PHOTOS BY DIMITRIJE, 123FOTO AND NINAMALYNA, WWW.ISTOCKPHOTO.COM. DESIGN BY GREG GARCEAU.
Winners and losers in professional lawn care are determined, by a greater than lesser extent, by the success of their marketing programs. Let's be more specific: their success is measured by marketing that results in leads converted into customers.
After all, every lawn care company has access to the same products, equipment and sources of information, and every lawn care company must operate under the same regulations. That being the case, many companies market their services year-round. They employ different strategies for different times of the year, but they must market year-round if they hope to retain or gain market share against national brands (TruGreen, Scotts Lawn Service, The Weed Man) and the many strong local and regional competitors.
"Marketing lawn care has taken a completely new look. You can't make a few calls and you can't send out mailers," says James "Jim" Campanella, president of Lawn Dawg, headquartered in Nashua, N.H. "It's really a very complex, multilevel, year-round strategic campaign that you have to implement to be able to grow the business."
Customers and prospects know at a glance who is providing service and that it's a quality company. The clean and modern application vehicle is colorfully branded with a fun message.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ARBOR-NOMICS.
Homeowners' interest in lawn care rises as their properties start to green with spring's approach, and it lags during the heat of mid-summer. That's when many companies sell remedial and additional services. Autumn, when lawns are looking good again, is the second best time of the year to reconnect with customers and chalk up new sales.
Soft and hard marketing
Campanella takes the broad view in regards to lead generation and customer acquisition. He breaks it into primary marketing and secondary marketing.
The purpose of primary marketing is to generate leads and make sales. Strategies include direct-mail, door-to-door canvasing, letters to former customers, post cards and calls still allowed under the federal do-not-call law. Secondary marketing includes radio, television, billboards, signage and lettering on service vehicles, social media, community service, even how your lawn technicians interact with customers. Secondary marketing doesn't typically result in immediate sales, but supports these primary sales efforts.
"Combined they will improve your overall results," adds Campanella. For example, his company does radio advertising that provides a relatively small percentage of leads. However, Lawn Dawg discovered the radio advertising on stations with favorable demographics supports primary marketing and boosts the percentage of leads arising from its direct-mail pieces.
Campanella realizes that what can't be measured can't be managed. Lawn Dawg, like most successful and growing lawn care companies, tracks the cost and the number of leads and sales that each marketing initiative, returns. It's the only way to calculate cost per sale (CPS). Without knowing CPS of each initiative a company wastes money because it doesn't know where to spend its money to generate strong leads and sales.
Which half is working?
Or, as Richard "Dick" Bare, founder and CEO of Arbor-Nomics Turf, Norcross, Ga., jokes, "Half of my marketing is working great ... I just wish I knew which half."
Bare, who realizes he can't outspend national companies such as TruGreen and Scotts Lawn Care in the huge Atlanta market, finds creative, personal and often fun ways to get his company's message to the public. That's reflected by the smiling gnome on the firm's colorful website. The gnome, a recognizable feature in its branding, reinforces the message that his company's technicians are specialists; that they're certified landscape specialists.
"We think the way to beat out the competition in our market is with training," says Bare "We're committed to hyper training. Our guys have to know how to deal with customers properly, how to write notes, and respond to questions correctly."
Beyond that, Bare and Vice President Doug Cash emphasize that, unlike national companies, they're always available to respond to customer concerns or questions.
Surprisingly, admittedly mundane marketing concepts, such as using Valpaks with coupons, continue to generate good leads in the north Georgia market. And Bare says he's also considering using billboards and radio advertising, too.
Goin' out and gettin' it
Dr. GreenServices, a 25-year-old company servicing 35,000 customers in Canada and the United States, takes a more aggressive approach to marketing.
"We've tried just about every form of marketing out there. We find that indirect marketing is cost-prohibitive," says Neil Campbell, vice president and director of marketing.
"In the winter we're planning, we're preparing, we're budgeting," says Campbell. His company is also recruiting, interviewing and hiring individuals to go door to door and make sales as soon as the snow is off the ground. They saturate neighborhoods that have been carefully preselected based on the firm's past sales experiences.
