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Editors’ notebook: Knowledge is power

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Attendees at the annual Real Green Systems conference learned the importance of a strong sales and marketing program.

Chuck Bowen | January 18, 2010

ORLANDO – About 350 lawn care contractors gathered in Florida in early January for the annual Real Green Systems users conference and trade show. They learned best practices for the company’s software, how to bolster their company’s sales and marketing efforts, and answers to common horticulture questions.
 
Missy Crawford, left, from Greener Grass Systems, River Falls, Wis., with Real Green Systems President Joe Kucik. Crawford won a television during a raffle at the conference.A MARKETING UNIVERSE. Joe Kucik, president of Real Green Systems, told conference attendees that they should try to build what he calls a marketing universe when it comes to gathering information about their customers. Kucik, who also operates a Scotts LawnService franchise in Holt, Mich., says the more owners and salespeople know about their clients, the more successful they’ll be. 
 
“The more information you have on each prospect, the easier it is to sell that prospect service,” Kucik says. 
 
Priced offers sell better than a postcard that just introduces your company to homeowners, he says. Kucik says he’s found great success offering a free grub control service with new contracts. Grubs are a well-known problem in his area, and people respond to it.
 
“Grub control is a powerful thing in Michigan, because people know grubs are a problem,” he says. “When it comes to marketing, don’t bother doing anything if you don’t have a strong offer.”
 
He promotes something he calls one-step sales: When an interested homeowner calls in after receiving one of his postcards, his phone reps are trained to immediately offer them an estimate and a deal for a yearly contract. They don’t wait for a salesman to go out and measure the property and then offer an estimate.
 
Watch and learn how to add tree and shrub care to your business, integrate chemical applications and build a better marketing database at www.lawnandlandscape.com.
 
Julie Newens, from Permo-0-Green in Tyler, Texas, shows off the C-note she won during Friday night bingo.DOOR TO DOOR. With the advent of the National Do Not Call Registry, companies need a way to supplement their once-profitable telemarketing operations. Ken White, manager of license operations for Real Green, says a well-run door-to-door program can earn a company customers for less than $60 each.
 
White, who also works at Kucik’s Scotts franchise, detailed his door-to-door program. He hires college students from nearby Michigan State University – mostly women – to knock on doors in teams for a 12-week period that starts about a month before the beginning of production. The teams focus on a pre-determined area seven days a week and earn $7 per verified lead.
 
He suggests hiring a supervisor – usually a salesman who can immediately work leads as they come in – for the teams. “If you don’t, it’s not going to happen,” he says. 
 
The canvassers focus on the area around the company’s office, which saves on gas. They go out in the company’s trucks, since they’re already branded, and everyone working gets company shirts, hats, jackets, etc. White also suggest that you tell canvassers who in the neighborhood is already an active customer, so they don’t offer your current clients estimates.
 
White, who devotees 25-30 percent of his marketing budget to canvassing, gets half of his sales from the effort. He says a team of door knockers can visit 500 homes per shift. If half the people are home, eight percent will want an estimate, which comes out to about 2.4 leads per hour. In all, White says, he spent just more than $48,000 on the effort. 
 
“That’s the key to doorknocking: Get them out of the house. If they’re talking through the screen, you’ve lost,” White says. “Once you get them out on that lawn, you’ve got ‘em.”
 
SchafferCOMMON ORNAMENTAL PROBLEMS. Elliott Schaffer, certified arborist and founder of Environmental Horticultural Services in Dublin, Ohio, told attendees that they don’t have to necessarily offer tree and shrub care to answer homeowners’ questions about what’s happening with their ornamentals. 
 
“As long as you can communicate with your customer … you’re going to have retention,” Schaffer says. “As long as you can help solve their problems. You want to be preemptive and notice these things and tell the customer.”
 
Plants encounter two kinds of problems: biotic – caused by living organisms, e.g., fungus, nematodes, insects, bacteria or mites, and abiotic -- caused by physical or chemical damage, temperature and moisture extremes, and planting.
 
Examples of biotic problem symptoms include:
  • Eaten hosta, a browse line on evergreens and bark damage from rubbing means you have deer. 
  • A straight line of holes in a trunk means you have a yellow-bellied sapsucker on your hands. The woodpeckers are a protected species, and tend to focus on one tree. What they’re doing is trying to release the tree’s sap, which attracts bugs, which the bird then eats.
Abiotic  problems are sometimes harder to see – and remedy. Schaffer gave the following examples and possible solutions: 
 
Soil compaction 
Everything a homebuilder can’t – or doesn’t want to – haul away, he buries in the dirt. So, when you get a rectangular dead spot of turf about four feet wide and seven feet long, it’s not a disease. It’s likely a door. 
 
But problems with trees or shrubs from buried construction cast-offs are harder to pinpoint, because the damage doesn’t show up for a year or two after planting. By that time, most people aren’t thinking about when the house was built.
 
Related to soil compaction is when roots grow close to the surface. Contractors can cut up to one-third of roots off a healthy tree. If you can’t cut the roots, consider mulching around the base of the tree.
 
But contractors need to “recognize the message that is being sent,” Schaffer says, when they see roots above grade: The soil is too compacted for the roots to grow underground, so they came up to get the oxygen they need. “Roots, whether it’s turf or ornamentals, need oxygen.”
 
Poor drainage
One symptom of wet mulch is vomitora fungus – so named because of its resemblance to throw-up. It’s always present in hardwood mulch, but you’ll see it flower when the mulch is too wet. “It doesn’t hurt humans, but it is an indicator that this mulch is too wet. Either get the mulch to be thinner or change the irrigation,” Schaffer says. ““Problems are always under the plant. If they were on the plant, you’d know what they are (already).”
 
He recommends contractors always carry a soil probe to assess the moisture content in the soil underneath plants. 
 
Heat damage or scorch
This is seen most often on the margins of the leaves or needles – where water has to travel the farthest, and on plants with immature root systems. If it’s been raining plenty, plants can also sustain heat damage from the hot hoods and exhaust from cars, or asphalt applied in the summer.
 
On conifers, if the tips of the needles are green, that means the plant is getting enough water. If the internal needles are brown, the tree is just dropping some leaves that it doesn’t need anymore, he says.

Freezing damage
Evergreen trees and shrubs typically express winter freeze damage around the same time as a homeowner’s first or second lawn care application. The leaves on deciduous plants will turn black or tree bark will burst. 
 
Schaffer recommends technicians keep their eyes open while driving to each account. “On your way to the property, look around. Is it just your client or the whole neighborhood?” he asks. 
 
Make sure you communicated to homeowners who have relocated from a vastly different hardiness zones that they can’t expect the same results from the same plants. “Make sure the plants you have are right for the market. The plants you grew in Buffalo don’t grow here in Tuscaloosa,” Schaffer says.
 
Herbicide damage
As chemicals become more advanced, Schaffer says, he’s seeing less tree and ornamental damage from herbicides applied to turf. If a homeowner thinks your latest application killed his burning bush, look around for weeds. It’s easier to kill weeds than it is to kill established shrubs or trees; if there are still weeds around a damaged plant, the problem likely wasn’t the chemical you applied last week. Also, Schaffer says, aphids, thrips and freezing temperatures can cause damage with similar looking symptoms.
 
To learn more about specific plant problems, lists of deer-resistant plants and to find materials suitable for use as customer handouts, check out the extension offices at land grant universities. You can find a clearinghouse for extension sites here: http://extension.unh.edu/cesites.htm.
 
The author is managing editor of Lawn & Landscape. E-mail him at cbowen@gie.net. 

 

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