Oct. 19 2020 01:22 PM

Lock down next year’s contracts by developing customer relationships.

As falling leaves begin to cover the grass and greenery that you’ve laboriously cared for throughout the spring and summer months, it may seem like the time has finally come to sit back, relax and recount the successes of the busy season. But it’s actually time to get in front of customers and have important conversations about budgets, wish lists and capital improvements so you can have signed contracts in-hand before the year ends, while building and strengthening valuable customer relationships.

“It all boils down to communication, so stay in front of customers on a regular basis, whether commercial clients, residential clients or public works clients,” says Fred Haskett, principal of The Harvest Group, Wilton, Connecticut. “Stay in front of them in a positive way.”

As property managers typically finalize their budgets for the following season between late summer and early fall, it is imperative that you’re connecting with them to talk about the value and level of service you provide while putting proposals for next season’s work on the table.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic may make face-to face interactions challenging, using creativity to make a personal connection with clients is a critical step in maintaining and growing positive relationships. Whether via video call, phone call or in-person meeting, contractors should be discussing the pros and cons of the service they provided in 2020 and touting the value-added bonuses they provided at no cost.

“We give our clients a lot of free things, but we never really tell them about it, so sit down and do your own PR for how it went this year,” says Ken Thomas, principal of Envisor Consulting, Alpharetta, Georgia. “Tell your clients that you want to be a great provider in 2021 and ask them what they think you could have done better in 2020. We recommend this every year, a look back at the past and a look forward.”

This time is also ideal for completing what Haskett calls the “wish list walk,” a time to walk the property and develop a list of all the things that should or could be done.

“Evaluate the property from a needs standpoint,” Haskett says. “Are there hazardous trees or irrigation issues? Then get the client to give you an idea of what they would like to do. You provide them with proposals for that work and help them prioritize it to get it in the budget for the next year. That’s big in the commercial business.”

On the residential side, Haskett says the “wish list walk” should include a discussion about a la carte services like seeding and aerating, leaf removal, dormant pruning, rejuvenation pruning, holiday light installation, and winterization and fertilization for trees and shrubs. This is also the time to dust off capital improvement ideas that got buried last year and discuss whether they might fit into next year’s budget.

“What you’re really doing is having continuity of relationships,” Haskett says. “If you can maintain the relationship and find things you can do for the client in the off-season, it is revenue-enhancing, and you’re still maintaining that relationship.”

Staying in touch with customers through LinkedIn, by sending handwritten notes or by giving holiday gifts are other simple ways to solidify and grow client relationships.

“This is a relationship-based business,” Thomas says. “It’s all about goodwill.”

Know your costs, know your customers

While being in-tune with clients is always important, it is especially vital in the age of COVID-19 and the uncertainty it has introduced to the economy.

Haskett says contractors with a long list of residential clients should familiarize themselves with the main employers in town. If there is a large manufacturing plant that is planning layoffs, and a large population of residents work at the plant or ancillary support businesses, it is safe to assume that many clients will be looking to cut costs. Those with a large book of restaurant, retail mall or shopping center business can assume the same.

“Know your clients’ businesses and project how the economic pressures are affecting them, then determine your strategies and your pricing,” Haskett says. “Be aware of what is going on with your clients and businesses before you arbitrarily do a price increase. It’s a partnership, and you’re creating partnerships for the long term.”

Contractors who plan to implement price increases across the board will undoubtedly turn clients away in today’s market. A 95% retention rate could quickly turn to 80% or less with the wrong pricing strategy. That’s why Haskett encourages contractors to analyze jobs and know costs.

“If you know where you’re at in profitability in the job, you can evaluate if you can go another year without a price increase,” Haskett says. “Or, think about whether you can get the increase over a twoyear period instead of a one-year period.”

Realizing that there will be both commercial and residential clients who want to trim costs for next year and being prepared for that conversation is a solid strategy for approaching clients heading into 2021.

“We are talking to a lot of landscapers today and telling them they need to get proactive on ways they can value engineer the scope of work in 2021, because there is nothing we can do to cut prices without cutting scope,” Thomas says. “Everything has gotten more expensive in landscaping and irrigation, from materials to labor. We need to come to customers armed to deal with those wanting to cut costs, without giving up margin.”

Thomas suggests being prepared to present each client with two to three solid ideas for cutting costs. Offering one application of mulch instead of two, suggesting a half application of mulch instead of a full application and cutting back on flowers for commercial buildings that have seen a decrease in visitors are tangible suggestions that will save cost without sacrificing profitability.

While many customers will be looking to cut costs, Thomas still suggests having a list of suggested capital improvements on hand. As daily life has changed dramatically over the past seven months and people are spending more time at home, some clients will be motivated to explore and implement home improvements.

“I’m hearing that people think it is going to be a better year because people are more home-centric, and they may want to pull the trigger on a project they’ve been putting off,” Thomas says. “The residential side is a lot more emotional than the commercial side. Try to appeal to their sense of emotion and suggest ideas that make being home more fun for the kids and the family. Even though some people are pulling in the purse strings a little bit because they’re not sure of job security, I would still have a list of capital improvements.”

Provide incentives for contracts

As the busy season begins to wrap up, most green industry companies are submitting proposals to clients for the following season, and many times, customers sit on those proposals, waiting to sign until spring.

“There’s no reason to sit on a proposal if you have a good relationship with your contractor,” Thomas says. “Find a way to incentivize the customer to pull the trigger before Thanksgiving or Christmas.”

Thomas suggests offering an enhancement credit, good for use on any added service, to customers who sign contracts before a set date, like November 25 or December 31. While a $1,500 enhancement credit translates to $1,500 of value to a customer, it represents about half that amount in actual cost to a contractor.

“The bigger the contract, the more sense that makes,” Thomas says. “You can save the customer money without giving up margin.”

Haskett says that according to research conducted by several of his previous employers, highly successful companies who studied their own business, contractors who are proactive in their communication with their clients and those who understand that the green industry is based on relationships will benefit from happier clients who make more referrals and purchase additional services more frequently.

“The better you are at understanding these things, the better you are able to achieve what we call highly satisfied clients,” Haskett says. “If you take care of people and think of ways to take them from being happy and satisfied to having them say that your company is awesome, there is a stark difference in the actual financial ROI you can achieve.”

The research Haskett references shows that 95% of highly satisfied customers are likely to renew contracts versus only 50% of satisfied customers. Also, highly satisfied customers are 70% more likely to buy additional services versus 30% of satisfied customers. Additionally, highly satisfied customers have a 98% chance of referring friends and colleagues while satisfied customers have a 40% chance of making referrals.

“The difference between ‘these guys are good’ and ‘these guys are amazing’ is huge, and you can track it financially,” Haskett says.

Being prepared with suggestions to help customers go forward with a plan can help bridge that gap and leave both contractors and clients feeling ready to face the new year.

Lauren Sable Freiman is a freelance writer based in Cleveland and can be reached at laurensable@gmail.com.