On the whole, commercial tree care companies were faring well amid the country-wide economic collapse related to COVID-19 in the second quarter of this year, but that didn’t mean the pandemic didn’t create some change.
A July 2020 report by Jobber, a provider of business-management software, states that the entire home-service category saw a drop in revenues from March into April, “as consumers and businesses were mandated to change their behaviors.” Beginning in May, the category – which Jobber splits into categories for cleaning, contracting and green industries – began to rebound, particularly among those businesses that do their work outdoors. Green industries – landscaping and tree care – saw a record high of 26% new growth for June, and revenue rebounded as well heading into the second half of the year.
But the respite and the demands of the pandemic apparently gave many a chance to focus on other areas of the business, specifically the use of software.
“There’s a much bigger interest in anything that will support more non-contact interaction with customers, and, of course, software is ideal for that,” says Hank Ortiz, president, CEO and co-founder of ArborNote, developers of software for the industry. “Our software is used by professional tree care companies for creating estimates for their customers. All of our estimates are electronic, and they are emailed to the customer, so the customer never has to meet with the tree care provider face to face if they don’t want to. The tree care provider shows up, uses his or her mobile device to capture all the information about the tree or trees, puts together the estimate on the provider’s mobile device and emails it to the client. The client can open it up and do all of the approval electronically – the client can print it out as a PDF and put a web signature on it, then scan or fax it back – and there’s no contact at all.”
Pictures and videos can be added to the proposal, and once the client views it, the tree care provider is notified when the client views, accepts or rejects it, and can field client comments or questions. “All of that can be handled by telephone or email,” Ortiz says, with no face-to-face contact.
Computer developers never envisioned a pandemic such as this, but those who create and sell the technology that limits contact and maximizes autonomy find that their products fill plenty of client needs.
“It’s not just the (tree care) customer who benefits from this, but also it’s the tree care companies, because their people – the office staff – are also working from home,” says Ortiz. “With everything online, not even the company personnel need to have contact, because everything’s in the cloud. Everybody can access everything from home on whatever computer they’re using. Everybody has access to ArborNote, everybody can see what’s going on, all the interaction with the clients and even between other people in the company.”
The software’s features that manage workflow – work-order generation, work-order execution and allocation of equipment and manpower – also reduce contact within the companies. “All the work orders, all the equipment and even the human resources are available on their mobile device,” Ortiz says, echoing the sentiments of others who design, develop, produce and market software to companies in the green industry.
The pandemic came at a time when software is being more commonly used in tree care and other trades, and developers are adding and improving their software every year.
In a two-part series, we queried member software companies about what 2020 has brought them and what they are bringing to the market, and here’s what some of them had to say.
Donna Garner, marketing director with Arborgold, says the pandemic period from March on has brought an increase in interest and usage.
Arborgold’s cloud-based software and integrated sales and crew apps provide advantages for salespeople, crews, administration and support staff, Garner says. The features allow office teams to manage business from home, crews to access job and work-order details, project leads to monitor and report on large-scale projects from the field and leadership teams and managers to access business metrics remotely. Sales teams can use remote lawn-measurement tools to provide estimates quickly and improve their close relations with pipeline-management tools and automated followup. Companies can improve cash flow by triggering billing when jobs are marked as completed, with integrated digital invoicing and e-pay credit-card and debit-card payment solutions.
Arborists also can use the software to improve the client experience, starting with pricing tools for estimates and the ability to use digital signatures. The software can keep clients connected to important job details in real time, as crews update work orders from the field with progress photos, client inventory mapping and tree-health status.
“Over the past year, Arborgold introduced its Client Plant and Tree Inventory module, Project Management features and Supply Chain hub,” Garner says. As a result, many of Arborgold’s tree care, plant-health-care and landscaping client companies have started to adopt new production practices designed to capture and report on client inventory. This allows sales teams to proactively search and filter for new service opportunities and renewals based on health status and/or treatment plans. Leads, managers and executives can review and respond to actual versus plan revenues and cost variances with Arborgold Project Management features.
