Tips from the top: Chris Lee

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Chris Lee, president, Earthworks

April 9, 2014
Chuck Bowen

I had come from a business management background. So I was very familiar with customer service and the financial side of the business. But I knew absolutely nothing about plants.

It was a family business and they were having growth issues. My stepfather knew all about plants and mowing grass and things like that but didn’t have much background on the business side or the customer service side.

I think I started off making $500 a week and I was working probably close to 90 hours. At one point I did the math on what I was making per hour. It was somewhere around $2.50 an hour. Then I really started to wonder if I’d made the right decision.

I never did it again. I decided right then I could never do this math again no matter what.

The basics of customer service are to be responsive. If somebody calls you, even if you don’t know the answer to what they need you call them back and say, “Hey, I got your message,” or, “I got your email. Let me research this, let me find it out.” They have to know right away that you’ve received the message and that you’re working on it. You can’t let them twist in the wind.

Then you have to follow up with them after the fact to make sure that, “Hey, did this get done? Was it done to your satisfaction?”

We try hard to make sure that what we’re recommending is not necessarily in our best interest but in our client’s best interest. And if there ever is a mistake or something goes wrong we don’t ever put a price on it to make it right. There’s no limit to what we will do if we caused the problem. Over time you engrain in people that you genuinely are concerned about what’s good for them.

Make sure the business you’re taking today is going to serve you well five years from now or 10 years from now.

That’s probably the single biggest thing I’ve learned in the last 17 years: Not all revenue is good revenue.

I was in the mindset early on of grab all the business you can get – we’ll figure out how to do it. Whatever it takes we’ll make it work, just grab the money and let’s go. There’s a lot of business you’re better off stepping away from.

And it’s hard. Especially when times are slow or when you’re a small business. I felt like I had to take every job if I could get it. If it was profitable, if it was skinny, if it was too far away, it just didn’t matter.

There was no time for thinking about the next step: Where’s our next market? Who are we going to go after next? How are we going to after them? I didn’t have time to do any of that. I was just treading water.

We’re pretty much under Dallas/Fort Worth-wide water restrictions of some sort at this point. And this a market that has historically gone with non-native plant material, very over-planted, lots of material that’s very water hungry and lots of turfgrass. You just can’t do that anymore. Those things are no longer sustainable.

They’re building big new reservoirs and they’re building pipelines, but we’re blessed with a great economy so we’re growing by leaps and bounds. All the water resources are barely going to be enough for the population expansion. It’s not coming back to the landscape market.

So we changed our focus on adapting native species, more rock, more xeriscape plants. The last thing I want to do is plant something that years from now I tell you I’m going to take out and replace with rocks because you can’t water it anymore. I may get two jobs out of the deal but there won’t be a third job.

You’ve got to get it out of your mind the way things have been for the last 30 years because that’s not the way they’re going to be for the next 30.