Turf Magazine - April, 2012

NORTH FEATURES

Whatever it Takes

Botanical Decorators takes customer service to a higher level in the affluent Washington, D.C.-area market
By Tom Crain

Botanical Decorators, Inc.


President: Chris Cahill
Founded: 1985
Headquarters: Olney, Md.
Markets: Washington, D.C., Virginia and Maryland
Services: Landscape design, installation and seasonal maintenance
Employees: 20 landscaping; 8 design-build
Website: www.botdec.com

Botanical Decorators, headquartered in Olney, Md., is carving out a lucrative niche in its landscape market by focusing on "discerning clients." These are the upper 2 percent of U.S. income earners, and there are a lot of them living in the company's market, the 20-mile radius from the point where Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia intersect. Customers include lobbyists, financial managers, corporate lawyers, physicians, and high-ranking government officials and major league professionals servicing those government officials.

"We have to be perfect. There's no room for error. Our customer service has to be impeccable. Since our clients expect only the best out of most everything in their lives, their experience with us has to live up to those same expectations, each and every time," says Chris Cahill, president of Botanical Decorators.

Botanical's highest-quality installation projects command fees typically between $100,000 and $300,000, and often run much higher than that. Pools include deck and laminar jets, fiber optic lighting, sunken hot tubs and sheer descent waterfalls. Outdoor living spaces are created with 15-foot limestone columns topped with Brazilian walnut pergolas, and custom-cut and fitted broken flagstone and granite cobblestone patios lead to grilling stations accommodating hundreds of guests at one time.


Granite cobblestone borders frame this lawn panel measuring 30 by 75 feet. Plant materials include hydrangea, azaleas, Liriope and Cryptomeria japonica for screening.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF BOTANICAL DECORATORS.

Once the installation projects are complete, Botanical's relationship with its customers is far from over. It continues to monitor and maintain the expansive lawns, finely manicured hedges and borders, and seasonal color.

"It's critical that we protect our clients' landscape investment, giving them peace of mind that their plan remains intact," says Cahill. "To demonstrate we are committed to an ongoing client relationship, we offer maintenance services in addition to design-build. On average, we have been providing these services for customers for six years or more, with some using our maintenance services for over 20 years."

The company's landscape maintenance packages can be custom-designed to fit the individual needs of the client and the project site. Although it will not perform typical maintenance work like weekly mowing, blowing, edging and weeding, the company does offer seasonal maintenance packages, including spring aeration and dethatching, fall clean-up, summer color planting and winter pruning.

To keep his often demanding clients satisfied, Cahill is committed to taking their phone calls 24/7, just like a doctor on call, even in the middle of the night - and on special occasions, like his own wedding.

This provides a great segue into what has become a legendary customer service story for the industry - the story of Cahill's wedding day - that has made its way into many landscaping consultants' seminars. It's often cited as the ultimate in customer service and client care.

Cahill says, "I took a call in the middle of the night prior to my wedding day. It came from one of my more eccentric clients who complained about the yard lights we just installed. They turned off while he was entertaining guests at a yard party, and he was unable to figure out how to turn them back on. I explained that my day would be a bit hectic due to the fact that I was getting married, but ensured him that I would stop in that morning to take care of the lighting problem prior to the start of my wedding.


This courtyard with a circular patio feature features a stone fireplace as the main focal point. The walking path leads to the dining patio accommodating table and grill, and the pergola features column details, picket handrails and stone masonry.

"So, when the sun rose, I handled a few wedding day details like attending a special family breakfast, finalizing seating arrangements for my 150 guests and dropping off my bridesmaids at the local hair salon. I then had enough time to drive over to my client's residence to take care of the lighting problem. It was a simple matter of resetting the automatic timer for a later hour that my client should have figured out himself.


At this Ellicott City, Md., residence, Botanical Decorators created a backyard pool area with custom stonework, which includes custom-cut and fitted broken flagstone and curved arbor plantings.

"Before I left, I witnessed my client's wife coming upon the scene, finding out what her husband had put me through, and then clipping him on the side of the head with a cup of hot coffee she hurled at him from the other side of the pool. I promptly fled the scene, making it to the church on time."

That inconvenient visit paid off in spades for Cahill. That entire month his phone rang off the hook with requests for new customers that learned about his faithfulness. "My client's wife told all her friends at the country club about my commitment to handle a customer request on my wedding day," he says. "That visit translated into well over $1 million of new business."

Openly gay, Cahill says he is fortunate to have a husband (he was legally married in the District of Columbia recently, one of eight states legalizing same-sex marriages) who understands that landscaping is not just his job, but his passion.

Cahill resides in one of northwest Washington's toniest and most dignified neighborhoods, smack-dab in the midst of his targeted geographic market, with his husband Richard, two dogs and a child on the way. He is completing a very high-profile home renovation followed by the regional home design and lifestyle media. Every square foot of his four-level, five-bedroom Georgian-style home has been renovated via Cahill Design Build, his new company, as well as the entire property via Botanical Decorators, with a quarter-of-a-million dollars spent on landscaping redevelopment.

Cahill rebuilt retaining walls and redesigned the steps to the upper level of his two-tiered lawn. In order to make space for a fireplace, he carved out part of his hillside. Cahill estimates that his crews removed 72 tons of earth, old stone and plant material before bringing in 115 tons of new materials, all transported by wheelbarrow.

Botanical wasn't always focused on exterior landscaping for affluent clients. When founded in the mid-'80s by Barry Wood, a well-known landscaping entrepreneur in Maryland, it operated primarily as an interior plantscapes company. It also had a garden center and an interiors and a landscaping division. When Cahill joined the company in 1989, he grew the landscaping division. He then assisted Wood in divesting the plantscapes and garden center divisions, and this was followed by a succession plan for Cahill to buy out Wood for the landscaping division. It was finally incorporated under Cahill's ownership in 1998.

Today, Cahill has taken Botanical's landscaping business from $300,000 a year to nearly $6 million. Although not immune from the downturned economy, Botanical's affluent 2 percent client base has been less affected than the rest. "We recognize the priorities of the affluent are not going to be as showy as in the past," says Cahill. "And, with travel down and home-based businesses on the rise, our clients are spending money on considerable property upgrades, wanting to bring their vacation experience home."

In order to lasso high-end clients today, Cahill believes it also takes progressive marketing and PR techniques blended with state-of-the-art technologies. "We are now revamping our websites to function best with hand-held devices soon overtaking laptops for searching." Botanical conducts one print campaign per year with the city's leading home improvement magazine that also provides complementary coverage of many of the company's projects.

"Our print campaign is conducted strictly for name recognition," explains Cahill. "All of our print ads contain QR codes to direct link to our website with a smartphone or iPad. We are supplying information to our clients through the top social media and developing an app to allow our existing clients to share information and communicate to our whole company at once. All of our social apps are linked so the information will only need to be entered once and will then be dispersed to its proper location on these mediums."

Botanical has a multitude of consultants to serve specific needs including financial issues and development, business growth and market share, and Web/social media/advertising. Cahill has appointed personal life coaches and mentors to help guide his leadership staff to grow as individuals and industry leaders. He also joined a national peer group that serve as mentors, cheer leaders, critics and critical benchmarks.

"We see very bright days ahead," says Cahill. "We will be opening complementary businesses that can run on our already-existing business model." Cahill's five-year plan is to have five home services companies operating side by side - one in real estate holdings, another in interiors - all earning between $5 million and $7 million in revenues. Cahill Design Build is the first of four additional companies for Cahill, already off to a great start and exceeding expectations.

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. You can contact him at tecrain@goingreenguy.com.