It’s the busiest time of the year and sometimes it can be a race to the finish line at the end of the day. Below, you can get a look at how stressed out the average landscaper is. We’ll be delving deeper into the problem in the September issue, so keep an eye out for that, plus more research and tips on how to manage.
Lawn & Landscape held its inaugural Top 100 event, an exclusive event for the highest-grossing lawncare and landscape companies in North America, June 6-7. Industry leaders from coast to coast gathered in Cleveland to network, learn from each other and, of course, receive their awards.
Read on to find out how Top 100 companies deal with company culture, hiring and mergers and acquisitions. Plus, get the lowdown on bridging the generational gap from the event’s keynote speaker, Phil Gwoke.
Creating your culture
Top 100 CEOs share their best practices to make sure there vis a good company culture in place.
During Lawn & Landscape’s Top 100 event, a few industry leaders sat down to discuss best practices in their companies. Whether your yearly revenue is $50 million or $50,000, these are takeaways everyone can use.
When it comes to focus, Jason Craven, president and CEO of Southern Botanical, said at his company, quality comes first. “It’s always been a big part of our culture,” he said. When it comes to deciding what’s right for the client, he gives his team leeway to make those decisions in the field.
Brian DuMont, president and CEO of Yard-Nique, said at his company, he focuses on quality, but said it can’t be No. 1. “For me, it’s focusing on people and letting them handle the rest,” he said.
To do this, DuMont makes sure to put in his schedule to reach out to a different employee each day. He asks them about their families, themselves and anything else to show he cares as more than a boss. When an employee’s daughter had an upcoming surgery, DuMont even scheduled it in his phone so he knew to ask how the surgery had gone.
“I make a big effort to empower people and focus on people,” he said.
“The key is that the core values are not separable,” said Joe Ciffolillo, president and CEO of Greenscape. Driving efficiency, increasing customer loyalty and increasing quality go hand-in-hand, and none can take more focus than the others.
Ciffolillo’s company has also implemented a point system to recognize employees who step up on the job.
Ciffolillo’s managers can award points to employees who are doing something well. The employees can then use those points to go online and buy new TVs, vacations, etc.
“It spreads like wild fire when somebody starts getting the points,” Ciffolillo said.
For more on this story and other best practices from the Top 100, visit bit.ly/LLTop100practices. – Katie Tuttle
Even Top 100 companies aren’t immune to the industry’s hiring woes.
Being a Top 100 company doesn’t make you immune to some of the hiring and retention challenges the industry is facing. But four executives from Top 100 companies gave their thoughts on hiring and retention during a discussion on the issue. Here are some thoughts from the panel: John Gibson, president, Swingle Lawn, Tree and Landscape Care; Jen Lemcke, chief operating officer, WeedMan USA; Christy Webber, president and CEO, Christy Webber Landscapes, and Tim Portland, chairman and CEO, Yellowstone Landscape.
Analyze the process.
If you are having issues with hiring, you need to step back and look at your recruitment process, Lemcke said. When resumes come in, what is happening to them? Are they being looked at or sitting on a desk? Look at your referral bonus program and where you are posting jobs. “You need to be innovative; you can’t keep complaining about not finding people,” she said.
Gibson said Swingle offers a $1,500 referral bonus for an employee who stays a year. The company also invested in a contract recruiter for 30-60 days who, based on qualifications given from Swingle, found workers for the company. Gibson said there was initial hesitation in hiring the recruiter because of the cost, but he said the upfront costs paid off in the long term.
Focus on the good.
“We as managers tend to focus on our problems. We take for granted what we have right,” Portland said. Portland tells his supervisors to celebrate success. If a crew gets a compliment from a customer or an employee does something well, take them to lunch or get them a gift card. “That makes them feel like they are succeeding,” Portland said, adding that those accolades coupled with company growth makes them excited to stay around. If you don’t celebrate, “that has a dampening impact on morale,” Portland said.
Ask the right questions.
Gibson said the team at Swingle asks behavioral questions. “We don’t ask as much about experience, rather how they would react to certain situations,” he said.
