybody else, and that their role is not the same as yours. To help them make decisions that are more in line with your way of thinking, make sure that they have detailed procedure manuals that explain how to handle specific situations. That way when you're not around, they can make a decision based upon what you would do in a similar situation.
Q. I got an offer in the mail for satellite Internet access. It was pretty cheap and they advertise very fast speed. Would I be better able to manage my Web site with satellite instead of my current DSL?
A. Satellite is fast for incoming data such as Web browsing, but it is just regular dial-up speed for outgoing data such as uploading files to your Web host's server. So you are better off with DSL than satellite. If you want greater speed for both incoming and outgoing data, try an upgrade to cable modem.
Q. How can I get rid of spam? Should I remove my E-mail address from my Web site?
A. You're on the World Wide Web to do business, and so is everyone else. If you don't want to read legitimate offers, you can always unsubscribe or ask to be removed. If you get E-mail that is not legitimate or that doesn't give you a way to remove or unsubscribe, just delete it and move on. I get a few E-mails that are unsolicited, but sometimes they have great offers in them — you never know when someone will have just what you're looking for. I almost never get spammed with junk and I've had the same E-mail addresses published on my Web sites for years.
Q. Do you think it is unwise to hire relatives of employees for similar positions within the same company? What are the pros, if any, and the cons?
A. The pros are that the technician knows that his relative now has an income and feels good that he or she has helped them achieve a position. The cons are usually evident in those situations where one relative has to work for the other, such as a supervisor/tech relationship. In most cases these problems can be avoided with little difficulty. Many times being a good employee runs in the family. It can also work just the opposite, so when hiring a relative, interview them just as thoroughly as you did their brother, cousin, aunt, etc.
Q. I suspect that my office manager may be on drugs. She has been very forgetful lately and seems distracted. She used to be on time every morning and now she is frequently late. How should I approach this delicate situation?
A. I realize that drugs are a consideration for everyone these days but I wouldn't be too fast to jump to conclusions. I had a secretary once who exhibited the same symptoms and when confronted with the problem admitted that she was having marital problems and that divorce was imminent. She was stressed and preoccupied, not on drugs. Ask your office manager if there is a problem and explain your concerns over her tardiness, etc. Keep to the issues of job performance, not drug abuse. Document your discussion and if you must terminate her, do it based upon job performance.
Q. I think I need to hire someone to help me now that I have opened a new territory in a neighboring town. Should I hire a salesperson or a manager? Your thoughts, suggestions?
A. It depends on what you need and what your strengths are. Are you a better salesperson than a manager? If so, hire a manager. If you are a top-notch manager and feel uncomfortable with sales then hire a salesperson. There is no right or wrong answer, only what works best for you and your company.
Q. I don't see many Web sites with the .biz or .us on their domain names. I'm looking for a domain name right now, and I want to know if it is a good idea to use them or to hold out for a .com URL.
A. I personally like the .com, but it could be that the .biz and .us just haven't caught on yet. This is something I really can't answer for you.
Q. Why don't my fonts show up looking the same on other computers? One script font I like looks like a dark block typeface when I view it on my friend's computer.
A. Your friend probably doesn't have your script font loaded on his system. Stick with simple fonts like Arial, Times New Roman, Verdana, Trebuchet, and Helvetica for all your text. If you want to put something in a "fancy font," make it into a graphic image, like a banner, so that you won't have this problem.
Q. My employees seem to be highly motivated during their first few weeks on the job and then they sort of fizzle out and either become inefficient or they quit or something else manages to go wrong. Why does this happen? How can I avoid it?
A. What typically happens is that an employer makes the job sound fun and exciting when it is really difficult and monotonous work. Once the employee starts, everything is new so it does seem like fun, but soon enough the thrill is gone, reality sets in, and the pretty bubble is burst. At that point the employee may become sullen and resentful, they may just give up and do a haphazard job, or they may just decide to split and look for greener pastures. How to avoid it? Tell it like it is during the interview and point out the good and bad aspects of the job. Observe the employee very carefully during the training period to be sure that they are understanding and absorbing everything they will need once they are on the route. Then be sure to follow up with further training as soon as possible.
Q. One of my employees wants me to pay for him to have the back of his car repainted because the paint is chipped and scratched from loading and unloading. I don't want to appear cheap, but isn't this the risk he takes when he uses his own car for work?
A. Yes, it is the risk he takes when he uses his own car for work. But, as an employer you should be willing to reimburse your employee for any substantial wear and tear that results when he uses his vehicle to perform services for you. I haven't seen the chips and scratches, but if a paint job is necessary they would seem to be significant.
Q. I have high turnover with my younger employees. They seem to leave on a whim. I'd like to hire seniors or disabled people because I hear they are reliable. Have you had any experience in this area and do you recommend hiring these people?
A. I have heard from many companies who hire seniors and the disabled. Their problems with employees are different but not absent. People are people. They all have their shortcomings and strengths regardless of their ages and their physical or mental conditions. Like every potential employee you have to interview them carefully, train them thoroughly once they are hired, keep them motivated, and supervise their work.
Q. I am tired of being the office janitor. My job is secretarial and I always have to dump trash, vacuum, and dust. I got bids for a cleaning service but my boss says we can't afford it. Can she force me to do this dirty work?
A. This is a common complaint of clerical workers in small offices. Someone has got to take out the trash and keep house and most secretaries don't feel it should be their job. If these duties are not in your job description or if you really feel that you cannot afford the time to do them, you should have a meeting with your boss and see if someone else can do the work or if perhaps the job can be rotated among a few different people each week.
Q. In searching for a Web host, I keep coming across the term "data transfer allotment." What does that mean and how do I know if I'm getting all that I need?
A. This is the amount of memory and computer resources that your server needs to respond to the number of visitors who request pages from your Web site. In most cases, you don't need much unless you are a very busy Web site with lots of file activity. You can just start out with the bare minimum and upgrade your hosting plant to one with an increased allotment if you need it (and your Web host will probably tell you if you do).
Q. Must I use an About page? If so, what should be on it? I'm not sure if I have enough credentials to put on one of these pages.
A. It isn't about credentials, per se. It's about credibility, and they aren't always the same thing. You can establish credibility with a few credentials, but it's your knowledge and experience and your belief in the product or services you sell that is important.
Q. One of my maintenance people waitresses at night. She drags into work late and tired and has assured me this will not last once she gets into the swing of working both jobs. I am doubtful about this. She used to be a good employee, but I think her work is suffering. How long should I wait before taking action?
A. If her work is suffering, now is the time to take action. You can't make her quit her night job but you can't allow her heavy work schedule to cause damage to your business as a result. Why is she working a night job? Is she underpaid? Is she in debt? Does she need some extra money for some emergency situation? Perhaps you can try to help her financially or in an advisory capacity to such a degree that she does not require the second job.
Q. Do you have any "ice-breakers" to get job interviews rolling?
A. I always ask about hobbies and interests first. That relaxes the applicant and gets them talking about something that doesn't seem threatening or critical to getting the job. But never underestimate the value of the information they give you about how they spend their personal time. It can be very revealing as to the kind of person they are and how they will likely handle the job.
Q. My job title is "interior landscape designer" but I have not designed anything yet. The company I work for doesn't do anything that could be considered creative and I am usually only given enough time to do a quick plant list without any real unique design scheme at all. Whenever I make a simple suggestion such as using hoyas instead of our usual pothos, I get shot down. How can I convince my employer that I am underutilized and that we could be doing better work?
A. It sounds like the kind of clientele to whom your company caters is not suited to the kind of design work you want to do. If you can convince your employer that using different plants and materials will lead to more creative installations without jeopardizing the sale price or the long term maintenance, that is your best bet. Otherwise, perhaps it is time to move on to a company that would appreciate the services of a more innovative designer.
Q. I have two model condominiums which I rarely get to see for quality control visits. Last week I went and found that most of the indoor plantings were severely heat damaged and underwatered. My maintenance person has never noted any problem with this account and she says it is my job to supervise the accounts more carefully. I thought her job was to advise me of a problem. What gives?
