I spent a few days down in Orlando last month for the PLANET Lawn Care Summit and Real Green Systems Users Conference. Together, they provide LCOs with some of the best education currently available on how to run their businesses better.
The week was chock full of sessions about mergers and acquisitions, technical updates on the latest products and other solid education that’s key for so many companies. But two speakers blew me away and illustrated the fact that there are a lot of smart people working very hard to put science and real numbers behind the green industry.
To wit: Dr. Mark Schmidt from John Deere and Mike Dukes from the University of Florida.
Schmidt, Deere’s chief scientist, heads up a brain trust of folks working on a concept called ecological services. It’s an idea that’s found purchase in the ag and forestry industries and makes sense for landscaping as well.
The goal is to assign values to the various pieces and parts that make up a landscape – the trees, the water reclamation ability, carbon sequestered, even the pleasure people get from taking a walk in the park – and use those numbers to show that in a true cost-benefit analysis, landscaping has a net benefit to the world.
Yes, it’s a bit harder to quantify and put a value on the pleasure of a long walk in the woods than the market price of a truckload of soybeans or pine boards. But the approach and the effort are laudable.
The idea of ecological services moves the industry away from the idea that plants are pretty and nice, but not really necessary, and brings to the fore the idea that yes, landscapes are worth something, and likely worth more than a lot of people realize.
Second, Mike Dukes, a professor at the University of Florida, who’s working with the Southern Florida Water Management District to quantify the impact of smart controllers in various landscapes.
His work, among other things, is being used to develop standard irrigation codes for municipalities, so the industry gets a fair – and scientific – shake when it comes to regulations.
Third is our own report, Grow the Market. It’s the first post-recession study of consumer attitudes and how homeowners perceive landscapers. This first-of-its-kind report is designed to help landscapers and lawn care operators target customers more effectively and grow their market share intelligently.
Each of these three projects will help you grow and be more successful, either tomorrow or in the future. Some of the science may be wonky, but folks like Schmidt and Dukes are key to the long-term viability of the green industry.
– Chuck Bowen
Mike Matthews, president of For-Shore-Weed-Control, Inc. in Atlantic City, N.J., doesn’t know exactly how much his RealGreen customer relationship management (CRM) software cost him. But one thing he does know is that it has been worth every penny.
“Last year, we handled 14,000 residential clients, and a lot of municipal and industrial accounts too,” Matthews says. “And we couldn’t possibly have done it without this software.”
The software allows Matthews to manage customer expectations from the point-of-sale.
“That way,” he says, “if there is an issue, it’s not going to become an ‘I’m going to cancel your service because you guys don’t know what you’re doing’ issue.” Matthews says his company has educated customers to the level where they, for example, will call and say, “That nutsedge the sales guy told me about has come back, can you come out and address that?”
“It’s a completely different kind of phone call, and the relationship with the client is completely different from that point on because now we’re working together to solve the problem before it becomes an issue,” Matthews says.
Relationship manager. CRM software allows Matthews to analyze the relationship between a given applicator and the number of service calls generated by clients that applicator is servicing. It tells him whether jobs are being sold properly at the point-of-sale so that customer expectations are in line. Besides cancellations, is there a higher percentage of service calls being requested for an individual who is selling a job versus doing the job?
“We can also look at data from a purely demographic standpoint via zip codes, regions and routes we’ve established,” Matthews says. “Also, the combination of services people have in a certain zip code – do they subscribe to lawn care service there? Do they tend to have lawn care and pest control, or lawn care and tree and shrub?” Matthews understands how this software helps a very large company like his, but in his mind, it can also benefit small ones, too.
“I think you should always look at your company not as it is, but as it could be or as you want it to be,” he says. Steve Keys, who owns seven U.S. Lawns franchises, also says that CRM software isn’t just for the big boys.
“I would recommend it to the guy who has his first customer,” he says. “If you don’t want to grow, then maybe you don’t need it. But it makes life so much easier.” Keys is currently transitioning his employees to HindSite software. Training has consisted of webinars conducted by HindSite via the Internet.
“My employees have taken to it well, but it is ongoing training because the software is ever-changing,” Keys says.
