Times are tough and people everywhere are rising to the challenge by making do with less. Homeowners who’ve never lifted a rake or pushed a mower are suddenly turning into backyard doit-yourselfers. It’s really kind of heartwarming . . . unless, of course, they’re your customers.

In the face of tight budgets, customers are taking a careful look at dispensable services, and green industry providers everywhere are feeling the pinch. Some customers are looking for lower cost options. Some are eliminating maintenance services altogether.

To weather the storm, it may be tempting to do more jobs in less time by cutting corners on quality. But this can be a huge mistake.

Now is the time to solidify your reputation as a company that offers impeccable service no matter what. This will help you keep more customers, add new ones, and prepare to take full advantage of better times ahead.

Become indispensable

When clients grow to depend on outstanding customer service and attention to detail, it’s a lot harder for them to let go. Randal Wise, CLP, president of Greenkeeper’s Landscapes, Tulsa, Oklahoma, goes a long way to make sure his company is one that clients can’t do without.

Greenkeeper’s is a twenty-yearold full-service commercial and residential design and maintenance company. While the construction side of his business has slowed a bit during the current economy, the maintenance side hasn’t suffered. Wise says one reason for this is the focus on quality and customer service that has guided the company from the start.

“High quality means always being there when we say we’ll be there and giving customers more than what they expect,” says Wise. “It might be as simple as replacing a plant that looks bad even if it isn’t one we’re responsible for. If a client asks for something extra and it’s a little thing, we usually do it at no charge. We’re there anyway. The point is to give them more for their money.”

When his clients see those extras, they know they’re getting a good deal. This motivates them to renew contracts even when money is tight.

Wise says the little things make all the difference. “The details determine whether clients are really happy with what you do or are just tolerating you on their property.”

His clients appreciate a one-stopshopping approach. He positions his company as their go-to resource to help them connect with everything from home remodeling contractors to cleaning services.

“We belong to Business Network International. We often get into conversations with clients about other home-related problems they have. Because of our network, we’re able to connect them with skilled craftsmen or service providers who can help. We’ve also developed relationships with skilled masons, electricians, pool builders and the like.”

He only partners with people who provide the same level of service he does. “I make sure they can talk intelligently with clients, return phone calls, etc. When we find those people, we nurture those relationships. It’s all about helping our customers get what they want.”

Communication and feedback

Customer satisfaction is key, according to Shawn Graham, president of Clean Cut Property, Marion, Iowa. It begins with finding out what makes them happy. “It’s easier to approach customers and ask them if they’re happy than to wait for a call that says they’re not.”

His company checks on customers in multiple ways. “My manager goes out and checks properties every week,” says Graham. “My office manager calls customers once a month to make sure they’re happy with our services. We also do a customer satisfaction survey twice a year.”

Wise also puts a lot of time into finding out exactly what his clients want. “I might spend hours with a new client, making sure I understand exactly what they’re telling me. I make sure to repeat things back so I get a clear picture.”

To follow up, Greenkeeper’s uses a simple ‘How did we do?’ report for each job. “It’s a short one-page survey that asks them to rate us 1-10 and allows them to tell us what we’d need to do to be a 10,” says Wise.

This can be used for marketing and quality control. “Some reviews have been tremendously glowing beyond what we expected. We use those on our website and in our training meetings. We always let employees know when they get positive comments. When we get negative ones, we use them to see how we can do better. We want to make our clients raving fans.”

Choose customers wisely

Joe Leopard, owner of Joe’s Landscaping of Beavercreek, Inc., in Beavercreek, Ohio, says part of quality is finding clients who are a good fit for your company “In the last couple of years, we’ve been growing at a good clip,” says Leopard, whose company offers maintenance, landscaping, irrigation, snow removal and an array of other outdoor services. “In everything we’re asked to do we try to give at least ten percent more. That’s how we’ve grown. I’ve learned over the years that in order to do that, you not only have to have good employees, you have to have good customers.”

He looks for customers who know what they want and appreciate what his company can do. Not every client values such a high level of service. Some use excessive company time without actually making the company money. Determining who they are and avoiding them frees up time to give the best possible service to those who are a good match.

Graham also stresses a certain degree of selectivity when taking on new customers. “A lot of companies lose focus and take whatever comes through the door,” he says. “When I started my business I had to take what I could, but I quickly learned that if you want to grow, you should grow with the best customers you can pick up.”