In 2020, Arborgold released a variety of enhancements and updates to its cloud product, including an updated user interface and better speed and filters. It also features enhanced business-intelligence tools, including time-tracking features with GPS locations that provide estimated drive and work time along with actuals.
“It is important to keep in mind that the customer is always right,” notes Elizabeth Schulte, “especially when it comes to social distancing.
“As professionals, we always keep this at the forefront of our practices,” says Schulte, director of marketing for PlanIT Geo, maker of the TreePlotter Software suite. “If the client wants you to go through the east gate of the yard, you go through the east gate. If they want you to take extra care of the crab apple in the front yard that they planted as a memorial to a loved one, you take extra care of that tree. These same concepts now apply to the development and delivery of estimates due to COVID-19.”
Consumers have become increasingly comfortable with mobile interaction, and tree care companies were already interested in transitioning their business structure to integrate mobile business tools, says Schulte. For many, however, it was on a long-term roadmap or part of a phased approach. COVID-19 took that slow transition and squeezed it into days or weeks for many business owners.
“When we released TreePlotter Jobs beta version in January of this year, we certainly did not anticipate how quickly the platform would become even more relevant alongside social-distancing requirements,” says Ian Hanou, PlanIT Geo founder and CEO. “We know this product can help a lot of businesses out there right now.”
Customers of tree care companies using TreePlotter Jobs can explore an itemized list, a map and photos of any recommended work and pricing, all on any device from the comfort of their own home. They can approve estimates in full or piece by piece, all with no personal contact. Once approved, work orders can be scheduled on a calendar, assigned to a crew leader, tracked, recorded and invoiced through a paperless process, eliminating unnecessary contact. TreePlotter Jobs also will integrate with QuickBooks Online for accounting and payment collection.
“We developed TreePlotter Jobs because business owners were thirsting for a map-based estimating technology that’s also user friendly,” says Schulte, whose company built TreeSpotter Inventory in 2012 for those needing to map, manage and report on tree data. “The tree care industry is notoriously behind in the implementation of new technology, especially when it comes to mobile business-management tools. Often it was viewed as nice to have or ‘for the younger generation.’ Currently, there is a head-to-head race in the development of tree-care-specific software, which is great for consumers.”
PlanIT Geo is offering TreePlotter Jobs for free through November 1, 2020, with no credit-card number required, through its website (treeplotter.com/tryJobs). A short training session is provided via video conference.
Compiling information from clients, SingleOps recently used its technology to deliver an optimistic Q1/Q2 Green Industry Economic Report. Despite a pandemic-related dip, the company reported that clients who use its software accepted $256 million in “one-off jobs” – such as tree removal, storm cleanup, flower-bed installation, etc. – from tree care and landscaping companies in the first half of 2020.
“More than six months have passed since we published our first Green Industry Economic Report, and despite all the chaos wrought by COVID, our industry has proven resilient,” CEO Sean McCormick says in a release. “With people now spending more time than ever in their yards, home-improvement projects are popping up everywhere.
“We’re seeing more tree care companies approaching us about implementing business-management software, as well as seeing our existing clients utilize more components of our software to deliver a completely touchless experience,” says Taylor Gould, Single Ops’ president, whose company added 59% more tree care company customers during the second quarter (April 1 through June 30) than it did in the same time period last year.
“Our customers can use SingleOps to provide estimates, schedule work, manage crews, track labor and materials and invoice and receive payments – all from their home offices, without meeting customers face to face,” Gould says. “This has allowed them to continue operating throughout the pandemic and in many cases increase productivity.”
Gould also has noticed the evolution in how commercial arborists use software and benefit as a result.
“We see more and more customers looking to enable and empower their field teams – both estimators and crews – with technology,” Gould says. “The first generation of business software for the green industry really focused on the office manager, the owner and the basics of operating the business. The next generation is connecting the back office to the field and helping the entire company stay on the same page at all times. That improves customer satisfaction and, in turn, helps the organization earn more new and repeat business.”
New this year for SingleOps: Options Proposals, which allows companies to designate services as recommended or optional on a proposal.