Gibson said Swingle began realizing that some employees were only going to stay with them 12 to 18 months, so they started Succeed from the Start, a program that tells new employees what they need to know in their first 60 days. “So we can at least get them on a launch pad,” he said. Gibson added that the program gives Swingle the best chance to get the most out of the employee for the time they do stay, and it creates a positive atmosphere where the employee may recommend others to apply after they leave.
Swingle has what Gibson called “an employee journey.” It allows workers who may not be manager material to grow with the company and be cross-trained in a different division of the business. As they learn more skills, they are rewarded with pay increases. “It gives them an opportunity to do something different,” he said. – Brian Horn
“We as managers tend to focus on our problems. We take for granted what we have right.” — Tim Portland, chairman and CEO, Yellowstone Landscape
Bridge the gap
Understanding the differences between the generations is the first step to better marketing and a happier workforce.
Each generation has its own idea of what greatness looks like whether it’s an individual, a product or an experience. Phil Gwoke, consultant with Bridgeworks, laid out the differences between the generations and how to understand them as he gave the keynote speech at Lawn & Landscape’s Top 100 event.
“Each generation is vital to the success of a community, a company,” he said. Whether you’re marketing to or working with people of different generations, it’s important to understand and respect their differences.
In general, each generation wants a different kind of working relationship. While Boomers want professional, productive and effective relationships, Gen Xers want transparency, honesty and efficiency. The newest addition to the workforce, Millennials, want relatable, authentic and accessible interactions.
Getting the word out.
When you’re marketing to the different generations, it’s key to understand that they want and value different things. Boomers are stuck in a sandwich, Gwoke said. On one side, they’re taking care of their children, and on the other side, they’re taking care of their aging parents. “They want things to be easy,” he said.
Gen Xers grew up being told they won’t have it as good as their parents did. And due to a tumultuous atmosphere during their childhood, they find it hard to trust anyone, Gwoke said, citing the example of NASA. When Baby Boomers think of NASA, they think of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon. But when Gen Xers think of NASA, the first thing to come to mind is the Challenger explosion.So Generation X doesn’t trust salesmen. They prefer to find out what end-users think, which is what brought us sites like Angie’s List. “Say you’re an expert and don’t push so much,” Gwoke said. “They’ve seen so much fall apart that they can detect insincerity.”
Millennials have a bit of a PR problem, Gwoke said, but they’re expected to spend $200 billion annually starting in 2017.
Threats of violence to Millennials were much closer to home than previous generations so they’re more likely to live in the moment. Eighty percent are more likely to buy an experience than a thing so campaigns like Weed Man’s “Transform your lawn from a burden into a paradise” work well, he said.
But Millennials aren’t ever going to be loyal buyers. They’ve been hardwired to always be looking for the next best thing. Gwoke cited the difference between how Millennials and their parents look at phones. He (a Gen Xer) grew up with the same phone in his house his entire life. Millennials, on the other hand, upgrade their phones every two years or less on average.
“To attract them, lead with why you do what you do,” Gwoke said. For more on how to bridge the generational gap in the workplace, visit bit.ly/LLTop 100generations. – Kate Spirgen
Bringing everyone under one roof
Learn the dos and don’ts of M&A from some of the top landscape companies in the country.
While M&A can be exciting, don’t get caught up in the enthusiasm and emotion. Instead, make sure you’re looking at things like location, business mix and, above all, culture. “At the very top of the list, the business has to fit into the culture of our organization,” said Mike Bogan, CEO of LandCare. “The team members of the organization tend to follow their leader. If they buy in, their team will, too.”
Expanding is a great opportunity, but it’s also a painstaking process that requires detailed research when done properly. “Researching the company, you use everything that’s available to you – interviews, customers, dealers, website, social media,” Bogan said.
Look at the customer concentration and really dig in. Many companies are in the $6-8 million range with about 350 customers, said Dean Murphy, president of Terracare Associates. “Sometimes it looks right when you first look at customers, but 30 to 50 of the largest are with the same company.”
That’s a customer concentration problem. Also consider how long customers have been with the company and whether or not the company you’re acquiring has been raising their prices.
