While Sharon Serpico Hanson was serving as president of the homeowners association (HOA) where she lived outside of San Francisco, Calif., she was frustrated that the board could not find a landscape contractor that met its needs.
“They were pretty much mow, blow and go in those days,” she says. That was 22 years ago. “There wasn’t a whole lot of green industry professionalism. And there were huge issues with the quality of work, communication, billing – things that are pretty darn basic to running a business.”
Serpico Hanson was working in quality assurance for a large insurance conglomerate when she decided one evening, while weeding some beds outside of her condo, to take matters into her own hands. “My husband said, ‘Why don’t you start your own business, how hard can it be?’” she says.
So Serpico Hanson told her employer she needed to go part-time so she could start this business, and “it ended up snowballing.” She traded in her high heels and city commute for a pick-up truck and lawn equipment.
“It was a steep learning curve,” Serpico Hanson admits today. She recruited experienced landscapers to join her team, and paired that with her career experience in serving customers. “I didn’t have a business plan,” she says, “All I knew is what I thought good service meant, and I figured that crossed the line (into the green industry).”
The energetic leader of a now $15-million landscape firm dubs this “The Serpico Story.” She was looking for more service than any company was giving her HOA board at the time, and she wasn’t going to stop until she found a solution. That was to do it herself. “We were mostly first-time homeowners and we were so protective of that big investment we had made,” she says of her perspective while serving on the HOA board. “So we just demanded more. And when we didn’t get it, I changed.”
That’s where the Serpico story begins.
In the HOA world, landscape firms have three bosses: the property manager, the board and a landscape committee. Then there are all of the people who live on those properties within the association, and they’re keeping a close eye on what you’re doing.
“You have a lot of eyes watching you … the retired guy who is home all day, and there are a lot of people who are home, who work at home,” Serpico Hanson says.
Client scrutiny on all levels puts heavy demands on service firms that work for HOAs. “You need to be really professional in how you present your organization and the work you do,” she says.
Because Serpico Hanson personally experienced inadequate service while on her HOA board, she came to the landscape business with specific ideas about what areas of her operation needed to be fine-tuned to win and maintain HOA accounts. Serpico Hanson says she “sees things a little differently.”
She sees things from a service perspective.
“We were creating an organization based on how we communicate with customers – it wasn’t really about mowing lawns,” she says. “I hired people who were experienced with that, and we trained them well and developed a training program that was really important in those first years because I wanted to deliver consistent service.”
Serpico Hanson set out to change a trend in the HOA market of boards hiring then firing their service providers. “One thing I heard over and over again was that (service firms) start out well, and then after a couple of months or a year or two, they fall off the cliff,” she says.
A solid training program prevents quality from waning after an account is won. And so does a stringent set of quality controls – Serpico Landscaping’s calling card – that are referred to as the Serpico Standards. From implementing a detailed work order system to demanding high-touch communication, the standards form a set of key performance indicators for Serpico Landscaping.
But those standards are no guarantee that Serpico Landscaping will win business. And breaking into the HOA market was a lot more difficult than even Serpico Hanson expected. “This is a very tough segment of this business because it’s very, very communication intensive,” she says.
Serpico Hanson did have some connections from her time serving on an HOA board, but mostly, her offer to deliver HOAs something different and better and measurable appealed to this audience.
Essentially, Serpico Landscaping sets out to show those “three bosses” they can indeed hold on to a service provider for the long-term. And that message resonates with HOAs. Partnering? Communicating? Reports? HOAs like what they hear. Serpico Hanson says business exploded quickly for her firm because no one at the time was talking to HOAs about these things. And this is often still the case.
Sure, there are other companies competing for these jobs on price, but they aren’t bringing the real service to the table. Serpico Hanson’s message to HOA prospects is this: “We want you to feel like we are part of your team, servicing a mutual client (the homeowner), and we will do that by being proactive in how we approach our communication and how we solve problems.”
Specifically, Serpico Hanson shows prospects how her firm produces monthly account reports that detail all of the work performed – what the HOA basically paid for in a given month. “No one had seen that before,” she says of response from HOAs to this system. Boards can easily see what they were getting for the price, and sometimes that is more than they expected.
Now with technology like smart phones and tablets, responding to clients’ needs and showing them value is possible in real-time. And that’s exactly the type of response HOAs expect. “It’s all about the information, the communication,” Serpico Hanson says.
A high-touch business
If one of Serpico Landscaping’s 140 employees picks up on a problem in the field, a smart phone camera allows that worker to immediately dispatch a photo of the issue to managers and the HOA client.
For example, say one of Serpico Landscaping’s irrigation technicians identifies a mainline break. “He can take a picture of that, send it to the property manager saying, ‘This is what I see, I want to fix this now, and this is what we think it will cost,’” Serpico Hanson says.
The property manager can react to the problem in real-time. “That means there is less water wasted, and it means a better landscaping product overall,” Serpico Hanson says.
Immediate communication is an absolute expectation in the HOA business. And not just for the big things. “We take communication to a point where if we are working on an account, and we notice that lights are on in a common area, boom – picture,” Serpico Hanson says. That photo is emailed to the property manager with a helpful note: “You might have problems with the timers. Lights are still on.”
When Serpico Landscaping staff members conduct walk-throughs with HOA clients, they carry tablets so they can input notes and create immediate work orders if necessary. “No one is walking around with a clip board anymore – it’s exciting,” Serpico Hanson says.
Beyond photos and emails, face time is critical to keeping HOAs happy and maintaining the high level of work these accounts expect. Serpico Hanson and her staff attend HOA board meetings, they’re visible on the property. And because of that, not just any field worker is a candidate for Serpico Landscaping’s team.
Everyone is held to Serpico Standards and completes a rigorous training program that is equally focused on quality and communications. “We train to our core values – and it is hard to find people,” Serpico Hanson says. “But you just need to know who you are looking (to hire).”
Most of Serpico Landscaping’s workforce is Hispanic. All are trained to deliver the outstanding customer service that the company’s HOA clients are promised. They respect the property, the environment and workplace safety. And they are trained by Serpico Hanson and managers to deliver that high-touch communication.
“A lot of times, our standards are higher than what our customers even expect from us, but that is what we work toward,” Serpico Hanson says.