As the winter months pull away and we start to see plant health care (PHC) back on the horizon, I want to talk a little about the basics of PHC from a client perspective and some simple ways to set yourself apart from others in the industry.
In the Greater Boston area, we are fortunate to have a client base that is both willing and able to spend money caring for its landscapes. These clients have many options when it comes to maintaining the health of their trees and shrubs. When we arrive at a large, sprawling estate that may have three other contractors on-site, it is easy to go through the motions and forget the basics. These basic business practices can set you apart from other companies.
Ring the bell
I am always amazed by the number of contractors who do not do this. It seems like such a basic thing. You are a guest on the property. Think of the time and effort you have put into getting this job card to the point where you are finally ready to perform the service. The final step is that of going to the door to ring the bell. This takes about 60 seconds at the most. This one simple step will set you apart.
Seventy-five percent of the time no one will come to the door; 5% of the time someone will come to the door and seem annoyed that you bothered them. The remaining 20% of the clients you interact with will appreciate that you let them know you have arrived and are starting the work. These clients will be clients for life.
I have a client in Weston, Massachusetts, who bought a large piece of property and began building their home/estate in the spring of 2005. This was a multi-year project that had many phases. They began by installing a $200,000 landscape. Over the next year or so, I cared for the plants, dodging other contractors the whole time. When the house was about 80% finished, the family finally moved in; however, there was still a solid year of final touches left on the build. I would always call them the night before I was planning my integrated pest management (IPM) visits so they would know I would be on the property at some point the next day. I also would ring the bell when I arrived.
At the time, it seemed a little extreme. I had either talked to them on the phone or left them a message the night before, and the place was always crawling with other contractors, but I rang the bell just the same. At the end of the season, I received a nice note from the husband who I very rarely saw. His note was simple. “Robin and I greatly appreciate that you always let us know when you are planning work on our property. We also appreciate that you always ring the bell when you arrive. As you know, we have a number of contractors here on a daily basis. It is nice to work with a company that respects that, although this is an active construction site, it is still our home.”
A year and a half later, the home was finally finished and the contractors were all gone. They had moved on to their next customer. I was still there every year caring for the clients’ property. They also had referred us to two other neighbors on the street.
Are we trying to hide?
How hard did you work to build your brand? Were there long nights? Missed family time? Blood? Sweat? Tears? Why are we arriving and working on properties without uniforms or lettering on our equipment? Our brand identifies us not only to our clients but also to potential clients who may drive by and wonder who their neighbor has trusted to care for their property. How many times have you asked a neighbor about a contractor you have seen working at their property?
It can be overdone. There are some uniforms that are obnoxious, and I can understand the disdain for some of these loud logos. I am certainly not advocating for every square inch of our clothing and trucks to look like a NASCAR parking lot.
As a business owner or manager, you must ask yourself, “If I drove by this job site, would I know who was set up in the yard? Would I know who was caring for this property?” and, more important, “Would I want this company to be at my property?”
As arborists, we are professionals.
If you are reading this, you more than likely have more training, certifications, and licenses than many others who are designated masters at their chosen crafts. We command a premium, and we should not apologize for that – but look the part. When we talk to prospective clients at our company, we often tell them, “If you are basing your decisions solely on price, we will not win. We are not in the market to be the cheapest tree care company in the greater Boston area. We will win by showing up on time and doing the job we said we would, and you will be happy, guaranteed.”
When you show up with clean equipment and uniforms, you are promoting the profession and showing the clients you care about how you present and that it matters. When you show up with an old, leaky spray truck that leaks oil on the driveway and the crew is wearing Patriots’ hoodies, that makes a statement – not a good one.
How did we do?
Why did a client hire you and, more importantly, how was their experience? These seem like simple questions, but the second one is rarely asked, particularly in the PHC world. I think it is fair to say that we are good about asking the upfront questions. Everyone asks the initial question, “How did you hear about us?” This response is filed away in a database somewhere, and, at the end of the year, you can say 20% of our new business was from internet searches, 10% was from referrals, etc. The follow-up piece is key, particularly with PHC.
It is different with tree work. We often get long reviews related to tree work on Google reviews, etc. Tree jobs are often a long time in the making, with lots of iron and people hanging from trees with chainsaws blaring. It can be a major event. Clients are very eager to leave reviews on this work after the fact. It is rare to get an online review in regard to PHC operations. So, why not ask?
“How did we do? How was your experience? Did we meet or exceed your expectations?” These are questions we should be asking regarding our PHC work. This can be as simple as a line on the invoice where the client can respond or another medium.
We used to leave a prepaid postcard on our last application that a client could mail back to us with general information on how their experience was. I was always surprised by how many of these we actually got back. Some of the suggestions made were implemented, and we are still using them today. The postcard has gone the way of the bag phone, however; with the amount of electronic invoicing, etc., it is actually easier to get feedback now.
The most important question should be, “How can we improve your experience with our company?” Your clients are your biggest resource – use them! If you are doing things that work for them, give them the opportunity to tell you about that. Conversely, if a client is finding it hard to do business with you for some reason, let them tell you about it. Nothing is more frustrating than having a client you have had for a few seasons not renew their services and you never know why.
These are not earth-shattering concepts. They can and should be the foundation for a good PHC program. If we start off by doing the basics and finish with some follow-up, we have a good starting and endpoint. That leaves us with all the fun stuff in the middle.
Phillip Perron is a Massachusetts Certified Arborist (MCA) and Mass. Licensed Pesticide Applicator and an ISA Certified Arborist with Barrett Tree Service East, Inc., an accredited, 13-year TCIA member company based in Medford, Mass. This article was based on his presentation on the same subject at TCI EXPO 2019 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. To listen to an audio recording of that presentation, go to this page in the digital version of this issue of TCI Magazine online, under the Publications tab, and click here.