When customers bring in their gardening questions and share photos on their smartphone or tablet, consider offering them an at-home consultation and charge a fee.

We encourage customers to bring in photos and samples of their yards and gardens when they come to Hyannis Country Garden. After pulling them into the shade so we can see the pictures on their phones or tablets, we offer design advice or attempt to diagnose their problems. Yet there are times when a first-hand look is better for both the garden center and the client. There are several advantages to offering a paid consultation service and putting boots on the ground in our customers’ backyards.

Yes, a paid consultation service. People tend to value what they pay for. Having a set consultation fee establishes that we are professionals in horticulture, and our time and knowledge is respected. It also weeds out those people who just want to hear what you think about their yard, or want to pick your brain over the phone without having to leave their homes … in May.

Even if your garden center offers landscaping and installation, an onsite visit should never be a free estimate. A paid design consult allows both parties to size each other up and see if there’s some simpatico there. If the client decides not to continue with the project, both parties can walk way feeling that the situation was balanced.

Customers appreciate that a design consultation usually ends up saving them money in the long run. You might hear them say something like, “I’m tired of buying things willy-nilly and having them die or grow too large.” Although they may have lived in a house for years, homeowners with no plant knowledge are often challenged to put the right plant in the right place. If you work in a garden center, you know that a simple question such as, “How much sun does this area get?” can be met with baffled expressions from customers.

Additionally, between those homeowners who want a CAD plan from a landscape architect and those who are comfortable doing it themselves, there are many folks who need professional help at a smaller scale. They are happy to pay for a plan they can either implement themselves or work with a landscaper for the planting. But they don’t need a computer-generated drawing.

Being with clients in their front and backyards also helps keep them realistic and enthusiastic about their property. We can gently tell them that their wish to have thin evergreens that start off six feet tall but grow no higher isn’t realistic. But we can paint a visual picture for them about how installing a six-foot fence, and then planting a variety of flowering shrubs and perennials in front of it, would solve their problem and provide a kaleidoscope of colorful flowers, as well.

Visiting your customers’ properties helps to solve their problems. I let my clients know that I will identify plants, answer pruning questions or diagnose problems while I’m there, even if I’ve come to lay out a new foundation planting. They appreciate being given a list of suggestions and remedies along with their plan.

By offering home consultations, IGCs can establish themselves as trusted experts and develop relationships with customers.

A paid consultant helps cement personal relationships with customers. We humans like to do business with people we know. So, once you’ve seen their yard and met their dog, they are more likely to come to your IGC for the plants.

So, what’s the downside? First of all, if an IGC employee is providing design, identification and diagnosis advice, that means that one of your most knowledgeable workers will be off-property a good portion of the time. This can, however, be the perfect situation for that very experienced person who, because of age or physical ability, is no longer able to unload trucks or be out in the sun all day.

When working on someone else’s home turf, garden consultants might find themselves dealing with interpersonal as well as landscape issues. Couples often have different opinions about appearance or management of their plants, for example, and the IGC expert might have to be a mediator. I have occasionally felt like I was part garden consultant and part marriage counselor.

Finally, landscape consultants need to be able to think on their feet. There is no time to consult the internet or reference books. You’ll need to carry your plant encyclopedia primarily in your head.

All of that said, a consultation service has many benefits that forge personal relationships with your customers while building your bottom line.

Here are some tips and suggestions for your own advice delivery service:


1. Fees are often a matter of “what the market will bear.” I’ve found, however, that using the hourly rate of a skilled massage therapist works pretty well in all areas. This also allows you to lighten the conversation when a client questions the fee. You can say, “Well I know that $100 an hour might seem like a lot, but it’s what a good massage therapist in this area charges. And my advice and designs will be with you long past that rub down!”

2. Take along helpful handouts from your store. These could be your event calendars, informational sheets on common plants or problems in your area, or lists of landscapers who can install what you’ve designed. If your store does installations, bring a brochure about that service.

3. I use carbonless chemistry lab notebooks. These are available on Amazon and have grid-paper that produces an instant copy. This allows me to have an instant record of what I’ve told or designed for a client that I can refer back to months or years later. Hint: Date the notebooks and the pages, and put the address and client’s name at the top of each page.

4. A consultation service is only successful if your customer can trust that you’re offering an honest, informed opinion. Always recommend the best plant for the job, whether you have it in stock or not. We can explain that if they can’t find that particular plant, that we’re happy to suggest a substitute that’s immediately available. But our customers need to know that we’re not recommending plants or products simply because we happen to have an excess on hand.

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