Clarity is Key

Barry Mansell, owner of Mansell Landscape Management in Roswell, GA, has been in business for nearly 15 years. He still has some of his original customers. What's his key to customer retention?

"The more clear and concise you can be with your customers, the more likely you are to meet their expectations," Mansell says. "When I first started in business, I knocked on a lot of doors. From that experience alone, I know it's much easier to keep customers than it is to get new ones."

Mansell graduated from the University of Georgia in 1992 with a degree in landscape architecture. He worked a few years selling for a lawn care company prior to heading out on his own. Mansell got started by mowing lawns and providing other maintenance services. He then gradually leveraged his education to add design and installation services. Today, five maintenance crews and one construction crew provide an array of services to approximately 250 customers.

"One lesson I've learned over the years is to make sure customers know precisely what they're getting for their money," Mansell relates. "Most of our customers have signed contracts that detail the number of visits we will make in a year and what crews will be doing during those visits." It's risky to assume that customers know what they're getting without spelling it out, he adds. They may wonder why they're paying the same amount for winter service as they're paying during the middle of the summer. The explanation needs to be in writing.

According to Mansell, retention is mostly about communication. "We strive to call customers back within an hour; worst case scenario is within a half day's time. If we make a mistake, and we all do since we're human, we fix it–we don't ignore it."

Mansell has taken a similar proactive approach when asking for a fuel surcharge. "Everything we operate runs on gasoline," he points out. "Our fuel bill runs upwards of $4,000 a month, and it keeps trending upward. We've been forced to ask customers to pay a monthly surcharge, but we don't just tack it onto their monthly bill. We communicate with them ahead of time and explain why the additional charge is necessary. Customers understand 99% of the time."

TRYING TIMES CALL FOR CREATIVITY

In addition to dealing with high fuel costs and a struggling economy, landscape contractors in the Southeast are also facing a severe drought.

"Nurseries are really hurting and so are many contractors," says Mansell. "We were forced to lay off an entire construction crew and reduce the size of each of our maintenance crews earlier this spring. The lack of work has forced us to get a little creative. Crews have applied more pine straw and probably cleaned up more properties than usual this year, and we've started to restore pastures for area ranchers and farmers. In times like this, it's a matter of doing anything you can to keep the money coming in."

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