Everyone understands that it's cheaper to retain customers than to get new ones. There's a cost of sale involved in getting new customers, just like there is when you get a new employee. When you retain customers, you tend to get even more efficient on their properties over time, so you actually improve your margins, and there's no continuing cost of sale. Even more important, if you don't retain your existing book of business, your business doesn't grow, so you just end up churning work. Your new business will come in, but then goes out the back door.
To retain customers, you need to deliver what you promised, based on your scope of service. You have to provide them with excellent customer service by talking to them, going to see them on a regular basis and by monitoring job quality. The customer most likely hired you because they don't want to worry about the landscape. They don't want to manage the grounds maintenance. They expect you to do it. You need to be self-managed. Don't wait for the customer to call you. Be responsive, not reactive. If you should see something that needs improving, tell the customer about it and tell them what you are doing to fix it, and when.
Your crews need to be well trained, and your administrative processes need to be tight, because job quality is not the same as customer service. Job quality is often viewed as a core competency. Anyone can make the grass 3 inches tall and the shrubs flat and even. But beyond that, the customer wants to make sure they are emotionally taken care of and that their needs are met without having to chase you around all the time.
For instance, some thoughts your customers have are, "Is your invoicing clear so that my accounting or bookkeeping department can understand it and doesn't have to come ask me what it means? Is your invoicing timely, so that my expenses hit my books when they are supposed to, not 60 or 90 days after I've approved a project? Did you get things done on time? Did you do what you committed to do? Do I feel like I'm getting what I paid for?"
Typically when you have a "tough" customer, there's an even higher level of customer service expected. They are probably more engaged with you, so they are really giving you feedback all the time. You need to have your quality inspections tight. You need to be there every four or five weeks, checking the quality before they call you. But it's actually better to have a customer actively engaged with you, instead of one who says everything is OK, but it may not be. At least you know where you stand. You need to get your radar up if they customer brings you the same issue two or three times, because they are probably losing their patience with you. If you have to be told two or three times about the same issue, you are failing.
To ensure you are doing what you can to retain the business, walk the jobs with your crew leaders. Know where the hot buttons are, and put them on the job tickets every week to make sure they don't forget about them. Make sure your managers know to check those things.
The top priority is doing what you said you were going to do when you said you were going to do it.
Mike Fitzpatrick is vice president of U.S. Lawns. He oversees the team of Regional Franchise Advisors (RFAs), and also acquires/supports the national accounts for U.S. Lawns. Fitzpatrick has 30 years of experience in the industry, and his leadership has made U.S. Lawns one of the most respected landscape management choices in the country.