A. It should be her job to advise you of a problem, but if that was not part of her training or her job description, she might not realize this. Ultimately, it is your job to keep on top of these things and to give quality control a priority. I think that perhaps you should institute policies that direct your maintenance workers to advise you of any potential problems before or at the moment they occur, and that direct you to make quality control inspections of all accounts at a frequency you determine.
Q. The URL I want is taken, but the name is one that I could hyphenate or abbreviate. Would it be a good idea to do this, or should I find another domain name altogether?
A. I would find another domain name, especially if the person who is already using the URL you want is doing the same thing you do or something similar. Try to find a name that reflects what you do and that is not too long.
Q. Do I have to put my E-mail address and phone number on my Web site?
A. Well, yeah, if you want to sell anything. Even if you're purely an informational site you should still give people a means to contact you.
Q. How can you find out whether a prospective employee really has a degree in horticulture? We want to hire a woman who says she has a degree but does not have a copy of her diploma.
A. If the individual does not have a copy of her diploma, you can still contact the college or university they claim to have attended and verify their degree and major. If, however, the employee has used the "Buckley Amendment" (a privacy law) to seal their records, the educational institution will disavow ever having had that particular person as a student. In that case, the individual will have to write to the college and request the documentation of the degree.
Q. I keep telling my employees to be on time but they never are. When it is time to dispatch them someone is always dragging in at the last minute. What can I do to encourage them to be on time?
A. You can institute a tardiness policy which spells out the consequences of being late. For instance, if they are late once they get a verbal warning, late twice they get a written warning, late three times and they get suspended without pay for a day, late after that and they are terminated. Case closed. Just be sure that you enforce it. If you do not, you cannot expect anyone to take you seriously.
Q. I have a website with a catalog of my items for sale, yet no one is buying. What should I do?
A. You need to up your conversion rate — the ratio of visitors to buyers. You first need to be sure that what you sell is what they want, that the price is right, that you have described it well enough to interest them, and that they can easily buy it. And then you need to promote and publicize your Web site so that people know it's there. Adding informational content to your Web site can also help.
Q. I am always reading about how employees need to be rewarded for their good work and how you should offer them bonus plants, etc. What do you do if your employees don't do anything to deserve these things in the first place? Why would I pay a bonus to someone who doesn't earn it?
A. You wouldn't. The whole idea behind bonuses is to give an employee the incentive to raise their performance levels, to excel, and to do good work. When they make progress in that direction you give them a bonus, but the bonus system has to be in place for it to be an incentive.
Q. I hired my son to work in the office and greenhouse when he was 14. Now he is 19 and wants to be a supervisor. He has never worked in the field and I suggested he try it first. He insists that I am treating him like a child.
A. Your son may very well be capable of handling a supervisory position, but for his own sake and for his future credibility with those he may one day supervise, he should work in the field first. I would recommend six months minimum, a year ideally. During that time you should supervise him closely and verify his expertise. As your son, he will be judged by his co-workers and subordinates more harshly than any other employee would be.
Q. I do not hire the right people. They always have excellent experience and knowledge but seem to turn out undependable or unreliable. What am I doing wrong?
A. Probably nothing. It is very hard to find reliable and dependable people these days because so many of the young people hired into entry level positions have had so little work experience. Also, in interviews people generally put on their best face and can often appear to be something they are not. All you can do is try to ask as many questions as you can and listen very carefully to what the applicant is saying before you make your hiring decisions.
Q. I want to encourage people to advertise on my web site. Will telling them how many hits I get every day help?
A. Advertisers want to know that your Web site attracts the kind of people who will buy their products or services. The number of hits is misleading, since every time an image loads it's considered a hit. You want them to know how many visits were made. You can also tell them what your most visited pages are so that they can be on a particular page that will give them the most business.
Q. I sell only four products online but I want to take credit cards. The merchant services providers, like Nova, are too expensive for a small business line mine. What options do I have?
A. Go with a third-party payment handler like PayPal, Google's shopping cart, etc.
Q. My boss is a great guy in many ways but he interrupts me all the time. Instead of meeting with me once or twice a day he's buzzing me or calling me from the field at least twenty or thirty times a day. I can't get anything done and I am always behind. He doesn't understand why that is even though I have told him that it is because of his interruptions.
A. Try hitting your boss with some statistics. For one week, keep track of how much time his interruptions take. Multiply it out for a period of a year and then multiply the total hours times your hourly rate. That figure should make him sit up and take notice. For example, if you make $12 per hour and he interrupts you for two minutes per interruption, twenty times a day, that would be around $2,000 per year.
Q. One of my co-workers is the boss' son. He is rude to clients, shows up late, and makes others do his work. We don't want to tell the boss because he thinks his son is the greatest thing since sliced bread. What should we do?
A. Don't do anything. Stick to your own job and let him screw up all by himself. It's just a matter of time before people who fail to perform their jobs properly get found out, and it sounds like this guy's time has just about run out.
Q. All our installations are subcontracted to individuals. Is it true that we have to pay workers compensation insurance on these people?
A. Yes. Additionally, if these individuals are working exclusively for you and on an ongoing basis, you may have to pay them as employees.
Q. We have gone to a flexible maintenance schedule. The maintenance workers budget a monthly time allotment rather than a weekly one using more time on an account and less on another one week and then the reverse the next week. This is working very well for us, but not for some of our clients. Some have expressed that they want us there for the full time every time. How can I explain the benefits of a flexible schedule?
A. It does seem to be more difficult for clients to adjust to these schedules when they are used to having you there for a set period of time each week. I suggest that you write a short but illustrative letter explaining the ways in which such a schedule actually improves the overall quality of the maintenance.
Q. I am trying to assemble some "real" personnel records — ones that have more than just the application and resume in them. What kinds of forms or reports should I keep on my employees?
A. You should keep notes and observations on their performance, a copy of their job description(s), results of performance and salary reviews, records of changes in tax withholding status, employee discount purchases, lists of classes attended while in your employe (particularly those taken at your expense), any awards or citations, their driving record, and any correspondence between you and the employee.
Q. We are trying to create a more professional-looking image for our sales staff. But, getting everyone to dress like a corporate executive isn't working so far. Everyone seems to want to do their own thing. Can we make a dress code a requirement of their employment?
A. Yes, you can make a dress code a requirement. You should make the rules very specific if you are trying to encourage a specific look. In addition, since you cannot require an employee to purchase clothes, you may want to consider uniforms. Blazers and suits similar to those worn by airline employees are an affordable option in most cases and will insure that you have the best dressed sales force in town. One thing to remember, however, is that salespeople need to feel comfortable with themselves to be productive. Give them enough room to express their own personal styles while still adhering to your company's image.
Q. How can I be sure that what employees write on their applications is correct? The law says you can't get details from former employers so what's left?
A. Good interviewing techniques followed by testing is one way. Take the time to listen rather than talk during the interview. Test an applicant by giving them a general quiz on basic literacy and on horticultural knowledge. Give them some hypothetical problems and ask them how they would solve them. Even if you could get details from a former employer they might not apply to you anyway. Employees behave differently according to where they work and how they are treated. Your best protection is to be very thorough in your hiring practices.
Q. My employees always want vacation pay but do not want to take the vacation. As a result, I end up paying double pay one week a year for each of them. How can I avoid this?
A. You don't have to pay for vacation not taken unless your company policy says you do. The cost is only one reason. Studies have shown, time and again, that vacations are necessary to the health and well-being of employees. Regular vacations help prevent burnout and provide a recovery period from the daily stresses of life. Your employees return to work refreshed and alert.
Q. What can I do to make my employees take advantage of the incentive programs I offer? I am at my wit's end trying to make them more productive using the reward system.
A. Perhaps you should ask them why they aren't taking advantage of these opportunities. Maybe what you consider an incentive does not seem that appealing to them. Motivating people means understanding that they are all different and that no single incentive will work for everybody. Only your own employees can tell you what they need incentive-wise.
Q. When I worked maintenance for another company I was required to have a representative of the client sign a service slip. I always thought it was a pain in the you-know-where, but now that I have my own business and am in the process of hiring employees I am not so sure. Your opinion is appreciated.
