The pros and cons of aerial property measurement software.

Photo: Real Green Systems

Who wouldn’t want to do more business in less time, with better results and save money to boot?

Online property measurement software using aerial photography promises all of these benefits to lawn and landscape professionals.

It’s no surprise that more companies are getting on board, but is their experience living up to the promises?

Turf magazine decided to take a closer look at this technology to determine the real benefits it can bring to lawn and landscaping companies – along with an honest assessment of its shortcomings and room for improvement.

What is aerial measurement technology?

Aerial property measurement software uses existing photographic images of properties – often those commissioned by counties and other government entities – to enable contractors to measure areas and create estimates without visiting the actual site. The software is typically inexpensive and available online. Pricing depends on the manufacturer and can be structured as an annual fee of several hundred dollars or on an on-demand, per-property basis, often just a dollar or two per image. Some versions, such as Google Earth, are even free – although most landscape professionals agree that the features available with paid versions are worth the cost.

Features vary, but most aerial imaging products allow the user to view and accurately measure properties or portions of properties, mark up and make notes on the images, and download and save the images and the notes. Typically, online measurement software does not have a steep learning curve and can be used effectively after a training period of just a few hours.

Benefits of property measurement software

Compared to the traditional way of measuring a property by sending someone out in a truck with a measuring wheel and notepad, online land measuring software offers tremendous competitive advantages.

  • Faster estimating and more efficient sales. One big advantage is speed, says Chris Noon, co-owner of Noon Turf Care, a lawn and tree care company headquartered in Marlborough, Massachusetts. He says the software he uses allows his sales people to close on the first call, without ever visiting the site. “We’re an Internet company; we get a lot of leads from our site,” he explains. “We call them (leads) within five minutes to give estimates. Our competitors may take a week. With us, we can get a truck delivered within 24 hours of inquiry. We serve a high-end clientele. Our clients are busy and they just want the job done, so they’re happy just to get a quote right away and forget about it.”

While not every landscaping company can eliminate site visits altogether (as Noon Turf Care’s exclusive focus on feeding and pest prevention allows), the ability to provide an immediate ballpark estimate can shorten sales cycles dramatically even when the final estimate is done on-site.

“The big savings is the fact that you’re pre-qualifying leads,” says Brian Bacigalupo, business and marketing consultant with Real Green Systems, a manufacturer of lawn care software. “You can eliminate the less desirable customers up front, so you are only going to half the sales calls you used to. Your close rates go up because you’re spending time with the customers you should be talking to instead of tire kickers.”

“It’s a great pre-qualification tool,” agrees Todd Pugh, owner of Todd’s Enviroscapes in Louisville, Ohio. The reduced need for on-site visits has enabled Pugh to reduce his payroll expenses. “We used to have one estimator at each location. We now have five locations and no full-time estimator.”

  • Fleet savings. Less time on the road also means less fuel and vehicle maintenance costs, especially for contractors servicing rural locations or large areas. Some companies are even able to reduce their fleet size or eliminate hiring subcontractors for estimating, with no drop in productivity.
  • Improved accuracy. Too often in business, saving time means cutting corners on quality. However, with aerial imaging technology the opposite is often true. Most users agree – and studies confirm – they can achieve far greater accuracy online than they can in the field.Imaging software is especially useful for measuring irregular or multiple areas. “It’s hard to measure a trapezoid or radii,” Pugh says. “Or you might be trying to estimate a commercial area that has 30 islands or four to five side yards. With the software, you can highlight those exact shapes and sizes and know you have everything covered.”
  • Enhanced communication. The ability to see, mark up, save and share aerial property images is an invaluable communication tool that can help facilitate all aspects of a project from sales to operations.

“It’s a great communication tool for salespeople,” says Allie Fairhurst, marketing manager of software manufacturer Go iLawn. “It ups the ante when they’re presenting themselves. They can create a nice proposal with a marked-out property diagram, which can clear up expectations and clarify exactly what you’re going to sell someone – like clearing up where they do or don’t want mowed.”

Bob Grover, president of Pacific Landscape Management in Portland, Oregon, agrees. “When someone asks us to bid a property, there’s usually a questionable area, and the images can clarify exactly what we’re doing. Customers like seeing the image of what we’re bidding. It’s obvious that we’ve done our homework and are clear about that.”

“Customers like the communication; they know what they’re getting,” Pugh adds. “Because we service primarily commercial accounts, the majority of our clients are purchasers and have to report to bosses. They can pull out a map and show exactly what’s being done. It’s also great for liability – slip-and-fall issues or visibility issues. We can show legal officers our snow plan or vegetation management plan. It’s a good document that protects and informs everyone.”

Photographic site diagrams are also an excellent communication tool to use with operations, especially since the salesperson who originally communicated with the customer is often not present when the job gets done. Many successful companies print out and keep the images of the properties they serve into a book or file, which they keep in the truck for on-site reference. Companies that do this report are spending far less time on the phone trying to clarify jobs and/or pacifying irate customers.

Room for improvement

No technology is perfect. Despite all its benefits, aerial property measurement software is not without its frustrations.

The most consistent complaint we heard from contractors across the country using a variety of products was that the images are not always up to date. Most software companies offer images that are updated every 18 months to two years, but a lot can happen in that time frame.

“Sometimes we look at a site that’s a new development, and the photo shows a dirt field,” Grover explains. “We had one job where it was a redeveloped site, and they added a new building. The take off was done before the new building was put in. It completely changed the total square footage of the project. Luckily, I was familiar enough with the site to catch it. I challenged my sales person and told him, ‘Don’t ever bring in something like that again.’ It’ll fool you to not know that there’s a change. I always review our bids before going out. Never rely completely on online images for an estimate.”

It’s also a good idea to double-check and make sure the image the software pulls up is the correct one for the job. “Occasionally the property will not match the exact address, so we will pull from other software, such as Bing maps, or find a lot size,” Noon explains. “We’ll talk it out with the customer – ‘You’re across the street from the church and three houses from the corner?’ – to make sure we’re looking at the right property.”

Finally, it appears that some areas of the country are better served than others. For instance, the Pacific Northwest typically has cloudy winters, which makes aerial photography difficult. Many of the photographs available in that region include leafy summer vegetation, which can obscure landscape features. Fortunately, most manufacturers are aware of this issue, and most users report image quality is improving over time.

Photo: Go iLawn

Choosing property measurement software

Despite their imperfections, online aerial property measurement tools are revolutionizing the business of landscaping and are here to stay. Given the tight profit margins in the industry and the competitive advantage it brings, it will likely not be long before the technology is nearly as indispensable to a landscaping company as its vehicle fleet or lawn servicing equipment.

What should you think about when shopping for lawn measurement software? That depends on your unique business needs, but here are a few questions you might want to ask:

  • What kind of training support comes with the product?
  • How does the software help you to differentiate between surfaces, such as lawn, gravel, cement, etc.?
  • Can you save your photos?
  • Can you save your mark-ups and takeoffs so you don’t have to re-measure everything?
  • Can you edit and update your work?
  • Can you view from street level?
  • How does the product integrate with your existing CRM or other software?

Fortunately, many inexpensive options are available, and others offer free trials. If landscape professionals are unsure whether a product will meet their needs they can test it out with minimal investment.

Anne Michelsen is a freelance writer based in the Midwest. She has been writing about landscape-related topics for four years. Anne can be reached at http://GreenInkCopywriting.com.