In about a generation, it is possible that running a tree care business may be unrecognizable compared to what it is today.
As quickly as computer technology is changing the American business landscape, tree care veterans now in their 50s and 60s are unlikely to see profound changes before they retire. On the flip side, if Art Batson III is correct, the younger generation now in their 20s and 30s should see dramatic changes in their careers, largely attributable to robotics and software.
“The fact that arborists in their 20s will see business dramatically different in 20 – most certainly 40 – years is a thought to contemplate,” says Batson, president of Lucas Tree Experts, a utility-contractor-accredited, 44-year TCIA member company based in Portland, Maine. But, he warns, regarding everything from software to artificial intelligence (AI), “Changes never happen as quickly as we think they will.” Batson says things like technology “cycle down” from first blush.
As an analogy, he points to autonomous-driving electric vehicles, and early predictions of the ubiquity of that technology within five years. “Not so in five, but in 20 years, yes.”
The demand for the evolution of technology
Batson, a blend of CEO and CFO, talks of the evolution of technology and demand for it. For example, he says, “If you think about it, most tree care companies need drivers with commercial licenses. But it’s not the arborist’s main job function.” Looking ahead, Batson says of the future, “That component may be eliminated altogether. While we still need to go to the job in a truck, it is likely that potentially no one may be driving. Technology will have plotted out a route and driven us to the job. Think about the fact that route optimization is already happening now.”
He predicts, “Furthermore, I see a time in about 20 years when removal of a tree will be fully automated through various types of technology such as robotics, augmented reality and artificial intelligence, making the work safer and more efficient.”
When asked if it would be likely within that timeframe for an automated rig to be able to go from shop to job to shop and fulfill the contract without a human aboard, his answer was a definitive, “Yes.”
Batson says his company, which is about to break ground in 2024 for a new corporate headquarters in celebration of their 100-year anniversary in 2026, primarily focuses on utilities. “I’m a firm believer in software to improve our organization,” he states. “A contract-management system with AI-embedded key words brings in all the stakeholders from safety to specifications, thus improving efficiencies and transparency.”
Thoughts on AI
“In terms of AI, I think our industry is less industrial based, so we are not as process driven as manufacturing a car, mostly because of unknown variables like weather, geography and tree species,” he says, but adds that AI definitely will have a positive impact. For tree care, “AI first will impact admin, accounting, billing payroll and cash management, as well as human resources, recruiting and legal departments,” Batson opines.
“Later, I see AI going on to bidding, and, over time, models will improve with larger data sets being analyzed. And that will occur as people get more comfortable with the technology,” he adds.
“I think now of how it affects us day to day. Look at solutions that help us write letters to better articulate our message.” By way of example, Batson points to how you can use open AI to articulate emails. “AI can take what I write and present it in a softer tone.”
From those kinds of emails to proposals, technology is, in Batson’s words, “not meant to do it for you, but to aid you.”
Positives of technology
One strong and not uncommon example comes from Joanne Edmundson, vice president of Wachtel Tree Science Inc., an 89-year-old, accredited, 32-year TCIA member company based in Merton, Wisconsin. Wachtel offers total tree care, including insect and disease diagnosis and treatment, pruning, removals, fertilizing, planting and consultation services by ISA Certified Arborists. Edmundson reports that in the 10 years she’s been with the company, she’s seen many positive changes due to technology.
“One of my first projects was to set up a CRM (customer-relationship management platform), which we have used since 2015.” The software program is involved “front-to-back,” beginning with client calls and moving on to requests for proposals and for sales arborists’ use to do job quotes leading to proposals, and, if accepted, to then move on from work order to invoice.
While the company is reaping benefits of the CRM, it is still finding new ways to use it. By way of example, Edmundson points to components such as proposal reminders – even annual contract-renewal letters. “Now, we can create 8,000 renewal letters in a matter of 15 minutes, and that saves a huge amount of time,” she maintains.
She points to mobile apps (software program applications), explaining that while a crew shows up to a job using one part of the CRM software program, the sales staff will have a different view through which a proposal can be printed out on site or be signed electronically on a tablet by the customer.
Other helpful software
“Aside from the CRM, we are using other software that is also helpful, such as Microsoft Teams (a messaging app for real-time collaboration and communication, meetings and file and app sharing).” For example, Edmundson notes, a crew can be on the job and need to access a product data sheet for a client (she cites, for example, Safety Data Sheets). That production crew can have an immediate response for the client’s product information request. Edmundson explains that, if diagnostic questions arise, the Teams approach lets the sales arborist know what other team members have experienced and solicit viable solutions; the sales arborist in this case has the whole “team” at hand.
Other cases of technology building business include an application that reports and records a full tree inventory by community.
And then there is the human-resources aspect. Edmundson says, “Utilizing an HRIS (Human Resource Information System) has been a huge help with maintaining certifications, training, professional memberships, even CDL licenses to help us keep everyone in compliance.”
Evolving with CRM
David M. Anderson, CTSP, is a manager with Mayer Tree Service Inc., a 31-year TCIA member company based in Essex, Massachusetts. As with Edmundson, he has a perspective on how technology has changed – and will continue to change – the face of tree care, and begins by extolling the virtues of even the most basic of CRM packages.
Anderson recalls his early days in the industry when his employer and mentor would write proposals on paper with three copies, an original and two carbon copies, one each for customer, crew and office. He contrasts that with the simplicity and ease of working with any number of today’s CRM packages aimed purely at tree care.
Advice for smaller companies
For smaller companies and those new tech adopters, Anderson encourages the use of CRM software packages. “They are largely single operations. Basic. User friendly. And there is a lot of different software available.” He implies that there are a variety of offerings, and one may address the needs of one company better than the needs of another. “Some more advanced tech users are developing their own custom packages,” Anderson says.
