Sal Gonzalez started at DM Color Express more than two decades ago, rising into his current position of sales manager.

When Sal Gonzalez started working at DM Color Express, the 160-acre greenhouse with five locations in California (San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, Orange, Oceanside and Vista), more than two decades ago, he spent most of his time filling wholesale orders. Landscapers, who worked on teams that included architects and designers, came in with curated plant lists and needed no help choosing colorful annuals. As budgets shrunk, more landscapers started working solo and relied on Gonzalez to help them pick the right plants for their projects.

“If I can answer their questions, solve their problems and give them the plants they need to make their customers happy, I can guarantee a sale,” Gonzalez says.

As sales manager, Gonzalez has close relationships with the landscapers who depend on DM Color Express to provide top notch bedding plants; the installation pros, he explains, are the backbone of the business.

“Without the landscapers,” he says, “we have no business.”

A commitment to serving the needs of its landscape customers has helped shape how DM Color Express operates. The grower started out selling bedding plants, growing 25 acres of colorful annuals ranging from ageratum, begonias and calendula to vinca and zinnias, but that plant selection is changing.

“Because of the drought, landscapers had to rethink their plant choices,” Gonzalez explains. “A lot of the color has disappeared from the landscape because there isn’t enough water to irrigate impatiens five times a week, so we needed to offer them different choices.”

DM Color Express has five locations in California: San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, Orange, Oceanside and Vista.

The new rules are forcing landscapers to choose new plant materials — and forcing DM Color Express to switch up its offerings. In the past, colorful annuals generated 65 percent of sales. Now, annuals generate less than 30 percent of the total revenue, a drop Gonzalez attributes to the drought.

Former California governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in 2014 that included mandatory restrictions on water use; although the drought ended in 2017, the state passed a bill to set permanent caps on indoor and outdoor water consumption, which means lasting changes to landscape design.

DM Color Express expanded its plant selection to include multiple varieties of succulents, agave, aloe and grasses to meet the demand for drought-tolerant plants. Gonzalez has vowed to help customers adjust to the changing landscape, and that means focusing on education.

“A lot of these landscapers have never worked with succulents before and we have to make them aware of how to plant and maintain them. We also have to make them aware that succulents are not a permanent plant material and need to be switched up just like annuals,” Gonzalez says. “The more we can educate our customers, the more chance we have to have a customer for life and not just a customer for a season.”

Delivering on customer satisfaction

Gonzalez estimates that 70 percent of his job is education; the remaining 30 percent is service — and he works hard to excel at both. In fact, landscapers often call on him for assistance; he meets them on job sites to assess the location and offer suggestions for selecting plant material or providing tips on how to best care for plants.

In one instance, the landscapers providing services to a local mall called Gonzalez after most of the flowers in their planters died. Their selections were meant to be planted in full sun, but the planters were located in areas with deep shade. Gonzalez worked with their desired color palette and offered plants that would thrive in deep shade.

DM Color Express is also quick to address issues. After downy mildew decimated one type of impatiens, Gonzalez reassured customers that DM Color Express could provide another type of impatiens that offered the same aesthetic with fewer disease issues. Even though the replacement plants were twice the cost, Gonzalez believes that providing an immediate solution to a major issue kept landscapers — and their customers — happy.

“You have to build trust with the customer,” he says. “I’d rather tell them there is a problem or admit that I don’t have a plant that is right for their location than sell them something that is not going to make it. Even if we lose them in that moment and they go to someone else and the plant fails, they will come back because we told them the truth.”

DM Color Express now sells fewer annuals to landscapers largely due to the recent California drought.
Succulents, agave and aloe are some of the drought-tolerant varieties DM Color Express offers its customers.

In Southern California, a major aspect of maintaining a high level of customer satisfaction is offering deliveries. Smaller landscapers are often willing to pick up plants from one of the DM Color Express locations; larger customers require deliveries.

Drivers arrive at the greenhouse between 2 and 3 a.m. to pick orders and load trucks with a goal of showing up on the job site as the sun comes up. As Gonzalez points out, “We have to be there on time so the landscapers can do their jobs. No one wants to get to a job site at 7 a.m. and find out there are no plants. If I screw up shipping, we don’t get paid.”

Sometimes, ensuring deliveries make it to landscapers on time means working after hours.

It’s not uncommon for Gonzalez to receive an order at 3 p.m. that needs to be delivered the next morning at 7 a.m. He works to hit those tight deadlines every time.

“That kind of service is what keeps customers coming back,” he says.

Sal Gonzalez says many landscapers have never worked with succulents before, so a key part of his job is helping customers to understand the plants.
According to Sal Gonzalez, a key to keeping landscaper customers happy is helping them adjust to budget and climate changes.

Cultivating long-term relationships

In addition to filling orders for plants based on garden designs, which sometimes involves selling a few flats of begonias or succulents to landscapers doing one-off jobs, DM Color Express also contracts with large landscaping companies serving commercial clients such as malls, hotels and theme parks to grow specific plants to meet their needs for the upcoming seasons — and he believes both deserve the same level of customer service.

When a boutique hotel had its landscaping budget slashed and could no longer afford to purchase 1,200 flats of annuals every three months, Gonzalez suggested alternatives that would provide the same pops of color but last much longer. The landscapers appreciated the advice and his willingness to work within their budget.

“The overall amount of their invoice went down but we kept the customer,” he says. “Our goal is to keep serving the same customer as long as we can because we know that as soon their budget is back, those sales will go back up. We are always thinking about the long-term.”

Jodi spent a decade working for a greenhouse grower before becoming a freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in magazines like Farming, Modern Farmer and Greenhouse Management’s sister publication Garden Center.