Surviving Lean Times


Marketing to cost-conscious consumers

Photo Courtesy of
Even in slow times, there is still a need for landscaping and lawn care services.

In recent years, escalating fuel costs have made business success even tougher, and now those oil expenses are making almost everything more expensive.

In these conditions, business leaders in every industry are scrambling to develop a survival plan. That is no easy task for landscapers, but there are ways to weather the storm.

The problem

Escalating costs for insurance, fuel and many other products make it difficult for businesses and individuals to make ends meet. A sense of uncertainty causes some to forego routine service and maintenance.

John Wickes, certified arborist and sales representative for Ira Wickes/arborists ( in Spring Valley, N.Y., says that the loss of jobs in New York City’s financial district resulted in an immediate slowdown in his company’s business. Although the 80-year-old firm has longstanding and loyal clients, many are reducing services. In addition, the tremendous increases in operating costs have forced the company to charge higher prices to new clients, although it has avoided fee adjustments for existing customers.

Tackling the quality question

At Ira Wickes, which provides tree, lawn and plant health services, they focus on education. Presentations at schools, local events and libraries allow them to reach out to the community and potential clients by offering education sorely needed by the public.

Wickes representatives use International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) literature in their sales calls and always leave a copy for future reference. Other professional associations may provide similar consumer education materials.

Although it isn’t a quick solution, Wickes says providing impeccable service pays off. Repeat clients and referrals can help offset losses in other business sectors.

“You’re going to get what you pay for,” says Chris Reinholdt, owner of Reinholdt Tree Care in Boulder, Colo. “I might be a little more expensive, but the fact that I’m a certified arborist and I keep my certification up means a lot to my clients.”

He adds that he combats the pricing question by congratulating clients who mention a lower bid from another service. He recommends they accept the other price—after they’ve checked the company’s insurance.

In Wickes’ area, safety has been a factor in discouraging the use of fly-by-night companies. A local consumer protection agency also has increased its efforts to eliminate business conducted by undocumented and/or unlicensed service providers.

Reducing expenses

When overall costs are up and sales are down, reducing operating expenses is one way to battle the cash crunch. Reinholdt, who has three employees, has reduced fuel expenditures by scheduling jobs by geographic area. He says most clients understand if they have to wait a few days for service.

Wickes, a larger firm, has undergone extensive modifications and continues to analyze costs weekly. The crew size has been reduced, and office and fleet management workers are scheduled for a four-day workweek.

“We are keeping our staff apprised of what we are doing so they are not surprised when things change,” Wickes adds.

The firm plans to reduce or eliminate cell phone service and rely on two-way radios, which do not have a monthly cost. Office cleaning and uniform services have been halted, and vehicles that weren’t used during the winter were temporarily dropped from insurance policies.

“It has now become a challenge: how much can we cut, and where and how fast?” Wickes says.

Both men have postponed purchases. Reinholdt got rid of plans to buy a new chipper after learning that current steel prices upped the cost by $2,000. He also postponed a truck purchase and staff expansion. At Wickes, Web site redesigns have been delayed.

Photo Courtesy of Agricultural Research Service.
Winter may be a slow season, but damage from storms, insects and diseases must be mitigated promptly.

Generating new revenue

Although demand may be off for traditional services, your firm still has employees and a vast array of equipment. How can those resources be put to work in different ways?

With the current interest in alternative fuels, chippers might be put to recycling use. Another company looking to delay equipment repairs or purchases may be interested in leasing your machinery.

Talk with your employees and your professional organizations. You may find a gold mine hidden among your own resources.

Marketing tips

When times are tough, marketing and advertising programs often are the first to be cut, but that can be a mistake. Businesses and individuals will still need lawn care and landscaping services, and many will find that some work simply cannot be delayed. You want to be there when they call.

In fact, both Reinholdt and Wickes say simply picking up the phone can be crucial. They emphasize the need to always have phones answered and calls returned promptly.

Reinholdt says, “A lot of folks will just move on to the next listing in the phone book if you don’t pick up. So, I always pick up the phone and ask them if I can call them back in a few minutes.”

Wickes says staying close to existing clients is important, in good times and bad. One way his firm does that is to have sales representatives visit clients between scheduled service calls. That helps strengthen the relationship and may reveal additional work the client requires.

“Once I finally bit the bullet and decided to pay for advertising, it made all of the difference,” Reinholdt says. “The number of leads I got shot up tremendously. I’m listed in Service Magic [] and that brings qualified leads, people who know exactly what they want.”

Service Magic is an Internet-based business that refers homeowners to service providers the company states are “prescreened.” Customers can return to the Web site to rate the provider when the work is completed. Reinholdt likes the fact that Service Magic leads are provided by phone, so he can receive them anywhere. He controls the flow of leads by requesting just the number needed at the time and can temporarily decline leads if necessary. He is currently using a coupon promotion with both Service Magic and area telephone directories. Reinholdt says his Better Business Bureau membership has also been a good source of jobs.

Just as detrimental factors such as the economy can affect business, sometimes a boost comes from an unusual source, equally beyond one’s control. Reinholdt says his late summer and early fall calls picked up after a slow summer due to the Farmer’s Almanac, which predicted bad weather for the winter season.

It may take extreme measures to ride out the current economic storm, but it won’t last forever. “Hang in there, we are in a cycle and it will come back around again,” Wickes says.

Jenan Jones Benson is a freelance writer based in Greensboro, N.C.