Rich Angelo’s people are learning how to write. For six solid weeks, for two hours each weeknight, they meet with an English teacher, drafting make-believe letters to make believe people, learning formalities, style guidelines and basic writing skills such as spelling and grammar. No, Angelo’s people aren’t screenwriters- in-training; they’re employees of Stay Green, Inc., Angelo’s Valencia, California-based landscape company.
Though his employees aren’t required to sit in a classroom nearly every evening drafting countless fake letters, nevertheless, here they are. Their goal is to learn how to sound more professional when writing letters to clients—something that’s done on a regular basis in the landscape contracting world.
“A lot of people don’t realize just how important being articulate really is,” says Angelo, “especially in a professional setting. If your speech doesn’t sound professional, your client won’t perceive you as being such. So we decided to set up a class.”
This was the first class Stay Green has offered on its own, but the company encourages outside education as well. “We have a very liberal policy on employees going to classes,” says Angelo. “We’ll have people taking classes on things like pest control and turf. We’re always pushing them to educate themselves in different ways.”
Other landscape companies, such as Property Masters, Inc., in Marietta, Georgia, hold weekly meetings for employees, covering everything from safety to different types of plant material to how to prevent clients from cancelling their contracts. Property Masters’ president, Kyle Cooper, says training is crucial when it comes to ensuring that your company provides quality maintenance for its clients. “I need my workers up-to-date on landscaping skills so they can do the best job possible,” says Cooper. But that’s only one facet of a much larger picture. That picture is quality maintenance.
The fact is, if you’re interested in running a successful company, quality maintenance is a necessity. Making sure your employees know what they’re doing is just the first step. Spotting situations before they become problems, making sure your equipment is up to par, building sturdy relationships with your clientele, maintaining a clean, professional image—these are all components of one grand equation that, if calculated correctly, should yield you a thick slice of net profit. If you’re thinking about starting a landscape maintenance division, or if you already have one but feel there’s room for improvement, it pays to know what goes into quality maintenance.
Get to know your customers
Being an active presence in your business builds the relationship between you and your clients. It lets them know you’re not only hands-on, but that you truly care about maintaining a good landscape, and nothing is more important than keeping your customer base satisfied.
“Remember that your customer is your best possible salesperson,” says Cooper, whose company markets itself strictly through customer referrals. “The best strategy to get new clients is through word of mouth. Obviously, if you do a good job on one person’s property, they’ll tell their friends. If they tell their friends and their friends tell their friends, you can keep your advertising costs down to a minimum.”
But simply doing a decent job isn’t everything. Establishing good communication between you and your clients is absolutely necessary if you want to build a long-lasting relationship with them. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes: when it comes to their landscape, they want someone they know, someone they can depend on. As they get to know your staff and recognize the quality of the work you do on a regular basis, their trust will build. It makes sense, then, if your staff is going through any shakeups, that you keep your clients in the know.
“Say your foreman is leaving after a number of years of working at the same property,” says Cooper. “You’ll want to let your clients know ahead of time, because this is probably someone they’ve learned to trust and depend on.” Leave suddenly and without a lot of notice and that trust can be compromised.
Offering your clients the chance to give testimonials is also an effective way to build communication. Hearing what a client has to say about the quality of the work your staff performs can be a great learning tool. It lets you know what you’re doing right and where you have room to improve. Also, testimonials can offer your employees the incentive they need to do their very best work. “For every good testimonial letter our employees get, that person gets an added $20 bonus,” says Cooper. “Those bonuses go a long way, so our guys will do whatever they can to make the client as happy as possible.”
Your clients typically have a certain aesthetic in mind when it comes to how they want their landscapes to look, but they may not always have the budget to get it as picture-perfect as they want. Homeowners are trying to scale back on expenditures due to rising prices.
Homeowner associations are also feeling the pinch due to the increasing number of foreclosures.
“In most cases, the major expenses for a large homeowners association are on their landscape and water,” says Angelo. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that because people aren’t paying their mortgages, the property owner’s budget is going to fall short. The landscape is probably the first place they’re going to look at to try to cut expenses.”
In these cases, it’s helpful to sit down with your client and spend extra time figuring out exactly what they can afford. Work directly with them to decide which areas of the property can get away with less work than others. Often, the back section of the property is a good place to start. “Because the back part of the property is less visible than the front, it might not be quite as important,” says Angelo. “So the back part can be maintained less frequently than the front.”
