|By ELIZABETH LEXAU|
It’s time to think spring. Sure, warm weather is still a few months away for most of the country, but for irrigation professionals now is the time to plan for a smooth, successful spring start-up season.
Spring start-up includes some fairly straightforward maintenance procedures. But doing the job right involves more than technical know-how. For the owner of the company or the manager of an irrigation division, it also involves planning, logistics, good communication and all of the other essentials of quality business management.
James Watkins is vice president of All Green Lawn Care, an Indianapolis, Indiana-based landscape and irrigation firm. The company, whose irrigation division specializes in renovation of older systems, provides spring maintenance services to about 110 customers. For him, spring start-up offers a chance to connect with clients, learn about their needs, and keep them satisfied.
“Any call to a customer is an opportunity to make that customer happy,” says Watkins. “We don’t get a lot of service calls during the summer. Our business basically consists of renovations, spring start-ups and fall shutdowns. I make sure we do a good job during the spring, so they don’t need to call us in the summer. So spring is a chance for us to connect with that customer.”
Offering high quality spring maintenance services is a valuable way to grow a business. Sometimes the first contact a business has with a new client is a request to turn on their irrigation system. Doing a thorough, professional job often brings more business from the same client.
“Spring starts are something we are always looking to do more of,” says Patrick Behnke, who with his wife Kerry, owns and operates Omaha, Nebraska-based Lawn-Drinks Irrigation. “Each spring, starts will lead to other business over the summer and eventually a fall shutdown. The most important thing is to do them quickly and to do a good job. If you do, they will always lead to more.”
Not everyone wants to have this service done professionally. As Eric Chapman, operations manager for Full Maintenance Gardening and Landscape in Kenmore, Washington, points out, supporting those customers who decide to do their own spring start-up can also be important for business.
“We do have some handy customers who have asked and been trained by us to perform their own start-ups,” says Chapman. “While it may seem that this would be taking away from our business, we find in fact that the more involved customers are with the process, the more aware they are of little things that need repair or upgrading. This actually helps our business, because they usually have us do that work.”
Attention to detail
How much your company gets out of this season depends on how much you put into it. You can cover all the bases and stop there. Or you can go the extra mile.
The basic process typically consists of:
Safely reintroducing water to the system
Checking each valve for proper operation
Performing a walk-through of the system to visually inspect each zone for breaks, leaks, and other problems
Clearing the area around sprinklers and making adjustments as needed
Checking and cleaning the rain sensor if available
Programming the controller
Going the extra mile means developing a thorough knowledge of your customers’ irrigation systems and the unique issues presented on their site. It means keeping up with the latest technology and offering your clients appropriate guidance when it comes to changes and upgrades. It also means developing a relationship with your customers based on honesty and integrity, so that when you suggest repairs and upgrades, they’ll know you always have their best interest in mind.
Logistics and scheduling are often one of the trickiest parts of spring start-up. You can make sure you handle this professionally by planning ahead, knowing how to prioritize and carefully managing customer expectations.
“We do our spring start-ups in Nebraska from April 15 to May 15,” says Behnke. “Last spring we did 350 and it grows each year, so we expect around 400 this year. Like winterizations in the fall, it is very challenging to get everyone scheduled and done in a timely manner, and we work very long hours. We try to assign a couple of our more experienced employees to do nothing but start-ups.”
For Chapman, whose spring start-up season runs from mid- March to mid-April, milder weather helps provide a buffer. “In the Pacific Northwest, spring weather is usually fairly forgiving in terms of irrigation. We don’t go from cold, rainy, and 50° to hot, dry, and 85° overnight.”
Even so, knowing how to prioritize will smooth out any scheduling problems that do occur. “We prioritize customers primarily by new installations, soil type, and plant requirements,” says Chapman. “Any customers who had plants installed over the previous fall or winter (either by us or by another company), get turned on first to protect that investment. Customers with sandy soils or sand-based lawns usually come next, due to the replenishment requirements of this soil type. Those with clay-based soils are usually done toward the end of our list. This requires good knowledge of soil types and plant material in our customer’s landscapes. We try to learn about this in the very first weeks we take on an account.”