A. Employers always want to cover their you-know-what when it comes to documenting service time. If you hire carefully, train fully, and exercise regular quality control visits, then it is unlikely that a worker won't show up. Perhaps you can offer the service slip only if the client asks for it. Personally, I think it's a waste of maintenance time to be running around trying to find the person who signs and I also think that it can be interpreted as a lack of trust in the employee.
Q. What can I do to prevent my employees from stealing tools, equipment, and supplies? It seems like things just keep disappearing a little at a time, but it all adds up.
A. Keep your inventory in a secure, locked space and issue supplies to employees only as required, logging who gets what on sign-out sheets for each individual. Each list will then provide you with a record of what each employee is issued, and a quick scan of their lists will show you what they are using most and how often they request more of certain items. You may be surprised to find that many things are not really being stolen; they are just being used more frequently than you thought. With tools and equipment, make sure they are clearly labeled, preferably deeply etched, with your name or your federal employer ID number. Some companies log their tools and equipment in and out each day in much the same way as they do their supplies. In some states you can require a deposit from your employees against the use of your tools and equipment, or require them to provide their own hand tools such as clippers and trowels when they first come to work for you. Employers usually front the cost and deduct it from the first paycheck. Check the labor codes in your state to find out whether you can do these things in your area and what the restrictions are.
Q. We are moving our business out of our home and into a facility about a half-hour drive from our home. We need to move and this is the best location for the money. But we're concerned about the distance our employees will have to drive every day. Some horticultural companies in our area don't require workers to come to the office daily but I'm not sure if that's not asking for trouble. What is your opinion?
A. I can only assume that your concern is over whether your maintenance workers will be adequately prepared for each working day without coming into the office. I think that with careful planning on your part this could be overcome. Perhaps having them come in twice a week would be adequate or maybe even once depending on the individual and their schedule.
Q. I'm worried about the number of keys, security cards, alarm codes, passwords, etc., that we have been accumulating over the past six years or so. We have not had any incidences of theft but one of our competitors has just had a very serious one and now I'm worried how long our luck can last. Is there a special way to handle these types of accounts to avoid a breech of security?
A. Security accounts are handled in different ways. In some instances the keys, cards, etc., are released only to certain trusted members of the company and they have a separate "security route." Other companies trust whoever is on a route to handle those items. I personally recommend the former method because there is less confusion as to who has what keys in the event of a termination of account or employee. There is also less likelihood of theft because the finger would automatically be pointed at only those particular individuals on the security route.
Q. My business was growing fast so I hired an office manager. She does a great job and there have been no problems to speak of. But I feel out of control. I feel like I am completely out of touch with what's going on in my own business. I know this sounds irrational since there have been no real problems. Could I just be worried about being out of control and not really be out of control at all?
A. If you can really see no problems to speak of, you may just be experiencing the anxiety that small business owners suffer when they begin to delegate responsibilities. It can be scary when you must rely on others to make daily decisions knowing that they could possibly make a costly mistake. Have regular meetings with your office manager and have her give you daily or weekly reports of what is going on so that you won't feel so out of touch. And relax — you're both doing a great job!
Q. Our warehouse is a mess. I keep telling everyone to clean up after themselves but they never do and there are always tools, stakes, half-used bags of soil, etc., in the middle of the floor. What can I say to get them to clean up after themselves. I'm tired of being the warehouse janitor.
A. There can be several reasons why they don't clean up after themselves. The most obvious one in your case is that you tell them to clean up, but you always end up doing it. That makes you look like you just like to hear yourself talk. If you want them to clean up you have to be sure that they have time to do it, know how and when to do it and, most importantly, know what happens if they fail to do it. There must always be a consequence to not following directions. Usually, it goes on their personnel records and is taken into consideration when they are reviewed for raises or promotions.
Q. My employer frequently makes derogatory remarks about someone's work in front of other people. Sometimes it's just a comment in passing or a smart remark when the employee isn't even there. I am a supervisor and I get a lot of complaints about this and morale is pretty low. Any suggestions?
A. Sometimes an individual doesn't have anyone to talk to about his frustrations. This kind of person frequently "dumps" on whoever is available. In other instances, a person may not mean to be mean and may be joking about a serious problem because he is unable to confront the employee directly. In any event, someone should discuss this with him. Perhaps you can set up a meeting with him and let him know how his comments are affecting personnel. But, remember that it's hard for someone to change overnight. It may be difficult, or even impossible, for him to stop doing this altogether.
Q. Last Christmas I gave everyone a $50 bonus. It had been a good year and I could afford it. This year I can barely squeeze out $10 per employee. I am embarrassed to give them so little. Any suggestions?
A. How about a little note enclosed with the $10 saying that you wish it could have been more and offering something else to accompany it such as a free plant. Or, if you have a department store credit card that isn't "used up" you could give everyone a small gift certificate.
Q. Can I force my field employees to break for lunch? They always want to eat and drive so they can finish early.
A. Meal breaks are federally mandated which means that you must require that an employee break twice daily for rests and once every eight hours for a meal. This is for the health and well-being of an employee, and while they may not think that they need these breaks, employment studies have consistently shown that employees who work without breaks and meals have lowered response and reaction times (critical in driving positions), and are more likely to make mistakes in decisions requiring judgment.
Q. Can I do any investigation into prospective employees to see if they have criminal records? I have a very exclusive clientele and I am worried.
A. This is a touchy area due to the employee's right to privacy. If your employees are bonded, some bonding companies investigate each individual employee to determine whether they are bondable. You can state on your employment applications that bonding is a condition of employment and ask, yes or no, if the applicant is bondable. You should check with the laws in your state and also check with your bonding company if you have one.
Q. I am an installation foreman. My company's installs are so rushed that some plants don't even get watered before we finish. What can I say to convince them to slow down this process and give me more time?
A. Ask them for a percentage of additional time. For example, if it always seems that they are about 40% under in time then ask for 40% more time. Asking for a specific amount is usually more convincing than just asking for more time in general.
Q. I am a female maintenance worker and I have a problem with a flirtatious client who is my employer's most prestigious client. This man is making me very uncomfortable and I dread going there every week. Any advice?
A. If you do not feel that you can discourage this client, your employer should intervene and confront the client on your behalf. It is his responsibility to assure your comfort and safety on the job and flirtatious clients fall under the category of sexual harassment.
Q. We have a client who is sort of obnoxious and we can't seem to find an employee who is capable of handling him. We've fired three so far and it looks like #4 is going to quit soon. How can we find someone competent?
A. It sounds like your client is more than just "sort of obnoxious" and it is not the employee's responsibility to get along with such a client. It is your responsibility as an owner to intervene and set the client straight or cancel the account. To turn over four maintenance workers because of one account is absurd. It is unreasonable to expect an employee to service Attila the Hun with a smile on his face. It's also costly in terms of turnover (your other clients may be suffering with each change too) and it is certainly unnecessary to subject your employees to such abuse.
Q. We do business in four states and have employees living in each. We have ongoing problems with labor laws and are looking for a guide that spells out exactly what our obligations are to each employee. Can you recommend something? We can't afford to call a lawyer for every little thing.
A. You need to buy a copy of the labor laws for each state. These should be available at legal book stores or through law universities. If you can't find either, contact a labor attorney and ask them how to obtain a copy.
Q. I have been in constant conflict with my employer for the past three months. He blames me for the loss of one of his best clients and I do not believe it was my fault. I want to take another job elsewhere, but I am worried that he will give me a bad reference. What can I do?
A. Legally, he cannot do anything more than verify that you worked for him, the nature of your job, the dates of your employment, and your rate of pay. He is not supposed to say anything else about you at all. If he does, you can complain to your local labor commissioner.
Q. I am redesigning my maintenance report forms for my very small but extremely busy service staff. What can I do to make these forms most useful to me and easiest for them to fill out?
A. Keep the forms short and simple to begin with. A 5-1/2" x 8-1/2" sheet should be adequate. Include only what you really need to know about a service visit, and give them mostly items to check off rather than to fill in. But, do leave some space at the bottom for them to make any special notes about problems or anything that requires your immediate attention.
