November 30, 2012

Media Savvy on the Road to Success


Anyone in sales today is likely used to people coming into their store and quoting some article or expert they saw on the internet. And why not? Customers want to appear knowledgeable, as if they have done their homework, even if it was only a cursory glance at a website prior to embarking on their sales quest.

This behaviour is not new. In 1980, I had a customer enter my garden centre with a wish list of perennials.  Most I had never heard of, and those that I was familiar with were not hardy for the Regina area. I finally asked her where she had obtained her list; what was her source? Her answer: The New York Times Book of Perennials.

How do you sell to someone who has been surfing the web and wishes to garden or landscape based on the information they found online — especially when they have no comprehension of climatic zones or gardening anomalies? My best advice is to have a web presence of your products and your expertise. There is absolutely no value in discrediting the sources the potential customer is referencing. Much better if you can say, “My blog or web page explains why that particular plant does not grow here or has limited chances at best.”

To be a successful salesperson, you must establish yourself as the expert. You must become the ‘go to’ person for customers when they need answers.

I was in the Toronto region a few years ago and toured some garden centres. Isn’t that what we always do when we are on holidays? At Humber Nurseries, I overheard a couple of customers commenting about a staff member as he walked past us.  “There goes the guy who knows everything,” one of them said. Whether or not he knows everything is irrelevant: What is important is the esteem those two customers had for this man.

Having a presence on the internet, either through a blog, a Facebook page, or a company web site is almost mandatory these days. Over time, you will gain an audience of regular and potential customers. I have a weekly gardening blog that started out a little more than two years ago with 100 readers and has grown to 3,000. It receives around 30 responses a week, which shows it is being read. You are welcome to check it out at

Here are the most important rules of writing a gardening blog or web page. First, all information must be written in customer-friendly language. Don’t go showing off and getting all techie on readers. Use common names and back them up with the Latin, in brackets. It is okay to be folksy. You can write about your own experiences. People want to hear your opinions based on real world gardening activity. They do not want to read your sales pitch. Your ability to sell is directly linked to your ability to connect with your readers. In my blog, I wrote that I did not care what any textbooks say about planting daylilies in semi-shaded areas. I planted an entire bed of them in semi shade and for 10 years and put up with occasional blooms and plants surviving, but never thriving. I moved the plants to a sunny area and all of them produced copious blooms and are healthier than the proverbial horse. When people talk to me about planting daylilies in the shade, I can tell them with the voice of experience, “Go ahead, but you will be moving them after the third year.”

Another important issue to address in an online garden blog/web page is honesty. If you don’t care for a certain plant, then tell your readers why. If your writing is filled with positives about every plant that you carry, then people have a right to be suspicious. People know the difference between advertising and sincere opinion. Use that to your advantage. In my blog, when I reviewed The Canadian Artist Series rose ‘Emily Carr’, I told my readers that I was really impressed. That made a statement as I have already established what a fussy gardener I am. 

Establishing yourself or your firm as the expert within the gardening community is so important. It is what separates those who thrive from those who merely survive. As I grew in age and experience and got some media exposure, I was challenged less and less by customers. Instead of seeking verification that I knew what I was talking about, they sought my input as the ‘expert’. “What do you think we should plant here?” And they often had their notepads out — the ultimate compliment.

Besides a blog or web page, seminars are easy and quite inexpensive to produce. I have written here before of my fondness for seminars. First, you will attract many people who are close to purchasing, so you have a live audience. Second, even if people do not attend your seminars, you are creating a public perception that you are the neighborhood expert. And that is what you want.

A mother and son once approached me after a tulip-planting seminar. They were pleased with my efforts and thanked me. Their exact words were, “This is a wonderful public service you offer to the neighborhood.” They were a Dutch family, to boot. I don’t know if I was offering a public service or not, but I do know that I sold more tulips than everyone in the rest of the city, combined.

My favourite form of advertising is free advertising. I know. My Scottish roots are showing when I salivate over the word free. I knew the writers and producers at the local television and radio stations, and the newspapers. I had a card in my Rolodex (how old school) labelled Media Contacts. I sent them faxes on a semi-regular basis, perhaps three or four times a year. In the faxes was information about upcoming events, new releases, or other information that would appeal to the news director, especially on a slow day. News directors have to fill up a certain amount of space, every day. Some days there are just too many stories coming in the door and some have to be chopped. Then there are the slow news days, when essentially nothing has happened. Those days are where you come in, with a story about people returning to vegetable gardening as part of the green movement, or how to build a compost pile for little money.

One Christmas, I was trialling 26 new varieties of poinsettias — a real mix of new colours and shapes. It was a fun thing for me to do. I called up the newspaper, and guess who got a half page story the next week, complete with colour photos? I also managed to repeat my success with stories about roses, statuary, water gardening, and pruning. Do you know how much a full-page ad with colour photos in a newspaper costs? And consider the fact that people often discount what is said in an ad because they know you paid for it. But your credibility factor skyrockets if you land a story that is strictly editorial. It is advertising that money cannot buy.

On another note, I always took those newspaper stories that quoted me or featured my garden centre and framed them. I hung them at the front of the store, almost like diplomas in a doctor’s office, where they provided credible proof of my expertise. Needless to say, it is very difficult to frame a radio interview. 

I recommend you become the number one, go-to authority, whenever a local television or radio station needs a sound bite for the six o’clock news. It is advertising that you could never afford to purchase. There’s an outbreak of cankerworms? They should be talking to you and finding out what it is that homeowners need to do. Greenhouses filled with blooming plants are a much better ‘feel good’ story than a visit to a funeral parlor or a plumbing shop. We have, at our disposal, greenhouses that vibrate with colour and life itself, and it might as well be our place of business in the news as our neighbour’s. Sometimes, you get a story for only one reason: because, you were the one to pitch the news director. Establish yourself and your company as the experts in the gardening world with seminars, media exposure, and an internet presence.

Somewhere, at sometime, someone should be quoting what you wrote. Staying on the road to success requires a bit of effort; a touch of moxie also helps.
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years.  He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.