The last thing you want is to get outbid by another landscape company. Many companies will pander to the property owner’s low budget, offering rates at ridiculously discounted prices that you simply can’t afford to offer. The problem here is that clients will get what they pay for, and the level of quality these low-balling companies have to offer is usually poor. Here’s where loyalty comes into play. If you’ve consistently been there for your client, provided them with quality work and communicated well with them, they’re less likely to ditch you for another landscape company come the first sign of troubled water.
The perception of a company starts with the image it presents.
Everything from company uniforms to the company logo to the cleanliness of your vehicles matters. After all, these are the first things a property owner notices. Before they’ve even had a chance to see the quality of your work, your image is what clients will judge you on, so it’s important that you give an air of professionalism in the look you present.
“Uniforms are important for two reasons,” says Cooper. “First, our crews will always have a clean appearance, and second, when they come out to the property, our clients will know that they’re supposed to be there.” Crew members will typically be supplied with one collared shirt and one pair of khaki pants for every day of the week. Their shirts should include the company logo and colors as well as a name tag.
Bright colors are recommended. The more vibrant the crew member’s uniform, the easier it will be for others to spot him from a distance. This is not only helpful for when the property owners walk the site looking for you or your crews, it’s also an excellent safety device. “All of our employees wear safety green on their uniforms,” says Cooper. “Basically, they’re the color of a tennis ball. It’s really helpful for when they’re out near the roads. If they’re edging along the side of a street and a car’s going by, they’ll definitely be seen.”
Covering your bases
First, there are the most basic components of the job. Every day, you have to mow your clients’ lawns, prune the plants, spray for weeds and more. But in order to perform these everyday tasks, you need good working equipment. Take away your vehicles or let the mowing blades dull and your ability to perform these tasks well is severely hindered.
These kinds of setbacks can be prevented by checking the equipment on a daily basis. Change the oil in your trucks regularly and make sure they’re washed and free of rust. When it comes to your machines—whether you’re talking about trucks, mowers, skid steer loaders, anything that runs on an engine—listen for any out-of-the-ordinary sounds that might indicate there’s something wrong and address those problems immediately as they arise.
“Typically, what our mechanic will do if there’s a problem with a machine is he’ll bring it to our attention immediately,” says Cooper. “Then we’ll address whatever it is we can do to prevent it from happening again.” It’s also wise to invest in some back-up equipment. If a machine malfunctions, have a substitute available. “Clients don’t want to hear that you couldn’t do the job they were paying for because you didn’t have another machine,” says Cooper. “They hear that and your reputation drops.”
It is just as important to maintain smaller pieces of equipment. The blades in your mowers, for example, grow dull more rapidly than you might think. If you want a consistently nice, clean cut, sharpen the blades at least once a week.
Regular site visits can also nip minor problems before they become serious. Check for weeds popping out from crevices or unhealthy vegetation. Keep a special eye out for sprinkler heads that might get caught in lawn mower blades and cut off. Take a look at the irrigation controller and check to see that the time and watering schedules are correct.
One strategy you might try is to bring a service report with you every time you walk the property. Included on this service report could be a checkbox of all the services you’ve performed that day, all the spots on the site you need to assess and a spot on the bottom of the report for any additional comments you might wish to make. With a service report, you’re walking the site with what’s essentially a laundry list of everything you should be aware of on the property.
Know your employees
Every businessman knows he’d never get anywhere without the people that work for him. Your employees are the backbone of your company. If that backbone breaks, your company is essentially crippled. That said, it’s absolutely necessary that you keep your employees satisfied. Just as you would with your clientele, the more you work to build solid relationships with your employees, the more satisfied your employees will be with their job and the longer they will last.
There are a number of ways to make your employees feel comfortable. Offering benefits such as 401k and medical coverage are the obvious routes, but getting to know your employees on a one-to-one level is equally, if not more, effective. One approach you might take is sitting down with an employee once every six months or so and asking them what their goals are. Where do they see themselves in five years? How far do they see themselves climbing the company ladder? Are they looking for a position in management? Or are they happier where they are?
“It’s all a matter of knowing what people’s ambitions are,” says Cooper. “Just knowing that can be the biggest battle half the time. You don’t want your employees to harbor any hard feelings when a guy who’s been there for a shorter amount of time than they have becomes their manager.”
Hard work and loyalty should not go unrecognized, especially when it comes to employees who have been with you for a long time. Stay Green recently started handing out appreciation pins to employees who had been with them for 30 years. “We have some of the most reliable employees you could ever have,” says Angelo. “We think it has a lot to do with the respect we give them.”
In the end, ethics and integrity ultimately determine your company’s reputation. It’s all about treating your clients and your employees with respect. You give your clients the time they deserve, your employees the wages they deserve, and all of your investments are sure to pay off.