Cutting for Customer Satisfaction
Young Virginia mowing pro earns his stripes one client at a time
Communicating with customers and responding promptly to their requests are just as important as providing a quality mowing job, says Aaron Olmstead, owner of Estate Lawn Services.
When it comes to determining the best mowing program for a given property, look at each lawn individually and each customer individually, says Aaron Olmstead, owner of Estate Lawn Services in Purcellville, Va.
"Some people like their grass cut really short; some people like it cut a little longer. Some people like their grass cut all the time; others want to save a little money and have it cut less often. You really have to do what the customer wants. Customer satisfaction is the most important thing," he says.
Estate Lawn Services
Owner: Aaron Olmstead
Headquarters: Purcellville, Va.
Markets: Mainly Loudoun County, Va.
Services: Lawn and garden maintenance and landscape and hardscape installations
Olmstead and his brother, Abram, launched Estate Lawn Services in 2005. "We were both attending a small private college in northern Virginia and as our savings didn't stand a chance against the tuition rates, we decided that lawn maintenance and landscaping might be a good solution," Olmstead recalls. "Going to school full time while running/starting a business was far more difficult than we could have imagined, but we managed to pay our way through school with loans for only one semester apiece."
The two mowed before, after and between classes and spent many late nights working on homework.
"It was simultaneously invigorating and entirely miserable. I wouldn't recommend it to anyone. Although, it is nice to not have college loans hanging over my head at this point," says Olmstead. While Abram moved on to internships at the White House and The Department of Labor, and now works at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Olmstead decided after an internship with National Geographic that he was meant to work outdoors.
"After graduating, I doubled down with the landscaping business and it has multiplied at least five times," he says. The company services 60 to 70 lawns per week and has a roster of several hundred clients that it performs periodic projects for. He runs two crews of three people each.
"One crew mows around the clock and the other handles the hardscape/landscape projects," Olmstead explains. "We turn down at least two mowing clients a week in an effort to be localized, but will probably have to add another mowing team with the new year."
Olmstead prefers to spend much of his own time "playing around in the dirt" by installing patios and other hardscape projects. He says this limited mix of services is right for him and his company.
"We turn down decks, landscape lights, chemical treatments and irrigation every other day. Staying niche is really important. I'm definitely at a turning point of how much I'm willing to grow," says Olmstead. "Right now, it's a fun challenge trying to keep customers happy, but I can see a point where it becomes too much to handle and turns into an all-encompassing nightmare. I don't have a problem with keeping my small business small and very well may keep it that way."
Aaron Olmstead (center foreground) and his employees mow and maintain about about 70 properties and also build hardscapes.
Photos courtesy of Estate Lawn Services.
Staying smaller allows him to interact personally with customers. For example, Olmstead educates homeowners that a higher cut generally means healthier lawns and fewer weeds. "Once I explain what we recommend doing, most customers are very receptive. They'll leave it up to us," he says.
"We get a lot of people who say, 'I want my grass cut short like a golf course.' Often, cutting at 4 inches - or even higher - is so much better for the grass. Grass that's cut short can die instantly when the soil dries out. It might be fine for properties with sprinklers, but the average size of the lawns we maintain is over 3 acres, and people just don't have irrigation throughout that size of lawn."
In addition to healthier turf with better color and drought resistance, another benefit of cutting at a higher height is that the grass stripes better, he adds. Striping is something the crews do on each lawn.
"It's more difficult than most people think. If you're mowing a lawn for the first time and there are no stripes, it can be pretty hard to cut a straight line across a 6-acre parcel!" he says. "We train our employees to be able to do that."
Once the lines have been established, the crews alternate directions, creating a diamond-shaped pattern. Olmstead says his mowers are all equipped with striping kits, but he isn't sure how effective they actually are. "Plus, they wear out over time. Really, the mower itself and the tires on the mower are what do most of the striping. If you have a good mower, it's going to stripe. The kits make a little difference, but honestly it's hard to tell."
