When Jeff Karnes started his lawn care company in 2002, he serviced several rental properties around Wilmington, N.C. As word of his work ethic traveled, he began to build a reputation. A one-man show, he was quick to respond, easy to work with and committed to delivering quality work. Karnes Lawn Care and Landscape became “Your worry-free and reliable landscape company,” as the motto would later state.
New customers started calling – and kept calling. Within the first year, Karnes hired two employees. Each year since then, he continued gradually adding employees and equipment to keep up with demand. His wife Abby even began working full-time office hours in 2007.
Today, with 15 employees in five crews, Karnes’ challenge is keeping the team aligned with the quality standards that distinguished the company from the start. That alignment will ensure his growing base of clients – about 150, including residential properties, homeowners’ associations and large commercial accounts – keep getting quality lawn care and “worry-free” service from a reliable partner.
Adding loyal employees. Before joining the Karnes team, candidates must pass a series of interviews, tests and checks.
“They have to prove before they get hired that they have experience and knowledge of the horticulture field,” Abby Karnes says. “First, it’s a phone interview. When they come in here, they have a written test. Then, they go through a test with our lawn equipment.”
If candidates pass, Jeff meets with them face-to-face. At this point, he’s looking for much more than experience, and much deeper than the requisite professional appearance.
“It’s a judgment call; a judge of character when they get interviewed,” Abby says. “We also look at their background; we always have to check their references to see what their past employers say. That gives us a good idea.”
As a final check to ensure a fit for new hires, the first two weeks of employment are a trial basis. This careful process upfront lays the foundation for successful, long-term employee relationships.
From that point, Karnes conducts quarterly appraisals to evaluate performance and provide feedback. This gives management regular opportunities to connect with employees, which goes a long way toward alignment. Other benefits along the way – such as competitive pay, incentives, bonuses and even snacks – show employees that the Karnes care about their team.
Learn to say no
Abby Karnes is quick to respond to phone calls, emails, requests and queries that come into Karnes Lawn Care – even if the response isn’t positive.
“Not everything that comes our way do we say, ‘yes,’ to,” Karnes says. “We are just focused on certain clients, and that’s where we’re keeping our focus.”
For Karnes, that focus is on long-term clients who come to Karnes Lawn Care as the go-to provider for all of their landscape needs. The company isn’t interested in isolated one-off gigs, because those detract from the year-round commitment it makes to loyal customers.
Those loyal customers will likely hear, “Yes,” from Karnes, even if the request goes beyond the company’s expansive wheelhouse. Often going the extra mile for clients, Karnes keeps the balance by understanding what the company can do – and knowing when to get help.
“If they have irrigation problems that are larger than us, then we sub that out,” Karnes says. “We have connections, so they don’t ever have to go through anybody else but us.’”
Karnes’ clear understanding of the company’s focus, paired with a commitment to make service reliable and worry-free, has helped the company grow at the right speed in the right direction.
“Focus on what you’re good at,” Karnes says. “It’s not just, ‘Keep doing work, keep doing work, keep going in circles.’ It’s learning how to say no, because you can’t do everything. It’s impossible.”
As they keep seeking more options to improve employee perks and benefits, the Karnes keep the team apprised of updates to illustrate how the company’s growth affects them.
“We try to communicate what’s going on, what we’re up to, how we’re trying to better the company,” Abby says. “So, they see where we’re trying to improve the company so it improves their lives, as well.”
Building loyal customer relationships. Karnes’ first customers loved his quick response time. As calls increased, he didn’t want that responsiveness to lapse. Promptness becomes more important – and more difficult – to maintain as the company grows.
Abby Karnes took over the office in 2007 – which means she worked from home to answer queries while the business operated from a separate shop. A couple of years ago, she added a part-time office assistant to help her manage calls and emails.
Responsiveness is so crucial that it’s actually a promise on their website: “There is always someone in the office to answer your questions and concerns,” during working hours. “You can be assured your issue or concern will be taken care of promptly and with integrity.”
The quick response time gives customers a glimpse of the Karnes motto in action, setting the stage for a reliable partnership. Karnes, a complete landscape provider for long-term clients, aims to maintain the same level of service throughout every interaction.
“We recently started sending out surveys, a checklist to make sure they’re happy with us,” Karnes says. “The checklist includes things like communication with the employees and quality of service. We take a lot of time and effort for customer relationships, and that’s how we retain them.”
Blending both sides of business. Karnes’ formula for steadily providing reliable lawn care keeps prompting more growth. To make room for it all, the company moved out of its small rental shop last spring and purchased a 2,450-square-foot building.
At last, Abby’s office is attached to the shop. In an environment more conducive to teamwork and communication, the owners can bring both sides of the business together.
“We wanted our team to be more in sync with each other, between the office and the crews,” she says. “That was incentive to move into a new shop. Everybody could see each other working, and that has a big impact on the communication it takes to keep the team working together.”
“The guys see all of the inner-workings of the business, so it’s not just getting a work order. They actually see the customers calling in, so it makes a big difference when they’re out in the field.”
The benefits go both ways. The close proximity also allows the Karnes to keep an eye on the business, making sure additional work doesn’t outgrow the personal touch or impede the worry-free quality customers see.
“We try to stick by our motto: ‘worry-free, reliable,’” Abby says. “That’s on our business cards, that’s on our logo, that’s on everything, so that’s what our goal is all the time: to exceed client expectations, constantly pursuing quality and reliable customer service, so they don’t have to worry.”
The author is a freelance writer in Cleveland.