Q. The company I have just started working for has a prepared sales pitch that we are all expected to use. It sounds very phony and artificial and makes me feel like a fast-talking used car salesperson. Is this aggressive, uniform approach successful in sales?
A. In my opinion, it is doubtful, particularly if you are forced to say things that do not "match" with your personality or make you feel uncomfortable. That usually results in a projection of uncertainty that can make your prospective client ill at ease and cause you to lose the sale. Successful sales techniques are ones that are unique to the individual making the presentation. Most people can see right through a pre-planned sales pitch and are usually "turned off." Selling means selling your own confidence in the service or products you represent, and this is best done by developing your own "natural" sales pitch and individual style.
Q. I once heard that most sales are made after the fifth call, so I have tried to be persistent, but most people seem very put off with all my calls. How often are you supposed to call and is there something specific I should say?
A. A casual inquiry saying you are still interested and asking if they have made a decision is sufficient. How often you call should be determined by what the prospective client's response is to each call. If your party is out of town, find out when they are expected back and call again the day after they arrive. If they are there but say they aren't ready yet, let them know that you don't want to bother them with your calls and could they give you some idea as to when they might be making a decision. If they tell you they are not interested, see if you can find out why — is it you they aren't interested in or did they already hire someone for the job? If they already hired someone don't be rude and hang up like some salespeople do. It's not businesslike to burn your bridges. Instead, thank them for their time and let them know that if they need you in the future that you will be glad to accommodate them.
Q. What constitutes a proper dress code for salespeople?
A. It depends to some degree on your individual type of clientele and the part of the country in which you are located. In general, I recommend matching the sales wardrobe to that of the prospective client. This usually means, at the very least, a sport jacket and tie for men, and comparable attire for women. There are always some exceptions, but there are some definite no-no's regardless of where you are: no raggedy jeans or tees, no sweats, no spaghetti strap dresses, no bare midriffs or plunging necklines, no bare legs, and no mini-shorts.
Q. We have been thinking of advertising in the Yellow Pages and in a local weekly newspaper supplement. How much can we expect to pay for advertising and how do we know what size ad to run, etc.? We have never advertised before and have always relied on word of mouth, but that doesn't seem to be working for us lately.
A. The cost of advertising varies from one publication to another. The size of the ad will be determined in part by how much room you need to establish what you are all about, and by the actual cost of the different ad sizes. Determine your monthly budget and weigh that against the potential business you may derive from each publication. Try to determine if your prospective customers will look for you in the Yellow Pages or in the supplement. See where your competition is advertising. Page placement is also a consideration as is frequency. Most publications offer discounts for extended runs of a week, three months, six months, etc. Another cost to consider is that of artwork. It always pays to hire professionals and have your ad done by a marketing specialist. It's a good investment and will assure that your company image is reflected in your advertising.
Q. What are the factors that determine the effectiveness of an ad?
A. There are five main ones and they are as follows: content, design, placement, frequency and circulation. Content includes sales items, specials, coupons, location, service area, hours of business, and any special services that set you apart from others in your trade. Design should be pleasing to the eye, easy to read, eye-catching, interesting. Placement should be in a spot where it will be seen by the most people, usually the right hand page on the outside edge. Frequency refers to how often the ad appears. Running regularly and frequently assures the best exposure. Experts say it takes about six months minimum to start getting a good response. Circulation refers to the readers. Wherever you decided to advertise you will want to know how many readers there are and where they are located.
Q. I never know how much to pay a salesperson. Salary less draw against commission, salary plus commission, or commission only? I've talked to other employers and they all pay their salespeople differently.
A. There is no hard and fast rule that says how much or in what way you should pay a salesperson. You should attempt to outline exactly what you expect of that person, how much their time is worth to you, what your current profit margin is, how payment of a percentage will effect that profit margin, and just generally how much you can afford to pay someone during the initial stages while they are getting in the swing of your business and learning how you like things done. You should also determine sales goals for them so that you can calculate overrides on commissions when they exceed those goals.
Q. We had a logo designed five years ago. When people have seen the same logo for five years is it wise to change it and wait for them to get used to the new look all over again? Won't I risk losing business if they can't readily identify me?
A. When your logo is updated, it should not vary so drastically as to be unrecognizable. It should just look a little more current from the standpoint of design trends. Re-evaluate your logo every two years so that changes can be subtle but effective. Discuss your concerns with the artist who will be revising the logo so that he/she doesn't get carried away in creating the updated version.
Q. We service a large area and are thinking of getting a toll-free number. Will there be a substantial enough increase in new business to justify the cost of the line?
A. I've heard some people say their business doubled with a toll-free number while others say they noticed no significant difference in sales. A lot depends on how exposed your prospective customers are to the number. Do they see it on TV or hear it on the radio? Is it on printed on the sides of your vehicles? Is it in a national magazine read by millions of people? Is it in several yellow page directories?
Q. We get a lot of our business from the Yellow Pages. It's getting close to time to renew the ads and I'd like to change the advertisement. What can we do to insure that people will want to call us instead of the dozen or so other companies in the book?
A. Assuming that you are having the ad professionally done, you might want to try a larger ad. That in itself will command greater attention. Also try to get placement in an outside upper corner of the page, right hand page being preferable.
Q. My business seems to be "seasonal." From January through March I have very little business and the same is true from September to November. Is there anything I can do to avoid this? I'm extremely busy the other times.
A. Slumps are not uncommon in any industry, but some of them, sales slumps in particular, can be avoided. Examine the manner in which you plan your sales strategy. If you are exerting all of your efforts during a two or three month period and are then coasting as the business comes in, you may find that after all the new business is past you are in a slump again. Try to continue actively selling and marketing your services on a regular basis, perhaps using tracking sheets to keep on top of how many calls you have made, how many proposals you have sent, etc., so that you can see how you are doing and where you are going.
Q. My salesperson started out great and brought in lots of new business, but in the past few months he seems to be sitting down on the job. This is a small company, sales are down, and he doesn't seem to be motivated. I don't know what to do to get his motor going again. Suggestions?
A. In a small business, it is important that salespeople have established sales goals that must be increased over time. If your salesperson has no goals or low goals, you should establish new or higher sales amounts for him/her, maybe with an additional override if those goals are exceeded. Salespeople can also become stagnant if paid ongoing commissions on maintenance or if they receive base salaries which are too high. In larger companies with steady inquiries from prospective clients due to heavy advertising and public relations campaigns, it is possible to pay salespeople a higher base salary with a lower commission structure.
Q. When I meet with a prospective client for the first time I am always at a loss for words. Are there any good opening lines that I can use to break the ice?
A. I usually start asking questions the minute I arrive. I ask what the company does, how long they have been in their present location, etc. If those kinds of questions do not apply, I may get desperate enough to mention the weather, but as a rule of thumb, I just talk to a prospective client the same way I would talk to anyone I am meeting for the first time.
Q. I have always worn bright colors, but one of my employers recently suggested that these may not be good for sales and has suggested that I tone down my wardrobe. I feel very drab and dull in conservative colors. Do bright colors really have a detrimental effect on closing a sale?
A. I do not know that bright colors can have a detrimental effect but I have always felt that it paid to err on the conservative side color-wise. For example, I might wear a grey dress with a bright red scarf, but never a red dress. I am sure that this varies from one person to the other and, in the long run, I think it is important to feel comfortable in what you wear, since that affects your self-confidence, which is so important in successful sales. If your employer wants you to tone down, maybe you are just too flashy for the company image. I would find out specifically how much toning down they want you to do before you change your wardrobe too drastically.
Q. I have always set a $50K minimum on the jobs I wanted to take, but lately I feel like I should set an even lower minimum because of the recessive economy. What is the lowest I can go without losing money on little nickel and dime installations and maintenance?
A. It depends on what you call nickel and dime jobs. $50K is a pretty high minimum for most interiorscape companies. Even a $10K project would hardly be considered a nickel and dime job. You won't even lose money on a $5K job if it is bid and executed properly.
Q. What do potential commercial clients want to hear and/or see when approached by an interior landscaper?
A. They usually want a track record and references. They want a professional who is properly licensed and insured. They also want some proof that you have the resources necessary to complete a job in a thorough and timely manner.