Just because the calendar says it’s spring, don’t assume that all customers want to start irrigating. “We typically start around April 15 and finish around May 15,” says Watkins. “But we have a few customers who want us to do it later in the year.” Taking the time to get to know your customers and their wants can help you spread the word around. You can accommodate them and give yourself some breathing room at the same time.
Educating customers on the best time to do the work can also be important. “Some folks like to turn on their sprinkler systems too early in the spring,” says Behnke. “We never recommend this because we often see a freeze here in early April.” A late freeze can damage the system, meaning a costly repair that can put a damper on customer relations—even when it was the customer who wanted the early start. To prevent this, Behnke takes time in the fall to remind customers not to jump the gun at the first sign of spring.
Extremely hard winters or other unusual circumstances can throw a monkey wrench into things. Extra winter damage can require extra time on each site, slowing down the whole process. During the winter, plan ahead by paying attention to the weather and staying on top of any other factors that could impact your clients.
“For us, anything that goes wrong in a start-up usually involves winter damage or construction,” says Chapman. “Just this spring we had construction damage from a septic installation and a home addition. There were broken lateral lines and sprinkler heads from falling trees, and a great deal of lateral and mainline damage caused by the cable company’s installation of a city-wide fiber optic system. The damage from the construction required complete system replacement in both cases, which we sub-contracted out, while we kept busy for weeks repairing the wind and cable company damage.”
Excellent communication with customers is critical during this stressful time. There’s nothing more frustrating for a customer who is waiting for service than not being able to contact the company to get a realistic timeline. Sometimes, all a customer needs is a simple reassurance that he’s on your radar screen. Having a pleasant voice there to tell him this is invaluable.
At LawnDrinks, Kerry Behnke handles the phone calls and scheduling. “Our customers love her excellent customer service,” says Pat Behnke. “It’s very important to make sure the first person the customer talks to is good at their job and can make a good first impression.”
You’re the expert
Spring start-up is always a time to look for problems that need repair. But many contractors go the extra mile by evaluating the system’s overall efficiency and performance, and appropriately sharing their knowledge with their customers.
“We try very hard to keep up on the latest irrigation technology and pass it along to all our irrigation customers,” says Chapman. “With water costs rising, any improvement in water use efficiency can usually be sold as paying for itself, which achieves the two happy goals of lower water bills for the customer, and more sales for us.”
Again, knowing your customers and their standards is helpful here. “The majority of my customers are very picky about their irrigation systems,” says Watkins, who frequently recommends water-saving methods like matched precipitation sprinklers and longer, less frequent watering schedules. “They like to conserve water. I have some that will replace every head in the lawn if they know it will save water.”
Whether you’re recommending repairs or suggesting new water-saving devices, how your customers receive your suggestions often depends on the relationship you’ve already built with them. “If I come to a customer with an issue, he almost always tells me to go ahead with it,” says Watkins. “They know that I’m not going to come to them with it unless it’s important.”
The fact that Watkins is also a licensed lawn care technician also gives him credibility that backs up his suggestions. “A lot of my customers like that I can also diagnose other problems in the lawn, not just the watering issues. If there are problems, I don’t try to sell them a solution, I advise them. If they want to go with our system, great; if not, at least I know I’ve given them the information they need. But most do go with us because they know I’m not always trying to sell them something.”
Your best foot forward
At its simplest, spring start-up can be thought of as a step-by-step set of procedures to follow. But a thorough, professional job involves much more. “It’s very important that our service guys are well-trained, have good customer service skills, a good appearance and do the job right the first time,” says Behnke.
Chapman agrees. “This is the biggest reason why there are only two people in our company entrusted to do this type of work. Doing it by the numbers is only half the job. Anybody with some mechanical ability can make water come out of the ground. To do a thorough job, you have to know the operation of all the different types of equipment and know your site details (soil, plant material, topography, micro climate, system limitations). This type of dedication, knowledge and experience is very hard to come by.”
Watkins requires employees to participate in a season’s worth of apprenticeship. “I want them to know my standards and to know that the customer is the most important part of this service.” He treats the health of his customers’ lawns very personally. “Lawn care is nothing but farming,” he says. “My crop is their lawn. I want to take care of my crop.”
Companies who treat the job of spring start-up with care and professionalism can expect it to work for them throughout the year with happy customers who are quick to spread the word. “Word of mouth is the best advertising for us,” says Behnke. “We are honest and do good work. That gets us a lot of customers.”