Price remains a big challenge for landscape contractors, according to a recent discussion on LinkedIn's Landscape Group (www.linkedin.com/groups/Land scape-1426707).
"I have one client that was paying 30 percent more for maintenance in 1990 than they do now due to companies that beat down the maintenance budget," said Meg Fischer, a Chicago-based landscape consultant.
But landscape professionals and experts offer some fresh solutions to breaking through the price discussion.
To kick-off the conversation, Gieo Pensoneault, CEO and host of The New American Landscape Channel based in Colorado Springs, Colo., asked landscape professionals what top things cause a customer to say yes to their services. Lowest cost? The most persuasive proposal?
U.S. Lawns of Sacramento in California focuses on residential and commercial maintenance. Owner Michael Benge says residential customers have been more attracted to low bids, regardless of the service provider's professional image or bid summary. However, he sees a clear difference in how commercial maintenance clients respond. They want to see a professional appearance, including branded, clean trucks and neat, uniformed employees. They also want references, specifically other property manager references, shares Benge.
Be where they are
"In the maintenance world, the best thing you can do is figure out where property managers hang out and be there," he recommends. "Mingle, network [with] and get to know as many property managers as you can. Once you break through and get one or two to give you an opportunity, all you have to do is make sure you do a really good job with their property and they will start to throw your name out all over town.
"Property managers almost always talk to other property managers to get recommendations on whom to call when they are shopping for new landscapers. Price means very little as long as your price is within their budget and if you have been recommended you most likely already have the job."
Pensoneault agrees. "Be in the proximity of your target customer - find out where they hang out, physically and online," he encourages, adding a key point about referrals. "In a low-trust world, referrals and recommendations are gold. Make it a point to obtain short written and even video recommendations. It is the ticket to getting other similar customers."
On the design side, residential landscape professionals say price alone doesn't sell the job. Steve Fleming, president of Fleming's Landscaping and Pool Service in San Diego, believes being an excellent and knowledgeable salesperson convinces the customer to choose him over a competitor.
Dwight Benson, owner of Detroit-based DB Landscaping & Snow Removal, agrees, saying a positive and respectful attitude makes a huge difference in winning clients.
Fischer adds that contractors who want to appear knowledgeable and professional need to ensure they present a clearly defined scope of work for every bid - regardless of service.
"The reality is that if you are doing maintenance and everyone is following the same specifications ... the bids should be close," she explains. "I can't tell you how many bids that I have wondered how a low-bidding contractor can perform the same work I did the previous year at a 25 percent decrease. This drives down budgets and long-term depreciation of the property. After about three years of the low-mow-and-go budget and minimized service, a significant capital expense is necessary to return to where they left off before the initial budget gouge."
In the end, "the biggest loser is the client and the industry," Fischer adds, believing companies that misrepresent their services to retain clients end up giving the industry a bad name.
Good content boosts sales
Another option that is growing in popularity among companies that want to differentiate themselves is content marketing. Jeff Molander, Fort Myers, Fla.-based business sales trainer shared a case study from a pool contractor who is using content generation - from eBooks to instructional emails and videos to blogs and social media - to over-service customers on the front-end with free consultation and education. As a result, he's widening his profit margins and shortening his sales cycles.
"He's the highest price in town, but he's still selling more pools - even when his competitors are beating him on quotes," Molander says. "His blog (www.riverpoolsandspas.com/blog) is part of a higher caliber consultative selling process. Said plainly, he 'gives more to get more' from customers, and prospects see a clear difference between his business and the rest of the pack."
His argument is: "Who would you buy from - a brutally honest authority or some guy who's never given you one valuable bit of information except a low price tag?"
As you prepare for 2013, how are you going to minimize price and maximize service differentiation?
Nicole Wisniewski is a 15-year green industry veteran and award-winning journalism and marketing professional. She is currently a senior project manager in The Davey Tree Expert Co.'s marketing/corporate communications department. Visit her blog at www.mybiggreenpen.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.