The Old-Fashioned Guarantee at Ecolawn promises that the company’s customized lawn care program will leave lawns so lush that customers will brag. President Don Zerby gives his “personal promise of complete satisfaction” to “do whatever it takes,” offering either refunds or re-applications at no cost.
As a small firm in Eastlake, Ohio, with only five employees, Ecolawn can afford to offer this type of personalized attention.
Zerby’s first company was a full-service landscaping design, build and maintenance firm he started in 1977 at age 13. Realizing that a tighter focus would allow more attentive service, he closed it down to establish Ecolawn in 1993, focusing exclusively on lawn, tree and shrub care, fertilization, aeration, weed and grub control.
“I decided that, by offering a premium level of service, we’d always be a small operation,” he says. “We want to stay very focused on what we’re doing. So any growth that we’ve incurred is happening because we’re very clear with regard to our methods and our culture. Growth is very slow, very controlled, and keeps that culture as its core.”
The five employees on Zerby’s team have been carefully selected and trained to uphold the old-fashioned, customized experience Ecolawn guarantees its customers.
That experience often begins with a free estimate, as it does at most lawn care companies. But at Ecolawn, the estimate is more than a measurement.
When PLANET introduced the STARS Safe Company Program in 2004, Don Zerby signed up immediately. The program, an acronym for “Safety Training Achieves Remarkable Success,” provides safety guidelines and training materials to help green industry companies reduce workplace risks and hazards.
“As a small company, we didn’t have time or resources to create and implement an effective safety program,” Zerby says. “I saw the STARS program as a solution. It’s a comprehensive safety program that outlines how to be a safer company, conduct training, record accidents and meet OSHA requirements.”
Using the checklists, guidelines and best practices offered through the program, Zerby puts employees through extensive safety training at Ecolawn. New hires receive instruction from experienced mentors to learn how to operate equipment, lift heavy loads, read labels and complete the rest of their lawn care duties safely.
As a result, Ecolawn has received PLANET’s safety awards each year since the program’s inception. Specifically, in 2005, 2010, 2011 and 2012, the company received gold-level recognition – the highest awarded – to celebrate zero accidents, injuries or workdays missed.
“Employees and customers are attracted to a company that puts their safety and that of their families at the top of its priorities,” Zerby says. “The STARS safety awards add credibility and help make customers confident in choosing Ecolawn as their lawn service provider.”
“Lawn care companies in recent years have employed satellite technology to provide lawn measurements. Then they respond by providing the lowest quote, so whoever produces the lowest price gets the job,” Zerby says. “We already know we’re not going to be the lowest priced service provider, and we don’t want to be. What we’ll do is learn what the customer’s experience has been with their lawn and find out what their expectations are. We begin by learning the customer’s objectives, then we do an old-fashioned, on-site inspection.”
Instead of assigning a one-size-fits-all program based on yard size, Ecolawn customizes its approach. A lawn that hosts the neighborhood kids’ ball games will receive a different treatment than a showcase lawn, just as an environmentally conscious customer may get a less aggressive program than one who wants neighbors complimenting his pristine turf.
In addition to understanding customers’ experiences and expectations with their lawns, the other piece of the puzzle is discovering the customer’s willingness to get involved. While it’s up to Ecolawn to create and communicate legitimate expectations, the customer also has a role to play.
“If we can show the customer the value of using the right agronomic techniques, like mowing and watering, they end up having a much healthier lawn that’s far less dependent on repeat chemical applications,” Zerby says. “There is no magic potion. Their lawn’s not going to turn emerald green two days after a single treatment. But over a period of time, by employing the right techniques – both them and us – we will grow a healthy lawn they can be proud of.”
Ecolawn builds collaborative relationships by educating customers about cultural practices that contribute to a healthy lawn. For example, regardless of Ecolawn’s treatments, customers can actually invite weeds by mowing their grass too short.
So Zerby’s team makes an effort to explain how taller grass shades the crown of the plant to protect it against stress and weed growth. Ecolawn can then apply organic nutrients to stimulate deep root growth and maintain moisture for a healthier, more disease-resistant lawn.
In addition to the lawn care tips provided on Ecolawn’s website, newsletters and hand-outs, the crews are encouraged to communicate these cultural techniques to customers verbally.
“We spend quite a bit of time educating customers, and that’s where the culture comes in,” Zerby says. “Our honesty and integrity have to be absolute, our core values have to be obvious, in order for our message to be credible. It’s critically important that our technicians know and understand this philosophy, because they play a critical role in helping the customer learn these things.”
Although, with low turnover, Zerby doesn’t have to hire often and he uses an exhaustive screening process when he does. Rather than testing technical skills, which can be taught, he looks for a fit with the candidate’s core values. He may ask about childhood chores and extracurricular activities to identify whether people have the self-motivated initiative and responsibility to take ownership at Ecolawn.
“We work hard to find the right people who have the same values that our company does,” he says. “We’re looking for a track record that mirrors a positive, professional culture from the beginning.”
New employees go through extensive training, which spans two days of classroom learning, followed by instruction in the shop and the field. Veteran technicians mentor new hires up to three months before they begin treating properties on their own.
“We make sure service technicians are prepared to offer competent service,” Zerby says. “There is no micromanaging. They’re empowered to make service decisions on the spot.”
Sometimes, those decisions involve staying to educate a customer about proper watering techniques – even if it means missing the daily quota.
“Our technicians have daily goals, but the careful, conscientious servicing of our customers’ properties is the most important objective,” Zerby says. “Our technicians won’t hurry to meet a quota. They know that the financial parameters are critically important, because without them we won’t have a business. But the customer is far more important, because without the customer, the same thing happens, only quicker.”
So, instead of micromanaging his team, Zerby relies on feedback from customers.
“Customers have told us that our culture is why they continue to buy from us,” he says. “Apparently, it’s not the norm anymore.”