The company researches demographics and uses mapping sites such as Google Earth to identify neighborhoods most likely to subscribe to lawn care services. It then maintains a record of each home visit in the neighborhoods, whether the visit results is a contract (and, hopefully, prepayment), or the homeowner is uninterested or requests a return visit.
Each company has its own system for recording the results of each of the properties in the neighborhoods it serves, some as simple as colored pushpins in maps.
Campbell says you will usually find young families with both the husband and wife working in new subdivisions. These couples generally want the same quality lawns their parents have. People living in older neighborhoods with mature trees and landscapes are more apt to have been heavily marketed to in the past and are more likely to have kept the same service providers from season to season.
"Door-to-door marketing is not the easiest position to successfully hire for. Allow lots of time for hiring, expect heavy turnover, and don't ever stop recruiting," says Campbell. Most of the salespeople start out getting an hourly wage plus a commission. But, as they improve and see what they can make on commission, most of them switch to pure commission sales. The company offers incentives for selling additional services and for prepayments, which save on collection costs later
"It's important that we make sure the reps are selling realistic expectations," adds Campbell. "Promising a golf course out of a dirt patch will lead to collection and retention issues. Every sale that's made must have a crew leader sign off on, including the lawn's condition, and he must sign off on the sale being for a lawn that we can help."
Pull Your Marketing Weeds
by Lori DeRoche
Grassroots marketing can be described as using your efforts to reach a small group of people in hopes that the group will spread the word about your business to others. This type of marketing can be inexpensive, but you're ultimately depending on someone else to reach a larger audience.
Is this type of marketing effective in today's technological economy? Unfortunately, social media has diminished the effectiveness of many forms of conventional marketing: print, snail mail, etc. The days are over when you could meet with a prospective client in-person or leave a friendly message and get a call right back. People are too busy and often hide behind emails, text messaging and social media. The technological world we live in today makes it more difficult to grow a business based on word-of-mouth and conventional means.
So, how do you remain in front of your audience and get your name out there when the market is flooded with all kinds of information going at light speed? Start by following these simple rules:
1. Pull the weeds. What part of your marketing plan is not generating income or profit? If you are unable to identify your return on investment, it is time you start asking yourself, "Where do I need to make a change?" Every business must have a marketing plan; customers cannot know about you and your services if you do not tell them.
2. Find your niche or target market. What type of people do you want to sell to and how are they influenced? You would not reach as large of an audience if you advertise your commercial landscape maintenance company in a parenting magazine over a property management magazine. Once you know where you are headed and your audience, you are ready to find the channel that will reach the most amount of people, in the least amount of time, within the budget parameters.
3. Join the social media craze. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn are free and almost everyone has a Facebook account. If you don't have an account set up for your business, do it now. Beware though; make sure it is professional and try to stay away from controversial topics like religion and politics. Join groups, try to find other businesses you want to work with, and add current clients if they agree. Offer exclusive discounts for new inquires or clients. Put up interesting YouTube videos that are appropriate and relates to the clientele you are trying to reach. Facebook also offers low-cost advertising that can reach thousands of people in a single day. You can set the daily limit, track activity and alter the ad when needed.
4. Network, network, network. Find local networking clubs or groups that meet once a month. Sharing business contacts can generate profitable leads. People like to work with people they know. As the saying goes, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." If you have the time, start your own group and invite friends of different occupations.
5. Finally, do all you can to keep your name in front of clients, prospective clients and past clients. Email marketing can be a low-cost way to reach many people with the same message quickly. iContact is a great website to use to send out newsletters or postcards about upcoming events. Monthly updates keep your name fresh in the prospects mind so when the time comes that they need your service, they immediately think of you. iContact recently added a social networking tool to help track social media messages.
The environment of marketing has changed dramatically in just the past couple years, and if we lose sight of how our clients receive messages, we can lose sight of how to grow our business. Social media is emerging as the most cost-effective way to gain revenues and decrease costs, driving up profit. Tandem Landscape Services has been able to cut its marketing budget in half by using social media and email marketing. This has increased our profit margin and allowed us to remain relevant to our target audience. The supply of landscapers has increased in the down economy causing the demand to go down. This increases the need to be attractive, current and innovative as to how we can successfully retain and expand our client base.
