Sept. 8 2021 10:25 AM

Take the worry out of winterization by planning early with clients.

Although this season has been as busy as the last for many professionals, proactive green industry professionals are already looking toward the fall for the start of their winterization process.

Complete transparency on the benefits of the service at the right time and the hazards of waiting too long is vital as a part of client communication for both revenue and responsibility purposes.

“Winterizing now saves your clients service and repair needs in the spring,” says Russ Jundt, founder of Richmond, Virginia-based Conserva Irrigation. “If a client is in a borderline state that may or may not regularly winterize their systems, we encourage the client to view the winterization process as an insurance policy on their system. An ounce of precaution and preventive maintenance will give peace of mind and potentially save them thousands of dollars from a catastrophic event.”

According to Jundt, client communication is just as important as the winterization process itself. Many clients have no previous knowledge of the service or the proper timeline and may think that the landscaper or irrigation specialist is just pushing the service for additional revenue. That is when the benefits of winterizing need to be explained completely. This is best when it’s not just done by an email or text message but by an in-person meeting or detailed phone conversation.

“When we talk to the client, we educate them on the importance of winterizing their system to keep it working properly,” says Jundt. “If the water isn’t properly evacuated from the system, it can freeze during the winter months, causing cracks and leaks in the pipes, broken sprinkler heads and more.”

Focus on fall

Stability and consistency in scheduling winterization services builds long-term trust with clients, which equals long-term revenue, says Pete Miller, maintenance director at the Botanic Garden at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, Missouri, whose responsibility includes leading all landscaping and irrigation services. Providing the same experience every year with minimal personnel turnover is important.

“It is vital for us to assign winterization services to the same long-term employees every year,” says Miller. “We want the employees who are most familiar with the irrigation systems because this also gives us an opportunity to identify any needed repairs. If there are repairs to be made they are annotated at this time.”

For Jundt and Conserva Irrigation, they preschedule winterization services for all existing clients well in advance and send notices to homeowners to let them know when the service will be completed.

“It gives them peace of mind that it is already scheduled to be completed while also keeping our routes tight for the most efficient schedules. As new clients call for the service, we are able to add them to the routes or create new routes on days we have open,” says Jundt. Proper routing makes the winterization process run smoothly.

Jundt views winterization as an opportunity for rapid client acquisition as his company prepares each vehicle to complete 12 to 16 winterizations a day for four to six weeks.

“Our goal is to provide great service for clients so they use us for the years to come for all of their irrigation needs,” says Jundt. Additionally, he uses pressurized air as a diagnostic tool. Water leaks down throughout the summer months. But the compressed air and water bubbles give the technician a kind of superhuman vision into the system to record leaks that may otherwise go undetected. “We offer our winterization analysis complete with an estimate for repairs that we pass along to the customer so they know what to budget for in the spring.”

Jundt emphasizes the importance of starting the winterization process early in the fall, as Virginia is known to have an onset of early winter weather. A Labor Day weekend that hovers above 70 degrees Fahrenheit can easily turn into late September nights where the low temperatures can dip into the low 40-degree Fahrenheit range.

Missouri also falls in the range of regions that are likely to see snow earlier in the year than most, making it important for Miller to get as far ahead of the snow as possible.

“The best practice that we use to get our irrigation systems ready for winter is to do a thorough job of winterizing them in the fall,” says Miller. “It takes a fair amount of time to do this task correctly and you really can’t rush it trying to get all the water out of those systems. Even a small amount of water left inside an irrigation valve can freeze over the winter and will cause trouble in the spring. So we invest in the fall to prevent a problem come spring.”

Miller suggests that no matter their geographic location, landscapers and irrigation specialists set a hard deadline date to complete all winterization work with clients. Then, if new customers and winterization jobs come after via last-minute requests, they can be handled separately with customer service for possible ongoing revenue after the winter season.

“We try to have all of the irrigation systems on the University of Missouri-Columbia campus winterized by October 31 of each year, regardless of current weather conditions or any other factors,” says Miller. “This process also proves helpful in identifying issues such as broken sprinkler heads that can be repaired during the spring when we reenergize our irrigation systems.”

Miller uses the contact with his clients as an opportunity to remind them of the value of the overall service.

“We remind our campus clients that have irrigation systems of their investment in these systems and what it would cost to repair these systems if damaged by our extreme Missouri winter weather,” says Miller. “Typically a simple reminder of how their landscape will perform the following spring with a smooth transition in and out of the irrigation system is all that it takes. We also try to remind them of what their landscape looked like prior to installing an irrigation system.”

Conserva Irrigation starts sending out renewals in the late fall, with a goal of making service delivery as easy as possible for its clients. Having an established client communication system and protocol is vital for long-term delivery efficiency and success.

“It is all about setting levels of expectation at the beginning of the relationship and making sure that consistent messaging is delivered to the customer via our admin, technicians and subsequent email communications,” says Jundt. “If it is a customer’s first experience with us, our admin will begin the conversation about next year’s seasonal packages. The technician on-site will deliver the same consistent message, and just after the first of the new year our outreach via email and phone will reflect the same sales processes.”

Jundt makes sure all staff members in communication with the client understand the direct correlation to the service and future sales.

“It is an assumptive sale, meaning if the customer had a successful experience with us during the winterization process and an estimate for repairs was discussed with them, our admin will simply reach out to the client and sell one of our seasonal packages, bundled with the repair estimate,” says Jundt. “Regular communication is a key part of our process. We do not want clients to go back to search for another provider because we have not clearly communicated with them.”

Subscription solution

The modern consumer is used to subscription-based services such as streaming television and retail delivery, so why not use that same mindset for the annual winterization service?

That is the mindset of Bradyn McCullough, owner of Grizzly Irrigation based in Calgary, Alberta, where he describes the winters as “sporadic at best with an ongoing freeze and thaw cycle.” He launched his subscription-based winterization service platform two years ago as the first irrigation business in Calgary to do so.

Since implementing the service, his client volume for winterization has doubled.

“People appreciate the hands-off nature of how we offer the service,” says McCullough, who founded Grizzly Irrigation in 2007. “People would forget and this is automatic, so it just makes it easier for all who are involved. Now we know who is submitting for the service and it helps streamline the system so we do not have to keep creating new maps for months of service delivery.”

The process is simple. Customers can go to the Grizzly Irrigation website to sign up for the prepaid service, then receive a confirmation of the service requested, and the process is complete.

“This only works for residential as the subscription is based on the number of zones we have to cover,” says McCullough. “Obviously we had a few growing pains at the start as it was a shift in mindset for our clients, as the required prepaid function brought our relationship to a whole new level of trust. Some clients wanted to see how things worked first, which is understandable, but the feedback has been almost 100% positive. They do not have to worry about that anymore. That is the whole point of our irrigation services in the first place. It is all about the time savings.”

As the subscription service has expanded, Mc- Cullough and Grizzly Irrigation have created enough operational efficiency to slightly decrease pricing because of savings in administration.

“We did pass on our slight savings right away to customers,” says McCullough. “We have also bundled the winterization service with our spring startup package to further reduce pricing.”

McCullough recommends the conversion to a subscription-based winterization service because it simplifies both mapping and billing. This has allowed Grizzly Irrigation to focus on other revenue-generating services while maintaining excellent customer service.

“It has been an all-around good thing in terms of adding value to clients,” says McCullough. “We are also finding out that we are able to retain clients a lot better as we reach out to them when it is time for services. They appreciate us being proactive instead of reactive and it has taken our business to the next level.”

Rodric Hurdle-Bradford is associate editor for Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at rodric@igin.com.