There is nothing quite like spring, when things begin to re-awaken. There is a wonderful fragrance as the soil starts to warm, the soothing sound of peepers, and the faint sounds of the green industry coming to life again, preparing to make hay while the sun shines.

But for me, this spring is not off to a normal start. As I write this, I’m sitting in Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on my way to Australia to give the keynote speech at the Nursery & Garden Industry of Australia National Conference in Brisbane. It’s a new and exciting opportunity that will have me spending two weeks Down Under (followed by a week at pack trials in California). The theme of the NGIA conference is “Ride The Wave of Change,” and I was invited to speak because the organizers read this magazine – and my column! Seems that even though we’re a bazillion miles apart, our industries have a lot in common.

Traveling overseas is a whole new game for me. While en route, I’ve experienced the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to customer service, and it has unfortunately made me a little oversensitive. It makes me wonder, how are we approaching our business in particular customer service – this spring? Are we making things easy for our customers to do business with us, or are we just making business easy for ourselves?

Even though I’m only on the first leg of my trip, from Cleveland to Chicago, I’ve already hit some unexpected travel snags. While this normally would put me in a rotten mood, I was greeted in both Cleveland and Chicago by the two nicest TSA agents ever! Each welcomed me to their city, smiled, laughed and in an instant, my frown turned upside down.

These encounters remind me of the old adage that first impressions are the ones that count. So, are you rolling out a warm welcome mat for your customers this spring? Ask yourself this: How are you greeting the people who support your business – whether they’re loyal customers or prospects? Is a live body or an automated attendant answering your phone? Regardless of the choice, is the voice pleasant and helpful, such as those you reach when you call Surface Nursery, Schmidt’s or Motz in Oregon? Or do they talk fast and treat your customer like they are actually an intrusion on their busy day? You should be able to hear the smile in their voice. According to “Ziggy” cartoonist Tom Wilson, “A smile is a facelift that’s in everyone’s price range!”

We need to take a moment and clean our lenses so we can assess our surroundings. Take a look at the entrance to your building. Is it friendly and inviting? Or is it weedy, with peeling paint and cracked pavement? Do you look like you’re open for business – or going out of business? Yes, times are tough and you have to take care of first things first. But there are things you can’t afford not to do. After all, where there is a will, there is a way.

On this trip I’m making some rookie international traveler mistakes. But that’s okay, because I’m going to try to learn from them. Lesson No. 1: Use the same carrier on international flights! If you don’t, then you end up having to pick up your luggage at each airport’s baggage claim and go through ticketing and security at each location. One would think that the airlines could coordinate, but I’ve discovered that as a traveler, you’re on your own, and the companies don’t appear to be customer friendly.

This made me stop and wonder: How well do we empathize with our customers? Do we put ourselves in their position? Or have economic times forced us to look at our policies and procedures only from one perspective – what is best, easiest and/or cheapest for us? Are we achieving short-term gains with potential long-term losses?

As we all strive for differentiation among our competitors, I think we need to be sure we don’t forget that it can be the basics that make all the difference in the world. Sometimes it is the simple things that matter, and they cost very little.

Not sure if you’re making that good impression? I think the answer is relatively easy: Ask your customers. We’re all in this together, and asking their opinion can make them feel vested in your partnership. As my dad always says, “Wisdom lies in the art of listening.” All you have to do is ask the question and act upon the answer. Don’t forget, it’s never too late to start making a good first impression.

So, this is it – Spring 2012 – make or break time. Are you ready? Have you used your winter wisely to prepare so that you’re a lean, mean, growing and shipping machine? Is your garden center ready to kill your customers with kindness and loads of color? Will your landscape designs dazzle and drive customers to your doorstep? I sure hope so, ’cause it’s now or never! Good luck, God bless, g’day mates – and last but not least, smile!

Maria Zampini is the president of UpShoot LLC. Her company’s focus is “living, sharing and supporting horticulture” through new plant introduction representation including LCN Selections. She can be reached at, and her website is