Lori DeRoche is co-founder of Tandem Landscape Services, Inc., in Phoenix with her father James. She holds a marketing degree from the University of Illinois. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Campbell says that his company's sales reps receive "continuous and ongoing" training, including role-playing and objection handling. They're provided scripts, which they learn, and each day starts with a review of individual and team sales results.
"Remember, first impressions are everything," says Campbell. Company reps must wear clean uniforms, abide by company grooming policies, wear a picture ID and be equipped with clipboards, contracts, promotional supplies and cell phones.
"You have to run like crazy just to stay in place," says William "Bill" Hildebolt, founder and president of Natures Select Premium Turf, Winston-Salem, N.C., of today's uber-competitive lawn care market. "If you want to grow you have to go even faster."
Nature's Select, which uses proprietary biologically based products, offers services on the higher end of the lawn care spectrum and does not do mass marketing, because of his firm's past experiences with promotions, such as coupon drops.
"We got leads that we could not close," says. His company is closing a higher percentage of sales by reconnecting with prospects that his company had marketed to previously. Another good source of qualified leads comes from maintenance contractors that appreciate partnering with a quality lawn service.
"Of course they can mark it up and we can bill the contractor. Obviously, you have to develop a good working relationship built upon trust so that you don't enter into a predatory situation," says Hildebolt.
"Few people truly understand where to spend their money on marketing," says Hildebolt. "In my previous management positions with international companies, I worked with the top agencies in the world, and they were constantly evaluating that."
He stresses that lawn care companies must determine how much it's costing them in terms of marketing dollars to acquire each customer. Once they learn that they can concentrate on activities that generate the largest number of quality leads resulting in service contracts.
What about marketing in the digital age? Facebook and lesser social media sites? YouTube? Twitter?
It's now common practice within the industry to collect the emails of prospects and customers. Also, almost all reputable companies maintain websites. These are must-haves today.
Otherwise, the professional lawn care industry has not yet become an eager participant in social media, or at least learned how to use it effectively in its marketing. That's probably for two reasons. The industry has remained relatively healthy using more traditional forms of marketing. And, owners seem poorly versed on the finer points of using these new digital resources to develop leads and attract customers.
Good use of YouTube
While many companies offer practical lawn care advice on their websites, a few take it the next step. For example, Boulder, Colo.-based Organo-Lawn developed and posted a number of excellent but short YouTube videos that nicely explain common lawn procedures.
But, being transparent in today's digital universe has its challenges, too, as Bare learned recently.
He got an unwelcome surprise as he and his wife were driving to church one recent Sunday. He learned that a customer had given his company highly unfavorable grades on Angie's List.
Angie's List is a popular website (angieslist.com) that seeks customer rating of services they receive from companies. Customers grade (A to F) their experience with the service providers on criteria, such as price, responsiveness and professionalism. Subscribers to Angie's List - an estimated 1.6 million as of this writing - can see how customers have rated specific service providers before they consider hiring them. The list averages almost 50,000 customer reviews monthly.
Each company has its own page on the website, which describes its services along with customer reviews. The site displaying landscape and lawn service companies is one of the Angie's List larger categories, regardless of city or region.
Bare, whose 32-year-old company is consistently rated as one of Atlanta's best lawn care companies, has been on Angie's List for 10 years. In 2011, it received the website's Super Service Award. He took the unfavorable ratings seriously.
What's the problem?
"After church I went to the customer's home to find out why he gave us the bad ratings, but he wasn't there," recalls Bare. "I looked around and saw that the front yard looked good, but there were two big trees in the back yard. The grass didn't look good because of the trees. There was moss, just too much shade for the grass."
After several phones calls and some verbal wrangling (the customer had a hard time understanding that warm-season turfgrass doesn't grow well under heavy shade), Arbor-Nomics agreed to lime and renovate the lawn providing the customer redrew his negative online "grades."
"What people see about your company on Angie's List and online is huge. We're on top of it every day," says Bare
Bare, like several other lawn care owners interviewed for this article, feels that social media and other digital networking and communication resources will have a profound effect upon their businesses.
To this point, anyway, they just haven't determined how fast it will happen. Until they do, they're mostly sticking to and refining what's worked for them best in the past.
Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. He has been reporting on service industries, including the landscape/lawn service industry, for the past 27 years. Contact him at email@example.com.