Oct. 30 2018 06:00 AM

Keeping your existing client base happy is the key to a thriving business. HERE’S HOW TO DO IT.

When my husband and I bought our house, one of our inheritances was the previous owner’s pool service. After a few incidents such as black algae left untreated and a pool vacuum left in pieces poolside with no explanation, I called the company to tell them we no longer required their services.

“Okay!” chirped the woman who answered the phone. That was it — no questions about why we were firing them, nor any attempt to try and deal with our complaints. No one called us later to follow up, either. Needless to say, that company needed to do some work on its client retention strategies.

To stay in business and thrive, you need to pursue new customers. But you also need to hang onto the clients you already serve and make them the priority.

“Keeping your old clients is even more important than landing new ones,” says William Eastman, a senior consultant with the GreenMark Consulting Group. “For one thing, it costs five times more to acquire new accounts than to service current ones.”

Doug Murphy, general manager at Todd’s Services, Hamburg, Michigan, agrees. “Absolutely,” he says. “First, you’ve got the marketing costs. You take those costs, divided by the number of leads that come in, divided by what your closing percentage is, usually around 32 percent. We did the math, and it showed that every new customer we get costs us around $200 apiece.”

Eastman says that, while you should of course keep seeking new clients, realistically, you and your competitors have a finite pool from which to draw. Therefore, your primary focus should be on “account penetration,” gaining more of an existing client’s landscape budget by upselling him new services. “By doing that, you have a lower cost of sales and improved margins,” he says. “Most analyses of customer experience indicate that.”

Eastman tries to get all of his clients to view customer service as an extension of sales. Jason Cromley, co-owner and president of Hidden Creek Landscaping Inc., Columbus, Ohio, understands this. “We follow up with a client after we finish a project. We took the time to build a relationship during that whole process, and the last thing we want to do is just walk away.”

As Cromley puts it, a sale isn’t just another transaction; what his company is really selling is a relationship and an investment. “That’s why we do a full-court press on a project as soon as we finish.”

Once a project is over, it’s turned over to the maintenance division. “We want to stay on-site for as long as they’ll allow us, making sure that the irrigation’s working the right way, that the grass is getting cut the right way, and that the plants are being pruned and fertilized.”

This is exactly what Eastman is talking about. “View branding, marketing, sales and service as part of the same process, preferably managed by the same person. Put as much energy into the customer’s experience of doing business with you as you would put into sales or installation.”

Map the touch points

Smart companies will map out a client’s touch points — the places where a customer interacts with the company, says Eastman. These touch points are the basis by which he forms an opinion about your company, good or bad.

Anytime a customer interacts with you or one of your employees is a touch point — when he calls your office, talks to one of your crew members on-site, or when someone from your company calls him. Once you’ve identified your company’s touch points, make sure someone is responsible for managing every one of them.

When someone phones Outdoor Makeover and Construction in Atlanta, he speaks to Kathryn Sperry. She understands how important every phone interaction is. “Everyone that calls is a very important customer or customer-to-be,” she says.

“We need all of our business and all of our clients,” Sperry says. “I know how much money it costs to make that phone ring.”

A friendly, effusive woman with a smile in her voice, Sperry is exactly the sort of person you’d want answering your phone. As office manager, she’s also the ombudsperson for any complaints. “A cancellation, or a slight inkling there’s not a happy experience going on, I’m the first one to deal with it. I confront issues, I don’t run away from them.”

After a customer has a meeting with one of Outdoor Makeover’s consultants about a project, she asks for feedback. “I want to know what the customer’s experience was. If I see from my customer relations management software that it’s been three days since the appointment and we haven’t heard anything, I’ll go ahead and give him a call. I also send handwritten follow-up notes once a week.”

Feeding on feedback

Dave Underwood, “president, chief cook and bottle washer” of Chesapeake Irrigation & Lighting, Millersville, Maryland, believes in reaching out and asking for customer feedback. “That’s one of the biggest things we do to keep our clients. It’s about giving them avenues to communicate with us, either directly to our field staff, or through online customer surveys, so they can tell us what we’re doing right, what we’re doing wrong and what we can improve on.”

Craig Prunty, owner of All Oregon Landscaping Inc., Sherwood, Oregon, also believes that no client should be left behind. “We take care of our customers,” he says. “If they have any requests or needs, they’re able to get hold of our office immediately and get a resolution and a day we’ll be out there to fix it.”

He credits his high rate of client retention to his equally high level of employee retention. “We’ve got a great staff of well-trained people that’ve been with us for several years that are passionate and professional and care about what they do. We have a lot of high-end clients, and they see that. They really like the feeling that they’re being well taken care of.”

This sort of thing goes a long way in keeping clients both new and old happy. But when these touch points are fumbled, when someone from your company only calls a customer when it’s time to collect money, is rude or fails to follow up on a complaint or a request, let’s just say it does not bode well for the continuance of that relationship.

Dog biscuits and newspapers

When it comes to client/company relations, Eastman says the little things add up. “The research is clear,” he says. “The best way to win the customer service game is by being just 1 percent better moment to moment.” Home runs aren’t necessary; singles are more effective.

“If you have 20 customer touch points in your marketing-sales-installation-service process, and you handle them all well, that one percent times 20 makes you 20 percent better than the competition,” says Eastman.

Murphy teaches his technicians and landscape crew members to go above and beyond the call of duty. “If the garbage cans are empty, bring them up to the house,” he says. “If there’s a newspaper lying in the driveway, put it on the front porch.”

