Oct. 1 2003 12:00 AM

By Louise Reilly Sacco

Marketing is not the same as sales. If you ask for business, youre doing sales. Everything that got you into a situation where you can ask for business is marketing. It includes things that make people notice you, think youre good, and trust you. It includes ways to get the right prospective customers in front of you the ones who will hire you. If youre doing effective marketing, customers will call you, youll seldom compete on price, and your life will be less stressed. You know contractors like this. They answer the phones and schedule the work. I guarantee theyre doing solid marketing, even if they dont call it marketing. Im going to start with some generalizations about landscape contractors. Not all of these are true all the time, but you will recognize that, for the most part, they hold up. 1. You are good at what you do. For instance, you know how to install an irrigation system that works, meets local regulations, and will complete the job.
2. You are not good at customer relations. Customers are often seen as a nuisance. You hate to spend time on the phone with them.
3. You try a few things to find new customers each year. Some work, some dont.
4. You dont know where new customers come from. If they are referred by an old customer, you dont know which one.
5. Your crews dont care about getting new customers.

First Principle:
The all-important call back
We all know the biggest complaint against all kinds of contractors: they wont call back. Everyone has stories of hiring a plumber, building contractor, or roofer because he was the only one who phoned back. So this is easy: return all calls promptly. You may have to change your routine. If youre a small operation, youll have to check voice mail two or three times a day and call right back. In your message, say something like, We will return your call by the end of the day. Now you have to do it, because you promised you would. Every call should be tracked. The simplest way is to set up a log. You can buy books that are set up for this, or you can create your own. Include date, time, name, phone number, notes, and a final column to keep track. You could mark OK if the call is handled when it comes in, X if youre not going to call back (maybe its a vendor that youre not interested in), the name of the person who should return the call, or a check mark when you call back. Whatever code you use, by the end of the day, every call should be marked off somehow. This call log can be in a wirebound notebook that you carry with you all the time. Its a record of your conversations with customers. When I talk to contractors about why they dont return calls, I hear two things. Some say theyre too busy to spend all day on the phone. I say that if you get used to using the cell phone, checking voice mail often, and returning calls the first time, its easy. When you dont return calls, you get angry repeat callers, lost opportunities, and you feel stressed about the long list of people waiting to hear from you. The second reason contractors avoid call backs is because theyre too busy, and cant handle another customer right now. But youll find that if you call back promptly, you can often schedule the work at another time. A caller who received a strong reference will wait until youre available. Even if that doesnt work out, you can refer another contractor. Why would you refer your competitor? First, because the customer will think youre wonderful and may call you another time or refer others to you. Second, because your customer who re-ferred this one wont lose face. He said you would help, and you have helped. Third, because your competitor may do the same for you one day, or give you a hand when you need it. You werent going to get this job anyway. You might as well get goodwill out of the situation. In every field, the contractor who returns calls promptly and cheerfully has a big advantage. Customers remember this and tell their friends. Contractors who are most tuned in to this issue may have the office phone forwarded to the cell phone so they can get all calls immediately.

Second Principle:
Do it when you said you would
This is another one that you know. You just have to put your knowledge into action. As soon as you can schedule a job, let the customer know. If its weather dependent, say so. If theres a run of bad weather or equipment breakdown or the flu that will affect the schedule, keep the customer informed. If you were expected on a job at 8am, youve lost a lot of points if you dont turn up and finally call at 9am to say that yesterdays job is running over and you wont be there until 2pm. Much better to call the day before and say that it looks as if youll be there by 3pm. As soon as you know theres a schedule problem, call the customer. If you just dont know, say that. Surprises are never good.

Third Principle:
If any marketing approach is going to work, you have to build a reputation as a company that does everything right. This goes beyond installing a system that works or keeping the grounds looking good. If you want the customer to call you again and refer all their friends, you have to make it painless to work with you. This means that you have to retrain your crews and check up on them often. They should recognize that with homes, the woman is often the decision maker and is the person observing their behavior. In a commercial account, anyone they see may be the decision maker or can influence the decision. They must:

  • Keep the noise down.
  • No shouting.
  • No loud radios.
  • Consider the neighbors.
  • Dont block streets or driveways.
  • Look professional.
  • Wear uniform shirts.

Uniform hats are even better. Some of your vendors will supply these at very low cost, or you can have them made up. Give each crew member three or four and tell them to wear a clean shirt every day, and to keep the shirt on. Depending on what part of the country youre in, you may have to forbid very tight shorts or low-slung trousers. Female crew members should never wear skimpy or tight clothing. Consider the homeowner or business owner. When the crew arrives and leaves, they should let the customer know. No smoking in view of the customer. Dont sprawl on the front lawn for lunch or a break. Clean up. Most crews are pretty good at this. But the customer really notices an extra ten minutes put into sweeping sidewalks, picking up extra debris, even stacking supplies out of the way on a multi-day job. Good manners. Make eye contact and say hello to customers, their families and employees. If someone says, thank you, the answer is, youre welcome, not, no problem. Call the customer Mr. or Mrs. until they tell you to use their first name. This is just the beginning. So far, I havent mentioned anything that sounds like traditional marketing. But your best source of new business is current customers. You should make your customers so happy that they wouldnt think of calling anyone else. There is a building contractor like that in my town. People wait up to 18 months to have Jim remodel the kitchen or add a family room. He has been following these principles for at least 25 years. With this kind of reputation, even if someone has to cancel a project, theres someone else waiting for Jim. But now Ill mention a couple of ideas that sound more like traditional marketing.

