4_11.jpgWhen I asked five leaders of thriving landscaping firms about the biggest mistakes to avoid in the industry, their advice had nothing to do with horticultural know-how or design expertise, or even about landscaping at all. Instead, most of the mistakes they mentioned had to do with human relations.

According to these accomplished entrepreneurs, many of the errors people make in this industry revolve around basic people skills. Making promises that can't be kept, ignoring communication skills, not returning phone calls, poor employee relations -- these are the fatal mistakes that can lead companies down the slow path to failure.

While we know that success in landscaping takes a diverse skill set, careful attention to a few human relations fundamentals can help contractors avoid some very common pitfalls. These fundamentals center around three audiences: your customers, your employees, and your community.

Choose your customers carefully . . . then treat them like gold

Although excellent customer care would seem to be one of the cardinal rules in any service profession, it?s one that many landscaping firms neglect, according to Hilary Daniel Engelhardt, owner of Gardens by Hilary, Inc. She built her flourishing St. Louis landscaping firm around one simple principal.

"Everything we do revolves around what will make the customer happy," she says. "If employees have a question, they simply have to ask, 'What would the customer want?' That will answer their question every time."

Engelhardt, a former engineer who made a mid-career transition into landscaping, noticed early on that many new clients were choosing her after experiencing poor customer service from other companies. Hearing their complaints drove home to her the value of happy customers and the damage that can be wrought by even one disgruntled client. "I want every client to be satisfied. Even if I wouldn't want that particular client again in the future, I still want them to be completely happy with our work."

Keeping customers happy sometimes means choosing them with care. ?We?re careful about the projects we take on,? says Engelhardt.?We don?t bid on every job. With new clients, the single most important thing we ask is, ?Does the client value what we do???

What they do is provide exceptional, full-service landscape care to a somewhat specialized niche. ?We only design what we install and we only install what we?re going to maintain,? she says. ?We do maintain other properties, but if we?re going to design and install them, we also want to do the maintenance.?

This requirement has nothing to do with an increased revenue stream, says Engelhardt.

Instead, it's about happy clients. "No matter how beautiful my designs are or how flawlessly we install them, 95% of homeowners aren't going to maintain their garden the way it should be to keep it looking good. By offering full-service maintenance -- by practically demanding it -- we make sure that the client will always be happy with how it looks."

And what do clients receive for this commitment? "I warrantee their plants forever,"says Engelhardt. "I've had clients who, after six years, told me they don't like the way a particular plant or bush looks. Without hesitation, I'll replace it. I don't care if it's our mistake or theirs. I want them happy."

Rick Clark and Lebo Newman share Engelhardt's focus on customer satisfaction. Clark and Newman are partners of two Reno-based companies, Signature Landscapes and Reno Lawn & Landscape. "We believe in offering a product we can deliver and we always deliver what we promise," says Clark, who, like Newman, ran his own company for several years before they joined forces with two other partners to form the Reno companies.

Their shared philosophy is part of what led their companies to take sales from zero to approximately $14 million over the last seven years. "We both have integrity and a passion for what we do," says Clark. "We deliver what we say we're going to. It's that simple."

Growing with the community

This philosophy extends not only to their paying customers but to the entire community. Signature provides maintenance services at no cost for several local non-profits and donates cash and other resources to other charitable organizations. "We want to be leaders in our industry and leaders in our community as well," says Newman.

Community involvement is an important principle for all of these companies. "You have to be able to give back to your community," says Gary Moss, of Houston-based Moss Landscaping, a design/build and maintenance firm serving primarily high-end residential clients. "This is important for the community and for your company, especially in our market niche. My clients give a great deal of themselves and they value that in the people they do business with."

Involvement helps build the relationships that are critical to the success of any company.

"Generating relationships is one of the most important factors for success in this field," says Randy Newhard, owner of New Way Landscape & Tree Service, a full-service landscape maintenance firm based in San Diego, California. "Forming relationships helps get your foot in the door. Doing good work helps keep it there."

Communication is another part of the equation, according to Newhard. "Your guys in the field have to be able to communicate with customers," he says. "Many of our customers are property managers. Our employees need to serve as their eyes in the field. They need to be able to clearly communicate any problems they encountered and what they did to solve them."

