Members of the crew have studied for and earned the appropriate pesticide applicator license, identification of the pests and diseases common to the service area is complete, marketing new services has led to initial conversations with clients and the first sale has been landed. What’s next?
Communication and setting expectations
First and foremost, clear communication with clients every step of the way is key to helping them understand the proposed treatment plan. There can be pressure when clients have certain expectations that don’t align with proper treatment windows.
“Any time you’re doing a treatment as a licensed applicator, there’s a professional obligation to do the treatment when it’s most appropriate. You don’t want to put down a treatment that won’t be effective or is past the best application window,” says Josh Morin, owner of We Love Trees, a two-year TCIA member company based in Niwot, Colorado. Morin is also a member of TCIA’s Board of Directors. “Clients sometimes have assumptions or expectations of what needs to be done. It’s our job as professional arborists to educate clients on how to do things responsibly.”
Clear communication and properly educating the client starts with the sales arborist. Like regular tree work, plant health care (PHC) can require an on-site visit with the client to evaluate the property and trees. This is an opportunity to assess soil conditions, planting location and signs of pests or diseases, and then discuss the observations, treatment plan, price and timing with the client.
“As pros, we need to have conversations with clients to educate and set expectations early on,” says Kathy Glassey, director of renewable resources for Monster Tree Service, a 12-year TCIA member company based in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. “Trees need the right nutrition and biology in the soil to be healthy. Rather than selling a one-time treatment, we focus on long-term (treatments) that can help minimize pests and diseases.”
While some treatments can be one-time or less-frequent visits, such as fertilizer or tree injection that can be combined with other tree work, some trees require a rescue solution with a long-term plan.
“I would say approximately 20% of our PHC revenue comes from what we call ‘active care.’ These are recurring visits to the same property to check on things,” says Phil Perron, plant-health-care director for Barrett Tree Service East, Inc., an accredited, 15-year TCIA member company based in Medford, Massachusetts. “The other 80% of our PHC revenue is based on a more traditional PHC treatment schedule – a bio stimulant in the spring and maybe another treatment mid-season, without real monitoring in between.
“While there may not be intense monitoring by a technician during the season on most properties, the arborist representative for a particular client will often be on the property during the growing season to check on things and make recommendations as needed. We also try to get out to every property during the off season to see how the treatments are working and to make new recommendations based on our findings. This helps us to limit chemical input that is not needed once the pest pressure is brought down to an acceptable level.”
From a tree care standpoint, the objective is to restore and/or maintain the health of the tree. From a business standpoint, annual plans for that less-frequent work, alongside long-term solutions, result in long-term client relationships and more consistent revenue.
Balancing the needs of the client with the growth and financial goals of the company can be tricky when getting started. The end goal is to identify opportunities to help the client and save them money over time, while also supporting the health of their trees, limiting pesticide usage and still turning a profit.
Tips for scheduling and fulfilling contracts
Once the sales arborist has submitted a work order, the next touchpoint with the client comes from the team member scheduling the service appointment and notifying the client – perhaps more than once. There are many ways to approach the various touchpoints, including phone calls, texts and email.
“One thing that has helped us with scheduling is giving clients a one-week window to help us work around weather, rather than a specific day,” says Zack Shier, plant-health-care manager for Joseph Tree Service, an accredited, 10-year TCIA member company based in Dublin, Ohio. “Very rarely do we get clients who want a specific day. Our clients have been happy with the one-week window and day-of communication from the on-site tech or CSR (customer service representative).”
On the other hand, when weather has less of an effect on scheduling, some companies are able to be stricter with appointments. “Due to the volume of our work, we let clients know there’s no flexibility with scheduling,” states Joseph Eves, owner of Coastal Tree Care, an accredited, six-year TCIA member company based in San Diego, California. “We do leave a week open at the end of the month for clients who needed to reschedule, and in that week, we also accommodate leftover work and go-backs.”
“It’s up to the sales arborist at the first interaction with the customer to discuss timing with the client, so they understand when to expect the team to show up,” states Janet Doss, PHC manager for Wachtel Tree Science, Inc., an accredited, 31-year TCIA member company based in Merton, Wisconsin. “When the work order is entered into the system, PHC services route to me for scheduling. Our services are not based on a calendar; they’re based on the growth and pest season.”
Timing services based on the life cycle of the pest, and even explaining that multiple treatments might be needed over the various stages of the pest’s life cycle, is essential to help the client understand the frequency of the crew showing up on their property for service. Doss continues, “The most important thing to know is proper insect and disease diagnosis and to have a plan in place for what you’re going to use to treat. We have a binder for every service we perform that documents every product we’ll use, the rate and the application method to help us plan treatments. It should be in black and white.”
Timing the fulfillment of these contracts is dependent on geographic location. Some tree care businesses have seasons and are subject to changing weather conditions. Monitoring weather – such as rain, wind and low temperatures – is an important part of scheduling visits.
“This is a good 25-30% of my job when planning client visits for 10 crews for next-day and seven days out,” emphasizes Perron. “We need to be able to plan PHC work that can be done in wet conditions or on windy days. You become very familiar with the seven-day forecast. I spend a lot of time thinking about the weather, particularly when scheduling for Monday on a Friday, when so much can change weather-wise.”
Wind is especially important to consider when the treatment plan involves spraying. The European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF) is generally considered the most accurate global model by meteorologists, with the U.S.-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Global Forecast System (GFS) coming in second.