He says screening people by phone helps. “We ask if they have a budget in mind. If we think it won’t be a good fit for us, we try to refer them to someone else.”

For Chris Strigle, president of Lawn Envy, Cummins, Georgia, geography plays a big role in whether a customer is a good fit. “I try to be as saturated as possible within a geographic area,” says Strigle. “You don’t make a penny loading up a truck and driving ten minutes to the next client.”

By wasting less time in travel, he has more time to give customers the service they expect and earns more profit from each job. “If you create a program that entices the neighbors of your current clients to sign up, you’ll be able to go from house to house to house making money the entire time.”

Strigle’s incentive program for residential clients reduces customer costs as additional neighbors sign on. “All clients are on an annual contract,” he says. “They pay full price if it’s one house by itself. If we can get a neighbor to sign up, both neighbors get a five percent discount each month. If we can get more, the discount goes up to ten or fifteen percent. Some people are very motivated. If you get the right client, they can get the whole neighborhood for you.”

Being available

Strigle stresses the importance of demonstrating quality in every customer interaction. It starts with being available to them. “Responding promptly to clients’ needs is critical,” he says. “If they tell me what they’re looking for, and I don’t respond within twenty-four hours, I’ve let them down.”

Current customers are the first priority. “With great marketing efforts you can gain a lot of new clients, but if you’re not keeping them happy, you’re going to lose them. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper to hold onto the clients you have than to find new ones.”

Being flexible is another way to demonstrate commitment to customers. “You have to be willing to make quick changes in your schedule,” says Wise. “For example, if a client has an upcoming party, they may ask us to come an extra time, do extra planting, or even help set up for the party.” While these changes can create a scheduling hassle, they advance the client relationship.

Flexibility can also mean working with valued customers to find ways to stay within their changing budgets, says Leopard. This doesn’t have to mean doing the same job for less money but agreeing on services they might temporarily do without.

“If you help them out, it will help you out when times are better,” he says. “You have to partner with them. It works for both of us.”

You gotta cut somewhere

There are many ways to reduce overhead and grow a company without losing focus on quality.

Leopard is a big believer in bringing in outside consultants to help analyze and streamline operations. “I like to have someone come in to take a look at what we’re doing and go through our procedures every year or every other year. A lot of people can see things that you can’t see.”

Leopard says expert help has been instrumental in his company’s success. He recommends analysts with a specific background in the landscaping industry. “They can be expensive, but you get your money back.”

Bidding jobs correctly in the first place is essential to ensuring quality and profitability, says Graham.

“A lot of people don’t know what they need to make on each job. Unless they know that number, they probably shouldn’t be bidding. I have a really good accountant. We sit down twice a month, identify a break-even number and set our rates based on the profit we need to make.”

Graham also saves money with an atypical schedule—a four-day work week with ten-hour days. This cuts down on fuel costs, overtime and other expenses.

“I saw how much money I was spending on overtime,” says Graham. “Then when gas was high I decided I could cut costs and find ways to get the same amount of work done at a cheaper price. It’s been a win/win for everyone. Working five days a week for 45 hours burns out employees and creates inefficiencies.”

Keep marketing

When major companies around Strigle began laying off employees, he knew losing some customers would be inevitable. Now, in addition to doing what it takes to keep current clients happy, he’s growing his customer base through more strategic marketing.

“I planned ahead for it,” he says.

“A lot of companies were hiding, saying ‘I’m not going to spend money on advertising this year because we can’t afford it.’ Instead I increased my marketing budget. I’ve actually been able to replace the customers I’ve lost and continue to grow by adding new ones.”

Part of Strigle’s plan involves greater emphasis on electronic marketing. This includes a website redesign for a more professional image and a concerted effort to drive traffic to the site through content and linking strategies.

“I’m a member of several professional associations and I’m checking to make sure my link and profiles are all up to date,” he says. “I participate in online forums and respond to questions. It’s another way to drop my web address in there. Even if people on the forum aren’t potential customers, Google sees all those links and ranks my page higher. I set up a Facebook Fan Page and a Twitter page, even though at one time I vowed I’d never do that. If it’s going to help my business, I’m all for it.”

Back to basics

Leopard says the best strategies for growth during tough times remain the simplest. “It’s not brain surgery. Be straight and honest. Maintain that integrity. Do a great job. Do what you say you’re going to do. That’s worked for us. We’re all looking at cutting costs, but those basics are the mainstay of any business.”