“But the software companies are great about adjusting the program to fit you. We make suggestions, and if they’re valid, lo and behold the next version has it.”
Keys has no doubt the software has improved his company’s relationships with customers. Work orders are issued, put into the system and then tracked for completion. Once completed, the customer receives an email, and they have an opportunity to confirm or deny the service has been completed or express dissatisfaction with the service.
“The crew leader may tell you he completed the job, but unless you were there standing there watching him, you really don’t know,” Keys says. Scheduling is streamlined, too, which also makes customers happy. The software eliminates confusion over who is doing what.
“When you have five or six people, it’s pretty easy to keep up with who is supposed to do what. But when you have a couple hundred, tell me how you’re supposed to do that,” Keys says.
Money matters. Keys says he spends approximately $2,000 a month on the software service, but he has saved a lot on ink and paper by going electronic with service tickets. He does not currently have a data plan for his crews, which means the system only links up when the tablet or whatever device his crews are using hits a wireless signal.
Beyond customer relations, the most important aspect of the software, Keys says, is the ability to pull a report year-to-date to see if a job is in or out of budget.
“Landscape companies in the northern markets renew in January or whenever, but the ones in the south like us are renewing every month in all different months,” he says.
“If you don’t know when those contracts renew, then how do you evaluate if the customer has been profitable or not and then determine if you need to increase or decrease their rate?”
The author is a freelancer based in Cleveland.
The next level of customer service
Ray Johnson wanted to boost the level of customer service offered by his company – what resulted was a product he’s now offering to other firms in the industry.
By Bill Delaney
For Johnson’s Carefree Lawns in Knoxville, Tenn., providing top-notch customer service is always high on the list of priorities. In 2012, Ray Johnson, owner, developed a new system that he said helped take his company’s customer service to the next level.
Johnson hired a software development team and over the past two years developed a system called ACES for Business (www.acesforbusiness.com), a platform that allows businesses to send out appointment confirmation emails complete with a picture of the specific technician who will be performing a service at the customer’s home. The platform performs a host of other functions that can help gather valuable customer information, according to Johnson.
“The customer response has been phenomenal,” says Johnson, who also owns Johnson Pest Control. “It helps close sales before you get to the door because people have such a feeling about the company they are dealing with that has this technology and professionalism.”
After a customer books an appointment with the company, that customer can check their email inbox moments later to find a confirmation email complete with a photo of the technician they can expect, and a photo of the representative they just spoke with over the phone. Johnson says this not only gives his customers an enhanced sense of security, but is an all-important “first touch” with the customer.
“We say, ‘Mr. Jones, for security reasons, we’d like to send you a picture of the person coming to your property to measure the lawn,’” he says.
“It has been an invaluable tool to get email addresses because when you say for security reasons we’d like to send you a picture of the technician coming to your home, 99.9 percent of the time, we get their email addresses. Before, when we tried to collect email addresses, they were reluctant.”
Customer contact. There’s an imaginative and charming practicality at work within ACES for Business. LCOs can not only send appointment confirmation emails, but also an array of other email services to customers, such as thank-you cards, service surveys, referral incentives, coupons and more.
The service is fully customizable, specific to the company using the software, and is Web-based. Johnson says it’s about building an interaction with the customer that builds incentive for that customer to keep doing business with you.
Kevin Kordek, president and CEO of A-Active Termite and Pest Control, recently began using the ACES system for his own company, and said the results so far have been very positive.
“We’ve incorporated ACES into every single phase of our customer experience,” Kordek says. “In a tough economy, the little details make more of a difference. This program touches all levels of customer service.” Kordek added that he had originally intended to use the program to reach new prospective customers, but now A-Active uses it for virtually everything: appointment confirmation, estimates, thank-yous and more.
Kordek says he appreciates how the appointment confirmation feature can put some of his customers at ease. “(Customers) will open the email while they’re still on the phone, and it really familiarizes things very quickly. It takes away that uncomfortable feeling of ‘Who’s going to be showing up at my home?’”
