Maintaining Separation

One of the most effective ways leading landscape contractors have differentiated themselves from the competition is by becoming full-service providers. But what if you’re purely a lawn maintenance contractor? How do you set yourself apart from the myriad of commercial cutters operating in your market?

The answer is this: No matter how big you are or how long you’ve been in business, the rules have changed. It’s not business as usual, thanks in large part to an economy that has crowded the maintenance market with competitors from all walks of life, putting incredible down pressure on pricing. Remaining competitive in maintenance today requires a fair degree of flexibility, creativity and discipline, along with communication skills that are second to none.

IT’S STILL A PEOPLE BUSINESS

“The industry has changed over the years,” says Maria Candler, CLP, president of James River Grounds Management in Glen Allen, VA. “Expectations are higher. Quality, once a point of difference, is now a requisite if one is to successfully compete. Our customers expect quality. A company differentiates itself by the way it communicates and interacts with property managers and other customers. This is still a people business, despite the economic conditions.”

Bill Leidecker, CLP, owner of Five Seasons Landscape Management in Reynoldsburg, OH, agrees. “In our niche, working with Homeowner Associations (HOA’s) and condominium boards, it’s all about building relationships with property managers and making presentations to boards.”

Leidecker, whose company has between 25 and 30 maintenance crews and employs upwards of 150 people, also notes that price has become more of factor in recent months. “We’ve always had to be competitive with our prices, but today you can get surprised by a long-time client who accepts a bid that is 30-40% below what he has been paying for years. Relationships can only go so far in today’s economy.”

BUT NOW IT’S ALSO A THINKING MAN’S GAME

According to Tom Oyler, principal of Wilson-Oyler Group, separating your maintenance company from the competition takes on another dimension during a down economy, especially when construction contractors and big maintenance competitors are looking at landscape projects of just about any size.

“You have to separate yourself from the competition by outthinking them,” emphasizes Oyler, a former landscape contractor. “You have to analyze your market segment and your customers’ pain, and adjust your pricing and service offering accordingly. Maybe you can help out a customer by adjusting your monthly billing (short of reducing your price of course) or by offering a different level of service. If you decide that you have to lower your price to compete, you will also have to adjust your overhead to retain margins.”

Good mentoring is important as well, Oyler adds. “Talk with people who have foresight into market condition, and pay attention to real estate market trends. It’s very important to determine if current market conditions will be fleeting or long-lasting. Cutting costs, which is actually reducing your investment in customers and your business, will likely be necessary in a long recession. In a short-lived downturn, it’s best to avoid making any radical changes.”

CONSTANTLY COMMUNICATE—AND REMAIN FLEXIBLE

For one of the first times in his company’s history, Bob Walker, president of Dependable Lawn Care in Oak Lawn, IL, says he is being asked to back off a bit on service to save clients money. “In essence, we’re now put in a position to find a happy medium between price and service level for our customers,” says Walker, who has been in the maintenance business for 25 years.

“Last year, we picked up new client who changed from a low-cost service provider to us,” Walker relates. “But our contact person left this year, and his replacement intended to shop around the project for low bids. After we explained the project’s history to him, he agreed to continue to do business with us, but asked for a scaled-down maintenance program. The bottom line is that we still have the job, but we’re not offering quite as many services.”

In Martinez, CA, American Civil Constructors (ACC) general manager Bill Horn, CLP, CLT, emphasizes how important it is to be proactive with communication. “You can’t wait for a client to call—you have to call them first,” he points out. “Especially in today’s very competitive environment, you want to make that call before a competitor does. Ask clients what you can do for them. It may just be a matter of reassuring them that you’ll hold your price, or they may ask for a new price point. If it’s the latter, find creative ways to reduce costs without sacrificing the dignity of a property.

“Maybe you can put some detail work or planned new enhancements on the back burner and create more efficiencies,” Horn continues. “This is when it pays to have experienced people working for you. Remember, in our line of work, it’s all about labor and customer service. And now more than ever it’s also about the willingness to adapt to new market conditions.”

Being flexible doesn’t just apply to the commercial market, Walker adds. Nearly 60% of his total revenue comes from maintaining homes. “On the residential side, we’ve been providing weekly maintenance service and a five-part lawn care program for several years. But now we’re reassessing this approach in light of the new reality. We’re seriously considering offering an every-other-week mowing service for customers during the slower-growing summer season. For our lawn care customers, we may offer a three- or four-part program alternative. We would have to raise the price for each mowing or application by 25% or more to offset lost revenue, and our customers would have to be willing to put up with a few more weeds.”

IT’S IN THE DETAILS

Troy Davis, owner of True Care Landscape Maintenance in Los Lunas, NM, was in the landscape installation business for 24 years. Then, last March, he decided it was time to shift gears and start taking care of the properties he had installed. He now has 16 residential maintenance customers.

“I’m different from the normal maintenance contractor,” Davis notes. “Over the years, I’ve watched literally dozens of maintenance companies operate on site. For the most part, it’s all about time and how efficient crews can be on a property, but they forget about the details. I think what separates me from the competition is exactly that: the details. I’ll pick up sticks and other debris from lawns, rake the gravel and check on the irrigation system. I’ll take time to walk every property before I mow, and even stop mowing to remove an elm tree or other unwanted plant material growing up through a bush.”

Despite the economy today, Davis says it’s not always all about the money. “If you do a good job and take care of your customers’ properties, your customers will take of you. It’s not about maintenance, it’s about people.”

THE BASIC FUNDAMENTALS STILL APPLY

Despite the changing rules, some of the fundamentals about being successful in maintenance still apply. “One of my suggestions for anyone getting into maintenance is to do one thing and do it well,” says Roscoe Klausing, CLP, president of Klausing Group in Lexington, KY.

“Focus on commercial or focus on residential,” Klausing adds. “In our market, you will find residential contractors dabbling in the commercial market, but it’s not their strength, and it shows. On the other hand, our company is strictly commercial and we have no desire to get into the residential market. The two animals are completely different in terms of both service and customer expectations.”

Klausing says business looks to be holding up so far this year, but his company motto for ’09 is “proceed with caution.” This approach includes a tight rein on capital spending, along with marketing his company’s strengths.

“In recent years, we’ve abandoned using colorful marketing pieces in favor of developing our website,” Klausing explains. “Having a presence on the Internet is important, but we’ve found that not having a four-color newsletter, marketing brochure and other collateral material has hurt our business.”

Klausing wants to be able to put images of his company’s work and remarks about its strengths right in the decision-makers’ hands. Among strengths (and points of difference), he includes the availability of his staff to answer customer requests and questions, along with the understanding of how his customers want to communicate, whether it be via email, mail, fax, or phone. Klausing is also taking advantage of modern technology by being able to scan and email contracts. “Since property managers are accustomed to doing business that way with other clients, we should be on board too,” he adds.

Education can work to separate one contractor from another. Every member of Klausing’s four-person management team has either a CLP or CLT after his name or an advanced degree in horticulture. “It’s one thing for account managers to understand production techniques and strategies,” he says. “It’s another for them to understand horticulture.” Understanding some of the science behind growing and maintaining plant material can be a real advantage,” Klausing emphasizes.

Creating other points of difference—such as maintaining sustainable landscapes or providing turf renovation services—can also give maintenance contractors a distinct advantage in an increasingly crowded marketplace.

But at the end of the day, quality and service are what matter most. Sharpening your communication skills, focusing on the details and remaining flexible will help you meet the standard of what quality service in today’s landscape industry really is.

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