It was the American business magnate Harry Selfridge who coined the phrase, “The customer is always right.” He used it prominently in his advertising, and emphasized a customer-service approach that made shopping a pleasant experience, rather than a chore. That approach was the cornerstone of his retail empire.
Selfridge was so wildly successful because he changed how customers saw the shopping experience. His department stores had well-furnished restaurants with reasonable prices, first-aid stations, and even libraries. Customers lingered in his stores and spent their money there, because Selfridge made shopping there better than shopping anywhere else. It gave his company a solid reputation in the eyes of consumers.
While the green industry is a very different animal than the retail businesses of the early 20th century, there are some lessons we can learn from Selfridge. His primary lesson was this: when your industry has a reputation for being bad at something, make sure your company excels at that very thing.
For many in the landscape business, the issue at hand is communication. Have you ever talked with a customer who’s been calling contractors all week and can’t get any of them to call him back? It’s a surprisingly common experience, and gives our industry a black eye. Responding to potential clients in a timely fashion is not just good manners; it’s good business.
Good communications with customers starts with good communications within your own operation.
When your company is very small, this can seem trivial, but as you grow, it can become very difficult to keep organized. Then it’s, “What did this foreman say when he talked with that client?” And, “Where is the email you sent out three months ago for the big project you just completed?” In an effort to unify his own company’s communications streams, Ben Collinsworth, CEO of Native Land Design in Cedar Park, Texas, started converting his entire business to Evernote two years ago. Evernote is a web-based application that organizes communication across email, texts, links and pictures, and Collinsworth found it ideal for his purposes.
“It allows us to set up a notebook for each project; then the guys can input pictures, agendas and project updates specific to our clients,” he said. The wide array of formats that the app supports allows employees to stay with their preferred methods of communication. “If they like to type, they can upload documents from their iPad. If they like to write notes on paper, they can take a picture of their notes, and upload those instead. If they prefer to take pictures and annotate them, they can do that, too. It’s a very versatile tool for managing our business.”
It’s not just for the back office, either. Collinsworth equips his crew leaders with iPhones, for time logging and GPS tracking. They use another app, Aspire, to report issues on a property in the field, and crew leaders can check off when issues have been resolved, or projects completed, on their phones.
So why have two communication platforms? It’s about information control. Making your communications transparent can be great for your business, because it does two things: first, it puts your employees on their best behavior, because they know that you might see what they’ve said. And, secondly, when you show those communications to customers, it builds trust.
At Native Land Design, clients are regularly sent hyperlinks via Evernote, with estimates and images, so the content is auto-formatted. “I’m trying to get away from having individualized, two-way conversations, where the account manager is talking directly to the client, but nobody else has an easy way to communicate what the content of their conversation was,” said Collinsworth. “I haven’t heard any negative feedback from clients about sending links, either. Which, to me, is a huge benefit, because the message we’ve received has been, ‘We like what we see here,’ across the board.”
Transparency does have its limits, though—after all, you wouldn’t publish your company’s financial records online. Limiting information by who is accessing it and, in the case of larger companies, what location they’re based out of, can be a good idea. It helps with company security, for one thing; for another, providing limited access to a database can bring into focus what you want an employee to pay attention to.
For instance, if a crew foreman pulls up information on a particular property, he should definitely see where the property is, and what his crew needs to do on that property. He might also benefit from seeing what’s been done in the past, because that might affect what he’s doing now, or his ability to suggest services the property owner might be interested in.
He may even benefit from seeing some of the financials related to the property. If the profit margin there is very slim, he might be able to find a more efficient route for maintaining it. But he definitely doesn’t need to see the revenue that site brings in, or the payment information of the property owner. That kind of sensitive information should be tightly controlled.
Needless to say, fostering clear and straightforward employee/client and employee/employee communication is only one part of the puzzle. The green industry is subject to a host of common misconceptions in the public eye that need to be corrected.
According to Missy Henriksen, vice president of public affairs for the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) in Herndon, Virginia, the public-at-large has a very poor understanding of what we do. “People oftentimes think that landscape professionals dig in the dirt all day, and that’s the primary responsibility of their job,” she said.
“They think that you can’t make a good living in this industry, that there are no opportunities for career growth and advancement.”