And don’t forget to inspect the equipment. Terracare looks at each piece of field equipment and pulls oil samples from each truck. “It may sound excessive to some folks, but we do that,” Murphy said, noting that if the oil looks bad, it’s a sign that the company wasn’t doing general upkeep.
On the other hand, Ruppert plans to sell 80 percent of what it acquires so Phil Key, partner, Ruppert Companies, and his team just look for wholesale numbers. LandCare also plans to sell most of the equipment from a merger or acquisition. They’ll start with the owner’s assessment and go from there.
Pay attention to people.
It’s important to look to the future as well, particularly in terms of strategic planning. “I think it’s more efficient to understand market-wise where you want to go,” Key said. And the one thing to never forget, no matter if you decide to acquire or merge with another company or not, is that you can always take away something from any company you’re looking at. “Never think you can’t,” Murphy said.
Once you’ve made the transition, it’s a matter of communication with your customers to make sure they keep your services. Key said keeping the crews in place on the routes is always best. He says the process of transitioning takes about three months at Ruppert.
His company sends out an initial letter and schedules meetings with larger clients to explain how the transition will work. “To some degree, it’s no different than transitioning when an employee is promoted,” he said.
“The team members of the organization tend to follow their leader. If they buy in, their team will, too.” — Mike Bogan, CEO, LandCare
You have to keep the account managers engaged, Bogan said. If the higher-ups in the company don’t want to be a part of what’s happening, it’s easy for them to leave and start their own business, taking a big chunk of your customers with them.
To make the transition as painless as possible, be transparent throughout the merging or acquiring process. “Try to get out in front of negative anticipation,” Murphy said. “Unfortunately, people have a sense that if you’re sold, that means something bad – ‘Something is going to change and I’m not going to like it.’”
He recommends trying to have individual conversations and allowing employees to ask questions to dissuade their fears.
At the end of the day, remember what you’re really buying. It’s not the brand; it’s the people and the customer accounts, Murphy said. “To me, at the end of the day, we’re going to run the business the way we’re going to run the business.” – Kate Spirgen
Earlier this year, the Massachusetts House of Representatives introduced Bill H.2369 – an act relative to prohibit contract provisions requiring subcontractors to assume liability for negligence of others. In short, it’s an all-encompassing piece of legislation that fulfills the same mission as the Accredited Snow Contractors Association’s model legislation, namely prohibiting your clients from passing on their negligence through hold-harmless agreements and indemnification clauses. The difference with H.2369 is this legislation would cover all industries, not solely snow and ice management.
The ASCA has kept a watchful eye on H.2369, and this week returned to the Massachusetts State House to support the legislation, not only to ensure its legislative momentum, but to protect the interests of the professional snow and ice management industry in H.2369’s legislative language.
Mike Weiss, founder and president of Weiss Commercial Property Services, has championed H.2369 and maintains constant communication with state legislators on its progress. In early June, Weiss and myself visited 20 state senate and house offices to share our industry’s message with state legislative representatives.
H.2369 has been assigned to the Labor and Workforce Development Committee. This is a joint committee with both state house and senate representatives. We stopped into each committee member’s office to educate and generate support.
We also met with the office of the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Thomas A. Golden, Jr. (D-Lowell), and offered supporting statements for him to use to help pass H.2369.
Finally, Weiss and I met with Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester). Senator Tarr was encouraged by the bill’s progress, and added he felt positive about the bill’s continued forward momentum.
If you are a Massachusetts snow and ice management contractor, please reach out to your elected representative and ask them to support H.2369 when it comes up for consideration.
In other legislative news, The ASCA is planning a snow and ice management industry Legislative Day on the Hill in Washington, D.C. for Sept. 11 and 12.
A tentative agenda and specific details about a host hotel for the event are being finalized, and the ASCA will make a more detailed announcement will be made in the coming weeks.
We have to build an awareness of who we are as individuals and as an industry to our Congress members.
