This industry veteran emphasizes that fulfilling that promise to customers is more important today than ever before, to help dispel the commodity label and differentiate competitors. But quality is not the only measure of service.
“We’re in the image business, and business owners sometimes allow their employees to become too casual in their appearance,” Kujawa points out. “The industry has come a long way over the years, but landscape contractors still have some work to do to be viewed as true professionals.”
Kujawa identifies environmental issues, including the green movement, as new service drivers. “Some of the issues are trends, and some are fads,” he notes, “but we have to address or at least be aware of them because they impact our clients. One of the challenges we face today is striking a balance between what is possible and what is practical.” As Kujawa points out, the price of having a completely green planet would be one that few people would want to pay.
Doesburg cites Newton’s Third Law of Motion when asked about new environmental initiatives. “As a nation and as an industry we create way too much waste, and there are several steps we can all take to be more environmentally responsible. At the same time, our government should not indiscriminately initiate legislation without thinking about both the long- and short-term consequences of its actions. As Newton observed, ‘For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.’”
As examples, Doesburg notes that production and use of ethanol has caused an unsuspected backlash from grocers who claim that it is the culprit behind the spike in food costs. You may neither like or appreciate the heavy-plastic packaging today, but to do away with it means you do away with someone’s job. Do away with backpack blowers and property owners need to be prepared to pay a higher cost for cleaning drives and walks. “Another change we’ve all experienced is the presence of a more intrusive government, especially at the regional and local level,” says Doesburg. “Government is everywhere with licensing fees, and every city has its set of tax laws. Everyone wants a share of the payroll tax. Government initiatives are not only costly, but force small business people to employ an individual whose job description is almost exclusively dedicated to complying with new rules and regulations.”
It all contributes to the rising costs of doing business, Doesburg emphasizes. “Insurance, including workers’ compensation, is going up every year. Health insurance is out of sight, to the extent that most small business owners cannot offer health insurance as a benefit.” Fuel, equipment, plant material … nearly everything a landscape contractor touches is going up, except what he or she can get for services rendered.
The upshot, says Doesburg, is that landscape contractors and lawn care operators have to rely on sharp pencils to make a profit, and work diligently to drive costs out of their operations. “We have more pressures applied today than ever before to keep costs down,” Doesburg reports. “That is one reason why we participate in the LEAN management program. We’ve been holding company-wide LEAN meetings for less than a year, and already they are paying back dividends.”
More competition and fewer employees, more government and higher costs, new technologies and new trends all make for an interesting patchwork of challenges for contractors.
Customers are changing, too. Cell phones and emails are a double-edged sword. The customer’s ability to communicate quickly with his or her service providers also raises expectations. The Internet, websites and horticulture links all contribute to more knowledgeable homeowners and property owners.
Markets are also changing. “The design/build business in our area has seen its ups and downs over the years,” says Bowers. “Currently, customers are more focused on hardscape elements than having gardens that are balanced between hardscapes and plantings, which they have historically favored.