An admitted marketer, Anderson says he’d like to see CRM packages advance sophistication to the point where the user can go beyond modern customer-relationship concepts. “I’d like to see them target things like demographics in order to do specific marketing based on specific client needs.”
However, he notes, “Even a simple CRM package that is easy to use can offer a number of benefits. It can be tied into invoice generation and even the popular bookkeeping program, QuickBooks. Mayer updated its CRM software a few years ago, and it has really helped in a number of ways.”
What to expect from a good CRM program
A good CRM system should be one of the initial building blocks of a company, says Anderson, adding that aerial lifts, cranes and grapple trucks are more sexy, but not more important.
“My personal take?” he ponders. “The use of a good software provides a basic infrastructure you can use for recordkeeping and marketing. Purchase a bigger software package than you think you need, then grow into it. Then think about expanding to bigger hardware and networking.
“A good CRM program should give you the basic tools to make you strategic and profitable in your approach to the business. Whether it’s job costing, bookkeeping or communications, it all tracks back to software,” Anderson says.
A good CRM program should provide you with the ability to run reports to help you “farm” existing clients. This not only provides better service, it also helps keep your staff busy year-round, according to Anderson.
One of the biggest benefits
“One of the biggest benefits,” Anderson says, referring to his marketing streak, “is that recordkeeping allows me to review client lists in the fall and schedule property reviews, which helps to sell winter work.
Reviewing these lists reminds me of people I have not seen in a while: ‘Wow I haven’t talked to Marie in a year. I will reach out to set up a meeting.’ You’d be surprised to know how many tree care companies do not go back to review client properties. Be sure to harvest that low-hanging fruit.
“A good CRM allows you to evolve as your company grows” he concludes.
Another tip Andersen offers is to think about adding a website consultant to manipulate Google searches so your company can rank higher on the search list. “We put up good content regularly, which increases our ranking, which translates to increased sales.”
A startup’s secret weapon
Andrew Jones is a production climber and co-founder of Rooted Arbor Care, a tree care service covering the greater St. Louis, Missouri, area. Only a few years out of the military and a competitive climber, he found himself working for a local tree care firm. “I fell in love two weeks into it. It has become a job, career, hobby – all of the above!” he states. He co-founded his own business with Thomas Paine, CTSP, and went full time nearly three years ago.
He is frank when he says of technology and a startup, “We had kind of a unique perspective. I worked for larger companies that were into comprehensive customer-relationship management. In my first company, as crew leader, I was the test pilot, the guinea pig, transferring from paper to CRM.
“I saw the potential immediately,” Jones reports, adding that while crew leaders may not be interested in profit-and-loss statements, “being in the finance meetings, I just knew.
“There were bumps in the road, because CRM wasn’t as comprehensive at the time,” he continues. “When we started, we used a free one – very rudimentary. Within two to three months, we needed a comprehensive one, before we got a backlog of customer history.”
His advice, having migrated his experience over to a fledgling company, is this: “Investing (in a comprehensive CRM program) eliminates a lot of growing pains early – immediately with no transition. Pay now, to avoid pain later!”
The impact of CRM
Jones says the impact of CRM has been dramatic. “Client engagement is so much better. The level of polish delivered to the client is vastly superior to handwritten notes or thrown-together stock Excel forms. From a sales perspective, I can get a comprehensive proposal to the client without spending a lot of time.
It is plug-and-play and all built-in, especially for tree care, and it generates a really attractive proposal sent through a secure system.” The level of customization really allows you to build your company- or regional-specific line-item presets.
“It presents a level of credibility. The client sees the proposal that matches the presentation you made when you first met. And it ties in on the back end with payment through a secure portal.”
A CRM is ideal for a small business, Jones says. “Utilizing the robust features of a tree-/landscape-oriented CRM alleviates issues that may seem overwhelming to a first-time business owner,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s keeping me where I need to be – in the field.”
“In 2012, we made the decision to go paperless as a company,” says Chris Ahlum, president of Ahlum & Arbor Tree Preservation, an accredited, 45-year TCIA member company based in Columbus, Ohio. “As scary as it was, technology has really helped streamline our business.
“Using the right CRM that can help your business be efficient is key,” says Ahlum. “Our office utilizes the (CRM) platform to schedule appointments, coordinate crew schedules, generate client invoices and process payments.”
Sales arborists leverage the CRM software for creating proposals and managing renewals, says Ahlum. “Meanwhile, our field crews use the system to follow their daily routes, record work times and share notes for effective communication with sales arborists. This helps streamline our operations by consolidating all relevant information in a single, accessible location.
“Utilizing a modern GIS-based inventory system has been instrumental in the growth of our consulting-arboriculture division over the last few years. Since we started using it (GIS), we have been able to contract inventories as large as 75 acres or more. We also have been able to do significantly more in terms of high-quality management plans for our long-term clients, because of the ability to compile data better and utilize it efficiently,” says Ahlum.
“We are always exploring what’s coming next and what new technologies could help our business,” he adds. “AI is one of those technologies we are keeping an eye on, and we think it will significantly impact our industry. It is constantly changing and expanding.
“Even as we talk about it now, tomorrow it will have developed into something new,” notes Ahlum. “We are excited to see how these technologies grow and help our industry become more efficient and promote green initiatives.”
So what’s the takeaway? No matter what you do, invest in technology. You not only won’t regret the expenditure, you’ll wonder why you didn’t embrace it sooner.
Rick Howland is a veteran newspaper reporter and editor, former national magazine owner and editor and retired international consultant in public relations, advertising, merchandising and training. He lives in the upper Hudson River Valley of New York.