By crafting education programs that focus on your IGC’s goals and message, your team will be well-equipped when servicing customers.
© ANDRESR, ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

One of the best things about being involved with plants and gardens is that there’s always something new to learn. Yet, one of the most challenging things about the garden center business is that there’s always something new to learn. Newer staff members need to be taught the basics, and seasoned employees kept informed about new pests, plants, or products.

Many garden centers send their people to winter conferences or state extension programs, and these are great for professional development and inspiration. But others are finding that crafting their own employee education programs allows them to focus on their company’s core messages or procedures and educates the workforce about the plants or products that they sell.

Josh Smith, co-owner of Kopke’s Greenhouse in Oregon, Wisconsin, has 125 people on staff during their 12-week season. Because the retail end of their operation is so concentrated, it’s important that the employees be able to hit the ground running. They have their people divided into teams depending on their job description, and they’ll bring each team separately for training.

“At the end of March or in early April, we bring in each of the retail teams,” Josh explains, “yard, customer service and cashiers. The customer service group is the salespeople, but we don’t call it ‘sales’ because we believe their job is more about service than selling.”

“We start each day off with an orientation,” Josh continues, “where we talk about who we are and why we do things the way we do. We talk about what our culture is, go over the rules or regulations and the dress codes. And we spend quite a bit of time getting the senior people to tell stories about what it’s like to work here.”

Josh goes on to say that in the afternoon, each team practices what they will be doing once the store is open. The cashiers take turns being customers and having another clerk ring up the sale. The yard team practices retrieving plants by having team scavenger hunts, where they first compete to find certain plants, and then rehearse returning them to the correct hoop houses. Customer service employees might role play helping customers and practice how to respond to common questions.

Other businesses also bring their employees together on one or more training days. At my IGC, Hyannis Country Garden, the store is closed for a full day in March when it’s all hands on deck for an information-packed experience. This garden center typically has about 40 people on staff during the busy months, and because it’s a smaller business, many employees are cross-trained to be able to work in several areas. All are paid to attend this educational event.

Much like the training at Kopke’s, company policy is reviewed, safety procedures are reinforced and information that the entire team needs to be aware of is disseminated.

©CNYTHZL | ISTOCKPHOTO.COM

Country Garden also brings in outside experts to give presentations. Each year, several of their vendors also come in to talk specifically about new plants and products.

Staff is usually split into smaller groups that travel from station to station, where vendors have set up small displays of plants and products. Later, these same small groups will rotate through the various store departments such as the houseplant greenhouse, the aquatics department or the pet foods to learn some of the basics of those areas.

Moving throughout different sections gets the new hires up to speed on the layout and product location. This also increases experienced employees’ knowledge of problem-solving materials and the newest merchandise.

One of the company’s goals is to have their staff feel comfortable giving recommendations about the stock that’s available throughout all areas of the store.

Training days also include good food and fun, and when these development days happen at the start of the season, the day is a reunion of sorts.

Because business varies from month to month, most garden centers have employees that are only there for part of the year. Training days jumpstart the busy period by letting the staff get reacquainted with each other without the presence of customers.

So in addition to education about plants, products and procedures, an in-house staff development day is about creating a culture that puts people first. IGC’s might sell plants and the products needed to grow them, but good social skills are necessary to make those sales happen. “It’s all about team building,” Josh says. “We take the nice people we’ve hired and re-enforce the nice behaviors we hired them for.”

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