Client relations: Straight talk

June 11, 2015 -  By

Three LM150 contractors share their customer relations efforts.

iS20842617_darkClient relationships will make or break a company, landscape professionals agree. So it’s important to listen, be proactive and meet expectations.

Three professionals from the LM150 list share how they’ve grown their businesses by focusing on client communication.

Landscape Workshop

Birmingham, Ala.

To get a real sense for what clients want, J.T. Price, CEO of Landscape Workshop, reaches out to them directly. His full-service, mostly commercial-based company, No. 71 on the LM150 list, did about $20.5 million in 2014 annual revenue. The company has been owned by investment firm McKinney Capital since 2011.

In the past, Landscape Workshop faced challenges with offering consistent customer service.

“The squeaky wheel tends to get the oil,” Price says. “But we wanted to talk with customers even when they were happy. The biggest thing we’ve changed is that we now have an early warning system before they become unhappy.”

That system is the Net Promoter Score (NPS) management tool, which Landscape Workshop uses to see why or why not their clients would recommend their services to friends or colleagues.

To get the score, the company surveys customers twice a year. The questionnaire takes less than five minutes to fill out. It’s provided Landscape Workshop with good data, says Shannon Vann, vice president of sales and marketing.

Landscape Workshop, which has mostly commercial clients, uses the Net Promoter Score system to conduct surveys twice a year.

Landscape Workshop, which has mostly commercial clients, uses the Net Promoter Score system to conduct surveys twice a year.

“It’s given us a lot of open-ended feedback from customers,” she says. “They tell us stuff they might not necessarily tell the account manager. We’ve been pleased with the response level. It shows us what to do and what not to do.”

The company also uses the survey results to ensure team members are responsive to customer needs at all times.

To keep from influencing survey responses, employees are instructed not to discuss it with customers. The marketing department emails clients a link to fill out the survey. When the results are in, marketing shares the responses with the account managers, so they can address any issues with clients.

Not only did Landscape Workshop implement a survey system, it also sought to change employees’ mindsets about the importance of communication and focusing on relationships.

“Our employees always take pride in doing great work, and they thought great work should speak for itself,” Price says. “That’s a mentality we tried to change.”

Of course, Price says, high-quality work and excellent communication go hand in hand.

“You can’t have a bad product and good communication,” Price says. “To win customers over in the long run, you have to have both.”

As for how the increased focus on customer communication will affect business, Landscape Workshop is going to exceed its budget this year.

“We’ve added more (revenue) in the first five months of the year than we added all of last year,” Price says. “Retention has also gone up dramatically during the past two years. The average customer stays with us nine to 10 years.”

To have a thriving business, Price says it’s important to pay attention to what clients want.

“It’s about where the industry is going and where our customers need us to be,” he says.


Reliable Property Services

Eagan, Minn.

Business is all about finding the perfect balance of customer satisfaction and profit, says Tom Hougnon, president/COO of Reliable Property Services.

The full-service company did $30.3 million in 2014 annual revenue, ranking No. 42 on the LM150 list.

In the past, it was faced with disgruntled customers when team members didn’t provide the level of service promised in the contract. Clients also became upset if they felt they were being overcharged. But, the company had to figure out how to balance meeting those expectations, while keeping an eye on the bottom line.

“Obviously, the customer must be satisfied with the service,” he says. “However, over-servicing and providing service the customer is not requiring or is not in the contract will create unprofitable jobs and eventually lead to financial issues.”

For example, time-and-materials contracts may lead to customers who believe they’re being price gouged. On the other hand, some seasonal contracts may not be priced for profitability, meaning the company may have to end its relationship with a customer.

Hougnon and his team overcame these obstacles by implementing additional tracking of quality, costs and labor based on the “customer-contracted experience.”

“We have to provide the contracted service to maintain the profitability of the job,” Hougnon explains. “The company must provide the level of service that is stated in the contract, and provide good communication at contract origination and throughout the contract. It’s critical so that both parties are in agreement with the service specification.”

To make sure clients understand the details, Reliability Property Services helps clarify each aspect of the contract. Hougnon points to email service blasts, mid- and end-season reviews, customer budget reviews and a call-tracking system as examples.

“The true understanding of the contract specifics is critical to both our internal team and managing our customer’s expectations. Often, these can get lost in all the other legal verbiage in the contract,” Hougnon says. “We have a better chance to satisfy the customer needs if we are both in agreement with the contracted customer experience.”

He expects the firm’s attention to contracts and communication will increase renewals and its ability to pick up additional work from current customers.

“Internally, we will provide the service the customer expects and meet the company’s profitability goals,” Hougnon says.


Coast Landscape Management

Napa, Calif.

For Lebo Newman, chairman/owner of Coast Landscape Management, his business is all about relationships.

His company, No. 146 on the LM150 list, did $8.3 million in 2014 annual revenue. Newman also owns Signature Landscapes, No. 125 on the list.

All Coast Landscape Management employees receive customer care training, including how to handle client phone calls.

All Coast Landscape Management employees receive customer care training, including how to handle client phone calls.

There wasn’t one defining issue that caused him to make communication changes at Coast. Instead, it came from listening to customer feedback over time—like hearing about a frustrated customer or someone whose call wasn’t answered promptly.

“We didn’t really have problems before, but we wanted to strive to be the absolute best,” Newman says. “We’re always working to step up our game.”

To strengthen their bonds with clients, Coast Landscape Management expanded and improved the company’s level of service. It implemented a plan that concentrated on quality, efficiency, productivity, safety and service—dubbed QEPS2.

“We have expanded our customer care training of all employees from the frontline to office and support staff,” Newman says.

Training for all employees covers how to handle phone calls. It included using some of their past calls as training tools.

“We recorded calls to review so they could hear themselves and how they handled talking to customers,” Newman says.

Although, the company doesn’t typically script its calls because every situation is different, Newman says: “People will feel like they’re filling out a questionnaire if you do that.”

Coast Landscape Management also brought in a third-party group to help the employees learn how to better interact with clients. One element of that training was teaching them to tailor their responses to the questions clients asked.

For example, if a customer is detail-oriented with his questions and concerns, the employee should make sure the response is focused on the details, as well.

The team members also learned which manager was in charge of each area and how to dispatch work.

Newman and his team look at customer communication as an important element of the sales process.

“Every time a client calls in, it’s an opportunity,” Newman says. “If you can capture more opportunities and act on them quicker, it’s going to create growth and retention. We touch about 500 commercial clients a month, and we want to make sure when they call, someone is always available to handle their calls.”

Now, customers can talk with anyone at the office if they have questions or an issue, instead of trying to reach the field manager directly.

“We’ve found clients feel like they’re getting quicker results, and we’re also getting fewer callbacks,” Newman says. “It’s been excellent feedback.”

Newman expects Coast Landscape Management’s 93 percent retention rate to further improve with the company’s new customer service practices.

“Having the phones answered by a real person makes a huge difference,” Newman says. “It’s an overhead cost that some don’t want to have. But the more you can do it, the better—it’s all about the relationships.”


Quick tip

“
You have to have a good ‘reason for being.’ Making money is the end result of standing up for something in the marketplace. There are a lot of ways to be successful, but they all originate by having a team dedicated to your mission. Ours is ‘We develop long-term relationships through team members committed to a culture of extraordinary culture service.’”
—
Jon Georgio, CEO
Gothic Landscape, No. 10


Artwork: ©istock.com/VLADGRIN/bluebird13; Photos: Landscape Workshop, Coast Landscape Management

Dowdle is an Alabama-based freelance writer.

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