Fornari used the power of stories to explain why dwarf Hinoki false cypress ‘Nana’ was necessary for her customers’ landscape. They didn’t remember the name, but they remembered the story and got the right plant.
PHOTO COURTESY OF C.L. FORNARI

Let me tell you a story. I was on a design consultation a few years ago, and there was a perfect spot for three dwarf Hinoki false cypress. Because my consultation customers can go anywhere to buy the plants I have recommended, I decided to use a story to illustrate the importance of buying just the right variety. I didn’t want them to end up at the box store where someone would put just any random evergreen into their hands.

“Be sure that you get the variety called ‘Nana,’” I told them. “There are many types of Hinoki that grow higher. In fact, I did a consultation for a local funeral home once and recommended that they use three ‘Nana’ Hinoki cypresses behind their sign. But they planted another variety and those have grown really tall and skinny. Now every time I pass by that place, I see the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost looming over their sign.”

The customers laughed, but more importantly, they remembered. Two weeks later they were in our nursery with my plan, asking for the right variety of Hinoki. They couldn’t recall the shrub’s name off the top of their heads, so they handed the plant list to one of our staff members. As he was checking the plan, the husband told him, “We want to avoid growing the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost!” The story had conveyed the importance of getting the right plant better than if I’d just encouraged them to do so.

You may have noticed that many who blog, speak, or write books about marketing emphasize the importance of storytelling. The fact is, stories function in several ways for any business. A story draws people’s attention. We perk up our ears or continue reading when a story is involved. Stories make information “sticky” so that it’s more memorable. My consultation customers weren’t going to remember “Hinoki false cypress,” but they did remember the punch line to my story. And finally, stories create human-to-human connections; such links sell plants and products without being a high-pressure sales pitch.

There are many ways to use storytelling to increase customer loyalty and your bottom line. Here are just a few suggestions:

If you’ve had personal experience with a plant, be sure to pass that on to your customers. A story that is a few sentences long that speaks to a plant’s hardiness or other desirable characteristics is akin to giving your plants a five-star review on online.

Use a story to begin blog posts or newsletters. These can be personal experiences or things your customers have told you over the years. After the story, sum up with the take-home message about the plant, product, or practice in question.

Every plant has a story. You can tell your own or use stories that are known in the trade. You might get a copy of “Of Naked Ladies and Forget-Me-Nots: The stories behind the common names of some of our favorite plants,” by Allan M. Armitage, and put it in your employee break room. When a customer is considering a plant and you’re nearby, if you know a short tale about that shrub, tree or perennial, tell them about it.

Hold a “Garden Story Night” or “Plant Story Slam” and invite people to share a story about a plant or their garden. Most such events have people sign up in advance and give each storyteller a time limit. Have attendees vote for the “people’s choice award” and award the winner a gift card.

Finally, your business has at least one story, and probably many more. Do your customers know how your garden center came to be? Have you told the tale about the flood that washed your nursery stock away? Have you written about the time the petting zoo goats you brought in for an event got loose and ate the perennials? Such tales create bonds between your company and the community.

Think about what you want your customers to know and remember, and then tell them a story about it.

C.L. Fornari is a speaker, writer and radio/podcast host who has worked at Hyannis Country Garden, an IGC on Cape Cod, for more than 20 years. She has her audiences convinced that C.L. stands for “Compost Lover.” Learn more at www.GardenLady.com