April 15 2020 08:12 AM

Use these 3 tips to prepare for the start of the busy season.

As spring kicks into full bloom, green industry professionals across the country are getting ready to take on peak season. To get the season off to a strong start and set up for a profitable summer takes plenty of preparation. Check out our top tips to make the most of the new season.

1. Build your team

Green Lawn Specialists in Lewis Center, Ohio, starts placing ads and running interviews in February each year to give time to try out the new employees before the toughest part of the season starts, Partner Philip Germann says. “The earlier the better,” he says. “We want to get a feel for what they’re like because we don’t want to be testing guys out in April. We want to test them in March before we get really busy.”

All potential hires at Green Lawn are rated on a scale from one to five based on how managers feel they match up in different categories. “So they might be a five in experience and skills, but only a one in appearance and presentation,” says Germann. Those scores are averaged to determine if a hire has what it takes to be a benefit to the company during the season.

Bringing on and training seasonal staff is one of the first steps in preparation for the new season for Vince Pusateri, sales representative for Buyansky Brothers Landscaping in Independence, Ohio. From a staff of about eight in the slow season, the company grows to about 28 in the ramp up to spring.

“We need to make sure we have the right manpower and H-2B workers here,” he says.

Photo: SiteOne Landscape Supply

Buyansky Brothers has been part of the H-2B temporary worker visa program for about 17 years at this point and has brought back the same workers for the last few years, Pusateri says. Those workers are already trained, and they know both the company and the region.

“They know what they’re doing,” he says. “They would have the opportunity to go somewhere else if they get called for work, but these guys wait for us because the company treats them well.”

The H-2B program hasn’t been reliable in the last few years due to caps on the available number of work visas. That reduction has slowed down season preparation for Robin Barber, owner of All Pro Landcare Services in Tallahassee, Florida, who relies on H-2B workers to prepare for the busy season.

“The biggest message I can say is that we need to release the visas,” Barber says.

He didn’t receive visas last year, and doesn’t feel optimistic about this year’s prospects especially with the complication of the coronavirus, he says. “The demands are so high for that type of labor.”

Beyond working with the H-2B program, Buyanski Brothers reaches out locally through services such as Indeed or through word of mouth to bring in prospective hires, he says. Labor shortages are still an issue, but the company makes it a point to look for employees who will stay on for the whole season, rather than just finding anybody to manage the spring rush.

“We’re looking for that experienced guy that has a few years under his belt that we could pretty much get on a mower and go,” Pusateri says.

Even if an employee is experienced, Pusateri is always pushing for additional training at some point during the year. “Training is a big thing,” he says. “I’m trying to get all of these guys into a couple classes.”

Ideally, training should be done later in the year or during off-season. The payoff for that training is a team that’s ready to go when spring starts.

2. Check your gear

Before the season gets started, all equipment gets checked by an in-house mechanic to make sure that everything’s ready to go once green-up starts, says Pusateri. At the top of the list is checking any kind of electrical connection, then moving on to oil, filter and blade changes. The mechanic also makes sure that the machines are properly greased, including any contact points, he says.

“It’s making sure that all of your working points, like your choke, your handles, everything’s working properly,” says Pusateri.

The trucks and trailers are emptied, and all electrical and mechanical connections are checked before the trucks are stripped and repainted.

Tearing the trucks down provides a useful opportunity to inventory all of the crews’ equipment, “all the way down to the drill bits” for hardscaping, Pusateri says. “We make sure we’ve got all our fittings for irrigation repair, heads and lighting.”

Inventory itself is a chance to make sure that each crew has what it needs to get the job done, from clippers to wheelbarrows, depending on the jobs that crew will be taking on.

Green Lawn uses a service to stock the irrigation parts it needs during the season, which keeps an inventory of what parts are used and bills the company as needed, Germann says. That way, the company doesn’t have to worry about managing inventory in the off-season.

“That’s been really huge for us,” Germann says. “Over the winter, they come in and go over all of our systems and parts and make sure everything’s there.”

Green Lawn has an equipment manager to deal with the lawn care side, including rigorously going over mowers before the season gets going to look at things like fluids and belts.

“That’s all done over the winter, so it should be ready to go,” he says. “We have a checklist for every piece of equipment that we go through.”