Q. My partner and I disagree about what to include in our brochure. I want something very comprehensive and she just wants something pretty. We are both willing to compromise on the essentials. What are they?
A. Since you want someone to read it, having a pretty brochure is nice. As for being comprehensive, it boils down to a matter of how much is too much. Brochures aren't meant to tell the whole story; they're just a table of contents, so to speak. Include your company name in at least three places, make sure your phone number is large and highly visible, state your credentials, outline your services, and indicate the geographical areas and demographics of the clientele you service. Everything else is just icing on the cake.
Q. For years I have always brought brochures with me on sales calls. My partner thinks I should bring a portfolio of our work instead because the brochures are expensive and do not really show what we do as explicitly as do photographs of our projects. What is your opinion?
A. I personally like using both. The portfolio makes for a great visual presentation and the brochure is something you can leave behind so that prospective clients have something to refresh their memories of you when you're gone. If I had to choose between the two, I would opt for the portfolio, but I think you would be more successful using it in conjunction with a brochure.
Q. I would like to assemble a presentation portfolio of some of my design projects and maintenance accounts. I am not very good at taking pictures and my budget is tight. What should I expect to invest in this project?
A. You can expect to spend anywhere from $500 to $1,500 (more or less), for a high quality, professionally produced portfolio. The price varies depending on what the economy is like in your area. Film and processing can be quite expensive as are enlargements, but the main factor is the labor of the photographer. You can keep the costs down somewhat by being very selective about which projects to shoot, having everything ready for the photographer before the shoot, deciding in advance which aspects of a project you wish to capture on film, and by letting the photographer know in advance what the lighting conditions are at various times of the day at each project. To get additional mileage for your dollar, have the photographer shoot some black and white shots to use in print advertising.
Q. How long should a sales presentation last?
A. Depends on the project. I have given sales presentations that lasted fifteen minutes and others that lasted an hour or more. The main idea is to say what you have to say in an orderly fashion while finding out what the client wants and needs. The more skilled you are at making these presentations, the faster they go and the more deals you will close in the process.
Q. We have four company names for each of our divisions. We would like to consolidate them all into one name to cut down on paperwork (four different letterheads, business cards, invoices, checks, etc.), but we are concerned about the possibility of losing business in the process. Will customers think we have changed hands if the name changes? What can we do to pick a name that applies to all our different divisions?
A. Some customers may think you have changed hands but it is unlikely that you will actually lose any business as a result. You might want to consider using one company name that links the four divisions together and then list the divisions on the same letterhead, invoices, etc. As for selecting a name, try brainstorming with your employees. How about giving a bonus for the best name?
Q. What really works these days? Is telemarketing dead? What about cold-calling and networking? With the economy so dead in my area, I am getting desperate to find some answers.
A. Telemarketing thrives, but don't ask me why! It is so intrusive and it rarely reaches the decision makers. Cold-calling works for some companies and networking still continues to be the most effective avenue for sales leads. Everything works to some degree and an organized sales and marketing strategy should incorporate a little of everything. What works best is what works for you in your part of the world. Trial and error should teach you what you are best at and what produces the most business for you. What you might need to do now is not change what you are doing, but simply do more of it with additional marketing efforts such as direct mail or a new networking group.
Q. Is there an organized way to go about canvassing for new business? I seem to happen on things occasionally and I would like to try something more systematic or reliable.
A. How about picking a certain geographical area each week and driving through it for a few minutes, looking at what's new there, and making notes of who to call. Or, you might want to scrutinize the newspapers every day and see who is doing what in your city and contacting any newly licensed businesses, or city planners and landscape architects who are mentioned in conjunction with a proposed project.
Q. I get calls from residential and commercial prospects, but when it comes to getting the job, I almost always get the residential accounts and can't seem to land the commercial ones. Do they require significantly different sales techniques?
A. Yes, they do require different sales techniques. You may look just right for a residential job and be too casual in dress or behavior for a business. Also, homeowners tend to prefer smaller, more personalized services, while businesses tend to gravitate towards medium- to large-sized contracting firms. These are not hard, fast rules, just tendencies that you may wish to keep in mind when you make your presentations. Being a small company is no reason to avoid commercial accounts. Just try to conduct yourself like a business person and give a professional presentation.
Q. Is it okay to ask a former prospective client why you didn't get the job? I want to improve my sales and estimating efforts but it's hard to do that when I don't know what I'm doing wrong.
A. You can ask them. Some will probably tell you where you went wrong. But, remember that just because a client chose someone else does not mean you did anything wrong per se. Everyone is looking for something different and much of what happens in a sales transaction is based on the mutual rapport established between the salesperson and the client. Changing what you do to please the "one who got away" may be the very thing that ends up turning off another prospective client to you entirely.
Q. I have never written a sales letter before. I usually just submit a proposal after a prospective client calls me from my Yellow Pages ad. What should I say in such a letter when I want to approach a business instead of vice versa?
A. Sales letters are for introducing your company. Put the letter on printed letterhead stationery with all the information about where to reach you. Make sure your spelling and grammar are correct. Hire a writer or editor to help you write it, if necessary. Keep it brief. Avoid saying how wonderful you are. Just tell them what you do, how long you've been doing it, and mention whatever you do that is unique to your industry. Experience speaks volumes.
Q. I have recently started my own business after working for an interior landscape company for seven years. I am finding it difficult to get clients. I have sent out approximately 100 sales letters and no one has responded. I am worried about investing any more money. Is it unethical for me to write to former clients from when I was a tech? What should I do?
A. Definitely do not contact clients of your former employer. It is unethical because you would be using confidential information, also known as "trade secrets," by contacting them. You need to follow up on your sales letters and send out even more. Define the kinds of clients you want and look for ways to reach them. Use professional looking business cards and letterhead and be sure your sales letter is well-written. If you look like you know what you are doing you will be more likely to be hired. Find clients through other sources such as design professionals, developers, and landscape contractors. Expand your circle of business acquaintances by joining networking groups and by letting everyone you meet know what you do. Take out an ad in the Yellow Pages and go door to door if necessary. Leave no stone unturned in looking for clients. That's what interior landscapers do, not only to get started, but to stay in business.
Q. I can't seem to compete with other bidders for the same job. I am always a lot higher and I am rarely awarded the job.
A. Start by being more selective about your clients. You have to know your market and know how much people are willing to pay for your services. You don't have to bid on everything that comes along. If you have to bid really low just to get a job at the sacrifice of a profit, then why bid the job in the first place? There are other avenues to explore for getting jobs and they include networking with allied industries and trades who will bypass the bidding process and use your services. It takes some practice and has a long-term reward. If you are bidding high because your costs are high, you should examine why the costs are higher and see if you can reduce them. Many companies come in low on bids because they buy supplies in bulk and get quantity discounts. Perhaps you can do the same.
Q. I am a one-person business, and I don't know if I'm charging the right amount for my services. Is there a quick and easy formula I can use to determine if I'm in the right ballpark?
A. There really is no quick, easy formula to determine how much to charge. The way in which you set the rates for your company must be predicated upon your overhead, your profit margin based on where you want your business to go financially, and on the market in your area. The latter should not be used as a sole determinant in any case, but rather as a partial guideline to help you gauge your potential share of the available market. If you are not charging enough to accommodate future growth and the addition of employees then perhaps your fee structure is inadequate and you do need to charge more. You should hire a professional accountant to assist you in making this very important decision.
Q. What procedure should be used to calculate the increase in monthly service charges to keep up with increased costs and inflation each year? Is there a particular formula or method used to calculate the increase? How should a client be approached about an increase?
A. If you plan to increase your service charges each year, it should be stipulated in your contract and it should be roughly equivalent to the cost of living. Your accountant can help you determine exactly what the increase should be based on the needs of your business. It is not uncommon for a business to be losing money on a service account and raise the rate only to find that they are still losing money. I recommend a regular evaluation of all service accounts a month or two before a contract is due to reach term. In that way you will be able to determine whether you wish to keep the account at all, exactly how much you need to raise it, or how much you feel is an acceptable raise. Before you raise the rate, you should give your client 30 days written notice of the proposed change.
