There are times when the landscape industry feels like an “E-ticket” roller coaster ride. For those of us old enough to remember, E-tickets were purchased at Disneyland for the highest and scariest rides in the park. You may remember feeling the anticipation as you stood in line waiting to board the ride. The excitement built in the pit of your stomach as your car climbed to the very heights of the Matterhorn. Then the terror you felt as you plummeted toward the ground and, finally, the relief when your feet were safely back on solid ground. It’s likely the next ride you boarded was the much safer “A-ticket” monorail. It might not have been as exciting, but at least you knew you were on a steady course and that you were going to survive.

Considering the volatile economy of the past few years, these feelings are all too familiar for those in the landscape industry—the anticipation you felt when you started your company, the excitement as you began signing up clients and reaching new heights, and the fear in the pit of your stomach when suddenly it took a sharp downward turn and seemed to be heading for a crash.

Isn’t it time to get off the roller coaster and get on a more stable ride?

Landscape maintenance is the “A-ticket” for the landscape industry. The “ride” may not be as exciting or thrilling but it will help keep your feet—and your business—on solid ground.

Even if landscape design/build was your specialty, when opportunity comes knocking, you always open the door.

That’s what happened to John Mohns, president of Benchmark Landscape, Poway, California. Fresh out of college in 1984, he was happily working with a commercial landscape construction company when he decided to go out on his own, along with a partner. The first four years in business all they did was build commercial landscapes, until one day a client suggested something new.

“After we completed his installation, the client wanted us to continue to maintain the job for him,” said Mohns. “We actually told him that we weren’t interested in maintenance. He looked at us and said, “Gosh fellows, I really don’t think that’s a good business decision.” We realized he was right. We already knew the clients and they knew and trusted us. If we were going to do such a good job on the installation, we were crazy not to have a maintenance division in our company operations.”

As it turned out, that client’s advice probably saved Mohns’ company. “At the very beginning, we only maintained the jobs we installed. The business was 75 percent installation and 25 percent maintenance. My goal was always to be a company where 50 percent of my company came from installation and 50 percent came from maintenance. We got there, but not because we were growing; we got there because of the recession. Our installation dropped dramatically; however, the maintenance side is still growing.”

So much so, that now Mohns operates a separate maintenance division under its own name, Benchmark Landscape Services. Between the two operations, Mohns has found a way to keep his business on an even keel. By adding a maintenance program to your service menu, your business can continue to thrive, even during times of economic uncertainty. But don’t wait until a client asks you for the service.

“We offer an annual maintenance contract to our clients immediately after we complete a project,” says William Dickerson, president of Dickerson Landscaping, Tallahassee, Florida. “In the past two years, when everyone became terrified about the economy and Wall Street was eroding consumer confidence, we had very few landscape projects and even fewer orders for customdesigned items. Our maintenance services sustained us throughout that difficult period.”

Now that the economic outlook is becoming a bit more optimistic, Dickerson sees his maintenance division as a way to continue to build a long-term relationship with his clients. “The critical component to business growth is customer retention, and customer service. It’s crucial to our business that our clients know they can count on us to maintain what we’ve installed.”

There’s nothing more exasperating than driving by a project that you’ve worked long and hard to design only to see it poorly maintained, or not maintained at all, Dickerson laments. “You not only feel as if your client simply threw their money away, but your reputation along with it. What’s worse is that they also threw away any opportunity you may have had to showcase that project to another potential client.”

Douglas Owens-Pike, owner of EnergyScapes, Inc., in Minneapolis, Minnesota, agrees. His company specializes in native plants and grasses designed for energy and water conservation. Maintaining those sensitive plants takes special training, without which a project can be totally destroyed.

“We’re one of the very few landscape contractors in our area who know the best techniques to care for native plant communities,” Owens- Pike says. “Recently we installed a green roof and then the building maintenance crew turned up the irrigation too high and killed off the drought-preferring plants. After that, we began including maintenance with our standard installation package to prevent mistakes like that from happening again. In the first year, we nearly doubled our revenue because our clients knew that we would continue to care for their plants for a long time.”