The association’s board and the Government Affairs Committee elected to begin holding its own Day on the Hill in D.C. this year, as opposed to partnering with the National Association of Landscape Professionals. We’ve experienced great success in the many years we’ve taken part in Day on the Hill in conjunction with NALP. However, as we’ve grown as an association and our legislative message has become more focused, the board believes it is the right time to begin scheduling an initiative solely for those in the snow and ice management industry.
We welcome snow and ice management industry professionals from across the nation to take part in this event. We have to build an awareness of who we are as individuals and as an industry to our Congress members. While some details are still being finalized, it is important to get the initial information and, most importantly, the dates out in the industry to those planning to participate.
Those individuals planning to attend the ASCA’s Day on the Hill should email me as soon as possible at email@example.com.
Once we have an idea of the number of attendees and the need for rooms, we will find a hotel in the area that can accommodate our group.
The author is the executive director of the ASCA.
You may be asking yourself, “Why didn’t I get the follow-up meeting with that recent prospect?” You asked all the right questions and got the answers you needed to qualify them. You had their budget, knew their goals and needs, and their time frame to make the decision. You knew who the decision-maker was, were keenly aware of your competitors in play and felt that you had the perfect solution to meet their needs.
So why didn’t it work out?
Unfortunately, this happens to many sales professionals, yet only one will earn the customer’s business. While you may be asking good questions, you may not be asking the right questions. You want to ask the type of questions that make the customer take notice of who you are and what you have to offer. What makes them pay attention to you? What are the questions that get the customer to say, “Tell me more.”
Customers get bored when you ask the basic surface questions. These are the questions that you need to have answered to better understand the customer’s situation so your solution can be positioned to meet the customer’s needs. Customers already know their situation. They want to know what makes you different from the pack, and how you can help them in a way that provides value no one else can deliver. And remember, the last thing your prospects want on a first appointment is a presentation! This meeting is not about you and what you offer. It should be all about your customer and how you can help them meet and exceed their needs and achieve their goals and objectives. Customers want the conversation to be all about them. In other words, let them talk — you should be listening.
What questions you should ask? Customers engage best when they are asked specific and targeted questions that pique their interest and highlight the consequences of unsolved issues. There are three critical types of questions you need to ask to build momentum and ensure that you get the next meeting.
What are the issues?
To build the critical trusting relationship, you need to understand what’s really going on. Ask them, “What issues are you facing that most need to be resolved?” Do not start by asking what type of solution they are looking for or how much they will spend. Aim to learn where they are experiencing pain, how bad is the pain and how long has it been going on. The best sales people dig deep when it comes to understanding customer issues. You can further understand the pain by asking “why” questions. When you ask “why,” you’re bringing the customer into the past which allows them to elaborate on what happened in the first place.
What is the cause?
Ask them, “How long have you been having this issue? Is it getting better or worse? Do you have any thoughts on why?” These probing questions will demonstrate that you are truly interested in understanding their situation to the fullest extent. It means you are building credibility with the customer and showing them you care. This approach takes the conversation to a better level of understanding and often they will even discover something they hadn’t seen before. Helping your customers understand the cause of their issue helps you understand which solutions to offer and helps them think through the situation.
When the customer sees the impact of their issues in multiple areas, we can start to craft a viable solution.
What is the impact?
Impact questions help to create a sense of urgency about the issue. Now that you more fully understand the problem and how it was caused, it’s time to talk about the possible impact on the business. Ask them, “How do you think this issue is having an impact on productivity, customer service, revenues or operating expenses?” When you can help them understand the impact, they are one step closer to taking action in your direction. When the customer sees the impact of their issues in multiple areas, we can start to craft a viable solution. You can start to help them see the future in a positive light by asking “what” questions. “What” questions focus on the possibilities. Now you can work with customer as a partner because you have a solid understanding of their issues, how they came about and how they are impacting the business.
Good selling is all about going below the surface by asking thoughtful, probing questions that help to uncover the key issues, the root causes and finally the impact their most painful issues can have on their business. As the saying goes, “If you ask better questions, you’ll get better answers.” The best sales professionals have great skill in asking the more significant thought-provoking questions that make a difference in the customer dialogue.
The author is a sales expert and accomplished speaker.
