Structured for success

Features - Maintenance

Providence Landscape Group adopted a client-focused managerial structure to increase customer retention.

November 5, 2013
Kristen Hampshire

“Constant improvement” is the over-arching theme at Providence Landscape Group. It’s a philosophy, a way of doing business.

It’s why the Charlotte, N.C.-based firm attracts commercial clients who own Class-A office space, and why the hottest country clubs in town want Providence to care for their sites. It’s a tenant that President Jim Lawrence applies to every aspect of the business.

“Our goal is not to be the biggest company in Charlotte,” Lawrence says. “I just want Charlotte’s best and finest properties. And that is our goal.”

Lawrence understands “biggest” because he sold the first landscape business he started 20 years ago to ValleyCrest. He grew that operation for six years before selling. Then, he took a position managing the Charlotte branch of HighGrove Partners when the Atlanta, Ga.-based company expanded its footprint in North Carolina. Four years later, Lawrence bought that branch from HighGrove.

“Eight years ago, we went from being a large, regional company to a smaller, locally-owned and operated company, and that has given us an advantage in the Charlotte area,” Lawrence says. “That helped catapult our growth to where we are today.”

Providence Landscape Group is an $8 million commercial landscape maintenance firm with a reputation as an industry leader in the community. (That’s up from $3 million when Lawrence bought out the branch.)

“Our marketplace is very relationship driven, and a strong local company has a big advantage over national companies here,” Lawrence says. Providence has an in because of Lawrence and his team’s roots in the area. “There’s a lot of power in that,” he says.

Though it’s never a free pass, which is why Lawrence returns to his constant improvement approach – a mantra that has helped drive the business.

A client-minded model. Sitting in a bid meeting, Lawrence will ask a question that can inevitably open up a colorful discussion. He wants to know: What’s working well with your current landscaping company? What’s not working? “Why did you call on us?” he asks prospects.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time, communication is the problem with their landscape maintenance service provider or their account manager,” Lawrence says. Providence Landscape Group’s approach: “Let’s be the best at it.” Communicate beyond clients’ expectations. “That has worked for us,” he says. That’s easy to say, but not so simple to carry out.

Making the numbers known

Motivating employees with open-book management leads to high retention rates.

The people at Providence Landscape Group are responsible for showing clients the value the firm can bring. “Our customer retention is high, but our key employee retention is very high, too,” says Jim Lawrence, president of the Charlotte, N.C., firm.

Providence focuses on hiring managers who are horticulturally minded. Then these leaders are taught the business side. In fact, every person who works at Providence understands exactly where the company stands financially because the firm embraces open book management.

“When employees understand the P&L statements and gross margins and those key business indicators, they realize the financial impact they can make on the company and what that means for them and their families,” he says.

Basically, Lawrence says open book management “empowers people so they know the score.”

Additionally, Providence offers opportunity for those who want to stretch their capabilities and succeed. “There is a high ceiling for them, opportunities down the road,” Lawrence says. And this is communicated often.

“The purpose of our company is to be a vehicle of opportunity for our families,” Lawrence continues. “If we all work hard and do well, this company will provide us with opportunities that we may have never thought we could provide for our families, and that is its sole purpose. I think everyone gets that, and it has been proven because we have had the same supervisors and managers who have seen advancement in their careers.”

A big part of delivering on the company’s promise to provide value has been the way the firm is structured. Specifically, the company moved from a typical account manager structure to one where dedicated personnel manage client relationships and operations.

Essentially, the model splits an account manager responsibility into two, specific jobs. The result: A near spotless customer retention rate.

Plus, the structure speaks to Providence’s mission to continually improve. With this structure, “We are not on clients’ properties just to maintain them, but we are really focused on improvement,” Lawrence says.

“We focus on keeping the market and customers we have, and not so much the next sale,” he continues, relating that this structural shift speaks to this priority.

The model addresses a common struggle in the industry: Finding a talented manager who is a people person and a field star. “What is typical in our industry is that the account manager position is managing the customers and the crews, but we find that it is difficult to recruit a manager who is great with crews and customers – you’re like one or the other,” Lawrence says.

Lawrence studied other landscaping companies that tried separating the account manager job into two roles. He saw it work for some companies out west, he says. “The companies were able to hold high customer retention rates,” he says. That was incredibly appealing.

Not that customer retention was ever a nagging problem. Providence averaged about a 90-percent rate. But today, that retention is closer to 95 percent. “It’s so much more expensive to sell and find customers than to keep the ones you have,” Lawrence says.

The structural shift at Providence happened when Lawrence bought the branch about eight years ago. He was ready to try something different, and of course, “it has come with its challenges,” but over the years, the firm has worked out many of the kinks (mostly related to communication).

The way it works is a client relations manager oversees a portfolio of commercial maintenance accounts, anywhere from $1 million to $5 million of work. “That person’s sole responsibility is to communicate with the customer proactively,” Lawrence says. That means letting clients know what will happen on their properties in the next 30, 60, 90 days.

With the focus completely on customers, “The client relations manager is not distracted by trying to manage a crew and everything that comes with that,” Lawrence says. That leads to the operations manager position that deals directly with a crew.

Client relations managers oversee an assigned book of business, and operations managers are dedicated to specific accounts. So, a client relations manager may work with several operations managers. “But operations managers oversee the same crews, and that creates crew ownership,” Lawrence says.

The firm has tried to pair up client relations and operations managers, and assign them to the same accounts.

But that didn’t always work out as planned in the field, depending on properties’ crew requirements. Keeping the same managers paired together for all work wasn’t necessary, Lawrence learned. As for implementing the structure, Lawrence says that communication is the key, and keeping teams disciplined to stay in their lane of operations or customer relations.

“You are really separating the job that used to be held by one person, so now these managers must work as a team,” he says.

“The customer relations managers really need to know what is going on the field with the crews so they can get that information to customers – and operations managers need to keep crews informed of what is important to customers.”