Another thing that Estate Lawn Services does to ensure its lawns look good is to mow with sharp blades. "Sharp blades make a big difference, especially with customers who want their lawns mowed less often. As soon as grass grows over a certain height, finish mowers [with dull blades] don't really mow it, they just push it over and it pops back up. Sharp blades can really help with that; they make the mower less likely to just blow the grass over and more likely to cut it."
Even on shorter grass, if the blades aren't super sharp, they will fray rather than cut the grass, Olmstead explains. "You will notice a difference in the appearance. The grass won't look as green; it will have almost a white look when you look at it from certain directions."
He's heard that some lawn care companies sharpen blades every day, but he doesn't think that's realistic. Others he knows don't even sharpen on a monthly basis. He looks for a healthy middle point and has settled on sharpening once every week.
One way he earns the trust of customers is by mowing only when the lawn really needs it. Crews will show up once per week to evaluate each lawn. If the lawn doesn't need to be cut, his technician will wait until it does. "Unless the customer really wants it cut, we will wait," says Olmsted. "Most companies will mow regardless, no matter if it's a monsoon outside or if it hasn't rained in two months, they will mow
"If you mow when it's very wet and soft, you can cut huge ruts in the lawn and just ruin it. And if the lawn is dry and the grass is crunchy, you're just wasting time cutting it and you're just blowing dust all over the place."
To be sure each customer's preferences (for mowing height, etc.) are adhered to, the Estate Lawn Services mowing crew is given a schedule that notes customer-specific information. "We have a master schedule that includes that detail," explains Olmstead. "Every time we get an email or text or phone call, we update that schedule."
The average size of the lawns maintained by Estate Lawn Services is over 3 acres, and few that size are fully irrigated. That's just one good reason to favor a higher height of mowing, explains Owner Aaron Olmstead.
For example, a customer may not want their lawn cut on a specific day or may have some special request. Or they might be out of town and ask if the mowing crew could move their trashcans.
"If we're there, we don't mind. We're not really trash collectors, but we want to help our customers out. Customers just love that sort of thing. It only takes a couple of minutes and it makes customers so happy because they know they can rely on you to take care of stuff that they can't. So little details like that go instantly into our schedule, because it's impossible to remember everything. This lets the crew read individual instructions on every single job," he emphasizes.
Estate Lawn Services uses Gravely mowers. "There's a lot of great equipment out there. I've just found them to be the best for me right now. And they include a lot of things on their mowers that you usually have to pay more for. They've served me really well," says Olmstead. Crews use three 60-inch zero-turns as well as one walk-behind unit.
The walk-behind mower is used not only for smaller areas, but also on slopes where Olmstead says it does a better job than riding mowers. "On steep hills, the zero turn can slip and cause big ruts, so we try to avoid that," he explains. "We have some areas that are so steep that even a walk-behind won't work on, so we'll use trimmers to mow." When it comes to hand-held equipment, the company uses Shindaiwa. "I've used all different brands and Shindaiwa just seems to last the longest," he explains.
Staying close to clients
Olmstead feels that what sets Estate Lawn Services apart is its accessibility to customers. "Some companies get so big so fast that customers just aren't able to communicate to them what they want," he observes. Being able to respond to each individual customer is important, he feels. "I try to respond to calls or emails or texts as quickly as possible, because as soon as you don't respond they feel like they don't matter any more and they're not important and you're likely to lose them as a client."
That interaction with the customer is important not only for him as the owner, but also for his employees. "My crew works apart from me a lot of the time, and the biggest thing I tell them is that if they see a customer come out to tell them something that they need to be very attentive," says Olmstead. While homeowners will typically contact him directly with special requests, his crew members all speak English and so he directs them to respond to customers directly if needed: "Do anything the customer asks, don't brush them off. Even if something isn't listed on the schedule and the customer asks them to do a completely different job, I tell them to go ahead and do it and just tell me later. That makes all the difference in the world."
Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.