Stuart is wondering once again whether the in-crease in his business is enough to justify the expense of an additional crew, equipment and new truck. His major concern is whether there will be enough work for that new crew when things slow down in December. One way to assure the feasibility of this venture would be to branch out into landscape lighting, an idea Stuart has toyed with for a couple of years.
This dilemma isn?t new ? many landscape contractors have been installing landscape lighting for a number of years. For those companies in areas of the country that have a winter season, landscape lighting stretches their season to twelve months.
?The one thing I stress to contractors is that landscape lighting is not a ?cyclable? business,? says Chuck Hoover, senior vice president of Vista Lighting, Simi Valley, California. ?They have preconceived notions that the time to start installing landscape lighting is when the irrigation and landscaping season is over. This is simply not so. This is a business with a 40-50% profit margin; it makes sense to install landscape lighting year round.?
Suppose Stuart decides to add that extra crew, and also to offer landscape lighting to his services; where does he go from there?
Stuart should contact a wholesale irrigation supply house, because most of the fixtures and supplies for landscape lighting are sold through these stores. They are distributors for the major landscape lighting manufacturers.
There are also some companies that specialize only in lighting; Cascade Lighting in Akron, Ohio, and California Landscape Lighting in Westlake Village, California, to name a couple. These stores carry a much larger variety of lighting brands.
Many of these supply houses, and certainly the lighting companies, offer seminars or courses on landscape lighting. They are distributors for landscape lighting manufacturers and are always seeking new customers.
?Seminars are a good way to learn the basic techniques of lighting, such as how to market, and about new products and innovations, really everything there is to know about landscape lighting,? says Linda Haslage, owner of Cascade Lighting. They hold seminars from December through March.
?A contractor contemplating this move should first attain a basic knowledge of landscape lighting,? says Nate Mullen, co-owner of Unique Lighting System, and author of Advance Trade Secrets of Professional Landscape Lighting.
?I think that most lighting companies try to teach the contractor how to read light. Once you can see light, you will know how to place the fixtures.?
The contractor can learn about landscape lighting through other sources as well. Rick Doesburg, owner of Thornton Landscape, Inc., in Mainville, Ohio, says, ?I soaked up a lot of my knowledge attending Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) meetings and listening to others who knew what they were doing. Now, after 20 plus years, I am the teacher at these meetings.? He added that Nightscaping seminars were very helpful in teaching design.
?I bought installation guides and attended seminars at my distributor to learn the basics,? John Yowell, owner of Modern Underground Irrigation in Lincoln, Nebraska, explains. ?But the best way to learn is by just doing it.?
?The first and most important thing a contractor has to learn is the electrical aspects of landscape lighting such as wire sizing, how many fixtures can be used per strand of wire, voltage, transformer sizing, etc.,? explains Yowell. ?They teach this at distributor seminars.?
Yowell is an irrigation contractor who has added landscape lighting to his business as a sideline. He says it is a very profitable addition. ?We are in and out in one day, the mark-up on lights is good and we like doing it. I would like to do more of it; I could keep one to two people busy doing landscape lighting all year long if I had more time. The problem I have is keeping good help; there is not enough qualified labor. Once I train someone, he wants to go out on his own.?
There are a number of lighting manufacturers; some offering up to 300 fixtures, others have only four or five. Most of these manufacturers offer seminars and educational opportunities through their distributors. Their philosophy is the more knowledge they can pass on to the contractor on the correct way to install a system, the more systems the contractor will install, and the more systems the contractor installs, the more profitable they both will be.
Lew Waltz, vice president of Hadco, Landscape Lighting Division, Littlestown, Pennsylvania, says Hadco tailors its seminars to the group that attends by sending out a questionnaire polling them on what they are interested in learning. ?We give them a pocket-sized booklet called, ?Landscape Lighting 101,? that they can keep with them in the field for quick reference.?
Rebecca Dobnar, marketing manager for Focus Landscape Lighting, Lake Forest, California, said, ?The response to our seminars has been so good that we are moving into a larger facility.?
Doesburg suggests that before the contractor tries to sell landscape lighting, he needs to learn enough to be able to talk intelligently to his clients. ?It?s an easy sell, I don?t find it hard to convince my clients; I use it as an add-on sale to what I am already selling.?
His most successful selling techniques have included word of mouth of his experience, the jobs clients have seen, nighttime demos, office visits with his portfolio and taking potential clients to visit his lighting room. This 12x15-foot room with push buttons shows different effects using wattage lamps, fixtures and mountings. Of all his techniques, this has been one of the best.
