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Features - Design/Build

Serene Surroundings built a one-stop shop for clients by providing in-demand services and training versatile employees.

Kristen Hampshire | July 10, 2013

If it happens outdoors, and it happens on your property, Serene Surroundings boasts a specialist to get the job done. The Plymouth, Mich.-based landscape design and maintenance firm works hard to “go deep” with customers. Eric Lloyd, one of three partners in the firm, says it’s not how long the customer roster is, it’s how many services each person buys.

This means a focus on truly being that one-stop property maintenance shop and building strong relationships with customers. “We are continuously developing the landscape company to offer more services within our core,” Lloyd says.

Currently, the company’s service menu includes the staple lineup of landscape design/build and maintenance services, including hardscape installation, lighting, tree and shrub care and fertilization. But the list goes on – snow removal, gutter cleaning, holiday lighting and window cleaning. Rather than choosing one service and specializing in that alone, Serene Surroundings figures it has the customer base. Why send them elsewhere for a service?

Of course, this business model comes with a price. Serene Surroundings must hire versatile employees, and good people are hard to find. But the benefit of providing a diverse service mix is added protection against recessionary swings. Serene Surroundings, a $1.5 million firm, has grown every year since it was founded in March 2004, Lloyd says.
 


Cross-promoting services. Before Serene Surroundings was a name, Lloyd and his partners, Paul Opdyke and Matt West, started Serene Surroundings and another business, Adventure Window Cleaning out of their home. The window cleaning client base was a mix of homeowners who bought the service once or twice each year – generally spring and fall – and commercial customers who contracted with the company for cleaning every year or two.

Lloyd and his partners later purchased a lawn care company and another window cleaning company as they grew. “The price was right as far as acquiring the lawn care company, and I had a background in landscaping,” he says. Most of all, he adds, “we had the customer base.”

So Serene Surroundings became the lawn service portion of their operation – a separate venture that fits into the big picture of total property maintenance. The two distinct services have always been marketed separately, but they are cross-promoted.

For example, on Serene Surroundings’ website, one of the service tabs is labeled Adventure Window Cleaning – and the same goes for the window cleaning site, where a Serene Surroundings tab guides visitors to the landscape side of the business.

The websites play a key role in linking the two different services, and spelling out the volume of offerings that Serene Surroundings offers clients. The company has invested the time and resources in its online marketing efforts.

“We do have a social media marketing and website management staff that is dedicated to (online marketing) and on the payroll,” Lloyd says of the company’s web developer and marketing manager.

What’s next? Adding services

Working with suppliers helped Serene Surroundings jump into the lighting world.


How does Serene Surroundings decide when the time is right to add another service to its mix? Its owners listen carefully to customers, and they keep an eye on the field to see where the demand lies.

Most recently, the company added lighting services. “It was one of those things where my customers were needing repairs on lighting, and the margins on lighting are good for a landscape company.”

So Eric Lloyd and his partners went back to school. They met with vendors to learn about the products and installation techniques. They discussed how to market lighting services, and then they focused on trickle-down training to the crew leaders and staff. Plus, a key vendor provided online videos to teach special concepts, such as architectural lighting and how to artistically light a property.

The demand for lighting and the appealing profit margins have justified the decision to add the service. The same goes for holiday lighting, Lloyd says. Four years ago, a good client asked Serene Surroundings to install holiday lights on their property. The company had the ladders and equipment, they just needed the lights.

“Then, we began receiving referrals here and there,” Lloyd says. “We marketed holiday lighting the last few years and we feel like it’s a part of our business that could really grow.”

What’s next for Serene Surroundings? That depends on what customers need. “I’m always keeping my ear to the track to see what’s profitable, regionally, and what clients want,” Lloyd says.

“That makes a big difference in terms of contacting clients.” Because the business model for Serene Surroundings is to capture more business from existing customers, its online outreach plays a critical role in executing that vision. All customer information, and their all-important e-mail addresses, are recorded in a marketing-driven database designed for the green industry.

Every Friday after lunch, customers receive a “non-invasive” educational e-mail from Serene Surroundings. Depending on the season, the topic may focus on planting annuals or keeping gutters clean.

“While my partners and I are out in the field estimating, we keep an eye out and note overall problems in the area,” Lloyd says of gathering relevant content. For example, spring in Michigan brings winter thaw and drainage issues for many clients. So the topic of one e-newsletter may address solutions for this problem.

While visiting customer properties or suggesting enhancements, Serene Surroundings team members are trained to suggest other services, including window cleaning. This is often how the window business is introduced to landscaping clients.

As for the window cleaning side of the business, the focus, again, is on marketing to existing clients. “Window cleaning is typically done once or twice a year for most residents and every one or two years for commercial, so we stay on top of the last time we were on every job,” Lloyd says.

The company initiates some campaigns via local magazines and offers 10 percent discounts for referral business. The goal is always to draw more of its landscaping clients into the window business, as well.


Balancing the mix. These days, landscaping services represent more than three-quarters of the overall business. “In recent years, commercial window cleaning has suffered – companies cut it out of their budget in lean times,” Lloyd adds, noting how the balance of services has allowed the company to thrive even when certain segments are down.

And in the landscape design/build sector, the bulk of Serene Surroundings’ work is property rehabilitation. “There wasn’t as much new construction work to be had when we started the business, so we focused elsewhere and (landscape rehab) has been good to us,” Lloyd says.

The key, again, is getting the same customers to keep buying more services that Serene Surroundings offers.

“When we do a design/build job, we want that customer to stay with us for lawn care treatments, maintenance, shrub trimming, all of those things,” Lloyd says. There isn’t a (direct) discount for buying more services from Serene Surroundings – but the incentive for clients is the ease of calling one service provider to handle many needs.

“We have a full-time office staff to answer questions and deal with issues, and me and my partners are very available,” Lloyd says.

As for building a staff that can manage all of the company’s offerings, Lloyd says that Serene Surroundings looks for employees who can be flexible.

Sometimes, the company hires people with green industry experience – other times, they hire hard workers and develop through a training program. Plus, the company relies on its vendors to provide practical, field and classroom training experiences for workers.

And, when planning which crew to send out on a job, Lloyd always considers the strengths and skillsets of employees. For example, on a landscape rehab job that requires gutting the property and making irrigation and lighting adjustments before the landscape design can be implemented, he’ll make sure he has strong lighting and irrigation crewmembers on staff.

By investing in employees and deepening relationships with customers, Serene Surroundings continues to grow each year. Plus, customers are willing to pay for the convenience of a single contact for property maintenance, Lloyd adds. “We don’t compete on price with other companies in our area,” he says.

“Sometimes our prices are better, but that is not why we are hired. People choose us because of our customer service, we’re a one-stop-shop and the relationships we build with them.”


Photos courtesy of Serene Surroundings