The more they know

Features - Lawn Care

How Ferrandino & Son improves client programs through webinars, podcasts and other educational vehicles.

October 4, 2013
Brooke N. Bates

An RFP can mean potential business, but the team at Ferrandino & Son sees a bigger opportunity.

After 20 years of working with clients – typically managing hundreds of locations for each, coordinating third-party vendors to perform services from landscaping and snow removal to HVAC and general contracting – the company has experienced the opportunities and obstacles of many programs.

Sharing those experiences might be more valuable than just trudging ahead with it, says Kevin Smith, chief operating officer.

“We thought there was a gap in the marketplace where there wasn’t really a focus on straight education,” Smith says.

“Everyone’s got a marketing piece like, ‘Hey, come to Ferrandino & Son, we’re great,’ but are we really teaching our clients anything, or just trying to raise our own flag?

What we want to tell our client is, ‘Here’s the best way to deliver a solution, and we’re giving this to you from our 20 years of experience in the industry.’”

So about a year ago, Smith launched an education effort at Ferrandino to aggregate the team’s experience and share best practices with clients. It began with a podcast, and then grew into a portal of webinars, whitepapers and informative articles.

From the start, education was intently separated from marketing, because Smith didn’t want advertising to overshadow valuable information. Though the goal was to help clients improve their programs – not to market Ferrandino – the education portal has helped establish the company’s expertise and even develop new business.

“By being an educator and by helping our clients, what we’re really trying to do is make the industry better, make the programs better, make the clients better,” Smith says, “because the better they structure a program, the more likely that is to be successful. The two pieces are really, very intertwined. If we can make the programs better, that will help us succeed.”

To keep content geared toward clients, Smith pulls directly from their common questions and pain points to develop topics: snow removal invoicing and pricing models, or landscaping bid metrics.

For the initial content, he brainstormed prevalent issues he has observed during 11 years in the industry.

Now, there’s a more formal process for gathering feedback and questions with post-webinar surveys – plus, he still gleans topics from themes that emerge at client meetings.

Worth the time.
The true sign of a good topic is relevance: Will customers care enough to tune in?

“There are times where we want to do another podcast and I don’t have an idea that I think makes sense,” Smith says. “So you sometimes have to hold yourself back and not put something out just to put it out. It has to be topical to the industry. Keep talking to clients and see what they say, and in three weeks’ time, you’ve got three ideas.”

When are you sharing too much?

Ferrandino’s education portal is targeted exclusively at clients, requiring secure login to access information designed just for them. Though the topics – such as selecting a provider or invoicing services – are much more relevant to customers than to competitors, Chief Operating Officer Kevin Smith is still conscious of who’s reading what he shares.

“We don’t want our competition to sit in on a webinar and take our best practices, and then turn around and provide that information back to clients as their own,” Smith says. “So we do try and protect that by excluding them from participating in that event.”

Though safeguards are in place to keep the education portal just for clients, it’s not really like Ferrandino is hiding sensitive data from competitors.

The company’s tips merely aggregate the best and worst of what they’ve seen in the field over the years.

“To be honest, I sometimes wonder if I’m really providing secrets or just providing what should be done,” Smith says.

“If our competition heard the way we deliver service, I don’t think they’d be like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe they’re doing that.’ This is just what we perceive to be the best practices, and that is what sets us apart.”

Besides, Ferrandino’s best practices end up circulating around the marketplace, anyway. After a podcast or webinar hits clients’ ears, the content is often repurposed into articles that are submitted to trade magazines.

“Obviously, at that point, everybody’s reading it,” Smith says.

“So you have to balance it with the exposure you can get from being in a magazine like Lawn & Landscape, where we share critical information about our model. Having prospective competitors hear it is offset by the value that our clients will see.”

Quality certainly trumps quantity, so Smith focuses on fitting content into the most appropriate format to deliver value.

Not many topics warrant 45 minutes of webinar coverage – at least, according to the feedback he receives – but 500-word articles and eight-minute podcasts are easier to digest.

The ultimate test of a topic’s relevance, of course, comes with results. Obviously, webinar registration and attendance reveal how a topic fared. For example, Ferrandino’s recent webinar about snow removal best practices attracted 110 attendees from national retail clients.

“That’s where we really see the value of those topics, is when we get such great participation,” Smith says. “That’s how we know that it is resonating with people.”

The extra mile. But the education isn’t the end of the conversation – it’s just the beginning. Often, podcasts prompt prospects to respond by inviting Ferrandino on-site to elaborate.

The last webinar, for example, generated several “snow workshops,” where business development directors met with prospects to pick up where the education left off, walking them through the entire process of selecting a service provider, overcoming service challenges and getting optimal results through the season.

“We really try to blueprint the best way for them to design their program,” Smith says.

“What we’ve seen in the past is that that becomes a jumpstart for us to get an opportunity. There’s a linear effect to helping clients build these programs, in that you’ll be much better positioned to win an opportunity. Of course, we want to educate our market, but we’re seeing the direct results of this from a business development standpoint.”

Considering that Ferrandino invests little money – mostly time – on the education initiatives, generating any business from these can produce some type of ROI.

Then there are the indirect results, where education plants small seeds of opportunity that contribute to bigger results down the road.

So the education portal literally is a portal: a foot in the door to continued dialogue that can produce new business or improve existing business. As it continues, that dialogue involves more of his team. Though Smith is the face of the content, it’s a true team effort to develop and deliver best practices.

“We couldn’t preach best practices unless we could deliver, and that goes back to our people,” Smith says.

“I could preach in front of a thousand clients and say, ‘This is the way to do it,’ but if we didn’t have the operations team to deliver that work, not many people would be returning back to listen to what we have to say.”

Obviously, it takes more than one good webinar – or even a series – to build an industry leader. It’s not the education pieces alone, but the combination with Ferrandino’s presence at trade shows, ads in magazines and brand in the marketplace.

Education simply solidifies the expertise that Ferrandino has established in other avenues. That well-rounded, multi-touch approach is what distinguishes subject matter experts in a noisy marketplace.

“Some of these things are sort of like Coca-Cola advertising on a billboard,” Smith says. “It doesn’t really make anybody go out and buy a can of Coke – maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.

“But they’re building their brand by putting their name out there, and that’s critical. So sometimes, it’s hard to say, ‘Client A came to us because of this webinar.’ We do see that on occasion, where there’s a direct ROI because the client listened to it, we had a meeting, and we won business directly from it.

“But more often, I think the real value is just the continual building of our brand.”


Photo courtesy of Ferrandino & Son

The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.