Q. What is the going percentage markup on plants and materials? Is it different for each or do you just lump them both together and tack on a profit?
A. There is no standard markup on plants and materials other than those which some wholesalers state on their price lists as "suggested retail" prices. You can price plants separately from hard goods or you can lump them together. It makes no difference how you do it as long as you price for profit and maintain your competitive price range.
Q. We are trying to determine whether it makes a difference which contractor submits his/her estimate first or last. Is the first one in a sure loser or does it matter?
A. Some salespeople swear that the first estimate received is doomed because it is long forgotten by the time the others arrive. I have also heard that the last one in is similarly doomed because the client is now in a greater hurry and hasn't enough time to examine it thoroughly. In reality, the award of a project depends on a lot more than what time your estimate arrives. How your sales presentation went is important as is the appearance and completeness of your proposal/estimate package.
Q. I am new to this business and I would like to know if there is a certain format you can use to bid on an existing job to make it look professional. The mall in my area is up for bid, and I would really like to get the job.
A. Every company is different as far as how they present their bids and proposals and there is no specific format that should be followed. In general, bids should always be presented in a standard business format with a cover letter on your company letterhead and a detailed cost breakdown for the project along with an itemization of services to be provided for those costs. If you do not have good typing skills, have your bid typed by someone who does. Proof it carefully, be sure you submit it on time, to the right person, and that you follow up.
Q. I am studying horticulture and have heard that the horticultural service industries do not pay very well. What is my earning potential with a degree in horticulture?
A. On the whole, the industry does not pay well if you compare a maintenance technician's salary to that of a doctor or a lawyer. But, depending on your location and job position, the pay scales can be similar to those of teachers, secretaries, waitresses, data processing clerks, and nurses, to name a few. Having a degree can be a plus, but to advance into higher paying positions you may need to know more than horticulture. For example, if you want to eventually get into design you may need some courses in landscape architecture. Or, if you aspire to a job as general manager or have dreams of owning your own company, some business courses would be very helpful.
Q. I am only a few units away from graduation with a degree in ornamental horticulture. What kinds of employment opportunities are available to me in the interior landscape industry?
A. Some of the smaller businesses have experienced difficulties keeping afloat and many have folded or been purchased by the larger companies which seem to be holding their own. Since turnover is high in the technical positions, you should be able to secure an entry level position at the very least.
Q. What classes should I take to get a job in the interior landscape industry? Is a degree necessary?
A. What you study and whether you get a degree depends on what your ultimate career goals are. Just wanting to get a job in the industry is a little vague. Perhaps a career or guidance counselor at your local college can help you determine exactly what you want to achieve in the industry and help you tailor a course of study that will help you reach that goal.
Q. I want to work in the interior landscape trade as a designer. Should I get a degree in horticulture or in landscape architecture?
A. The degree in landscape architecture would probably open more doors for you in the long run and could be tailored to cover horticulture in greater depth or with a concentration on the interior.
Q. Where are the most interior landscape companies located here in the United States? What states have the most clients?
A. California has the most companies in the country, representing fully twenty percent of the U.S. interior landscape trade. Texas, Florida, and New York have healthy numbers of companies. The states with the most companies probably have the most clients, but I have no statistics on this.
Q. How many interior landscape companies are there and how many jobs does that represent?
A. As of 2000, my best estimate is about 6,200 companies. This could represent as many as 15,000 or more jobs.
Q. What is the average size of an interior landscape company?
A. There is no typical company per se, and averaging them out would give a distorted picture of the industry. But, the majority of interior landscape companies are very small owner-operated concerns. About half of the industry consists of companies with three or fewer employees, doing around $150K in gross yearly sales, with 100 or fewer clients.
Q. Can you explain just exactly what is meant by the term "good will" and how a dollar amount is attached to it?
A. Good will is an intangible asset that attaches to a business as a result of such favorable factors as product superiority, reputation, and managerial skill. Its existence is only evidenced by the ability of the business to earn a rate of return on the investment that is in excess of the normal rate for other companies in the same trade or industry. Good will is not arbitrarily put on the books. For it to be recognized it must be measurable, and therefore appears only in the course of an event or transaction which documents that the business was sold for an amount that is greater than other businesses of its kind.
Q. As our company grows we're finding that our twice monthly company meetings have gotten longer and longer and still not everything gets covered. I don't have the time to lead more than two meetings a month. Any ideas on how I can streamline the meetings and make them more productive?
A. Be sure that you follow a printed agenda. Start out by covering items that apply to employees in general, then to lowest level positions and up to the executive staff. As each category is completed, some people can leave the meeting. A more efficient alternative would be to have fewer company meetings and have more departmental meetings or key personnel meetings. And, don't feel that you must be the person to lead all meetings. A good manager knows how to delegate responsibility.
Q. We have always used company vehicles but some are ready for retirement and the debate is on: replace with more vehicles or have the employees use their own and reimburse them. What are the advantages and disadvantages of going either way?
A. The advantages and disadvantages depend on your company's needs. How are the vehicles to be used? Are they used to haul around a lot of equipment or products on a daily basis? Are the distances traveled more than 50 miles in a day? Do most of your employees have reliable vehicles? Economy cars or gas hogs? What are your insurance rates like? Are your employees working in teams or individually? If you replace the vehicles would you be leasing or buying? New or used? What kinds of vehicles would you be buying: sedans, vans, pickups? You need to figure out what the costs and needs are for your company and weigh them to make a decision you can live with.
Q. We are moving our business out of our home and into an office and warehouse facility about a half-hour drive from our home. We have needed to move and this was the best location we could find for the money. But now we're concerned about the distance our field personnel will have to drive every day. I know some businesses don't require field personnel to come to the office daily but I like to keep some control over them in this way. What is your opinion?
A. I can only assume that your concern is over whether your field personnel will be adequately prepared for each working day without coming into the office. I think that with careful planning on your part this could be overcome. Perhaps having them come in twice a week would be adequate or maybe even once depending on the individual and the territory they cover.
Q. I have a good contact who is in the position to award me projects. I am a very small company and would love to have even one of his projects, but I don't think I could handle it personnel-wise.
A. It's better to gradually grow into large jobs. While they may seem like money-makers on the surface, they are often riddled with unseen problems that appear while the job is in progress. Only experience and time can teach you all the stumbling blocks, how to correct them, and how to avoid them.
Q. I have problems in my business and don't know how to find the solutions by myself. How do I find a consultant and how can they help me? How much do they cost?
A. You should probably contact the Small Business Administration in your area, your local and national trade associations, and browse through the Yellow Pages. All consultants are different. Some of the large consulting firms have specialists in all areas of business, some of the individuals are specialists in a certain area(s) such as accounting or sales or operations, etc. The cost is dependent on the firm you hire and the type of work they provide. Most consultants will offer a one or two hour consultation in which they will attempt to help you pinpoint your problems and then will quote you a figure for actually implementing the necessary changes, etc. Often, you may be able to implement the changes yourself once the real problem is ascertained.
Q. Several businesses in my area have exchange accounts with their clients. Is this a way of keeping money from changing hands and therefore off the books? Is this legal?
A. There has long been controversy over whether exchange accounts are legal, per se. The actual way in which they are supposed to be handled according to the IRS, is that you also exchange invoices and keep track of how the exchange is proceeding. Some exchanges are lopsided from time to time and this is the way to make sure they stay even.
Q. I'm concerned about the keys, security cards, alarm codes, passwords, etc., that we have acquired over the past few years. We have not had any thefts, but one of our competitors did and now I'm worried. Is there a way to handle such a breech of security?
A. Security accounts are handled in different ways. In some instances the keys, cards, etc., are released only to certain trusted members of the company. Other companies trust everyone. I personally recommend the former method because there is less confusion as to who has what keys in the event of a termination of account or employee. There is also less likelihood of theft because the finger would automatically be pointed at only those particular individuals.
Q. Can a small service business ever be sold intact, or are all interiorscapers doomed to sell their service accounts and assets off separately without compensation for years of hard work?
