Growing Your Business with Maintenance

3_7.jpgHomestead Landscaping, Bondeville, Vermont, found this out first-hand in the late 1980s when a construction boom exploded in the area. The company had a perfect plan to grow its business. Homestead took on numerous new accounts, signing on with multiple developers to install landscaping at their new developments. The company was positioned to capture a huge amount of local business, and profit.

Then disaster struck: most of the developers suddenly went under. Homestead lost a staggering amount of money. The company found itself in trouble, because its business partners were in trouble. Houses sat on their lots, half-constructed, untouched for months, and Homestead went for several years with few new installations. Financially, the company should have been teetering on the brink of oblivion. But it survived.

"Maintenance saved us," says Tamatha Blanchard, current owner and president, then bookkeeper, "Especially commercial maintenance. We might not have been doing installations, but people needed us to maintain the $10,000 landscapes they already had. The money from those jobs is what got us through." Today, maintenance -- together with snow removal -- comprises about 50% of Homestead's business.

Such stories are not uncommon among landscape companies that offer maintenance. A robust, growing maintenance division makes for a robust, growing company. As Homestead discovered, whatever else may happen, maintenance means there's always some money coming in, providing a sturdy crutch to fall back on when the construction business slows down. It also provides a steady income revenue stream. "Maintenance rounds out your design/build business," says Eric Peterson, project manager for Confidence Landscaping, Campbell, California. "It allows you to offer a full menu of services to customers."

Maintenance both completes and complements your range of services. Customers like having a 'one-stop shop,' one company that can fulfill all of their landscaping needs. Plus, what better way to guarantee that a newly installed landscape is going to survive than to offer to maintain it yourself?

In fact, the maintenance business is so good, many companies choose to do it almost exclusively. "If you rely on installations, you're always having to chase after new accounts," says Maurice 'Moe' Pelissier, owner of Lawn Moe, Epping, New Hampshire. "One or two slow months and suddenly you can barely afford to pay your employees. I prefer to focus on maintenance. It's steady, stable, month-to-month income that I can depend on."

Whether you're primarily a design/build firm looking to beef up your maintenance division, or a dedicated maintenance provider, the benefits of having a strong maintenance business are easy to see; the challenge lies in building it. However, by focusing on a few specific aspects of growth -- such as getting new customers and increasing your service offerings -- implementing a plan to grow your business can be a snap. With the winter slow season upon us, now's the perfect time to lay the groundwork for such a plan.

4_3.jpgMore customers, more opportunities

Probably the most common way to increase your customer base is through word-of-mouth referrals. Once a client knows and likes your services, he can recommend you to his neighbor, who recommends you to his brother, who recommends you to his neighbor, and so on. The problem is that this is a passive way for you to generate business -- the effort falls on your customers. They're the ones that have to actively recommend you. How can you get them to do this? Simple -- provide the kind of service they will want to recommend.

"We spend very little money on media advertising. Most of our new business comes from referrals," says Blanchard. "We rely on our ability to service customers, and out-service our competition."

Out-servicing the competition can be a surprisingly simple thing to do. Talk to any group of consumers and you're likely to hear many of the same complaints about service providers: they're late, if they show up at all; they don't call back in a timely manner, if they call back at all; they don't come out for emergencies.

A contractor who shows up every time, on time, and calls back quickly is sure to stick in a client's head. Naturally, you're extremely busy, and customers realize that, but a little extra effort towards returning phone calls more promptly, for example, will go a long way towards making a good impression.

Addressing problems in a timely manner is key as well. Peterson says his company prides itself on having same day or next day service in emergency situations. "If it's important, we'll go out on a Sunday morning to fix it," he says. "We've gone out in the middle of severe rainstorms to cut up and remove trees that have fallen." Now that's service.

Unfortunately, no matter how good your service is, and how many customers you get through word-of-mouth referrals, if you're making a concerted effort to grow your business, you can't rely on clients alone. You have to actively sell yourself, as well.

Aaron's Greenscape, Winnebago, Illinois, started off in the late '80s with just $500. Today, the company is worth hundreds of thousands dollars. It couldn't have gotten there without active marketing. "You can't grow without selling, and just putting an ad in the phone book doesn't get sales," says Aaron Fulrath, owner. While it is important to have an ad in the phone book, Fulrath is right: marketing doesn't end there. So what can you do?

Many contractors advertise in newspapers, a fairly efficient way of reaching large numbers of potential clients. However, newspapers also reach large numbers of people who have no interest in being your clients, and can be crowded with landscape contracting ads offering the exact same services you do.

"Everyone and their brother is in the newspaper. You can't stand out," Pelissier says. "We use the newspaper in a different way. We watch the real estate section for new homes sold, and then send out direct mail postcards to those homes."