“This helps tree care businesses offer more choices and a better customer experience, while streamlining the sales process and reducing the need for face-to-face meetings,” says Gould. He notes that the company plans to release a feature this year that makes it easier to include a plant health care (PHC) program on a proposal for other services, such as tree removal or pruning, increasing their average sale and adoption of services. The PHC program could be designated as optional using the Options Proposals feature.
Add Jobber to the list of tech companies that are fielding more questions and yielding more sales.
“We did notice an uptick in tree care and arborist businesses signing up for Jobber in the last couple of months,” says Nick Keyko, director of marketing. “In May 2020, we saw 85% year-over-year growth in signups within this industry, and in June 2020, 150% year-over-year growth. The great part about tree care and the green segment in general is that most jobs are done outdoors, where social distancing is much more manageable. As a result, the green segment was not as impacted by COVID-19 when compared to a segment like cleaning.
“The advantages of a technology solution like Jobber is that tree care businesses can operate during the pandemic with little friction or change to their operations,” he adds. “Jobber’s built-in communication tools, such as its client hub and online-payment options, provide a contactless experience that allows for social distancing, resulting in a better client experience.
“Smaller tree care companies use software to automate repetitive tasks, streamline day-to-day operations and stay organized. The software helps companies keep track of their crews, improve their client experience and look more professional,” says Keyko, who notes that by doing that, the software also allows top management more time to spend growing the business.
Tree care customers consider ease of use, routing job orders, automated work requests and real-life business tracking (including daily income totals) as strong points of the software, and appreciate the pricing, which includes no set-up fees, Keyko says.
While the pandemic may have pushed some companies to delve into technology, software usage has been evolving to keep pace with consumers.
“Consumer expectations are changing,” Keyko says. “They want to work with businesses that offer flexible scheduling and quick response, and they want the ability to pay for a service with the click of a button. Technology solutions like Jobber help tree care stay competitive by transforming the way service is delivered to impress clients. If a client calls to reschedule a job, it can be done on the spot from a desktop in the office or from a phone in the field. Clients also can pay for a completed job online if they choose to.”
Jobber offers free personalized training and support to customers via the phone, chats or email across all membership plans. Two new features are aimed at improving the customer-service experience and value of jobs.
“The first feature, two-way SMS (systems management server), further improves communication between service providers and their clients,” he says. “The second feature is advanced quoting. For arborists, it means they can upsell their quotes with job add-ons, such as tree pruning or stump grinding, easily and with photos.”
Like many software programs, ArborNote software was developed with the twin goals of convenience and efficiency, and engineers continue to work on improving performance.
“The beauty of cloud-based software, which is what we have, is that we update our software every other week,” says Hank Ortiz, ArborNote president. “In the old days, you had to wait for the latest version of XYZ to come out, and then you got a new CD and you loaded it into your computer and updated it and hoped there’d be a new version out sometime within the next year. But with cloud-based software, customers are constantly getting updates and improvements.”
When the product debuted five years ago, Ortiz says, there was some resistance from many in the industry. Even without COVID-19, there’s been a change, as companies adapt to compete with rival companies for work and consumers, who have their own buying preferences.
“It’s become the expectation,” Ortiz says. “Primarily, it’s the expectation of customers who tree care companies are working with, and, secondarily, tree care companies also have a level of expectation now for automation, business tools, etcetera, etcetera.”
New this year: ArborNote Works, a separate app for work-flow management designed for crews to go out and execute work orders. The product is straightforward and focused solely on work-order execution.
“I tell people, it’s where the rubber meets the road in the tree care industry,” Ortiz says. “You can do a great job of estimating, create a beautiful estimate and have your customer approve it, but if you’re not making money because it wasn’t estimated right, then you might as well not do the job. ArborNote Works is the app that allows a tree care company to manage and measure efficiency on every job, on a daily basis.”
Next month in TCI – Part 2: Business-management software from ServicePro, A Plus Tree, Inc., ArborSoftWorx and more, and how user feedback shapes the end product.
David, I agree that such a software boom took place in the era of covid. But what companies really lacked before was software for workflow automation. Now it is more relevant than ever, because manual routine tasks take too much time.