Depending on where you live – and whether the groundhog opts to hang out in his den or pop up for an appearance – spring might be around the corner or miles down the road. Regardless, now is the time for clinching contract renewals, selling colder-weather services (mulch, pine straw), marketing in new neighborhoods and taking the temperature of existing clients to be sure they’re happy and on board for the upcoming spring. Forget the concept of “off season.” If you’re planning on a strong 2014, you’ve been on the phone and in the field since the holidays, and you’re spending those really ugly days analyzing the books.
Lawn & Landscape spoke with three companies that maximize the early months of the year for building a strong sales backlog and setting the tone for a full schedule of accounts.
Keep in touch
This year, Weisburg Landscape Management reached a tipping point in how the firm must manage its sales. Coming off of a 36-percent growth year – the company upped its revenues from $1.8 to $2.4 million last year – Vice President Eric Moroski recognized that supporting this larger business infrastructure will take a proactive approach to getting contracts signed.
“Before, property managers were feeding us work, and we spit out proposals and they approved those and we got the work done,” Moroski says. “This year, we have reached the point where we better start being stronger in our sales.”
Indeed, sales have been record-setting strong at the company. But, Moroski says, those sales have been reactive, a response to a customers’ requests. “People would ask us for things rather than us finding service opportunities and writing proposals,” he says.
Now, early in the year, Moroski is hunkered down in the office with the company’s software program sending an automatic email to customers upon job completion. Tasks like sending emails help further support the strong relationship the firm enjoys with its long-time clients, and they help grow rapport with newer customers.
“We are perfecting (how we use that software) to give the customer a better experience with us,” Moroski says, relating that customer experience is the key to securing sales before the maintenance season begins in April.
In fact, customer experience is how Weisburg Landscape Management has built a strong business fast, even during a recession. “You get a trusted relationship with property managers, and it all makes sense,” Moroski says. “The way to do that is to bid correctly – and bid what it is.” Specifically, Moroski is referring to companies that use landscape maintenance as a loss leader and inflate the price of “extras,” meaning enhancements of all sorts. “It’s a pet peeve of ours,” he says.
“We are pretty tight on bidding the maintenance contracts as what they are, so if a customer doesn’t want to spend one more penny with us on extra work, we are still making money.”
Of course, when customers are happy and rely on you for regular service, the extras are a given. That’s why the firm has not worked all that hard to really upsell at all.
But meaningful sales, calculated before the start of the season, could really pay off. That’s why, now, Moroski is running account reports so the company can identify the work completed last year and pinpoint opportunities to deepen the service relationship. For example, if a site has a declining irrigation system (noted in a report), Moroski can begin writing up a proposal to fix certain watering zones. That way, the proposal will be prepared in advance for the HOA board to review and hopefully approve. “Then property managers have some idea how their money can be spent in the best possible way,” he says.
Another key is to understand how an HOA’s budget is set up. “They may have improvement budgets and irrigation line items,” Moroski says. “We are getting more in tune with those numbers and asking, ‘How can we find out those numbers?’ so we can provide the most ROI for customers.”
Timing is everything
When you’re always climbing, and always slightly uncomfortable, you’re always selling – and selling hard. “At the end of the day, you have to feel like you really have something that drives you,” says Derek Gracely, co-founder of Capstone Landscape Management in Taylors, S.C.
“What we have always done is put ourselves in some sort of financial bind that we have to get out of – and I don’t mean stupid debt, but I mean quitting a full-time job so we have to recover that revenue, buying a truck we have to pay off, purchasing a building and now we are outgrowing that building and buying a new one.”
Staying busy all year requires building a backlog, Gracely says. And that requires what he calls “strategic sales.” That’s what to sell, and when. For Capstone, building a design/build backlog of more than about one month does not result in the type of customer satisfaction the company strives for.
The biggest sales backlog challenges is helping clients understand that landscaping involves a process. Ideally, Gracely and team sells design/build jobs about three or four weeks out. Any longer and he notices clients are fidgety.
Maintenance is a different story. Those contracts are ideally signed by March, and Gracely’s team carefully reviews customer accounts so dialogue can focus on what’s going on the lawn now, and what could make the property look better. The high-end residential clients Capstone serves are receptive to suggestions. It doesn’t feel like selling at all, Gracely says.
Meanwhile, budgets are carefully analyzed so the sales team understands their target numbers. Rather than taking the prior year’s sales and setting monthly sales goals based on an average, Gracely looks at the past three years’ sales, month by month. You can’t expect to sell in January what you can in July, when the company enjoys a surge of jobs, some of which are clients who are leaving a maintenance company mid-season to try Capstone instead.
But March is go-time for getting those residential maintenance contracts confirmed. And before and during this time, the company is focused on selling work it can deliver immediately – to appeal to the client that wants it now. That includes mulch, pine straw and lighting.
“You get the longevity out of mulch in January and February, and it’s a great time to do that work because our maintenance staff is already on slack hours so we don’t have to staff up,” Gracely says.
Most of all, Gracely emphasizes that sales is a year-round effort. “If we can keep a property at a grade-A level, and keep that customer well taken care of, then when that client is looking for landscaping at the end of February or early March, that’s when we’ll really start pushing our maintenance.”
Staying on the radar
Which routes are thin and could use a sales boost and a slew of accounts to maximize a crew’s schedule? What marketing pieces really hit home with residents? What collateral needs updating to reflect new service offerings?
These are the issues Custom Landscaping and Lawn Care reviews early in the year. While snow operations are humming along, the office is just as busy planning for sales and marketing so come spring – whether that’s early March or later in the New Jersey market the firm services – the company is prepared with a full load of accounts to meet budget goals.
“Our planning for new sales begins toward the end of the year and goes into early winter,” says Frank Leloia Jr., president of the East Brunswick, N.J. firm. “We like to be early, so planning is absolutely critical.”
Specifically, Custom Landscaping and Lawn Care targets neighborhoods where it wants to increase sales. Leloia reviews areas where he feels the company could excel. And because he reviews year-end numbers by geography, he knows which areas are thin on business. “Say we want to fill up this city with these couple of neighborhoods – we’ll need to make 100 new sales, so we target the area heavier with our marketing because we want the crews to fill up on some more accounts,” he says.
As for selling to existing customers, account managers dedicate time to reviewing each client’s record. What services did they purchase last season? Were any enhancements added? How about service calls – and was the estimate accurate?
“Not only do we evaluate what our current clients do not have at that time, while we have the customer screen (on our software) up, it’s a great opportunity to evaluate those sales to make sure they are priced accurately and that all measurements are correct. During the busy time when we are doing 20 estimates each day, it’s easy to make mistakes.”
Any pricing margins can be corrected with the new contract – you can’t up a price in the middle of the season if you made a mistake on the estimate.
Of course, the most important part of those customer calls is gauging clients’ satisfaction. Simply asking, “How is everything going?” can make the difference between a renewal and a client that shops around. This is also the time when salespeople can, in a genuine manner, suggest additional services that might enhance clients’ properties. “We might say, ‘I noticed you are not signed up for lime with us this year. Do you have any interest?’ We don’t even like to call it sales,” Leloia says.
Meanwhile, the marketing engine revs up early in the year – though Custom Landscaping and Lawn Care waits to release the direct mail floodgates until the start of spring. “As soon as the weather turns, everyone knows spring is here when we put down about 70 percent of our advertising,” Leloia says.