Precision Snow Removal began in 1992 as a landscape company with a focus on landscape overhaul and construction. But, about six years ago, the company transitioned to primarily offer snow removal.
“Landscaping is such a seasonal business, and at the time we were having a fairly large turnover in staff,” says Kent Peddie, president of Precision Snow Removal, based in Ottawa, Ontario.
With the change in business model, Peddie has less employee turnover. “It’s a fairly different skill set,” he says. “When you’re doing landscape construction work, you need staff members who probably have been in school for one or two years.”
Then field experience is required.
“With snow removal, you need to have a strong back if you're doing a lot of the hand work or otherwise it's mostly equipment operation, and that's a much easier skill set to pick up and to learn,” Peddie says.
Precision Snow Removal has an annual revenue of $800,000 to $1 million with about 85 to 90 percent coming from winter work. The remaining revenue comes from the green season, during which the company will do some landscape construction, subcontracting for other companies. In addition, Peddie says he earns some off-season income through equipment rental.
Customers are split half and half between commercial and residential. The commercial side is primarily condominiums, homeowner associations and businesses. Peddie says he plans to further grow the commercial side.
“For us to expand our residential work, we would have to then enter into a new neighborhood which already has some large players that have virtually control of the whole market,” he says.
To compete in that market, Peddie says he would need to sell mostly based on price – which is not a business move he wants to take.
“Our superior training methods and our emphasis on keeping up to date with current technology and best practices – that will give us a leading edge moving forward, marketing to the larger accounts,” he says.
Prepping for the season.
Customer contracts usually begin in November and end in April, Peddie says.
As soon as the 18-week season ends, preparation for the next season begins – including meetings with property managers seeking quotes for the next season, Peddie says.
“Starting at about mid-June, we'll start putting a push for new quotations and starting in July, we'll begin the recruiting processes,” Peddie says.
Commercial contracts are sent out before residential contracts, as commercial customers usually plan ahead a little more. Residential customers usually make a decision by the end of September to early October.
This past season, snowfall was nearly twice the average in the region. “We needed additional staff to handle all of the snow,” he says. “Our recruiting and hiring process was virtually ongoing.”
Instead of wrapping up recruiting and training in the fall, Peddie says he was still hiring new workers in February.
On top of that, customers were hit with extra bills due to the higher-than-average snowfall.
During peak season, the company has 48 employees, including six full-time managers. The remaining staff are seasonal hourly employees who come from landscaping backgrounds, roofing, renovation or the military.
“Anything we can do prior to the first snowfall that would make our job easier during the first snowfall, will be a huge benefit for us,” Peddie says. “Training is just critical.”
Classroom training includes slideshow presentations of equipment features and operation. Another class focuses on customer relations. And there is training for specific operational techniques – such as how to clear parking lots and driveways, and best practices for snow removal, Peddie says.
After the classroom training, all employees take a written exam. The exam is not a pass or fail exam but it is useful for revealing employee strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, exams reveal which employees need more education.
“What we did learn from the tests, some potential recruits and potential team members really don't have the best reading and writing skills,” Peddie says. “That was good for us to know, so that if we gave them detailed documents in terms of what to do at each job site, we would realize they probably can't read this.”
Finally, field training begins.
The Precision Snow Removal fleet is structured uniquely – there are 27 skid steer loaders – along with three other machines. There are also 14 to 18 pedestrians removing snow with shovels and snow blowers.
Teams operate from three different sites or hubs – or storage equipment sites.
“Then even if they have to drive a machine for half an hour, 45 minutes to start getting to the route, it's more efficient for us to do that than have them self-dispatching out of locations that might be closer,” Peddie says.
The hubs provide support and accountability.
“If machines have a hard time starting, they're able to help each other,” Peddie says.
A few pickup trucks are driven by managers to inspect commercial properties, and trucks are used for salting as well. Pedestrian crews also use the pickup trucks equipped with shovels and snow blowers.
“A lot of our market is in urban Ottawa. The streets tend to be narrower because they're old cities and that's why we use skid-steer loaders. We specialize in these unique and tight areas,” he says.