“The other day, a whole bunch of Milk Bone dog biscuits arrived at our office,” continues Murphy. “They were for our lead manager, who keeps boxes of them in his truck so he can ask, ‘Do you mind if I give your dog a Milk Bone?’ We really try and make a connection with the homeowners as well as with their pets. We do these little things to develop a relationship and, quite honestly, respect.”

Besides tossing Fido a treat, there are many other little things that build customer loyalty. Waiving a service charge, for example. “You should always consider how much money they’ve spent with you over the years and how loyal they’ve been to you,” says Murphy.

“Maybe the client is the one who broke that sprinkler head, ran it over with his car. In theory, there should be a truck charge along with the time and materials, but if it’s a longtime customer that’s always been good to us, sometimes we’ll waive the truck charge.”

Many contractors dread the day they’ll have to raise prices for fear of chasing away clients.

Prunty recently had to raise his prices, but because of the relationships he’s built with his clients over his 29 years of business — some have been with him that entire time — he didn’t lose a single one.

A client who jumps ship when faced with a price increase may have been unhappy with your company’s service for a while but may never have voiced it. When the increase comes, it gives him an excuse to dump you.

“When you provide customers with no difference between you and the competition, they resort to the only tangible measure available — price,” says Murphy. “If their service experience was just average, people don’t feel compelled to leave but have no reason to stay. If someone else gives them the same deliverable with the same service experience at a lower price, why stay?” But if instead they remember the high level of service, the picked-up newspapers, the waived truck charges and yes, the dog biscuits, they’ll probably stick around.

Handling the unhappy customer

Word of mouth is a two-edged sword. One happy client can result in many more. Conversely, one person’s bad service experience can ruin future sales opportunities in an entire neighborhood.

“Never forget that on average, a dissatisfied customer will tell nine other individuals and destroy any marketing efforts you have under way,” Eastman warns.

We don’t live in a perfect world, however, and mistakes will be made. It’s what you do when they happen that will make all the difference.

“We have 104 people working for us,” says Cromley. “I would love to sit here and tell you, ‘I’ve never heard a complaint.’ We just try to make sure that we have enough staff in place to handle any problems.”

In his experience, it’s not enough to simply react to a customer’s concern. “Say someone calls and says, ‘I have a dead plant.’ You send someone out, he finds that one dead plant, then heads for his truck. If the client stops him and asks, ‘Did you look in the back yard, ’cause there’s another one back there, too,’ the guy will typically say, ‘Well, no. You just said there was one in the front.’” To prevent such scenarios, Cromley trains his people to be proactive. “Listen to the customer, and yes, fix the problem, but go beyond that. So, if Mrs. Jones calls and says, ‘I have a dead plant,’ don’t just run out and replace it. Call Mrs. Jones, discuss the dead plant and when you get to her house, take a good look around.”

He adds, “Take off your blinders! Walk the whole site. You’ll see plenty of other things that need attention. You may get way more work than simply replacing that one plant.”

Can clients who’ve left you ever be won back? Eastman says yes. “Through personal touch, reengaging with that customer and honestly exploring why they were less than satisfied,” he says. “Offer an apology for what was your fault and wasn’t handled well at the time. It will blow them away — nobody has the courage to go back and own their mistakes.” Even if you fail, the lesson learned will impact how you manage service in the future.

Think of your relationships with your existing clients as bricks in the foundation of your business. As you add new bricks, make sure there are no cracks in that foundation. Do that, and you’ll build a mighty edifice that will stand the test of time.

Dealing with bad reviews on social media sites

Once upon a time, a miffed client would write a letter or leave an angry phone message, and that was usually the end of it. But in the digital age, one nasty review on Yelp, Google, Angie’s List or other website has a ripple effect far beyond the complainer’s normal sphere of influence.

“Online reviews can be life or death,” says Dave Underwood, owner and president of Chesapeake Irrigation & Lighting, Millersville, Maryland. “Anybody with a social media account can scream from the mountaintops. It doesn’t take many of those to really affect your reputation. If a negative review comes through, we react immediately, through a call, an email or an online, public response.”

Jason Cromley, co-owner and president of Hidden Creek Landscaping Inc., Columbus, Ohio, says, “We told a lady we couldn’t put a tree in for her because we just couldn’t do it. Well, she just destroyed us on social media. We hadn’t done anything wrong; we just told her that within the time frame she gave us, we couldn’t get it done. But to her that was unacceptable.”

How do you fight something like that? “You have to overprovide for those people who already like you to counteract the people who will never be happy no matter what you do for them,” Cromley says. That gets you more five-star reviews, which eventually cause the ones and twos to drop off.

Have someone monitor review sites and flag negative posts. If possible, the person who wrote it should be contacted and at the very least, an explanation posted as to how you tried to resolve the problem.

Hidden Creek uses a marketing company to handle its online reviews. If a negative one comes in through social media or the company website, it’s handled within 12 hours and a plan of attack is made immediately.

Online reviews are a fact of life in 2018, and they aren’t going away. “We push reviews,” Cromley says. “Our clients get surveys emailed to them at the end of a project, can rate it good, bad or indifferent, and we post them.” In fact, the company gives $25 Starbucks gift cards to any customer who posts a review. A nice gift tends to make it harder to leave catty comments.

The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at maryvillano@igin.com.