Principle Four:
Past and present customers are the key
Your goal is to never lose a customer. You worked to get that customer. You may have spent some money on advertising and promotion. Its worth a lot to keep the account. That means that you do everything you can to please the customer. Your goal is to have your customers really love you. If they love you, its easy to get more work with them. If they love you, they trust you and will listen to your suggestions, i.e., if you present a maintenance plan, or introduce them to a landscape architect (who will develop plans that you will work on.) If they love you, you can ask them to refer their neighbors to you. Isnt it more efficient to work on two or three or even four adjacent properties? Isnt it easier to get a job when the neighbor has seen you around, doing good work with your courteous, neat crew? If they love you, you can call on the neighbors yourself, knowing that youll get a solid reference.

Principle Five:
Do more for current customers
You should regularly walk around the properties you service. Look for things that obviously need to be done: a tree that needs to be removed, or a thicket that should be cleared. Then phone the customer and tell him that you are concerned about the tree or about the appearance of the back of the yard. If you have the crews and the expertise, you can offer to thin and transplant overgrown perennials; trim trees and shrubs; remove old foundation plantings; or establish a spray program for fruit trees. Look hard at your customers. What needs to be done to improve the property? Do you have a lull between heavy summer mowing and fall cleanups? How about offering to work on perennial gardens then? Keep a list of work that needs to be done for your customers. When you see that a crew isnt fully booked, phone the customer and offer to work on these jobs. Beyond traditional landscape work, this approach allows you to subcontract with masons, builders, perhaps others to repair walls, replace garden sheds, or have fences installed. Another way to get more work from current customers is to get them on annual contracts and to take the initiative, rather than waiting for them to call you. When you finish the fall yard cleanup, tell them youll come back in the spring, as soon as weather allows, for a spring cleanup. Youll call three or four days ahead to schedule it. Its always easier on you to do more work for the same customers. Youre already billing them; you have a relationship with them; your crew is there its better to stay there than to move to a different work site.

Principle Six:
Ask for referrals
Its easy to assume that your customers will refer you to their friends and families, especially the solid, long-time customers. But its not usually true. You have to ask for the referral. They may think you have all the business you want. They may take you for granted, and not even think about you. There are a couple of easy ways to ask for referrals. You probably dont see your customer often. Your crew is in and out, getting the job done. Its a good idea to visit each customer once or twice a year. Stop by to ask about the service. Ask if they are pleased with the work, the crew, and the scheduling. We know that the answers will be positive because youre observing the first four principles in this article. Then you say something like Were working hard to grow this business. Please tell others about us. Here are some extra business cards that you can pass along. Another approach is to offer an incentive for referrals. You can leave a notice behind or enclose it with your bill, offering a discount for every referral. The amount you offer depends on the type of jobs you do and the level of billing you can expect from a new customer. Think about something worth up to 10% of the first years revenue from a new client. However, you usually shouldnt offer a commission. It should seem more like a thank you gift from you. For instance Refer a new customer and your next mowing is free. Or For each new account you refer, well plant 20 daffodil bulbs for you next fall.

Principle Seven:
Work the neighborhood
Use your crews to develop some very attractive business. Its much easier (and more profitable) to work on adjoining properties than to pack up and move to another location. So work on ways to bring the neighbors in. Most landscaping crews have some time where one member is waiting for the others to finish their work or load the equipment back on the truck. Use every five or 10 minute opportunity to have the idle crew member leave door hangers on surrounding homes. If you can, have them add a note like We worked on the Saccos home at #73 today. It can be tough to get the crews to do this regularly, but you can motivate them with a reward. Maybe anytime a neighbor signs up with you as a result of a door hanger, youll buy lunch for that crew. Beyond this, you can knock on the neighbors doors. Let them know that you are regularly working on this street and would like to do more here. Explain that its easier on your crew to have adjoining customers. Perhaps you offer a small discount. If you are selling one-time services, like an irrigation system or tree removal, you can still work the neighborhood. Tell the neighbors that if you can do several jobs at the same time, youll offer a discount to both customers. It will take you less time, so you can afford to do this. You might start a trend where everyone on the block decides they need an irrigation system.

Principle Eight:
Everyone is in sales
You probably dont think of your crews as sales people, but they can be very effective in this role. Youve got to give them a few tools and some motivation. There were landscape contractors on my street who seemed to be doing a very nice job. I spoke to someone on the crew to get a price for doing work on my property. The crew chief didnt have a business card for the company, didnt have a cell phone, and couldnt tell me the phone number of the company. He told me to copy it from the side of the truck. This happened twice, with two different companies! Every truck should have business cards and brochures (if you use them). Crews should understand that its important to make it easy for new customers to contact the company. They should be trained to give out information and collect a name and phone number. Some crew chiefs will be able to walk around a property and gather the information needed for a price quote. If you provide cell phones, the crew chief might even be able to contact you on the spot and hand the phone to the potential customer to schedule an appointment. Bonuses, gifts, or free lunches are due to crews who bring in new customers.

You call this marketing?
We havent touched on traditional marketing activities: advertising, promotion, direct mail, PR, personal networking, expos, sponsorships, public service, and more. I believe that if you follow the eight principles in this article, youll have a very good start. Editors Note: Louise Reilly Sacco, of the Enterprise Group (www.enterpriseconsultinggroup.com), helps small companies develop Marketing on a Shoestring programs.

October 2003