Giving bad advice

Here are five ways you can squash plant and product misinformation at your IGC.

It’s impossible to be the expert in every category — and that’s OK! Staff shouldn’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know, but I can find someone who does,” if they’re unsure about a customer’s request.

I became a volunteer master gardener with our local cooperative extension a year before I became an employee at a local garden center. When I started work at Hyannis Country Garden, one of my fellow master gardeners made it a point to loudly complain about my new workplace. It seemed that the previous spring one of the employees had identified a six-pack of marigolds as tomatoes. When I learned the details about this misidentification, I was more annoyed at my fellow volunteer than my IGC’s employee. It turned out that this master gardener, a rather cranky guy to begin with, had taken a six-pack, removed the label, and asked the teenager who had been hired as a summer laborer to identify the plant for him. Unfortunately, the high school kid decided to guess. Clearly, this was a case of entrapment. The master gardener had zeroed in on the youngest, most inexperienced person, and that kid had been set up to fail.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a peevish plant expert to illicit misinformation out of some employees. I was recently on a design consultation, and the homeowner told me that she’d purchased several shrubs at another nursery. She was told by one of their staff that these shrubs needed to be fertilized weekly with one of the blue-liquid fertilizers, using a hose-end sprayer. She purchased both the sprayer and a large box of the fertilizer on his recommendation. I was outraged on her behalf.

These two situations show how poor information gets spread. In the first case, an inexperienced employee didn’t want to admit that he didn’t recognize the plant he was looking at. In the second instance, bad advice was given out of ignorance combined with the desire to make an add-on sale. Those who’ve been in this business for a long time know that giving customers the bum steer about plants will come back to bite you.

Twenty-five years ago, that grumpy master gardener could only complain to his neighbors and friends. Today, unreasonable customers can badmouth us on online review sites and social media. And customers who are given bad cultural advice are very likely to come back to the store with that fertilizer-burned plant in their hand, asking for a refund.

So how can a garden center make sure that employees with different levels of knowledge and skillsets are on the same page when it comes to guiding customers? Here are some talking points for your staff; these policies can be shared with new hires during their onboarding process, and repeated in team meetings with experienced staff.

First, do no harm. When it comes to the environment, we need to adopt the saying that’s attributed to the Greek physician, Hippocrates. Staff members can be encouraged to always start by recommending organic or least-toxic products. We all know that there are customers who won’t be satisfied unless they have something to spray on a plant, even if we tell them the damage they see doesn’t need treatment.

Giving such clients a bottle of insecticidal soap in such cases, for example, is a good practice as it’s not likely to cause further problems. Remind your staff about your company’s go-to products and practices.

It’s OK to say, “I don’t know.” Most customers respect someone willing to admit that they don’t know the answer, but are willing to help. “I don’t know, but I’ll find someone who does,” is the perfect response. If an employee doesn’t have the answer to a customer’s question, encourage them to not only seek out the staff member who does, but to stay and listen to the answer so that next time they’ll be ready with a response.

Read the label. Encourage your staff to read the label on pesticides to make sure they are effective for use on the customer’s problem. Sometimes our clients will remember what we say instead of reading a product’s label, making it even more important that we know that our recommendations are in line with the product instructions.

Know suggested products. Provide your employees with a list of soil amendments and problem solvers that are typically recommended to customers. Since many situations are seasonal, this information is perfect for a weekly team huddle or staff meeting. “The XYZ insect is out now, so our customers might be in asking about the damage on their roses. Here’s what we recommend for these folks right now.” As the year goes on, appoint one of your staff to keep a list of typical seasonal questions and problems, along with your go-to solutions for customers. Such a month-to-month calendar will not only be helpful for new employees but can be used for blogs and social media posts in the future.

Encourage regional resources. Keep a list of the best regional sources for good information such as Cooperative Extension Service websites, and the Missouri Botanical Garden plant listings. ( Print these out and have them available by the registers or in your customer service area. This will be useful for your staff and your customers.

Educate about add-on sales. Provide your staff with training about what add-on sales are appropriate. For example, your business might feel that time-release, synthetic fertilizers are useful when a client is putting annuals in window boxes or pots, but that a granular, organic fertilizer is better for shrubs and perennials. Don’t assume that everyone on your staff knows such information. Make it clear so that everyone is on the same page.

If you find that someone on your team has been sharing bad advice or misinformation, use this as a learning experience for everyone. Provide that staff member with the correct information without shaming them for giving poor guidance. As I frequently remind my customers, one of the best things about plants, gardens and science is that there is always something new to learn.

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

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