Maintenance is not just “mow and blow”

Proper landscape maintenance is much more than simply hiring a couple of guys with a lawnmower and leaf blower. “Generally, when we talk to a client about lawn maintenance, they are only thinking about getting their grass cut on a regular basis,” Dickerson says. “Most people aren’t familiar with the term ‘maintenance contract,’ so by offering grass mowing and weeding initially, it gives us a way in.

Then we can start talking about additional services.”

Dickerson offers his clients a 14point inspection lawn audit, then he gives them a choice of two full service packages: a basic and a premium, and one environmental service package for his eco-friendly clientele. The basic plan includes mowing, edging plant beds, trimming, pruning, hand weeding and chemical weed control. Insect and disease control, fertilization and spring and fall clean-up are added in the premium package, among other services. Organic fertilizer and organic weed control is included in his environmental package.

“Clients start with the basic service package, then we offer additional services through our newsletter for them to try out. By taking advantage of these offers, it gives them the incentive to move up to the premium package. A lot of times there are services in the premium package that the client will order ala carte, like insect control, which costs a bit more, but we’re happy to do it even if they didn’t order the other services,” says Dickerson.

No-excuse attitude

There are a number of advantages in adding maintenance service to your business. For one thing, Dickerson says, if something goes wrong, it’s totally his responsibility to fix the problem. “If our crew prunes something incorrectly, we know who they are, what the problem is and we fix it immediately.

Our clients really like our noexcuse attitude. We broke it, we fix it; it’s as simple as that.”

Another benefit to your client is that if they do have a problem, they only have one telephone call to make, instead of a list of various contractors who might say “Not me,” or charge exorbitant fees for a service call. If that company didn’t cause the problem, it will take them extra time, and your client extra money, for them to figure out what went wrong even before they begin to rectify the situation.

In addition, with a maintenance schedule, your clients can enjoy a “worry-free” landscape. “We’re pro-active in that everything we install is checked out thoroughly on a regular basis, so we’re most likely to catch and fix any problem before the client even notices,” Dickerson says.

Maintain your crew

Your maintenance crew is as important, if not more so, than your other teams. When they’re out in the field, they represent your company, so it’s imperative that they showcase professionalism while they’re on the job.

“These days if you’re a professional outfit, your crew members all have to be in a uniform,” says Mohns. “We provide the uniforms for our crews that are coordinated with the colors on our logo, our trucks, and our website.”

Besides the company uniform, Mohns also provides his employees with the tools so they can grow within the firm. “We train, teach, and mentor our people to give them opportunities so they enjoy coming to work. This is key, so that at the end of the day you can see successes, and overall your crews are happy and your clients are happy as well,” he said.

Maintain your equipment

While your crew is busy maintaining the landscape, don’t forget about the maintenance of your equipment.

“We keep our trucks for roughly five years, then we turn them in— whether the mileage is high or low,” said Mohns. “It makes sense to us to keep our truck fleet updated so that it looks new and professional. We don’t want our crews driving around in beat-up, dented trucks.”

All the tools in the maintenance shed need to be maintained on a regular basis. Keep cutting blades sharpened, replace hand tools when necessary, and be certain all motorized equipment is well oiled and free of dirt and grass trimmings Train your team to put the tools in their proper places so that the trucks are ready to roll the next business day. There’s nothing more frustrating then driving to a jobsite, only to find you left the string trimmer back on the warehouse floor.

Maintain your clients

Because of the fluctuations in the industry, Dickerson only offers his clients a full-year contract. “We insist on a full-year commitment. In June, July and August, the grass grows so fast, we spend more time just mowing. During the winter months is when we’re busy on the maintenance program. The full year maintenance contract keeps the company on a steady economic keel all year round.”

In areas that don’t experience strong seasonal changes, a month-to-month contract usually is sufficient, depending on the client.

“Every property we maintain has a contract,” Mohns states. “Some are annual, especially with the municipalities, but most of our clients are on a month-to-month basis. The contract has a start date, the scope of the work and the terms, but there’s also a clause to terminate the contract with a 30-day notice. In this way, we’re building a trust relationship with the client, since this is a person-to-person service industry.”

If you have a good process in place and strong people who are passionate about maintenance and take pride in beautifying the property and the environment, this could be an excellent time to add maintenance services. With some extra effort, you can build a very successful maintenance division.

Landscape design/build and landscape maintenance: the best of both rides.