Third-Party Referral Services

From the Winter 2020 Issue

These days, lawn care companies are not only competing against low ballers who undercut prices, but also third-party referral services that offer lawn care services via mobile app technology. These aren’t actually lawn care companies, but rather marketing platforms that help connect customers to a local service provider. Think of it like “Uber” or “Lyft” for lawn care. While some in the lawn care industry have found these various platforms to be helpful extra revenue drivers, others have concerns about what they mean for the market.

third-party referral services
(Photo: Getty Images)

Changing Client Needs

Rob Reindl, founder and president of Oasis Turf & Tree in Loveland, OH, says that emergence of third-party companies is something that other industries have been seeing for a long time. “This isn’t a new concept and I think these emerging companies see a chance to take advantage of an opportunity to be a middleman in a situation where there may not need to be one,” Reindl says. “In the long run, I think it shortchanges the customer because they’re getting a quick fix rather than a personalized approach.”

But Michael Mayberry, chief technology officer with Level Green Landscaping in Upper Marlboro, MD says there is no denying some customers want less interaction. “There are customers out there that want to move away from phone calls and meetings and presentations and more toward a streamlined onboarding process — all completed on a device,” Mayberry says. “The worry is that this commoditizes our industry — and that’s a valid point — but we can’t ignore that things are moving in this direction.”

Reindl says he believes a lot of the interest is generational. While younger clients may want less interaction and might not care as much about a personal approach, Oasis still has a lot of customers who value face time. The company is committed to satisfying both. “Many of these third-party lawn care providers have profited from customers who are looking for ease of use and convenience,” says Adam Zellner, Oasis’ vice president of sales. “So, we’re looking at ways that we can make our [own] process just as easy and convenient for customers.”

Extra Revenue

Of course, not all lawn care business owners view these third-party referral services as competitors, either. For some, they are partners. They create additional revenue channels and can potentially fill in profit gaps with extra work. Steve Corcoran, co-founder of LawnStarter, got his own foot in the industry with a small lawn care operation run with his best friend in high school. The two went on to launch the on-demand lawn care and maintenance platform which now partners with professional lawn care providers across the country. Corcoran says that LawnStarter can be a great opportunity for pros to “add income.”

“Getting paid is the most important thing for a small business,” he says. “When working with LawnStarter, we guarantee payment, even if the customer doesn’t pay us. We pay out every Monday via direct deposit.”

The Sweet Spot

While partnering with a third-party service probably doesn’t make sense for larger lawn care companies with a great amount of established clients, many of the provider platforms out there seem to have found a sweet spot with smaller businesses looking for more leads. Skye Durrant, co-founder and president of LawnGuru (referred to as the “one stop shop for all outdoor service”) says their model is built around owner/operators with one or two crews at most. “It’s the owner/operator that has some capacity left in their weekly route that makes a great fit with us,” Durrant says. “They want to add jobs, but they don’t want to go through the headache of sending out mailers. Since the pandemic, nobody wants people knocking on their doors. This is a really easy way to do a no-contact approach with new customers.”

This was the case for Ryan Sullivan, a LawnGuru success story from Detroit, MI. He was trying to run a small mowing and clean-up business on his own while also driving for Uber. But he was struggling with local competition and lead generation. “I started thinking that I wished there was something like Uber, but for lawn care, and it turned out there was,” Sullivan says. “I applied with LawnGuru, got my background check, and assumed I would get a few accounts. Instead, it became clear there was a lot of opportunity. I’ve since upgraded my equipment to keep up with the demand. This is not something I feel I could have done on my own.”

For the use of LawnGuru’s “name and marketing,” Sullivan says he doesn’t feel the “cut” they take is unreasonable at all. They set the rate to charge for lawns, which may vary depending if the customer signs up for regular work or not. Then they take a small amount off the top. “I’m in a market where we have a lot of lawns really close by and you can line them all up,” Sullivan says. “I feel I’m making what I would have trying to do this on my own, but without the large marketing cost I would have had to pay to get all these leads.”

Durrant adds that lawn care professionals are often surprised how much they can make through the platform. “We have providers making over $100,000 each year just through business they grabbed on our platform,” he says. Most providers are “building a recurring book of business,” adds Durrant. Sullivan is one such example and has become one of the most requested pros in the metro Detroit market. To date, he has completed more than 1,600 jobs with LawnGuru.

Sullivan says he builds a rapport with many of his clients—something he assumes might surprise other lawn care professionals dismissive of such third-party arrangements. “Many of the customers that I work with really do value that old school face-to-face time and want to get to know who is working on their property,” he says. “That’s probably why I’m requested by name. I take time to talk to my customers and I care about them. [Yet] I think there are lot of people who would say, ‘you get what you pay for’ and ‘you don’t get a pro you can trust’ [as to third-party providers].”

Looking Ahead

No matter how lawn care business owners feel about third-party platforms, they’re likely not going away. For that reason, Mayberry — who is already incredibly tech-focused as the company’s CTO — says it would benefit companies to keep this industry trend on their radar.

“Regardless of whether you think these types of providers are good or bad for us, the fact is, they’re here and they’re going to disrupt our industry,” Mayberry says. “We need to be thinking about it now. Currently, it’s more integrated into the residential market, but I see this becoming something that commercial landscape companies like ours will also be competing against in the future. Now is the time to be thinking about how we’ll do that.”third-party referral services

Reindl says currently, many customers using third-party platforms probably aren’t the right fit for Oasis anyway. If they aren’t interested in full-service lawn care and don’t see value in a comprehensive program, they aren’t the type of lead the company is looking to attract. That being said, Reindl and Zellner agree there are more customers increasingly interested in a less “hands-on” approach.

“The COVID-19 pandemic helped us move in a paperless, no-contact direction that we can see is easier for the customer in many ways,” Zellner says. “We do have more and more customers looking for less direct contact who just want to feel confident the work is getting done. Going forward, it will be about finding a balance between the personalization we’re known for and being more hands-off for the customers that prefer that approach.”

There’s no question that landscape companies will need to ponder the merits of more streamlined marketing and client interaction. In the meantime, third-party platforms serve different purposes in the marketplace. While they can create both competition and/or extra profit opportunities for mid-sized companies, for the one-man or smaller lawn care operation, they can function as a valuable extension of the business model.

“LawnGuru is helping to feed my family,” Sullivan says. “There are a lot of scenarios where these types of services make a lot of sense for people. Maybe it’s a retired guy who just wants to take on a few extra jobs but can’t work a full nine-to-five. Or maybe it’s someone that lost a lot of accounts because of the pandemic and they could really use those extra jobs. There’s not only a ‘want’ but a real ‘need’ for these services and I don’t see them going away.”

third-party referral servicesGetz is an award-winning freelance writer based in Royersford, PA.

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