Business of PHC Series at a Glance
This is the eleventh article in a planned 12-part series called Business of PHC that will run in TCI over the next year, focusing on what a smaller company needs to know to launch a plant-health-care program and start offering PHC services. The various aspects of this lucrative profit center that we have covered or plan to cover include:
- PHC – It Could Be the Shot in the Arm Your Company Needs [TCI, April 2021]
- Elements of a Plant-Health-Care Business Plan [TCI, May 2021]
- How to Equip Your Business Without Breaking the Bank [TCI, June 2021]
- What people will you need? [TCI, July 2021]
- The science: Host species and the things that affect them. Get to know the trees in your area and their problems. Understand treatment selection. [TCI, August 2021]
- Diagnosing pest/abiotic problems [TCI, September]
- Simple soil science/use of soil amendments [TCI, October]
- Structural pruning [TCI, November]
- Licensing and regulatory requirements [TCI, December]
- Marketing/selling PHC contracts [TCI, February]
- Scheduling/fulfilling PHC contracts
- PHC resources – TCIA PHC Technician, soil-testing labs, pest-diagnostic services, etc. [Scheduled for April 2022]
For those businesses in parts of the country where seasonality and weather are not an issue, scheduling and fulfillment are much more straightforward. San Diego-based Coastal Tree Care treats on a quarterly basis. “I think our market is unique in that we don’t deal with seasons,” says Eves. “We schedule a lot of our treatments for key pests on a recurring, quarterly basis based on the product we use with a 90-day residual. After 90 days, that product is no longer active in the vascular tissue of the tree, so we go back and do another application.”
An additional layer of complexity to consider when scheduling and fulfilling PHC contracts is managing efficiency. For a small tree care business with fewer staff, it might not be possible to manage PHC separately from other tree work.
When possible, consider logistical elements, such as the cost of fuel and clients’ proximity to each other, when route setting. Routes are certainly more efficient when servicing clients based on geographic area, but sometimes that’s not always possible given the treatment windows for the pest services offered. “If you’re offering spring fertilizations, that’s a broad window that is easy to work with. If you have other treatments that coincide, you can group those geographically for timing. You also have to think of the applicator and how their truck is set up,” says Morin.
Paper, digital or both?
When it comes to the administrative tasks of managing a PHC business, from proposal to scheduling to route-setting to invoicing and finishing out the year with renewals, there is no right or wrong way to do the work. Holistically consider the efficiency of landing sales, managing effective customer communication, operating profitably and achieving growth, and select the system that best supports the business’s goals. It could be that the systems already in place to manage tree work are well suited to taking on the addition of PHC.
Industry pros leverage a variety of solutions to sell, plan, keep records and communicate, including paperwork orders and a robust filing system, Google Workspace, GMass, Route4Me, customer relationship management (CRM) software, industry-independent service software, proprietary software and software designed specifically for tree care from providers such as ServicePro, SingleOps, ArborGold, ArborNote, APlus, PlanIt Geo and others. (For more on software, see “Leveraging Business Software in the Age of COVID-19,” TCI, September 2020, and “Feedback From the Field Drives Innovation in Business Software,” TCI, October 2020.)
Regulatory-compliance requirements for the reporting of pesticide use differ from state to state. Whether technicians are manually or digitally recording notes of materials applied, quantities used and weather conditions, ensuring that the records are formatted to support the state’s requirements is important.
Keep the revenue coming
The systems selected to support the business should be able to keep track of how much product was used, product-cost usage at the business level and the client level and how many dollars’ worth was sold. The final numbers should make it relatively simple to evaluate performance and success for the current year and to set goals for the next year.
Depending on where in the country the business is located, timing the renewal process can be different. However, many tree care companies have a winter period, and that is a common time to look at contract renewals for the upcoming year.
Contract renewals: Should they be automatic or not? There’s no right answer. Testing both offers the business the opportunity to see which results in more clients who carry over year to year.
“We manage renewals every winter. Our sales arborists individually look at their clients, write up renewals based on their individual needs and send them out with the opportunity to opt in for next year,” says Doss. “After a few years of services like fertilizing, the team will assess the health of the tree and determine if treatment needs to change.”
However, some companies set clients up on plans that auto renew. “We email clients at the end of the year to let them know we’re renewing their contract,” states Eves. “Clients receive multiple touchpoints, including emails, texts and phone calls, giving them the opportunity to opt out.” Following up by phone and text message will help ensure that the initial renewal emails aren’t getting lost in spam filters.
It’s important to note that several follow-ups might be necessary to catch the client’s attention, especially if starting this process in December. Some businesses elect to wait until after the new year to reduce competition for clients’ attention against holiday-sales emails.
Final tips from PHC pros
Professionals who’ve found success with PHC recommend keeping great notes and having an easy-to-use filing system, especially when not leveraging a CRM or business software to manage client information. “It should be easy for your sales arborist to refer back to their notes throughout the year or during the renewal period,” says Shier. “In every sense, from a customer-service perspective to regulatory compliance, recordkeeping is paramount to being successful. Record as much as you possibly can, and then narrow down what isn’t worth recording as the years go on. You’ll thank yourself later when you have two to three years of data on something you wouldn’t have normally recorded, but did.”
Finally, if there’s still uncertainty around PHC or pesticide application when scheduling and fulfilling those landed sales, don’t hesitate to leverage networking connections for help.
“The one thing I can say for someone starting a new PHC business is not to be afraid to reach out to someone who has done it for a long time,” urges Glassey. “If we can help save someone else from making a mistake, it could prevent off-target applications that cause damage, or even worse.”
Emily W. Duane is a freelance writer specializing in business and marketing topics for the outdoor trades and recreation industries. She is currently based in Denver, Colorado.