Turning Heads

You’re bidding against more competitors. Customers have ultra-tight budgets. How do you win?

“You have to set yourself apart,” says David Snodgrass, president of Dennis’ Seven Dees Landscaping in Portland, OR. “Price should be one of the last topics of discussion in a sales presentation. Yes, we all have to work within a customer’s budget. But if a sale comes down to price and price alone, then the lowest common denominator will win, and more likely than not, that’s a losing proposition for the customer and the service provider.”

Education Starts with a Consistent Image

Snodgrass emphasizes that the effort to educate the customer about what makes your company different begins well before any sales presentation. It begins by having a good reputation and by being consistent with the quality of your work, image, response time, and literally all the things that comprise a good, professional company.

“Being consistent is extremely important,” Snodgrass stresses. “As a company, you can do nearly everything right, but that one inconsistency—such as showing up late for an appointment, poorly dressed employees or a shabby-looking truck—will stand out like a sore thumb and literally shout at your prospective customer that you’re no better than the other landscape contractors they’ve talked with. When there’s no perceived difference, price becomes the issue.”

Eric Spalsbury, an account manager and business development team member for Heads Up Landscape Contractors in Albuquerque, NM, agrees. “Price only matters when there is parity,” he relates. “The promise of quality and exceptional service, on the other hand, allows for premium pricing.”

Six ‘Non-Price’ Differentiators

For Spalsbury, price is only one of what he refers to as seven “differentiators” that can set companies apart.

Exceptional Service – Spalsbury includes prompt and accessible communication, being a one-stop shop, having unwavering reliability and being an expert resource for customers. Among other traits, he notes that industry-leading companies commit to keeping up with the latest innovations and industry standards.

Quality Work – Quality is what’s most obvious to customers, and it comes from keeping employee turnover to a minimum, as well as having an excellent company culture and a superior training and education program for employees.

Specialized Services – Offering a specialized service that is unique to an individual market gives companies an edge on competition and a leg up on pricing. Being environmentally aware can have a similar impact, especially if a market is turning green. Environmentally aware companies, Spalsbury points out, may have LEED certification, and offer green initiatives such as using alternative-energy equipment and promoting Integrated Pest Management (IPM) and water resource management services.

Environmental Awareness – Becoming more green can have a profound impact on your bottom line. Also, as pointed out under “specialized services,” environmental awareness can give you a leg up from a sales and marketing perspective.

Corporate Citizenship – Being a good corporate citizen by participating in charity events and community forums can make a difference in how a company is perceived, Spalsbury says.

Industry Leadership – Becoming involved in local, regional or national associations says a lot about your commitment to your profession.

Building Relationships

All landscape companies, regardless of their size, share a common bond, says Burt DeMarche, principal of The LaurelRock Company in Wilton, CT. “All clients are looking for someone they can trust, and there’s no better way to build trust than to have an ongoing relationship with them,” DeMarche says. “In our company, the individual designer/project director who makes the original sale of a project remains as the contact person through the design, contract negotiation, project management phase and into the aftercare. That relationship is there forever.”

Although it’s difficult to put a dollar amount on relationships, DeMarche notes that it definitely adds value and builds loyalty. He gives this example: “Every morning you can choose to get a coffee and muffin at any deli you pass by. At one deli, the owner introduces himself to you, asks your name, and takes a genuine interest in you and your company. At another deli, the price is a little cheaper and the food equally as good, but the various people behind the counter take no time to form even a simple connection with you. Which deli will you return to? Who do you want to give your business to? It’s the difference between treating someone as a client vs. just another customer. The relationship adds value.”

Forming relationships and trust with clients starts at the core of any company, says DeMarche. At The LaurelRock Company, two of their seven core principles reflect the importance of this bond: Honor the client and act with integrity.

Building strong relationships, however, doesn’t mean that a company can charge what it wants to charge or raise prices on a whim. “If we have to raise prices to offset costs, we’re very upfront with customers about the increase,” DeMarche points out. “We detail the rising costs and, in turn, ask for a reasonable rate increase. We won’t nickel-and-dime them with fuel surcharges and other one-off increases, either. We make our case upfront, and nine times out of 10, our clients understand. It really comes back to the value of the relationship that we share.”

Being proactive is definitely part of the education process, says Snodgrass. Your actions tell a good story, but you sometimes have to coax customers along to make sure they’re getting the full message.

“When selling a customer, talk about your company’s safety record and award-winning projects, as well as some of the other things that separate you from the competition,” Snodgrass advises. “In our case, we let our customers know that we’re a family-owned company in business for 53 years, and are able to offer an array of services for the long-term with our four garden centers.”

After you’ve sold them on your company, you have to sell yourself, too, Snodgrass adds. “Effective salespeople listen to what customers are saying. They ask questions, offer solutions, and pose as an overall good resource for them.”

Like DeMarche, Snodgrass emphasizes that selling customers on your service offering is about building rapport and trust. Once you earn their trust, it’s not about price. “We’re not going to be the lowest price in town,” Snodgrass relates, “but we strive to be the best value.”

Growing Expectations

After all is said and done, you’ve built some pretty high expectations and added perceived value to your services. The effort, though, has evolved over time. It would be very difficult for a startup company to demand top dollar for its services with no proof, consistency and relationship-building in the offering.

DeMarche says, “Many of our clients come from referrals and, hence, they are pre-qualified.” He, along with Snodgrass and Spalsbury, note that having a good reputation is one of the best ways, if not the best way, to translate service and value into a fair price for you and your customers.

It all begins by separating yourself from your competition. Heads Up’s mission statement tells part of the story. “Our mission is to be the standard by which all other landscape design/build/maintenance companies are measured in our market,” Spalsbury explains. “We succeed together by continually ‘Growing Better’ in partnering with our clients and investing in the industry’s best people.” Reading from the bottom up, investing in people (quality work) and partnering (building relationships) set a standard that differentiates Heads Up from it competitors.

By following its mission statement, Heads Up is building customer expectations and adding value to its services. The key, all three contractors reiterate, is to back up the rhetoric with action—consistent action.

“The best salesperson a company can have is its reputation,” says Snodgrass. “When I’m making a sales presentation, I want my actions to speak for me. I want the customer to have a pre-conceived notion of expectations and where our company stands among our competitors.”

Yes, the impending deal has to fall within the budgets of both the contractor and client. In many ways, a sale is about money, but it doesn’t have to be about the price.