Kordek says A-Active uses the system for any opportunity that presents itself as an additional touch point with a customer – and those touch points are important. “That’s what I look for in service companies I use – there’s nothing worse than feeling unappreciated.”
Strategic elements. Johnson says that the ACES program has bolstered his company’s email database, an important feature of a contemporary business no matter the industry.
“I paid my employees a dollar for every email they’d get from a customer so we could add them to our mailing lists, in hopes of billing them through email instead of snail mail,” he says. These days, Johnson says his company receives a customer email address the majority of the time. The system has also bolstered a few intangibles for his company, Johnson says. These emails heighten the level of professionalism perceived by the customer, and the level of trust.
Johnson tells an anecdote of an elderly woman who called requesting a service – the woman forwarded the confirmation email to her daughter down in Florida, and the daughter in turned called Johnson Pest Control to thank them for providing such exemplary service, Johnson says.
As well, the ability to send simple customer surveys to gain feedback is a useful tool for any lawn care business.
Johnson has been using his own system since February of 2012, and the system is now available for use by other companies at a monthly subscription fee. He says of those who have used it so far, the system has been a success.
“This has been one tool that has really helped us gain closing percentages – if customers are looking at three or four estimates, you send out an email to them, that helps,” he says.
The author is associate editor of PCT Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.
I am often asked at tax time, “How do we minimize our taxes?” One of the best ways is to purchase assets that are needed in your company, such as vehicles or equipment, prior to year end. If you are a cash basis taxpayer, another effective tax minimization strategy is to pay all your bills by year end. But as we saw in 2012, what if these ideas weren’t enough?
One of the best strategies in addition to the above is to establish and contribute to a retirement plan. While it is too late to establish a plan for 2012, you should start looking at this now for 2013 as income taxes will definitely rise this year. Many land care professionals find pension plans complicated and don’t believe it’s worth the effort. In addition, many who have set up 401(k) plans in the past ran into trouble with the “non discrimination” and “top heavy” plan requirements, causing ownership and management to be very limited in their ability to derive any significant benefit from participation in the plan (“non discrimination” and “top heavy” are descriptions where the IRS defines highly vs. non highly compensated employees).
The issue is problematic to many land care professionals because most employees don’t participate, or those who do contribute very little to the plan, which disqualifies most contributions made by ownership or management (“highly compensated employees” as defined by the IRS). There are, however, a couple of options that will allow all employees as well as ownership to contribute to a retirement plan. This gives the participants tax-deferred compensation and allows the company a tax deduction without the burdensome income testing (that usually hijacks the good intentions of management) that limits contributions allowed by traditional 401K plans.
There are two plans that land care firms can establish that are not subject to the testing requirements. These plans will allow an employee to contribute to the plan as well as the employer to contribute with both receiving tax benefits. While I can’t make you an expert from this writing, you will clearly be armed with enough information to discuss the concepts with a financial professional to determine if establishment of a plan is for you.
Before we look at the types of plans that will fit the above objectives, let’s look at the basic mechanics of a plan:
1. The company establishes the plan.
2. An employee may elect to contribute a portion of his salary to the plan, which is held in an account that is separate from company assets and cannot be touched by the company or its creditors. The employee’s contribution is removed from his taxable income for the contribution year, saving the employee current year taxes. He is not taxed on that money until distribution of the contribution plus any investment earnings that are made while in the account. Distribution is usually made at retirement age or after. If funds are distributed before retirement age, there is a penalty to the employee unless he meets certain hardship exceptions.
3. The company can contribute funds to the account on behalf of the employee as a match or a profit share. In any event, the company match is tax deductible to the company and is added to the employee’s account, taxed to the employee at distribution as in (2) above.
