Vice President Vincent Arlington recalls a maintenance account that slipped through his companys fingers. A large shopping center had been a regular client of the Erie, Pennsylvania-based Arlington Lawn Care & Landscape for some time when policy dictated a third-year re-posting of the contract. Another company lowballed, and Arlingtons company lost the job. Fortunately, the story doesnt end here, but rather resumes a scant two months later, when the facilitys property manager returned with an apology and a renewed contract, unsatisfied with the low-bidding competitors quality of performance. Since then, says Arlington, no other companies have been awarded that contract, but it still goes out for bid every three years. Suffice it to say, this was one client who learned a lesson on the value of quality.

Youll always encounter those customers who base their landscape maintenance choices solely on economics. Any contractor who can afford to bid low has an average chance of earning their business, even if the actual landscape maintenance his or her company performs is merely adequate. On the other hand, youll find businesses and homeowners who wont settle for second-rate work. Although harder to please, these are the clients you should court, because theyre the ones who will respect the work you do and will understand the value of professionalism. In the long run, it will be a core of this type of clientele that will make your business prosper . . . if you prove to them that you treasure quality as much as they do.

Keeping your clients
Say a client is referred to you. When you inspect the property to give him a quote, you can understand why he is unhappy; the property does not meet your standards, or his expectations. It will take some extra time, care and money to bring the property to an acceptable level. The client is advised of this; your people will spend a bit more time, or schedule maintenance more frequently during the first few months to make sure that the client is happy. This, of course, will figure in your bid; or perhaps you might give the client the option of paying a flat fee for an upfront clean-up. Most people, if they are unhappy enough to make a change in the first place, will understand and be willing to work with you. The bottom line: keep the customer satisfied.

Quality maintenance defined
What is quality maintenance? Although the concept may vary from one landscape contractor to another, certain key points are relatively consistent in its definition. One element of quality maintenance is measuring up to the clients expectations. Arlington defines it as doing what you promise the customer and more. Anyone can promise the sun, moon and stars, he says, but when all you deliver is dirt, its bound to catch up with you in the long run.

John Allin, president of Allin Companies, also in Erie, Pennsylvania, says, No matter what we think quality stands for, if the customer does not agree with our assessment, then all our work is for naught. Ascertaining what the customer considers top quality is often a challenge. However, it is what sets us apart from the other 90 percent of contractors in the marketplace.

The image ones work and presence conveys to the public is also a part of quality maintenance. For instance, Dan Standley, president of Dans Landscaping and Lawn Care in Terrytown, Louisiana, encourages his employees to look sharp, act sharp and be sharp and emphasizes the importance of logos on clean company vehicles and employee shirts. Furthermore, Standley relies on weekly training sessions and various incentives to encourage his crews to develop a sense of ownership in the company, a sense that usually translates into pride in ones work.
Quality maintenance and perfect maintenance arent necessarily synonymous, and how quickly and efficiently a company corrects its mistakes helps determine its level of professionalism. Toward this end, Standley has at least two tools. The first is the $40 to $50 dollar latitude that he gives his men to fix any problem on the spot. The second is a simple question that he asks his clients: Is there anything I need to know about?

Where the pay-off comes in
When in place, quality workmanship will save a considerable amount on consumption of resources time and money alike. Once an account has been brought up to your standards, says Vincent Arlington, its easier to maintain. The customer stays satisfied, and you can increase profits by getting in and out quicker. This also cuts down on your need to advertise, if customers speak highly of your company to others. Word of mouth is still the most valuable advertising.

According to Arlington, his company has grown by 20 percent annually for the past 16 years, and this is the first year theyve even advertised in the phone book. They chose to place an ad in the yellow pages now only because theyve added new services.

The four degrees of separation theory states that youre ultimately connected with any person in the world because youre very likely to know someone who knows someone who knows that individual. Just imagine the implications in your business! A virtual web of networks exists in your region, and if one client perceives a rare quality in the maintenance you provide, chances are favorable that shell share your contact information with those in her network professional societies, civic organizations, her own customers.

Says John Allin, We are often asked to provide proposals to local companies simply because of how some of our customers properties look. Quality stands out. We have also been forced to take on branch locations of one customer because of the quality of work we have done at another of his facilities. We are quite proud of this type of referral. Additionally, when prestigious sites are out for bid, we are invited to bid based on other projects we do, and the type of service and the quality appearance of those sites.

The client above who insisted that Allin Companies take on the maintenance of a branch location in another state even went so far as to pay Allin 25 percent more than the previous contractor. The reason? After several years of trying, this client felt that a contractor couldnt be found in the branch location capable of achieving Allins level of quality.

President Eric Storck of Blade Runners in Fairfax, Virginia, attributes his companys high customer retention 96 percent to the attention given to quality. Furthermore, he reports that 25 percent of the customers who leave Blade Runners for another company return within two years.

Getting there from here
So how do you go about improving the quality of your maintenance program? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:
Do you have a mechanism in place for getting specific feedback from your clientele?

Listen to your customers, says Arlington. Send out comment cards and acknowledge them. If customers are unhappy, they usually dont fire you first thing. They try to solve problems first. Sometimes you have to read between the lines, but they always give you hints theyre unhappy before they fire a contractor.

This is especially vital when one considers that quality, more often than not, is in the eye of the beholder. Says Standley, The true idea of quality comes from our clients, from their viewpoint, and I think its a moving target. You have to constantly ask, either verbally or through written surveys, but mainly just asking in person, What do you want? What do you like? What looks good to you?"

Are your employees allowed to grow and therefore feel a connection with the company?

Equipping and challenging your crews to develop their knowledge and skills through training will help foster a greater level of confidence and corporate pride. Professional operations must have well-trained employees who feel part of a team not the its just a summer job attitude, says Arlington.

At Dans Landscaping and Lawn Care, good work is illustrated through digital photography, and Standley uses this medium attaching printed pictures of recent jobs directly to work orders both to reinforce good practices and to shed light on those areas with room for improvement. Such a tool with a focus on specific maintenance dos and donts helps standardize the concept of quality in a companys ranks.

Are you able to correct your mistakes thoroughly and swiftly?

You cant solve the problems you dont catch, and some contractors including Standley perform both pre- and post-inspections as often as possible. This will permit you to pinpoint when the maintenance faux pas were committed, as well as the conditions under which they came about. As mentioned earlier, even the best contractors fail on occasion, but its your response to missteps that will ultimately affect your level of quality, as perceived by clients and prospects.

Its important to think of quality maintenance not as an inherent characteristic of your operation, but as an investment. Just like any investment, you may have to give up something now in order to see benefits down the road. The something you forfeit in the present could be the time it takes to call your clients and discuss their level of satisfaction with the maintenance you provide. It could be those requests for proposals you pass on because you know you cant perform these jobs professionally on the bid necessary to win the contract. It may be the money you put toward an employees registration at a maintenance conference or workshop.

But as landscape contractors at such companies as Blade Runner, Arlington Lawn Care & Landscape, Allin Companies and Dans Landscaping & Lawn Care have proven, its not a very risky investment. As the gap between your idea of quality and that of your customers and employees begins to close, the returns will be evident, and may even be the deciding factor between failure and prosperity.

Photo courtesy: The Brickman Group

August 2001