Bob Dorai, owner of Signature Landscape Lighting in Novi, Michigan, has been in business for six years and has a federally trademarked custom placement method. ?I sell systems with photo port-folios. We find that it is best to ?pre-qualify? clients on the phone prior to setting up an appointment.? This technique has been so successful that he is currently franchising his business.
Ken Gamble, owner of Nighteffects in Tucson, Arizona, is an electrician by trade. His best friend is a rep for Nightscaping. Fifteen years ago he suggested to Gamble that he get into landscape lighting. Today he has one crew for landscape lighting and one crew for his electrical business. ?My only labor problem is a high turnover rate.?
?I have six three-to-five man crews. Of these six crews, four can do lighting,? says Doesburg, whose company does it all ? landscaping, irrigation and lighting. ?We work together on a job, in steps with the crew leader in charge, and save the lighting for last. Our crews are dressed in uniforms; we call it ?flying our colors.? ?
Jeff Korhan, owner of Treemendous Landscape Company, Plainsfield, Illinois, has his own training area where he trains his crews in every aspect of landscaping and lighting.
Tech support can be a big issue with contractors. They do not need it all the time but when needed, it?s needed on the spot. All manufacturers have toll-free telephone numbers with technicians who will walk them through their problem. Some offer help with designing projects; contractors fax site plans to application engineers who do nothing but layouts. Contractors use this service frequently for large commercial jobs.
?We send out an email newsletter every three to five weeks giving ?how-to? tidbits, true tales in troubleshooting, advice on how to be more efficient, product announcements, and anything that we think the contractor would benefit from,? explained Patrick Attkisson, communications director for Nightscaping.
Vista has field personnel who will go onsite to troubleshoot with the contractor. ?This makes the end-user feel like he is the contractor?s most special client; that relationship is sealed for life. The word of mouth advertising received from that contact will be priceless,? exclaims Hoover.
Internet support is another resource offered; however, contractors do not appear to utilize this source as much as the live support.
Nils Reed, vice president of AirLight Systems, Danvers, Massachusetts, plans Counter Days at the distributors and will have toolboxes installed with battery-operated fixtures available for contractors to take to their clients to demonstrate the fixture.
?I pre-select some really strong selling fixtures, and have my clients come to the office and I ask them what they are looking for,? says Korhan. ?I explain which fixtures work best where. I want my clients to understand the entire project. There is a trust factor there.?
Yowell also pre-qualifies his lighting clients, ?When I have a crew installing an irrigation system, I already know the client and his buying habits. We walk around his property and I casually suggest lighting up an area. If he indicates an interest, I hand him a pamphlet and show him some different ideas, ask him what he would like lit up and we go from there.? He uses nighttime demo kits to seal the sale.
Mullen suggests buying a demo kit with a number of fixtures and transformers, then put together practical applications in your own yard, as well as friends?, neighbors? and relatives? yards. This allows the contractor to get a feel for how light works at night. Then, Mullen feels, the contractor is ready to attend seminars.
Some manufacturers, through the seminar program, sell a lighting kit that is used at a client?s home for demonstration of the various effects of nightlighting.
?Try to ?upsell?? says Lee Carbone, owner of Copper Moon, Cummings, Georgia. When showing fixtures to the client, Carbone suggests explaining to the client what he is getting. Copper fixtures are an example of upselling.
Hoover suggests daytime demos. ?Set up a few lights and a transformer; leave them with the client for two to three days. Not only have the prospective clients enjoyed it, the neighbors, friends and relatives have been over to look at it. Then you go back and talk to them. You are almost guaranteed a sale.?
He added that contractors ought to avoid becoming so wrapped up in selling that they forget who they are talking to and what the client?s needs are. ?Remember to ask what they want lit up; if you?re talking to them about a Cadillac and they can only afford a Volkswagen, you are failing.?
Stuart is making the move into landscape lighting. He has his established clientele from his irrigation business. From that list, he will pre-qualify and begin putting together a prospective client list. He plans to add another crew to pick up the slack.
Once the crews receive basic training in landscape lighting, he will schedule them for upcoming seminars to broaden their knowledge. Then they will spend time with demo light kits at their homes, using practical applications until they feel comfortable handling the fixtures and transformers.
The area rep will be available to help with that first sales call. The rest will be history . . .