A. If the business is one which possesses more than just vehicles then the answer is yes. Unfortunately, some very small owner-operated businesses don't have anything more than a couple vehicles in so-so condition, no inventory, no property, etc. Saying that the company is doing $80,000 in sales per year is not enough. These companies are very personalized and are worth $80,000 only to the individual who owns the company, not to the buyer who may not be able to keep all of the accounts because they are bid too low, are out of their territory, or because the client doesn't like change and decides to get another company altogether.
Q. What about websites? Do I need one?
A. It sure can't hurt to have one. They are especially good for displaying your portfolio of interior landscape installations, once you have some completed and photographed. They are great sales tools and are far less expensive that most other forms of advertising and marketing. But, keep in mind that you have to let people know the Web site is there and/or you must spend a little more to make it come up earlier in a search.
Q. Scheduling vacations is not easy for me because I'm so small that I don't have a floater. I usually fill in for my employees but they recently began asking for more time off on holidays too. I find I'm doing fill-in every month and my duties are being neglected as a result. How should I handle this?
A. With vacations you might have to continue filling in until you can afford a floater. As for the holidays, have you considered just rescheduling the holiday weeks for shorter maintenance times which can be made up during the weeks that follow? For example, if a holiday falls on a Monday, how about taking some of the Monday accounts and spreading them onto Friday and Tuesday? Maybe moving some of Tuesdays onto Wednesday, etc., and reducing the maintenance time allotments slightly to allow for the change.
Q. We've been thinking about selling our service business. We gross about $20K per month in maintenance and additional monthly gross receipts averaging $4K in product sales. We have a van, a small pickup truck, a computer, and miscellaneous office supplies, equipment, and inventory. How do we determine how much to ask as a sales price for our business?
A. Ask your accountant. It is impossible to set a value on a business without seeing it, without knowing anything about the nature of your contracts, the condition of your vehicles, equipment, etc. There are no reliable formulas for calculating the value of a business that would allow you to just do a few simple calculations and have a realistic sale price. Also, the value is subjective. It may be worth more to you than to the buyer. Your accountant can give you a truer picture of its worth based on your financial statements and tax returns.
Q. I am interested in taking on a partner to share some of the responsibilities of my very small, but fast-growing business. How is financial ownership determined when a new partner does not invest capital into the existing business?
A. It is determined in whatever manner you wish to determine it. You may wish to designate a percentage of ownership to be acquired over a period of time based upon the individual's contributions to the company or you may want to have the individual invest a certain amount from their income each month to pay off their share of the business. You may wish to attribute a specified dollar amount to their perceived value as a member of the company. It is really up to the two of you to decide exactly how you want to do it in such a way that is beneficial to you both as individuals and to the company.
Q. Is there a formula to determine the dollar amount of inventory a small business should have on hand versus the gross sales or some other factor?
A. In general, small businesses you should not carry more than about three to six months worth of inventory. You can carry more than this if you make a habit of buying to receive quantity discounts, but you should avoid over-buying, particularly slow-moving items.
Q. My employees have been dropping very big hints that they'd like health insurance. I don't see how I can afford it and group policies want more employees than I have. Are there alternatives?
A. Health insurance is a pretty basic benefit and there are group policies that will insure very small groups. You may have to talk to a few different insurance agents until you find someone who handles such a carrier, but there are affordable plans for groups of all sizes.
Q. Can't I just use my cell phone for my business instead of getting a separate land line?
A. If connections everywhere in your work area are excellent, then you can use a cell phone. If not, stick with a land line until they are. Nothing makes a worse impression or is more annoying than a bad connection.
Q. I want to sell my business but I am worried about letting someone see my service accounts. What happens if they decide to just go in and take the accounts away from me? Do I have any legal recourse before I allow them to see my accounts?
A. Yes. Before you show them your accounts, have them sign a paper that says they agree not to solicit or in any way contact those accounts for a specified period of time, usually 12 to 18 months. That's how you get your legal recourse should it be necessary.
Q. My partner and I do not get along anymore. The business is falling apart and we want to divide it and go our separate ways. How do you determine who gets what? If we can't divide the assets exactly 50-50, how do we attach a dollar value to the balance?
A. You can do it monetarily or you can do it geographically or a combination of both. You should have your accountant help you attach a dollar value to the business and its assets first so that you are not arbitrarily assigning values to things which may later be deemed unfair or inaccurate. If you have a dollar value attached to everything, the one with the greater amount of assets can pay the other the balance in cash.
Q. Isn't bonding just duplicating my other insurance coverage?
A. Bonding is not insurance. Bonds are all different, but the ones used in horticultural service businesses usually take care of items that are not covered by your liability insurance. These "janitorial"-type bonds are for specific amounts and work pretty much as follows: If a small antique vase is broken by your technician, the bonding company will pay the client for the amount of the loss as stated by the client. The bonding company will then recover that amount directly from you, in full.
Q. I can't get anything done. I make weekly and daily plans but I have so many interruptions that I get confused and forget what I'm doing and end up going from one thing to another without finishing anything. Is it just me or is this the nature of the business?
A. The nature of any business is that there will always be interruptions. You need to set aside a block of time during which you do not take calls and during which you are not interrupted. Train your employees to hold their non-emergency questions until you are receiving visitors in your office. Learn to delegate things that you don't have to personally do. Also, set realistic goals and try not to over-extend yourself by trying to accomplish things within a too-limited time frame.
Q. I think I need to hire someone to help me now that I have opened a new territory in a neighboring town. Should I hire a salesperson or a manager?
A. It depends on what you need and what your strengths are. Are you a better salesperson than a manager? If so, hire a manager. If you are a top-notch manager and feel uncomfortable with sales then hire a salesperson. There is no right or wrong answer, only what works best for you and your company.
Q. Another interiorscaper in my area wants to merge our two companies. I like her and think that we would get along well but I am nervous about giving up complete control over my business. The merger would make us by far the largest interiorscape firm in our area. What is your opinion of such a merger — the pros and cons?
A. Just liking a partner should not be the only consideration in a merger. Do you have complementary skills and abilities? What is the financial status of her company, yours? What would be the purpose of the merger? To be the biggest? Biggest doesn't necessarily mean best. Have you seen her accounts, her installations, etc.? Do you have the same standards, the same ethics? A merger can be great but you should listen to your gut feelings. You say you are nervous about giving up complete control and I think you should examine that anxiety more closely to discover the source of that feeling before you make your decision.
Q. How much should I expect to pay an attorney to do my contracts? Do I have to have him do one for every new account I get or can I use a standard format? Are there differences between maintenance contracts for lease vs. direct sale accounts?
A. The cost varies considerably from attorney to attorney and with geographical area. At any rate, you can have them draw up a standard contract format for maintenance, installation, design, and lease. All the contracts would have the same basic clauses, but each would include the specific clauses that are relevant to the type of transaction, e.g., lease, design, maintenance only, etc. I recommend that you draft your contracts and then take them to an attorney who can edit them and add anything that you may have left out.
Q. We have disability insurance in our state but it doesn't pay very well if you are the owner of a business. Is there another kind of insurance for owners that covers you if you become ill and unable to work?
A. There are private disability insurance plans that are available through your insurance agent, and these are highly recommended for owner-operators in particular. The premiums depend on the value of the policy. They are all different and you should shop around carefully to find one that is right for you and your business.
Q. Can an interiorscaper in one state do business in a neighboring state under the same business license?
A. Not usually. In most cases you can't even do it in a neighboring city without getting a business license from that city. Check with your local authorities for details as they pertain to your area, and check not only city licensing, but state contractor licensing bureaus and agricultural department pest control licensing divisions as well.
Q. I installed a project and now the client is trying to get me to reduce the bill. I'm afraid if I refuse he won't give me the other job he's been promising. What's your advice?
A. I think that the only appropriate time to negotiate a fee is before services are rendered. If you have a signed contract with the client and if they are not requesting an adjustment for something about which they are dissatisfied, then I think you should politely advise them that the bill is due and payable in accordance with the contract and that if they wish to discuss any changes in fees or terms for future projects that you would be glad to do so.
Q. How much vacation should a technician have each year? I feel like two weeks is justifiable since it's a labor job. Can I give my technicians two weeks and give other positions one week?
