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.”