And What They Should Be Saying To You!

by Joelle Steele

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Maintenance accounts contain a wealth of insight into the problems of interiorscape companies. For years I have used service evaluations to determine the true operating condition of a company. At first, I used them in decisions about takeover maintenance. Later, in my consultation business, I expanded my evaluation checklist to better assess my clients' companies, and, to determine whether an interiorscape firm would make a viable acquisition for a prospective buyer. This is what maintenance accounts say to me — and what they should be saying to you:

ACCOUNT TYPE: This tells me what kind of clients the company targets (residential, commercial, doctors offices, corporations, hotels, etc.). Some accounts will usually look better than others (exclusive of their age), which tells me that the company may well be better equipped or suited to that type of client.

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LOCATION: This tells me where the company conducts its business (downtown, greater metropolitan area, suburbia), and how they probably schedule their routes (spread out, close together, or mixed). In many cases, patterns emerge in an area(s) which tell me how a regional supervisor is doing or how competent a salesperson or designer is in a territory.

TIME ALLOTMENT and FREQUENCY: This tells me how the sales staff handles pricing, the level of their competency, and what the degree of communication is between sales and service (even when the owner does the sales). It is not unusual to find service accounts that are grossly underbid time-wise resulting in high technician turnover, frequent client complaints, and plant replacements beginning shortly after installation.

DESIGN: This is often more revealing to me than the service itself, since successful maintenance is predicated to a large extent on the design. Designs tell me exactly why the account looks the way it does. For example, ficus trees in dimly lit rooms, 6" pothos in out-of-the-way places (that are difficult to access and are not in sub-irrigation), and kentia palms next to heavily-trafficked doors or entries all usually look bad and tell me that a technician is probably having problems because the designer looked at the short-term aesthetics and ignored the long-term issues of maintenance.

INSTALLATION: This process is still very revealing years after it is done. Slip-shod installation practices live forever, and when combined with a bad design or "cheap" plants, they can create enormous plant losses. Look for variations in growing media — in California you still find plants installed in their original Hawaiian lava rock medium. Look also for plants that show little evidence of growth and are potbound. They were likely installed that way. Palms that were not fully leached prior to installation will be evident from their burned tips or scissor-sculpted leaves. These are all nightmares for technicians.

REPLACEMENTS: These are pretty easy to spot. When you see a lot of new or newer plants (not counting those found at takeover accounts) they are usually replacements. And, when you see a lot of the same new plant (such as a massangeana) in many accounts, you need to ask what they are replacing (marginatas? seifriziis? other massangeanas? what?) and why. A lot of new plants could just mean that very old plants were replaced, but if the account doesn't look that old otherwise, this item should be given some attention.

TRAINING: The maintenance accounts say it all. If you want to see how well your employees are trained (technicians, salespeople, designers, supervisors — everyone), just examine your accounts very carefully. Dusty leaves do not always mean laziness or ignorance on the part of the technician. It could be due to lack of time because sales did not allot enough time. Watering problems could result from inadequate training, poor planting and installation techniques, or a combination of both — plus some other related process.

VARIATION: Different kinds of sales, design, installation, or maintenance techniques from one account to another, could indicate a lack of standardization within the company, high employee turnover, haphazard training methods, etc. There is always some room for variation, but when there is no continuity or standard technique for even the most basic functions and processes in a company, this could be representative of an overall disorganization. This is usually easily confirmed by high employee turnover, high plant replacements, low morale, goals not being achieved, cash flow problems, etc.

This article last updated: 03/14/1995.