The more you think about it, the cleverer the concept seems. Because you can see how much the home sold for, you can narrow your marketing efforts to only those homes who can afford your service. Plus, because new homeowners may be unfamiliar with the area, they probably don't have service providers yet. You're not wasting your money reaching hundreds of people who aren't interested in what your business offers; instead, you're spending money to reach people who have the highest likelihood of hiring you. "We're cutting competitors off at the pass,"D says Pelissier.

Even without looking in the newspaper first as Pelissier does, sending out direct mail postcards or brochures to certain target neighborhoods can have a high degree of success. You're lowering your costs by mailing to fewer people, instead of the entire city, while raising the likelihood you'll see results, because you're hand-picking neighborhoods that are the most likely to hire you.

As the internet becomes a larger and larger part of modern life, having a website is another great way to generate business. Customers can shop around, at work or home, quickly and easily, to find the best contractor to suit their needs, without having to pick up the phone. It's convenient for them, and can cost you very little.

When creating a website, remember that you want to look as professional as possible. This usually means hiring an experienced web designer. The more professional and established you look, the more confidence people will have in your skills. For example, instead of putting a single landscape photograph on your homepage, which can make you appear one-dimensional, try having a special flash animation created for you that will cycle through multiple photographs. This shows off the range of your abilities, and the variety of landscapes that you deal with.

Looking as professional and established as possible is good advice overall, not just for your web presence. "Get t-shirts for your workers, and have your trucks professionally lettered," advises Pelissier, who says he considers his truck to be a traveling billboard, advertising his services wherever he goes. Peterson agrees: "It's our hope that people driving by will see one of our landscapes, and be impressed by it, then see our trucks out front, with our phone number and website printed on them."

Even your company name can have an impact on your marketing campaign. "Cars drive by on the highway and see the name 'Lawn Moe,' and end up laughing," says Pelissier. "It makes them smile, and then sticks in their heads."

Add services to add customers

This winter will mark Pelissier's first season offering snow removal services. "I've got some residential accounts, and some industrial accounts, and all in all, I expect to do well," he says. While some of Pelissier's success will depend not on himself, but on Mother Nature, he seems confident in his decision, as well he should.

Growing numbers of landscape contractors are finding a great deal of success maintaining roadways and sidewalks during winter. Some have come to depend on their snow and ice removal services as a mainstay of their businesses, helping them to keep their employees and continue paying for equipment and other expenses all year round.

Adding additional services such as snow and ice removal to your repertoire is an excellent means of growing your business. The greater the number of services you offer, the greater the odds that any given potential client is going to need one of them. But added services don't only attract new customers -- existing customers may be willing to pay for the convenience of a few more services as well.

While it seems that everyone these days is talking about winter services, your portfolio of service options doesn't have to be strictly seasonal. For example, Peterson's company, with its sunny California location, doesn't have the option of offering snow removal services. With snow removal out of the question, it had to get creative to expand its service offerings and grow the business.

The company now offers a mole and gopher control service, which is doing well. Few contractors in the area offer this service, because it requires having an employee with a special certification, which the company was lucky enough to find.

Maintaining irrigation systems year-round is another natural step for a maintenance division. Sprinkler heads need to be realigned or replaced, controllers need to be adjusted, and seasonal shut-downs and start-ups need to be performed.

You might also consider offering fertigation services. A fertigation unit delivers fertilizer to a landscape through the irrigation system whenever the system is run. This regular supply of fertilizer keeps landscapes lush, and maintaining the fertigation system by replacing the bottle of fertilizer every few months gives you yet another profit center.

Clients with landscape lighting will need to have those systems maintained as well -- bulbs changed, lenses cleaned, lamps adjusted, foliage trimmed. Unique service offerings such as fertigation or mole control serve to distinguish your company from your competition. You may be one of the only contractors in your area to offer such a service, meaning if a customer wants the benefits of having such a service, he has few choices but to come to you.

"We aspire to be a high-end service provider," says Fulrath. "We don't just offer fertilization; instead, we have an organic fertilizer program. We offer services that others don't -- this puts a distinction on us, and allows us to charge a little more."

While customers may initially balk at a higher price as compared to other companies in the area, many are easily swayed when you explain to them how much more they're getting for the extra money.

You might not be the cheapest, but your services and quality are unmatched. Comparing you to other companies isn't comparing apples to apples, and you need to educate your clients to that fact.

As you grow, you'll find yourself having to delegate more and more tasks to the employees you've hired -- you can't wear all the hats all the time. To make sure these qualified employees stay with you over the long term, it's important to make sure you're rewarding them appropriately. While every business has some turnover, keeping workers happy is the best way to ensure that they stay.

"Growing your maintenance business isn't about being the biggest company in your area, or having the newest equipment," says Blanchard. "It's also about rewarding your people. If you take care of your customers and your staff, the rest falls into place."

It's a good quote to remember. If you follow that simple credo, your business can't help but grow.