Two types of plans that fit the above objectives without testing and are somewhat easy to administer include:
1. Savings Incentive Match Plan Individual Retirement Account. A SIMPLE IRA is a retirement plan that uses separate IRA accounts owned and managed by each participant.
a. This type of plan can be established if you have 100 employees or less who receive $5,000 or more in compensation for the prior year.
b. If you use a SIMPLE IRA, it is the only plan that you can have (unless you have union employees covered by a collective bargaining agreement).
c. Employee salary reduction contribution limit for 2013 maximum $12,000 and $14,500 for those 50 years and older.
d. Employer contributions:
i. The employer is generally required to match each employee’s salary reduction contribution on a dollar-for-dollar basis up to 3 percent of the employee’s compensation; or
ii. The employer may choose to make non elective contributions of 2 percent for all eligible employees whether or not they make salary reduction contributions.
iii. There is no profit sharing provision with a SIMPLE IRA.
e. The plan can be set up anytime January 1 to October 1 of the year you are going to operate the plan (If you are a new business formed after Oct. 1 you have until it is “administratively feasible” to set it up).
f. Employee contributions must be deposited prior to 30 days after the month they were deducted from the employee’s paycheck.
g. Employer contributions are due by the due date of the employer’s tax return including extensions. e Harbor 401(k) Plan. Since many plans can be “top heavy,” which negate
2. Safe Harbor 401(k) Plan. Since many plans can be “top heavy,” which negates most of the tax benefit to the company as well as the owners and managers, the IRS has provided criteria that, if followed, automatically satisfies the non-discrimination testing applicable to most 401(k) plans. A 401(k) safe harbor plan consists of:
a. Employee salary reduction contribution limit for 2013 maximum $17,500 and $23,000 for those over 50 years old.
b. Safe harbor employer contributions:
i. The safe harbor employer contribution may be either a 3 percent contribution for all employees or a basic safe harbor matching contribution of 100 percent on the first 3 percent of salary deferrals and 50 percent on salary deferrals between 3 percent and 5 percent of pay (for a maximum of 4 percent); or
ii. Contribute 3 percent of the employee’s compensation for each eligible employee, regardless of whether the employee chooses to participate in the plan.
c. Discretionary profit sharing contributions.
In setting up an administering this type of plan:
a. It needs to be established by Dec. 31 of the year you are going to operate the plan.
b. I recommend setting the plan up with a financial professional as there are filing requirements as well other administration that needs to be done.
c. Employee contributions must be deposited as soon as administratively feasible according to the Department of Labor.
d. Employer Contribution must be made by the due date of the employer’s tax return, including extensions.
Retirement plans can be a great way to save taxes at the company level, motivate employees and defer employee taxes. SIMPLE IRAs provide a method to bypass these restrictions and are relatively easy to administer.
Safe Harbor 401(k) plans, while they require more administration than a SIMPLE IRA, also bypass the restriction of the traditional 401(k) and allow greater amounts to be contributed.
The author is a CPA in New Jersey and owns Turfbooks, an accounting firm that caters to landscape and lawn care professionals.
Every landscape is composed of some basic elements. One material that is necessary and plays an important role are the groundcovers.
There are two basic categories of groundcovers available, organic and inorganic or plant- based and non plant-based. Inorganic materials encompass a wide range of products, some of them with natural origins and relatively unchanged, others modified versions of a natural product, and others that are man-made. When selecting a groundcover, it is important to understand which materials are best suited to the site requirements and to fulfill the design intent of the project.
Fiber mat, the type used to line moss baskets and available as ready-to-use tree rings, also has applications in landscape beds. Due to the cost of the material, it is not practical to use in large spaces, but in small beds, especially in urban areas, its portability can be advantageous. Sold in rolls and by the yard it is easy to install, allows air and water to move freely through to the soil and is quite attractive.
When the space you are working with is on an incline, fiber mat can be very useful. Pinned in place it will not slide, will hold the soil in place and reduce erosion without requiring regular replacement like traditional organic mulches. If planted with spreading groundcover plants, the mat will be concealed quickly and disappear. The initial investment will repay itself by reducing the need to add additional mulch and the accompanying labor to install.
Pebble tile on mesh, which is typically used as a hardscape element, can be used in the landscape as a groundcover in certain situations. When the design calls for crisp delineation, use this material to accentuate lines or open areas in a formal or modern landscape. The spaces between the pebbles can be filled with 1/4-in. aggregate in a matching or complementary color. Available in a wide variety of colors, pebble tile can become the distinguishing feature of a project, minimizing the need for edging to separate pebbles from organic mulch along a bed edge.
