All in the Details

All in the Details

Bring on the special forces. These niche services require expertise that fulfills clients’ demand for perfection.

December 2, 2011
Kristen Hampshire
Industry News

There are plenty of companies that mow lawns, but what about handling all the little stuff – pruning ornamentals, weeding beds, refreshing annuals, planting containers? These are the tasks an old-fashioned gardener might handle. But landscape firms with certain clientele are finding that they can offer these specialty services on a quarterly basis. By doing so, they deepen customer relationships and find opportunities to upsell other design services.

Rather than playing in the over-saturated landscape maintenance markets in their areas, these three landscape designers decided to branch out into detail gardening to accommodate clients' demand for something more than mowing.

Filling special niches

Keep an eye on the market and an open mind. That's what inspires new, niche services at The LaurelRock Co., where a fine gardening program, irrigation program and organic plant healthcare fulfill clients' demand for attention to detail and eco-conscious landscaping.

The fine gardening program was born after Burt DeMarche, president of the Wilton, Conn.-based firm, heard clients say, "It's nice to have my own gardener." He noticed master gardeners in the area who would take on a handful of estate clients and manage their properties full time.

"We said, we should be doing that in-house and that can set us apart from the competition," DeMarche says. That was seven years ago, and since then the service has evolved from deadheading, hand-pruning and constant garden care to include maintaining water features. Also, LaurelRock helps select and purchase decorative containers for clients to place around pools, on front porches and other hardscaped areas and fills them with colorful annual displays and tropical plants.

The key to selling fine gardening is educating clients about what the service brings to their properties – and that the specialty service requires talented workers, which LaurelRock has on staff. The fine gardening program is powered by three two-man crews, and they become fixtures on the property.

"The fine gardening program really allows a lot more time in front of clients, so a lot of conversation occurs instead of being like a salesperson," DeMarche says of the opportunities fine gardening provides for suggesting other services the company offers. "It's a different approach to client relations and that has helped us get additional work beyond the maintenance contracts."

Listening to clients' feedback while tending to landscape detail-work has prompted other service upstarts. For one: organic turf healthcare, a "transitional program" hybrid between synthetic and 100 percent organic lawn care. It appeals to clients who are tempted by the organic services but not so sure about seeing weeds crop up here and there as their properties "adjust" to all-natural practices.

"Clients who choose a 100 percent organic program have to be very tolerant and willing to put up with weeds, especially the first few years. A lot of people like the idea of organic, but they want their lawn to do 'better' than that," DeMarche says, likening the switch to organic from a synthetic program to taking a lawn off of drugs. There's a detox period, and the turf just won't look perfect.

Clients who want the benefit of a friendlier program (and the peace of mind) but aren't ready to watch weeds sprout can get the best of both organic and synthetic worlds. LaurelRock's organic turf healthcare provides topdressing and spot-treating to knock down weeds, and a preemergent to prevent crabgrass.

Satisfying clients' needs so they don't look for the service elsewhere is the whole point. Plus, customers' properties are like a billboard for LaurelRock, so paying close attention to all the details is critical for maintaining the firm's reputation as a polished, high-quality player in the market.

"Know your market well and what the needs are in your area, and then try to find your niche," DeMarche says.


Hands-on care

Taking care of the small stuff is big business for companies like Schnetz Landscape in Escondido, Calif., where clients in estate neighborhoods are looking for more than lawn maintenance. They want attention to detail. Perfection. Enter Schentz's fine gardening services. "It's like getting a car detailed rather than just washing the exterior," says Bill Schnetz, president.

Though actually, there's a lot more to fine gardening than that. At Schnetz Landscape, the service is like "old fashioned gardening," and it requires deep plant knowledge and design savvy from crews that perform the work. Some of that can be trained – and Schnetz says that having a fine gardening division gives landscape maintenance workers another step on the ladder to work toward in their careers at the company. But other aspects of gardening come naturally. "We watch our crews to see who has a natural eye for pruning," he says. Also, Schnetz recruits workers with nursery backgrounds who are well practiced at plant identification and care.