This is not to say that everyone harbors these notions. Many Americans don’t think about the industry on a daily basis, and couldn’t distinguish between a landscape contractor and a gardener if their life depended on it. For them, everyone is a ‘landscaper,’ and their only contact with our world is when they hear stories about us in the news.
Unfortunately, press coverage of the green industry can cast us in a bad light, and cause the public to question our legitimacy. Take the case of Jason Falbo, an employee of a small landscape company who received a yearlong sentence for intentionally mowing over a family of ducklings. Or Evans Landscaping, which was recently charged with defrauding Ohio’s Encouraging Diversity Growth and Equality program.
Then there’s all the negative coverage our industry receives because of the risks inherent in our work. The landscape industry has a high mortality rate, and any accidental death on the job automatically triggers an OSHA investigation. Piled on top of that are all the scammers and conmen who pass themselves off as landscape contractors, in order to swindle unsuspecting property owners.
To see an example of how these undesireables hurt us, we only have to look at a situation in Greeley, Colorado, last year. Rob Scarzello started his landscape business, Paradise Landscape Management 20 years ago, and has built it into a prosperous company. Unfortunately for him, a con man in the Fort Collins area used a number of aliases and fake business names to scam property owners out of thousands of dollars. One of the names he used, Paradise Hardscapes, sounded enough like Paradise Landscape Management that some victims confused the two, and Scarzello began catching flak.
"It all started when we were working at a job site and a lady pulled up and began yelling at one of my guys," he recalls. "She was telling the guys that we were frauds and asking where I was, because she wanted her money back. My guys were really shocked, because they know me, they know my clients and it just seemed all wrong. We laughed it off until a couple of days later, when the phone started ringing."
Initially, they were only getting one or two calls per day, but before long, Paradise was receiving six or seven calls daily from upset property owners, asking why they weren't showing up. That continued for more than two weeks. Things finally came to a head when one caller tried to confront Scarzello, demanding the $500 per week he'd been promised for handing out flyers.
"He'd Googled my name, and saw that there was a physical office," Scarzello said. "He called me to say, 'I know where you live. I'm coming to get you, and I'm coming to get the money.'" As soon as the caller hung up, Scarzello wisely called the police and gave them the caller's number. The sheriff was able to intercept him en route and defuse the situation, but it was clear to Scarzello that there was a case of mistaken identity going on.
So he put in a call to some local news stations and soon, his side of the story was broadcast on three different news channels and the internet. Overnight, his name was cleared. "I had 19 customers call me up to joke that, thanks to the news piece, they had actual video evidence of me working, on film," he said. "And two of my little old lady customers called to say that I looked pretty hot on TV"
Scarzello was protected by his reputation in Greeley as a solid citizen; a reputation he'd built over twenty years of hard work. However, had this incident occurred in a larger city, to a less well-established business, it might not have had a happy ending. For his part, Scarzello wishes that the public was better educated on what it means to be a landscape contractor.
“This guy was getting people by charging for two years of lawn maintenance up front, the ‘$999 special,’ he called it. I try to tell people that a good contractor doesn’t usually take full payment in advance—and for two years of service no less,” Scarzello said. “They don’t realize that if they hire a shady company, without liability insurance, and something goes wrong, it’s going to go on the property owner’s insurance policy. They can get sued.”
Fortunately, there are ways for each of us to correct these misconceptions about our field. We can help by educating ourselves, by taking courses and reading up regularly, so we can impress property owners with the depth of our expertise. We can help our reputation by giving back to our communities with goodwill projects.
There are dozens of ways we can go the extra mile.
Have you ever overheard someone complain about flaky companies that won’t return their calls? You can make a difference by calling everyone back, even if it’s just to say that you can’t take the job. Receiving bad news is less stressful than being up in the air.
You can also help out by joining state and national trade organizations. NALP is trying to change public perceptions through media outreach efforts, like the Industry Growth Initiative. “We’re also doing digital advertising campaigns, to encourage people to hire professionals, and to entice students and outdoor enthusiasts to work in our industry,” said Henriksen.
With the hustle and bustle of running a small business, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, and ignore the effect we have on the industry as a whole. Yet, each of us represents the industry, and the industry represents each of us. If we present ourselves as the stewards of the environment that we are, and do our best to be exemplars of good business practices, we all stand to benefit.