Sea shells are not just for the beach. Crushed sea shells make an excellent groundcover, especially for a walking or driving surface. Used in the landscape, they can be quite beneficial, as long as you are careful in their placement so to not damage the plants with their sharp edges. While unconfirmed, crushed sea shells are considered to be a deterrent to slugs and voles. Readily available in coastal areas, they are comparable in price to stone when purchased in bulk. A beautiful and classic addition to a Cape Cod garden, crushed sea shells would be lovely in any landscape setting calling for a fine texture and light color tones.
Tumbled glass brings an iridescent quality to the garden when is introduced and is made 100 percent from recycled bottles and manufacturing facilities. Just as glass is used to mirror the flames in a fire pit, it can also be used to radiate the glow of a light fixture along a path or illuminate a strip between paving and the edge of a patio when lit from below.
Regardless of the material selected, be mindful that all the elements in the landscape should work together in a practical and aesthetically pleasing manner. Each piece of the puzzle has a job to do, it needs to be done in concert with its partners and it needs to be done well.
Consider these basic elements of design: shape, size, texture, color and value, when making your final groundcover selection. Let the groundcover do more than the obvious; use it to add unity and harmony to your projects. By making wise choices, you create projects that exceed the expectations of clients and enhance your position in the marketplace.
The author is president of the Association of Professional Landscape Designers.
Remember when your parents would tell you to get off your butt and go do something? Well, we’re telling you to get off that mower seat and get on your feet. Stand-on mowers give you a better view of the land you are mowing, and make it easier when you have to get off the mower to move debris that are hindering your progress. We’re so excited about the thought of you standing up and mowing, we’ve listed some options in the stand-on mower market to get you jump started.
Exmark Vantage X-Series Stand-On Rider
The pitch: Exmark introduces the Enhanced Control System (ECS) to the Vantage X-Series rider.
- ECS improves operator control with controls at the fingertips and a more natural riding position.
- The series has reduced-friction pumps and upgraded wheel motors to maintain ground speed of up to 8 mph.
- Choices of 48-, 52- or 60-in. UltraCut Series 4 cutting decks with patented flow-control baffles and optimized blade tip speed.
For more information: www.exmark.com
Gravely Pro-Stance Series Mowers
The pitch: Gravely’s Pro-Stance series mower provides enhanced productivity and comfort.
- Change the deck height at the control panel without stepping off the machine with the dial height-of-cut adjustment.
- Dual-deck lift controls allow you to raise the deck by hand or foot lever.
- Heavy-duty, removable rubber discharge chute allows for flexibility mowing around objects.
- Optional accessories: mulching kit, grass collector, operator controlled discharge chute, grass catcher bracket.
For more information: www.gravely.com
John Deere QuikTrak Stand-On Mowers
The pitch: The re-designed QuikTrak stand-on commercial mower is designed to meet the changing needs of professional landscape contractors and is available in the B Series and R Series.
- It offers one of the shortest designs available on the market, and it is also one of the lightest, making it highly maneuverable around obstacles and contours in the turf.
- The B Series features a 22.0-hp engine with a 7-gauge, fabricated 52-in. fixed deck, run flat front tires, and sealed front caster bearings.
- The R Series is available with a 22.0- or 23.5-hp engine with 48-, 52-, or 61-in. 7-gauge fabricated floating decks.
For more information: www.deere.com
The pitch: The Toro 60-in. GrandStand Stand-On Mower offers speed, maneuverability, versatility and comfort.
- It has a 26-hp Kawasaki engine, coupled with the 60-in. Turbo Force cutting deck.
- A wide stance and optimized balance allows operators to maneuver with ease over a multitude of terrains.
- The Flex-Ride operator platform is self-compensating, allowing operators of varying size to remain comfortable, reducing fatigue and increasing productivity.
- The Flex-Ride platform can be folded up to instantly convert the GrandStand into a walk-behind, eliminating the need for multiple mowers and saving trailer space.
For more information: www.toro.com
Looking for the latest in other mower categories? We have you covered. To see our round up of zero-turn mowers, visit bit.ly/zero-turn.