A. You can give as much vacation as you want as this is something that is up to you and is not a government requirement. As for offering more vacation time to one group than another, you will have to state this in a written policy and you must also check your state labor laws to see whether they place any conditions on this.
Q. I sold some excellent maintenance accounts that were located in a city I no longer service. After four months the buyer lost one-third of the accounts, the cost of which they deducted from the balance they owe me on the entire purchase price of all the accounts. Can they get away with this? I had those accounts for several years with no problems whatsoever.
A. It may be too late for you to do anything about this short of hiring a lawyer to recover the balance. To avoid these types of situations, stipulate in writing (in a sales contract) exactly what happens if an account is lost within a certain period of time, specifically that the purchaser is still obligated to pay for it.
Q. Are there any ratios for maintenance time versus travel time per day?
A. Not really. An appropriate ratio on a city route may be completely impossible on another more rural route. For example, five hours of maintenance to three hours of travel may be acceptable in a route that covers one hundred miles per day, while six and a half hours of maintenance to one and a half hours of travel time could be too much travel time in an area more densely populated with service accounts. Other factors would be whether the route was a two person route (completely impractical for the one hundred mile route but good for the densely populated city route) and what kind of vehicle is used for the route (an economy car in the country versus a gas hog in the city).
Q. I would like to buy another company's maintenance accounts to solve my cash flow problems. It looks like a good deal to me and the seller will carry me for six months. What else do I need to consider?
A. Improving your poor cash flow is the worst possible reason to buy accounts. You will probably increase your cash flow but it will really just be masking an existing problem that will probably spread to the new accounts and eventually put you back in the same tight cash flow situation you were in to begin with. Before you expand your business, you should find out what's wrong with it now that is causing the cash flow problems and correct the situation. The time to expand is when you are capable of handling an expansion. New accounts conceal problems temporarily and magnify them with time.
Q. We are trying to decide whether to lease a fleet of vehicles for our service staff. We can't decide between station wagons, vans, and pickups with camper shells. Are any considered better than others?
A. Every company has its preference, usually based on geographical location, distances traveled, equipment carried, insurance rates, etc. If money and fuel costs are not considerations and style is all you are worried about, you should probably discuss it with the future drivers of these vehicles. Maybe you will want to get a combination of vehicles for different applications.
Q. My husband has been talking about leaving his job to come to work with me. I don't know if I want to share my business with someone even though we get along well and he has excellent business skills.
A. Yours is a problem that is fairly typical in personalized businesses that start out as owner-operated concerns. I think that you and your husband should spend a good many hours discussing this before either of you make any decisions about this one way or another. It may be that when you start to discuss individual duties and responsibilities and how much he would have to learn in the beginning stages, that he may not want to be involved after all. If he wants to leave his job because he is unhappy with his present employer, that may not be the best reason to join you. On the other hand, if he likes your line of work and has always expressed an interest in it, it may be a good idea for both of you. Discuss it very thoroughly and don't make any hasty decisions.
Q. I have lost several accounts during the past six months. These were economic cutbacks on the part of the client and were not due to negligence or anything related to that on my part. What can I do to keep my other accounts from quitting for the same reasons?
A. You can offer reduced services, possibly without guaranteed replacements. Or you can diversify and maybe offer other services such as artificial and preserved foliage, cut flowers, gift plants, or holiday arrangements. If an account decides to go "in-house" you might offer independent quality control services.
Q. I have been desperately trying to sell my business but no one has expressed an interest. It grosses over $50K per year and that seems like something a buyer would want. A local interiorscaper offered me $15K and said I should take it because it was the highest I could expect anyone to go. Why is that?
A. That is very probably a good offer. However, I can't say for sure since I haven't seen your business and know nothing about it. At $50K per year you have a very small business and I am only guessing that you have little to no hard assets and are probably the sum total of your service accounts. Interiorscape service accounts are selling for anywhere from two to five times the base monthly service rate. The multiple is highest when the accounts are in excellent condition with firm contracts. I advise you to contact an accountant who can help you assess your company's value before you make a snap decision to sell.
Q. I was subcontracted to do the labor for a large installation. The interiorscape contractor's client has not paid them and they are not paying me as a result. Can I bill the client directly myself?
A. In most cases, yes. But, if the job is in dispute or if the client is having financial problems, you may not be able to collect from them either. Legally, you contracted with the interior landscaper and they are liable for payment regardless of their difficulties with the client.
Q. We would like to offer fresh cut flower services, but we don't have enough clientele for this venture to hire someone full-time. How can we start this using our existing personnel?
A. You can probably try to squeeze it into your maintenance schedule. Or you may have to do the arrangements yourself and have your technicians deliver them. You will also need to do a thorough marketing to your clients to get them interested enough to make the service grow to a point where you can afford a full-time flower person.
Q. What determines whether your business should be incorporated or not?
A. Most companies incorporate for tax purposes and to shift the liability to the company and away from themselves. I advise you to consult with your attorney to be sure it is what you want and need to do.
Q. How much insurance should I carry?
A. Since every interior landscaper is different, it depends on the risk you assume in your business. The best person to give you this advice is your insurance agent. I recommend contacting a few of them so that you can compare coverages and premiums before making a decision. If you do not understand the terminology or the specific coverage you should ask the agent questions until you know exactly what you are buying.
Q. I am home-based and I have trouble getting delivery from some of my suppliers who say they cannot deliver to a residential area. I am too far away from most suppliers to go pick up several cases of insecticides or soil, etc. How can I convince them to deliver to me?
A. It would depend on why they don't deliver to you in the first place. If they do not like to deliver outside of the commercial areas you may be able to get them to deliver for a slightly higher fee. If city ordinance says they cannot deliver in your neighborhood then you may be out of luck. If they have had problems making deliveries to residential areas due to problems of access, you might have to assure them that someone will be there to take delivery, including unloading, and that there will be a place to park. You may also suggest that they ship UPS or common carrier to you instead. UPS goes just about everywhere.
Q. Is it absolutely necessary to have two separate crews for residential and commercial maintenance? What do small companies do to keep the two separate?
A. No, it's not necessary, just convenient. If you are a small company, it will be hard to keep the two separate. In most cases there are usually one or two employees who handle the overlap while the rest of the workforce is divided into residential and commercial. There are no rules here. Just do what works best until you grow to a size that will allow you to separate the two.
Q. I bought eight service accounts from a company that was going out of business. I thought the accounts looked fine, but now that I am maintaining them I am having second thoughts. Most of the plants are in need of transplanting and some that were grouped together in planter boxes should be replaced altogether. I still owe about 30% of the purchase price. Can I deduct the cost of the refurbishments from that balance?
A. The time to negotiate replacements and refurbishments is before you agree on a sale price. Normally, once the transaction is executed, it's a little late to start making deductions. Talk to the seller and see if they are negotiable, but don't be surprised if they are not. Buying service accounts is like paying for takeover maintenance, and if you don't look carefully you may get more, or less, than you bargained for. Before you buy any more accounts, I suggest you evaluate them more thoroughly so that you can negotiate for an appropriate purchase price.
Q. We need to cut our operating expenses and one of the biggest is our employee benefit package. Our management has a more expensive plan than the HMO coverage we offer to our service staff so we are considering changing everyone over to the HMO. What do you think? Can we do this legally?
A. My legal advisors tell me that you should be able to do this legally. However, they recommend that you consult your state labor laws before doing so. In general, I am not in favor of cutting benefits. Instead, I would work at cutting waste and giving bonuses for doing so. I would also encourage employees to work smart and I would give bonuses for money-saving and money-making ideas. To motivate your employees, you can cut expenses by buying in quantity, improving your training program to cut down on replacements, and implementing incentives rather than removing them.
Q. I am redesigning my maintenance report forms for my very small but extremely busy service staff. What can I do to make these forms most useful to me and easiest for them to fill out?
A. Keep the forms short and simple to begin with. A 5" x 8-1/2" sheet should be adequate. Include only what you really need to know about a service visit, and give them mostly items to check off rather than to fill in. But, do leave some space at the bottom for them to make any special notes about problems or anything that requires your immediate attention.