"You have to find the right people to do the work – people who have the talent," Schnetz says. "Otherwise, customers won't be happy with the results and won't consider it a value-added service."

Fine gardening is hands-on work. And in many ways, Schnetz Landscape acts as a rescue squad for landscapes in need. For clients holding a wedding or corporate party, the firm can create the right scenery and mood by shaping greenery that's already there and adding to it with enhancements. For estates that have suffered from years of neglect, the company comes in and rehabs the property inside (digging up beds) and out (detail pruning). At Schnetz Landscape, the niche gardening service includes everything from incorporating eye-catching containers to managing irrigation systems and handling monthly garden detail.

The payback for this focused labor is generous compared to typical landscape maintenance, Schnetz says. Meanwhile, with the economy, Schnetz says maintenance in general consumes more of his business. Where two-thirds of his business was construction before the recession, now two-thirds is maintenance, including garden detail.

Despite the opportunity in this niche, Schnetz says the service isn't for every company. "The work is out there, but as companies grow and their owners can't be on the job, they avoid (fine gardening) work because it's real hands-on," he says.

The key to selling fine gardening services is to educate clients about the difference between detail work and basic maintenance. "Maintenance is minimal touch, garden detail is a higher level, and renovation is more extensive than that – it gets more destructive and costly," Schnetz says.

As homeowners look for ways to revamp their landscapes without investing in a complete tear-out or new build, Schnetz notices a greater interest in fine gardening. "You show them the value of editing their property," he says. "It takes years for landscapes to mature." Refining the old is more cost-effective, sustainable and provides faster results than ripping out a landscape and installing new plants.

Preserving fine properties

There is nothing worse than driving by a client's property a year after completion and seeing how the hard work and investment has aged without proper care.

"It would actually make me crazy, especially after clients had put so much money and effort into these gardens," says Irving Tamura, president, Tamura Designs, of the condition of stonework that had not been properly pressure washed and water features with broken motors – and the ornamentals that had branched out into an unshapely mess. "It was disheartening to see some of the wonderful work not being properly maintained."

Then Tamura began getting phone calls from his high-end residential clients, who would complain that their gardeners' work just wasn't up to snuff.

So when clients began pressing Tamura for some options a couple of years ago, he seized the opportunity to start a detail garden division with a three-man crew dedicated to ornamental pruning, irrigation system maintenance and caring for every plant and garden structure on a client's property.

"We don't own a lawn mower," Tamura says of the detail garden niche. He doesn't compete with landscape maintenance firms. "We don't want to be in that game. I learned long ago that it's better to create your own market and your own niche, and that is what we have done."

Tamura's clients want a commercial gardening service – someone they can call to handle all those little (and big) things. Detail gardening is generally a quarterly service, and Tamura sells it to existing clients by sending email reminders that the option exists and discussing the service when design/build projects are complete. Almost every one of his clients elects detail gardening. "They value their investment and they want to look suitable over time," Tamura says.

For Tamura, the service has helped fill a gap in revenues since 2007 when business slowed during the recession. Detail gardening is 25 percent of Tamura's business, bringing in about $1 million last year. Plus, it's a service Tamura doesn't have to bid. "The amount of money we generate with just three men is incredible," he says of his crew.

Tamura has craftspeople on staff – a carpenter, stone mason and electrician – so he can fulfill special maintenance requests from clients. The ability to take garden detail deeper, including the technical aspects of irrigation system programming and the expertise required to properly maintain and repair stonework, helps set Tamura's garden detail services apart from others.

The service is a win-win for Tamura and his clients. Any problems on their properties are addressed right away, and Tamura's crew gets more time one-on-one with clients, which deepens these important relationships.

"Because of the quality of work that we've done in the past, a lot of our clients will opt for more services," Tamura says.

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