Having a Good Business Is Good Business

The tree business is, above all else, a business, and revenue must be produced, but there are important issues to be considered. You must handle requests for safety guarantees, share modern thinking about tree care and manage your clients and the legal issues around trees as you, hopefully, conduct your business in an ethical manner. The average consumer knows little about trees; actually, since what they know is mostly wrong, they know less than nothing. Which brings me to my topic. Do you earn your money by intentionally or unintentionally misinforming clients?

The ethics issue

As professionals, we are consulted because we have specific knowledge. It’s not ethical to abuse this by knowingly recommending unnecessary or harmful, yet profitable, work. The trees growing around our homes are among the most hazardous of trees; they have stressful growing conditions – poor soil, polluted air, potentially harmful spreading of chemicals within their root systems and people and property constantly beneath them. Compared to forest trees in their natural soil, they are constantly under attack. When discussing the risk of living with trees, we know and accept that there is a certain amount of risk involved – otherwise, we couldn’t allow anything nearby to be above our heads.

Clients are concerned about these risks, and when they ask if their tree should be removed, you might automatically reply, “Yes,” as this results in a quick sale. This immediate response can become a bad habit. Often your client is really asking if the tree is safe, and you can always answer, “No,” and technically be telling the truth. But if a 90-year-old widow questions a tree that you would gladly accept next to your house, and you tell her that it could soon fall on her house, I’d rather you weren’t in our industry! Don’t think it doesn’t happen; most of us have seen it. You can be truthful but unethical. To knowingly sell a procedure that is unneeded and harmful to a tree is just wrong.

Guarantees and the long haul

You will be asked if you can guarantee that a particular tree is safe. This is the time to discuss the acceptable-risk issue. If you wouldn’t remove that tree if it was growing on your own property, say so! You might say, “On my property, over time it could grow to be unsafe, but I would notice it – you might not.” Here you can propose actions they can take now to avoid a larger expense in the future.

Many new pruning and other procedures that aren’t known by most clients are available, with routine inspections for health and safety not the least of them. People want to hear plans for keeping their trees safe and healthy. When you demonstrate honesty and concern for their trees and the value of your continued attention, you will earn their trust and have a good chance of gaining a steady customer.

Note that tree care and risk assessment is your business; if you aren’t confident in this field, learn more about it. Educational material and workshops are readily available – use them. And remember, all areas have different soils and growing conditions. Your experience in your area is unique, and your familiarity with it is rare and valuable – it’s a strong selling tool, so use it. Ignorance is a weak defense, but continued ignorance is no defense at all.

The old days

In the last few decades, much has been learned about how trees grow, resulting in major changes in tree care. Things are very different from 1972, when I started in the tree business. Back then, proper tree care included routine tree topping, extensive use of tree paint, filling cavities with concrete, flush cutting of large limbs and spraying unregulated pesticides (and God knows what else) by anyone with a pumper truck and a handy creek for refills. Before Shigo and an active EPA, these methods were all standard, recommended and professional tree care practices. They were also wrong and harmed the trees, but made lots of money for people in the tree business.

We will never know everything about trees; they are infinitely complex and will never be fully understood. But when new knowledge and research proves that a different path is actually better for the tree, even if it costs the homeowner less money, you need to adopt the practice or be fraudulent. There is really no excuse for doing something you know is harmful to a tree, unless the client insists on it after you have informed them of better alternatives.

Dealing with your clients

When faced with change, we all are reluctant to some extent. But in the long run, a tree kept healthy by your service is much better for business than one you remove or prune so hard it dies. You are the tree expert, not a wildcatter with a pickup truck and a chain saw. Most people can immediately spot the difference between knowledgeable, professional tree care and sloppy, dangerous work. Demonstrate that you know what you’re talking about, and you’ll get plenty of pruning and takedown work from your regular clients.

I have clients with trees I’ve been treating annually for more than 40 years. Remember, repeat business is the heart of a well-run and trusted business. Having a book of scheduled appointments as you begin your season is far better than anxiously waiting for the phone to ring – or praying for a storm.

Let me give an illustration.

When beginning an appointment with a new or existing client, start with a tour of their property. Here they’ll tell you what they want done, and you’ll say whether or not it’s needed. You’ll tell them how it can be done not only at a lower cost, but in a way that harms the tree less and maintains the beauty of their property. All the while, you’ll be explaining why you’re suggesting work and why it’s necessary either now or in the future. Plainly lay out the reasoning, especially when your advice is contrary to what the client believes:

When they have large trees near their home or garage, point out the possibility of wood growing too large over them because of the unnatural open space created by their house. Explain how dealing with it now would be less expensive than waiting and paying more later, when they will be removing a potential hazard.

If there are mature trees, point to the deadwood that could be dangerous and to the deadwood that isn’t. Explain why mature trees don’t have the same needs as younger trees – that they will have more deadwood and imperfect areas on the trunk and branches and noticeable changes in the lower bark, and that their size often remains static.

Point out the trees that may be crowded out in the future by surrounding trees, and remember, shade is not the only factor; root competition is a major issue. Tell them to expect problems with these trees before they weaken and die. Suggest they consider removing weak trees before these attract disease and insect problems that might affect their other trees.

Sound reasoning and honesty are important here – there’s a good chance they’ve had this discussion with one of your competitors who may have given very different advice. Thinking, “What can I do? I’ve got a business to run and have to make money,” might seem practical in the short run, but it’s not ethical, and in the long run it’s bad for business.

Legal issues and best practices

When you are near the property border, discuss the problem of trees encroaching from surrounding properties, an issue that exists now or may develop in the future; most neighbors don’t know what can be done legally. The law says that any part of a tree, dead or alive, that is growing out of a neighbor’s soil but within the client’s air space belongs to your client, and they should consider it their property. If they want it removed, they can remove it, though it’s polite to inform their neighbor first and tell them why. Your homeowner doesn’t know what can or should be done.

There is so much more to share, like vista pruning and planting now for a future effect. There’s plenty of tree work all around; put your imagination and experience to work, the work is there – sell it!

We all want our home to stand out from the crowd in a pleasant way. Use your knowledge and experience to show them how. If you feel you can’t speak with confidence about these subjects, learn more about them; the information is easy to find. And when your tour is complete, tell them, “A free annual safety inspection for all actual and potential tree hazards will be performed by our safety-hazard specialist for insurance purposes and for the safety of your family.” I’m sure you can spot the business potential here.

After a while, your clients will gain confidence in your opinion and become more receptive to your advice. Once they are convinced you know what you’re talking about and aren’t trying to sell unneeded work, you’ll have a regular client (if you don’t get too greedy).

People will spend money to keep their trees healthy and safe. If you earn their trust, you should pick up all the pruning and removals you need. You are the tree expert; convince them what work is needed for the health and safety of their trees. If you succeed, you will be able to plan work by your schedule, not by the urgency and confusion of a random storm. When they see you are informed and concerned with their tree’s future rather than its funeral, you’ll have a long-term client and a steady income stream.

Use your integrity instead of your chain saw. It’s the best business strategy there is.

May your business last as long as the trees you serve and save.

Stephen H. Dorsey is a New Jersey-licensed tree expert and owns and operates Dorsey’s Tree Service in Haddon Heights, New Jersey. He has a bachelor’s degree in economics from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, serves as a borough arborist in Haddon Heights, N.J., and is author of his self-published book, Natural Tree Care: The Homeowner’s Complete Guide, available from Amazon.

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