The Poor Horticulturist’s Guide to Lazy Proposals

There are a few things I dread doing as an interiorscaper and one of those is creating proposals.

Every time I have to sit in front of a computer screen, my ADD kicks into overdrive and I practically have to tie myself to the desk. Since I can’t afford to hire someone to do them for me, I’ve learned a few quick and cheap short cuts to creating proposals.

There are three basic proposals that I deal with; the unsolicited quote, the solicited quote, and the bid. I’ll start with the easiest:

The Unsolicited Quote

Whenever I spot a possible interiorscape opportunity, I capture a picture of the location with my phone and then research who is the right contact person to mail or email it to. A good example of this is my doctor’s office location. There were a few plants placed at each elevator lobby that seem to get worse with each monthly visit. So I snapped a picture and found the property management company off the elevator wall. Finding the right contact person is almost like being a novice Private Investigator. If there isn’t a receptionist desk in the lobby, usually you can find the property management company’s name posted discretely on a lobby door, on the marque, or inside the elevator. If you already have a contact at the location, ask for the decision maker’s name, email address, and a personal reference. If you’re not so fortunate, once you find the building owner, operations manager, or third-party property management company, you can generally find their website which may list the name you need. Most likely, you are going to have to call or email an admin and hope they are kind enough to provide you with the right person’s contact info. If that fails, you can submit the quote through mail or email using a generic title such as operations manager or property manager. However, with this method, your proposal will likely end up in the trash file. Because of this, you should always make every effort to find out the correct decision maker’s actual name. Once you have that information, it makes the rest so much easier. Once I have the necessary information, I log into Microsoft Word and open a previous unsolicited proposal. All I have to do is substitute the new client information and pictures…whala.

Pictures are Worth More than Words

Time is valuable and if you are trying to catch a busy executive’s attention, images are going to have far more impact than the most elegantly written proposal. My favorite tactic is to use a before and after photo on the first line of the proposal. I show my potential client their space as it is now, and then right beside it, I create another picture of what it could look like. You can invest time and much more money purchasing intricate software such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator to manipulate photographs. However, I have found it is cheaper and easier to use Microsoft Word’s picture format features which can give you similar dramatic results. When I first started as an interiorscaper, you had to purchase additional software in order to have a wide variety of plant images with a transparent background that pasted seamlessly onto the photograph. With the internet explosion, all that’s needed is a Google image search to find pages upon pages of plants. I save the clearest, most natural image with a plain background. After doing this for years, my picture folder is full of my favorite plant varieties that I can easily and effortlessly paste on top of any location. To remove the plain background, under the color option of the picture tools, I click on “set transparent color” and the plant looks like it’s actually sitting in the space. To place a container under the plant, instead of using Google, I head straight to my favorite container website. By going to websites, such as newprocontainers.com, you can download the exact container with the right finish to complement your client’s area. This allows you to show the client the actual items they would receive. Depending on how you prefer to showcase the products you offer, NewPro also offers several solutions, such as:

  • Unbranded cut sheets – 2 page cut sheets of individual plant containers and their specifications
  • Unbranded website – easily show off plant containers on laptops, tablets, or even smartphones at containerguide.com
  • Custom catalogs – request NewPro catalogs with your logo, website, and phone number
  • Image downloads – environmental photos, planters with white (or no) background, and more

Once I have finished creating a new and beautiful design in the “after” picture, I finish the quote with a short paragraph about the benefits of living plants. As in the case of my doctor’s building, I specifically used studies involving hospitals and patients which ultimately helped me win the contract. Once I’ve captured my potential client’s attention and they show interest, I then create a solicited quote.

Solicited Quote

When a potential or current client asks for prices, a new design, or requests that I take over an existing account, I add a pricing table underneath the before and after pictures. Beside the plant name, I always include a picture of the plant. I’ve been thanked many times by clients who have no idea what a “Warneckii” is but recognize it in the photo.

There are so many different situations that can affect pricing, but for now, I’m going to be very general. If you don’t already, make sure your foliage vendors send you updated availability sheets.  This November, I messed up big time by assuming Norfolk Pines were the same price as last year.  A propagation issue created a shortage and those prices were doubled. Before you give out any price, know all your current material costs, availability, the amount of labor it will take to install and maintain, and shipping costs. Don’t forget to factor in foliage replacement for guaranteed contracts. If a client either doesn’t know their budget or doesn’t want to disclose it upfront, I always provide an economic design along with a high-end design. What usually happens, is the client counters with a plan that is in between the two. If you’re not the only interiorscape company providing quotes, that proposal becomes even trickier.

The Bid

Most corporations are required to obtain at least three proposals from three or more vendors. For us, these are usually the high profile, big contracts we all desire to have in our portfolio. Once you figure out all your costs, this is when you may reduce your normal profit margin in order to be competitive. If you are new to the industry, know that the larger interiorscape companies may intentionally lose money in order to win a bid. This is a tactic to prevent smaller start-ups from gaining business causing them to eventually fold and allowing the larger interiorscape company to keep their monopoly over the market. If you are that young start-up, you may choose to do the same or at least break even for a different reason. When I began my second interiorscape business, I had almost no cash flow and two clients. I decided to barter with a mall because it gave me credibility as well as a public space to show off my work. Be very wary if you decide to use this tactic. If you can’t sustain a prominent location with a high level of service, the cost can drain your profits and damage your reputation. I’ve heard the saying, “under promise and over deliver,” many times over the years. I always try to remember this whenever I create a proposal. Delivering what I put on paper has saved me from customer dissatisfaction and in turn, created loyal clients for over twenty years.

Sherry has been part of the interiorscape industry for over fifteen years, starting at an entry level job at North Florida's largest greenhouse and currently owning two horticulture companies. At UMaine, Sherry majored in English where she worked part-time writing scripts for a local college TV studio.

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  • Clem C

    Great piece, Sherry. I do have one tip to add to your “Magnum P. I.” dossier: you can often find info on websites that catalog company data, such as the names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses of principals and managers, that will make your hunt for decision-makers a lot easier and more productive without having to run the gauntlet of “gatekeepers”. Manta.com, HooversOnline and ZoomInfo are just a few of these resources. Some require membership to access deeper levels of data and more detailed info, but most are free to find useful facts and figures and contacts. Often they will list top management and even some middle management names and contact info by department, so they can make your search a lot more efficient.

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