HOW TO TRAIN EXCELLENT EMPLOYEES
1. Start with employees who have a basic knowledge of plants
It’s not uncommon for Holly Cassity to tap frequent customers on the shoulder to encourage them to apply for a job at Sweetwater Garden.
“I approach the hiring process differently than I used to in the past,” Cassity says. “I look for people who really enjoy the plants when they come in and are shopping. If they’re really curious about things and are really asking great questions, I say, ‘Hey, we’re always looking for seasonal help in the spring and summer.’”
Gasper agrees that starting with employees who have a love and knowledge for plants is key.
“I’m blessed with individuals who love plants that either are degreed or non-degreed — hobbyists or master gardeners — and these folks know plant material,” Gasper says.
Having a knowledgeable service team helps ensure that when customers have questions, they get the right answers.
“If someone’s coming to us, we want them to have a great experience,” Gasper says. “We want to be able to answer any question, so they will want to come back.”
2. Tailor advice to meet the needs and knowledge levels of your customers
In order to provide answers and advice that match the experience level and needs of customers, Gasper recommends that his employees start by asking a single question first: “How comfortable are you working with plants?”
“We don’t want to set someone up to fail by …selling them plant material that is difficult to take care of,” Gasper says. “We sell to the level of the individual’s capability — and not only their capability, but also their mindset and time set. Do they want a low care, pretty garden that will take care of itself with just a little attention, [or something much more time-intensive]?”
3. Make staff easily visible
So that customers can readily find staff when they have a question or need assistance, consider making employee uniforms easily visible — even among the winding rows of plant and tree material filling your garden center.
“We tell our customers, ‘Anyone who has a brightly colored shirt with BLOOMS on it is there to help,’” says Gasper.
4. Set routine staff meetings for team information sharing
No matter how knowledgeable your team is, there’s always going to be new information to share — from details about new varieties of plant inventory to projected shipments and upcoming sales or special promotions.
Setting a routine and weekly staff meeting can be an ideal way to ensure all staff is on the same page in terms of the information they’re sharing with customers.
“We like to hold weekly meetings, especially in the spring,” Cassity says. “That way, if we have heard a certain question multiple times [from customers] that week, then it’s like, ‘Oh, we need to chat about this [as a team],’” Cassity says.
Staff meetings at Sweetwater Garden are typically held on Thursdays, so that employees go into the busy weekend shopping days well-prepared.
5. Designate go-to staff experts for various topics
At BLOOMS, Gasper has identified go-to employee experts for various products — from trees and annuals to specific perennials like hydrangeas — based on staff members’ interests and expertise. That way, when customers have detailed or very specific questions about a topic, employees can point them to the appropriate, on-site authority.
“We have resident experts,” Gasper says. For example, “I have one master gardener who is our focal point, specifically, for hydrangea questions. She has a phenomenal collection of hydrangeas at her home, and she is an expert.”
As a back-up, the team at BLOOMS has also compiled what they refer to as their “Bible” — a handbook of detailed care information on all the plants they carry — to which employees can refer if the staff expert isn’t available.
6. Offer customer-friendly informational resources
One of the main reasons customers come to independent garden centers — rather than big box stores — is to experience helpful, one-on-one customer service and a high level of expertise from staff.
Cassity and her team at Sweetwater Garden understand this, and they’ve developed a popular and effective means of conveying their deep plant knowledge: offering ready-made informational handouts for customers on everything from plant care to digging and planting tips to preparing a landscape for sod.
“One of my favorite flyers — that I actually created 22 years ago — is called “When Do I Plant?” Cassity says. “It goes through what you can plant in March, April and May — it’s pretty focused on the spring and very handy.”
7. Demonstrate featured products
When Cassity comes across a new or innovative product she wants her customers to know about, she often takes the time to put together a demonstration video about it for her social media platforms.
“I try to do a Facebook Live weekly where we talk about products we definitely believe in. One of my big go-tos is a moisture meter,” Cassity says. “I think a moisture meter can save the lives of a lot of different plants if people will use them.”
Cassity also often incorporates retail displays to showcase new products she feels customers may want to consider trying. Case in point: last summer, Sweetwater Garden displayed “the most amazing petunia and verbena baskets in front of our store that we have had in years,” she says.
“They were gorgeous, and everybody who came through the door kept asking, ‘How do you do [those]?’ And right at the register, we had a display of what we fertilize with,” Cassity says. “We went through more fertilizer last year than we ever had before — basically because of the placement of where it was at, and [because of the] talking point out front.”
8. Know how to address customer complaints
Naturally, as with any retail business, there may be times when customers have a complaint about a product or a service. Part of having a well-rounded customer service plan is training your staff to be prepared to address these customer grievances.
At Sweetwater, Cassity asks employees to invite customers with a complaint to move out of the flow of the main sales area, where they can speak more privately with one of the garden center’s management staff — often herself or her husband, Jim, who runs the garden center with her.
This approach takes the pressure of navigating potentially tense interactions with unhappy customers off newer staff, allowing more seasoned employees the opportunity to find a solution that keeps everyone feeling happy.
9. Don't overlook small service touches
At BLOOMS, Gasper likes to remind his staff that a customer’s experience there can be shaped — for better or worse — by small details. He encourages his team members to take time to offer all the small, thoughtful touches that are instrumental in elevating a shopping experience from just average to one that’s exceptional.
“The whole mentality is, it makes not a difference whether you’re the first person that they see, or the last person that loads their vehicle,” Gasper says. “You have to be pleasant, you have to be upfront, you have to be kind, and you have to be encouraging. It’s the person who says, ‘Can I help you take this out to your vehicle?’ or ‘Can I offer you some plastic for your trunk?’ — all of those little things matter.”
10. Embrace being in a happy place
Finally, both Cassity and Gasper said that in building a positive customer service culture at their garden centers, it’s been helpful to remind themselves — and their staff — that they are lucky to work in an industry that brings joy to so many people. Keeping this positivity front of mind with employees naturally trickles down to customers’ experience during their visits, they say.
“Ninety-nine out of 100 people who come through our doors are happy to be here,” Cassity says. “They come here because they want to plant something, they want to grow something, it’s their happy place. When I walk through my greenhouse, I look at the customers, and they’re all happy.”
Gasper agrees. “It’ll be a Wednesday, and I’ll say [to my staff], TGIF. The newer folks might look at me [strangely] because they’re not used to it yet, but instead of ‘Thank Goodness It’s Friday,’ at BLOOMS, that stands for ‘Thank Goodness It’s Flowers,” he says. “Plant material can make any gray day beautiful.”