Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Brooke N. Bates

The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland

Features

All hands on deck

Lawn Care

How a retired Navy officer provides reliable and quality lawn care service.

September 1, 2014

When Mike Lenard deployed to Italy with the U.S. Navy, he couldn’t find a reliable service in Northern Virginia to care for his yard in his absence.

So in 2009, the summer before he retired from the Navy as senior chief petty officer, Lenard started his own company – Lenard’s Lawn Care Service – to provide the quality that was lacking.

“I knew there was a need for a quality guy, not just a mow-and-go,” says Lenard, who had cut grass during high school in Texas. “I knew what I was doing already, so I just followed my passion. There was no quality guy around, and I wanted to fill that gap.”

Now, Lenard's Lawn Care Service is a growing, full-service lawn care company offering maintenance, lawn care and irrigation.

The company focuses on residential work, and though Lenard doesn’t target military homeowners specifically, his location in Chesapeake is near a major military hub – positioning him to provide reliable lawn care for others during deployment.
 

Taking care of business.

Becoming a premier lawn care service didn’t take any drastic measures. By simply conquering the basics – which many fledgling companies failed to do – Lenard's Lawn Care established a quality reputation quickly.

“We actually show up and do our job on the day that it’s scheduled,” Lenard says. “A lot of my current customers have let other people go because they don’t do their job.”

Finding Business Online

Most new customers come to Lenard Lawn Care Service through referrals. In addition to neighborly word-of-mouth, more new business is coming through the company’s website. Online traffic accounts for about 30 new customers a year – currently about a third of Lenard’s customer base.

“We’ve spent thousands of dollars on our website,” says Mike Lenard, company owner. “We rank very well on the Internet, and that, of course, drives sales.”

Lenard hired a web designer and search engine optimization expert to develop an effective website that could help potential customers find his services. Focusing on geo-local keywords, the company’s website ranks high in Google search results for lawn care in Chesapeake. As the company grows, Lenard is working toward ranking well for Suffolk and Virginia Beach, as well.

Now, Lenard writes blog posts for the website and manages the company’s Facebook page to reach prospects and customers alike. He spends about five hours a week managing the company’s online presence, which reaps big rewards in terms of sales.

Of course, he says, “the best form of communication is face-to-face.” Plus, he typically relies on email or phone as the main point-of-contact with current customers. But an effective website and social media presence can support that communication when face-to-face isn’t possible.

“It doesn’t take long to blog. It doesn’t take long to Facebook,” Lenard says. “You’re constantly in contact with your customers anyway; it’s just an extra little bit.”

One customer – another retired Navy chief – asked Lenard to cut her lawn after her previous provider stopped showing up. For emphasis, she lifted the doormat to show him the check still waiting for the last crew.

Lenard realizes that anyone with a truck and a mower can start a lawn care company – but just because someone can cut grass doesn’t mean the service is professional. That requires extra, although not extraordinary, effort – like showing up on time to do the work.

“First, you have to do a good job. Then, you start a relationship,” Lenard says. “Some people try to build a relationship before doing a good job, and you can’t always do that.”

Of course, different customers have different expectations, so it’s crucial to align with customers immediately. To lay the foundation, Lenard personally visits prospects to produce quotes. That initial meeting is the best opportunity to learn what customers want, and to explain why the short grass they think they want isn’t conducive to the healthy lawn they really want. In other words, setting expectations is a balancing act between experience and customer service. “During the estimates, you can get a lot of information from them, and that’s also where you can really educate them,” Lenard says. “If you do their yard how you want it done, that’s the wrong way; that’s how a lot of businesses fall flat on their face.

"You have to do their yard to their likes, as long as you respect the growth process of grass. If they want it short, then you have to explain to them why you can’t.”

However, the ultimate test isn’t how much customers enjoy your explanations of ideal turf conditions. Proving quality to customers requires walking the talk by actually delivering the results they expect.

“Once you understand how they want their yard done, then you’re golden,” Lenard says. “Then it’s just repetition.”
 

Consistent service.

Repeating quality service can be challenging for lawn care companies – especially as you grow. Lenard's Lawn Care’s footprint is quickly growing beyond Chesapeake, into Virginia Beach to the east and Suffolk to the west, as its reputation spreads.

Growth means Lenard can’t service every lawn by himself, so he has to hold his three employees accountable to customers’ expectations in order to maintain the Lenard standard of quality.

“I brought my military background of accountability into the civilian world,” says Lenard, who personally visits customers quarterly to make sure his crews are consistently meeting their expectations.

“I might think something looks good, but it’s their yard. It depends on what they think because we are only as good as our last cut.”

For that reason, Lenard looks ahead to prepare for growth so that his team can continue offering an outstanding level of service without rushing off to the next job. Knowing that the company grows at least 30 percent each season, Lenard can schedule appropriately – just enough work to keep his crew busy for eight hours a day.

Lenard’s current crew consists of a leader and a leader-in-training – who both brought at least five years’ experience to the company. With the help of one other employee, they service the company’s 100 customers.

As soon as the customer base hits 150 lawns, the leader-in-training will move into another truck – which is already waiting in the wings – to launch his own route. This allows the company to expand smoothly without sacrificing service.

“That’s why I have two crew leaders on a truck, so when I split them apart, they’ve gotten the same training,” Lenard says. “So I’ve already staked out the first three crew leaders; we’ve just got to train up their assistants.”

Lenard sees his staff as a squadron that he’s responsible for – another value honed in the military. He’s not just providing for his family, but three other families, as well. In fact, now in his sixth year of business, Lenard still hasn’t paid himself one cent. Relying instead on his military retirement pay, all the profits go back into the company to promote growth.

Lenard’s military background of unfaltering accountability and team-minded responsibility sets his company apart from competitors. But the retired senior chief is careful not to become a militant drill sergeant who barks orders.

“That’s one thing you can’t be: You can’t be hard on everybody all the time, or you’re not going to keep employees,” he says.

“You want the best, and if you pay them well and take care of them, then everything falls in line. They’ll follow the rules as long as they know you’ve got their back.”

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