Photo: SiteOne Landscape Supply

While new equipment purchases are often a late season consideration, Chris Melo, director of account management and enhancements at Yellowstone Landscape in Albuquerque, New Mexico, spaces those costs out by buying in January and February, he says. Buying then also allows them to start the busy season with brand-new equipment.

“We spread our acquisitions out over the calendar year,” he says. “We do begin to make replacements of backpack blowers, line trimmers, lawn mowers – things that are rotated out and cycled in for new equipment.”

Equipment preparation includes general training for employees, whether new or returning from a previous season to make certain all employees are familiar with usage, says Pusateri. That also involves safety training for individual pieces of equipment and personal protective equipment.

“We do PPE training at the beginning of the season, and we offer all that throughout the season as well,” he says.

Buyansky Brothers invites manufacturer representatives to come in to do equipment walkthroughs, including proper usage and cleaning techniques, with details on how to work with replacement parts.

Equipment training is especially important for Barber as his company makes the switch to electric equipment, he says. In February, he had manufacturers visit to run workshops for his crews to familiarize them with the new equipment, including battery care and maintenance. It also gave them the chance to answer questions and deal with potential pushback from the crews.

“I didn’t want to put a machine in their hand that was foreign to them,” Barber says.

For Germann, crew training includes updates on the company’s job tracking and scheduling software. It takes a lot of effort to set up that software, but it’s only as good as the level of information that gets collected.

“(What’s) key for us is investing the time and energy to set the software up correctly, and then making sure that everybody on the team does the data entry correctly,” he says.

Beyond a training session on the software for all employees as the season is started, the company provides printed verions of software procedures that are kept in each truck for easy access in the field.

3. Connect with your customers

Client contact in spring starts with a phone call, just to reconnect, says Germann, with the second and third points of contact via email to remind customers to schedule service. Because the company doesn’t automatically renew any contracts, reestablishing that relationship is key to maintaining business. “We make sure that we touch base with every one of them.”

Though clients sometimes ask about it, the start of the busy season isn’t usually a point where Green Lawn does much upselling, says Germann.

“We’re just all-out in the spring,” he says. “We don’t have extra time or labor available.”

Instead, he pushes sales between November-January, and then again later in the season from July-October. “Those are kind of the big time periods that we’re trying to actively sell,” he says.

Winter doesn’t mean shutting down for the season in Florida, so Barber is consistently in front of his commercial customers to check in and upsell other projects. “Communication is the key to success,” he says. “We try to communicate with our customers on a regular basis.”

Photo: SiteOne Landscape Supply

New Mexico also deals with the winter ramping up into spring a little differently, with most projects already moving again by February, says Melo. Because the season runs for more of the calendar year, his account managers keep continued communication with customers. But as the season starts to warm up again, it’s a key time to talk to his customers about new projects like flower bed installations and irrigation controller upgrades.

“This time of year, January and February, we’re laying the groundwork with our customers to say, ‘What kind of enhancements are we looking at for spring?’” Melo says. Using that foundation, his account managers are able to start customers planning on irrigation investments for the first or second quarter of the year.

It’s important to have a general idea of when to reach out to customers for equipment servicing leading into the new year. But having a specific calendar can be even more effective, says Germann.

“We have an annual calendar that tells us when to start each particular task,” he says. “For irrigation, startup phone calls begin on March 15, so we know we have plenty of time to get those done before the season hits.”

Using a calendar takes some planning from year to year, but it also allows the sales and field teams to work together to spread the work out in a manageable way, he says. The entire season is mapped out on the company’s internal calendar, so each group knows what needs to be worked on and when it needs to be addressed.

Working with an internal calendar also allows the sales team to plan ahead and contact customers just as they’re likely to be thinking about particular services like prepping for the spring, Germann says.

Focusing on getting smaller jobs like edging and cleanup done earlier can also make a big difference in making sure crews have enough time for the larger maintenance tasks, says Germann.

“I’m always in contact with clients,” says Pusateri. Staying in touch with clients on a regular basis is helpful, but connecting before the busy part of the season kicks in provides an opportunity to talk about the potential for projects left over from previous seasons. This year, Buyansky Brothers is developing its lighting offerings, so Pusateri has been discussing the company’s programs in the lead-up to the new season.

“We started a few years ago, and we’ve had pretty good success, so we’re hoping this year to add at least another 25-30%,” he says.

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kylebrown@igin.com.