Even when there are no problems, contractors who simply go about the business of making the property look good without keeping the dialog going are making a mistake, says Newhard. "I've heard it said once and I repeat it a couple of times a week: 'In the absence of communication, suspicion is king.' Even if things are perfect, your customers are going to wonder what's going on if they don't hear from you."

Moss also emphasizes the importance of communication. He's a firm believer in educating all employees to represent the company in a professional way. Books like "How To Win Customers and Keep them for Life," by Michael LeBoeuf, are required reading for Moss Landscaping employees.

Letting employees shine

It may sound like Moss expects a lot from his employees. He does. So do all of these business leaders. But in return they provide a work environment that rewards employee effort, empowers workers to do their best, and allows all members of the company to celebrate its successes.

"Companies who do not invest in employees will never take it to the next level," says Moss. "They may be able to maintain themselves on a small scale, but as the number of employees increases, a very high level of skill and training is critical. You can buy equipment anywhere, but your people are what count."

"Your employees are your most valuable asset," agrees Newhard. "We make it a priority to give our employees a career path. Not everyone wants that and that?s okay. But if someone does want to rise up, we embrace that and educate them."

Engelhardt agrees. "I do expect a lot from my employees," she says. "But I empower them to do their best by letting them make their own decisions. I tell employees at every level that they are paid to think. I don't want people to call me and say, 'What should I do' -- I want them to call and say, 'I have a problem, this is what I think we should do.' Most of the time, the plan they have is the right choice."

To put this level of confidence in staff, it's important to follow careful hiring practices in the first place. "Hiring quality people is one of the key factors in our success," say Moss. "We actively hire interns every year out of Texas A & M. These frequently turn into long-term employees. This has enabled us to hire some real shining stars."

"I look for people who share my values," says Engelhardt. "My background is in engineering and I'm huge on efficiency and organization. I hire people who have similar standards. I also hire people who are dedicated to the big picture, which is the growth of our company. And I reward them for it."

All of these business owners cite employee reward systems as one key to their longevity, dedication, and company pride. Three years ago, Gary Moss brought in a consultant, Brad Hamm, who introduced the company to his system, Ownership Thinking. "This system helped our employees develop the attitude that we all have ownership in the company and its success," says Moss. "Almost half of our profits go back to employees, with a bonus system shared by everyone from the foremen on up."

"Every two weeks we have a company-wide staff meeting," Moss continues. "During meetings, all employees have a chance to discuss company operations, their successes . . . and their mistakes. What this did was make all employees accountable for their actions."

To do this, the company also had to instill an open-book policy on financial statements. "This took a huge leap of faith," says Moss. "Very few people want to show their supervisors what the company is making. But this helped employees realize why we have the company we do. We never work on Saturdays. We have a great participatory non-biased bonus system. We have the best equipment and safety gear. We're profit driven and customer service driven. Employees have an appreciation that, without profits, we wouldn't be able to have the work environment and structure we do."

While financial rewards are always a morale booster, Newman and Clark note that an up-beat work environment is also a powerful motivator. Their company has always built fun and humor into their business plan. "If you can't have fun at work you should probably find something else to do," says Clark.

A new employee dance contest (with a cash award!), regular picnics, and an annual sponge throw (how often do you get to throw a wet sponge at your supervisor?) are all part of work life at this company. At monthly staff meetings, Newman and Clark kiss the feet of the Employee of the Month . . . literally (a monthly newsletter captures this boot-kissing Kodak moment on film). Funny -- yes -- but it demonstrates something that all successful employers know: they didn't achieve victory alone.

Sharing in the success

All of these companies are award winners, some of them many times over. These owners recognize the fact that their employees have a share in this success. "When our company receives an award, anyone who was involved in the project will go to the awards banquet," says Moss. "They'll all go up on stage and have their photos taken. They're proud to work here."

"Employee morale is extremely important," says Newhard. "There are some people who do great work but don't necessarily want to move up the ladder. They are still very valuable to the company. I have some like this who have been with me for almost 20 years. This is because we treat them all well -- no matter what step they are on the ladder. We need them all."

Moss agrees that employee morale is about much more than money. "If people leave a company in this business, it's not usually for more money. It's for job security and a positive working environment. These people do good work. They deserve recognition. At the end of the day, they want someone to pat them on the back and say, 'Well done'."