June 1 2004 12:00 AM
Quality pays-its an essential business credo. Most business people recognize that cutting corners by using shoddy materials or providing mediocre service is not a good business practice. Yet every contractor faces immense pressure to run a profitable business, and it can become all too easy to fall into bad habits. In the rush to grow your business, you may forget to return calls, accept and use second-rate plants rather than demanding the best, or complete a job without really tidying up the site because youre in a rush to move to the next project.

But there is another option-a different way to run your business, and this business plan has pluses and can be quite profitable. Contractors across the country have discovered that committing to quality does pay. While it may take a bit more time and upfront effort, the end results-a profitable enterprise and happy customers-are well worth the investment. This month, Irrigation and Green Industry visits with three contractors committed to quality to find out what that commitment looks like in practice and how it has boosted their business.

Comprehensive Quality

Like many of her colleagues, Terry Wallace, owner of Wallace Landscape in Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, runs her business in a very competitive locale. She says, There are a lot of companies in the area, and many are pretty creative. This, of course, makes it hard to get ahead. To be successful, contractors need to differentiate themselves from the masses. Wallace Landscape is very successful, and Wallace attributes the companys success to its commitment to quality. She explains,Quality is one item that differentiates us from other companies.

Wallace approaches quality quite comprehensively and includes employees, materials, design and service in her definition of quality. She explains, Quality is not just one part of your business. Its everything from stationery to trucks to happy employees.

The Wallace commitment to quality begins at the top. Wallace is a stickler for customer service; she returns calls immediately, and works with clients during the design phase to help them establish what they want. She also assigns one employee the task of finding quality plants; using lesser quality material is not an option, asserts Wallace. Clients recognize the difference. Wallace notes, constantly hear that I was the only contractor who called back. Sometimes, Wallace competitors do follow up with a plan, but those plans often overlook the customers needs even after the customer shares his ideas and requirements. As a result, Wallaces business is booming.

Still, quality does cost a little more. Sometimes a customer will opt for a lower priced contractor. Wallace admits some of the companys maintenance clients have dropped her services because of the slightly higher price tag; however, she reports that nine times out of ten, when the clients come back to Wallace Landscape for maintenance services, they remain customers for life. In other cases, Wallace reaps the benefits of her competitors less than stellar commitment to quality. She says, We may be called in to renovate because the contractor used minute plants and the construction was haphazard.

Wallace pairs the ongoing commitment to quality with an annual quality initiative. This year, the focus is on housekeeping. Wallace is upping the ante on clean sites and clean trucks. Last years quality initiative was project management; Wallace sought to improve project management, and focused on better communication between design and installation teams.

Wallace recognizes that she is not solely responsible for quality in the business. Her employees play a critical role in honoring the commitment to quality. Consequently, during the hiring process, she looks for people who understand and are committed to quality. The company facilitates their growth and commitment to the profession through in-house and outside training. The result is happy employees who stay with the company. Wallace notes, We have a great record as far as employee retention. Our foremen stay with us year after year. We havent lost a foreman for as long as I can remember.

Quality for the Long Haul

Jim Nicholson, president of Dinsmore Landscape in Santa Clara, California, takes the long-term approach to quality. He explains,We committed to quality because we value our clients and want to establish long-term relationships with them. When a company focuses on its clients and quality, it will pay off in the long-term.Nicholson, who purchased the business seven years ago, says the commitment to quality has paid off in spades. Nicholson Landscape has grown steadily over the last seven years based on referrals from existing customers instead of a sales or marketing team. Business growth is just one way quality pays, says Nicholson. He claims it also pays because the company does not have to go back to a job for repairs.

Nicholson embraces a top-down approach to quality. Management staff plays a key role, he says. The people in these positions need to be focused and understand the mission. On the practical level, this means maintaining management visibility on job sites. This serves two purposes. It eliminates surprise calls from upset customers and also allows us to monitor workers performance in the field. Nicholson refers to California Landscape Contractors Association guidelines as the unwritten bible of the business. And CLCA guidelines do indeed recommend regular site audits for both irrigation and landscape maintenance contractors.

Dinsmore Landscape, however, goes a step beyond the CLCA recommendation. Nicholson explains, We have a supervisory level that most companies dont have. This person oversees the daily operations of two or three crews. Nicholson admits the extra layer is a little costly, but maintains that it helps the company stay competitive. Managers and supervisors also help the company communicate with its clients. Nicholson explains, Were in constant communication with our clients. We use all of the tools available to make it happen.For example, Nicholson and others serve as the clients eyes and ears with email updates and digital photos of the project.

The extra oversight and communication also fosters a sense of pride among employees. The company maintains high morale by encouraging workers to make each site their own. Nicholson notes,We want to keep them focused on their daily job and invested in the company. This, in turn, translates into high-quality projects.

Education, Education, Education

Word of mouth is the best form of advertising there is, asserts James Vonderahe, irrigation supervisor with Seattles Highridge Corporation. Highridge aims to gain maximum benefit from word-of-mouth advertising by running a quality operation. Vonderahe, like his colleagues at Wallace Landscape and Dinsmore Landscape, looks at the big picture when it comes to quality. He believes quality is inexplicably tied to honesty, education and technique.

Education includes both company employees and its customers. Knowing the products and installing them properly is one indicator of quality, so Highridge makes it a point to stay current with new advances in the irrigation and landscape maintenance field. Professional seminars and programs are a key part of the business plan.

Highridge takes its commitment to education one step farther by ensuring that its customers understand the companys products. Vonderahe explains the rationale behind this somewhat time-consuming commitment. If you educate homeowners [about your products and services] over time, they will realize that they are paying for a top of the line product and customer service. Its a nice theory, but you may wonder how it works in practice.

Highridge Corporation provides a warranty on its irrigation services, and with irrigation, it is all too easy for homeowners to become confused about parts or scheduling. In those cases, a technician will go back to the site to show the homeowner how to operate the system. But warranties dont last forever, and problems can pop up after the warranty expires. For example, recently a customer expressed concerns about how irrigation lines were rung after his warranty had run out. Instead of neglecting the customers concerns, Vonderahe dispatched a technician to the site. He took the time to make a few adjustments. The customer responded by sending a letter to the president of the company. He may share the experience with friends and neighbors, who will likely at least consider Highridge Corporation for their landscape and irrigation needs after hearing about the experience.

There is another way to approach quality and customer service. A contractor can claim its not worth the time or energy. These companies exist in every corner of the country. Take one of Highridge Corporations competitors, who turned his back on a warranted customer after three years of service. The customer turned to Highridge and paid a second time to have the installation completed properly. Vonderahe admits, These are the customers we really want to take care of. He says the company that can shine in the eyes of a customer whos upset has likely gained a new customer and some healthy word-of-mouth advertising. Meanwhile, the contractors that lost the customer not only lost the business but also may have gained some negative publicity in the bargain.

With such a heavy emphasis on education, one might expect the company to have all the answers. But thats not the case. In fact, the situation is quite different. The company strives for honesty. Occasionally, an employee will run into a situation where he doesnt know the answer; company policy is to admit it and offer to look for the answer to the question, helping to secure the customers trust.

The Quality Plan

Ready to go the next step? Remember the following:

* Quality starts at the top. If you arent truly committed to quality, your employees wont be either.
* Try to implement a simple quality. Assess the quality on each and every job. Is it top-notch? Do you want the customer to share the results with friends and neighbors?
* Treat each and every customer as if he were your most important client. That means listening, returning calls, using the best materials available, leaving a clean site, etc. It will pay really.

June 04