In any service business, the equation is simple: you can only bill for productive work, but you’ve got to pay your crews for every hour on the job. Every unbillable minute shuttling crews between jobs comes off of your bottom line.

Factor in the added expenses of fuel and vehicle maintenance, along with the crucial task of keeping customers happy, and it’s clear that your ability to schedule and route your crews efficiently can spell the difference between a profitable vs. an unprofitable season for your landscaping business.

Information is key

Before drawing up any maintenance route or schedule, consider any and all information that could affect transit time and expense, as well as job efficiency and quality. “Information is the key to efficient routing and scheduling,” says green industry consultant/business adviser Steven Cohen of GreenMark Consulting Group. “Knowing how many hours are required at each job is the foundation for the process. If you have, say, an eight-hour day, you need to decide if you will work one hour less for travel or one hour more. One hour more can equate to overtime while one hour less can equate to less productivity.”

At first glance, routing a landscape crew may seem to be nothing more than knowing your account locations and determining the shortest points between two destinations. However, to achieve peak efficiency, you will need to consider other critical factors as well. These may include starting point; time available for each job; traffic flow and congestion at peak hours; equipment considerations; crew size; driver habits; variables such as road construction and weather; and, of course, customer satisfaction.

Optimize efficiency with technology

Cohen strongly encourages contractors to investigate the wide range of scheduling and routing technology platforms available to service businesses today. “They are great tools to invest in. From GPS to cloud- and server- based applications, map routing is calculated using satellites and street information and will provide the best possible routes and fastest travel time.”

Time sheets are a thing of the past, agrees Kevin Cline, director of maintenance operations at Land Art Cos. in Wausau, Wisconsin. His firm uses a Web-based task management service (developed specifically for landscape companies) to schedule his crews.

“I can tell the customer within minutes when we can provide service. We all dislike when someone tells us a five-hour window. It’s a ‘now’ world today, and by giving the customer immediate answers you are more likely to close the deal,” he says.

Which technology to invest in depends on your budget as well as your company’s particular needs. Ideally, you will want to be able to track transit time between jobs, billable hours spent on each job and fuel costs. Being able to locate and communicate with your crews at all times is also an invaluable asset.

Global Positioning System (GPS) telematics is one technology that has taken service vehicle scheduling by storm in the past decade. This satellite-assisted navigation system allows time and location tracking of individual vehicles throughout most areas of North America.

The technology can assist with many different aspects of fleet scheduling and dispatch. Some of these benefits include real-time dispatch for quick response to emergencies and last-minute schedule changes; vehicle tracking and monitoring; turn-by-turn directions and lost driver assistance; locating stolen or lost equipment; and of course accurate route mapping capabilities. Additional features such as idle time monitoring are available with some GPS platforms. Some can even monitor a vehicle’s own diagnostics.

The effect on routing efficiency is profound. “GPS fleet tracking solutions that offer automated job scheduling can help companies create and execute the perfect schedule,” says Adrienne Sallerson, senior marketing campaign specialist at NexTraq, a manufacturer of telematics software. “Managers can schedule and view all assigned jobs on one screen, saving them more time and eliminating errors that typically occur with manual processes.”

Choose the right routing tools

Out of the box, GPS systems often prove ideal, and there are many such options on the market. But before you invest, take the time to identify your real needs, cautions David Koelsch, fleet management consultant at managethefleet.com.

“The main thing is whether or not you’ll get a return on your investment. Be sure to take into account both the equipment cost and monitoring fees,” says Koelsch. “At a minimum, you need the desire to get the information a system like that can provide. If you’re not going to use it to its fullest potential ask yourself if the costs are worth it.”

Koelsch suggests that smaller operations may want to try using a dedicated fleet credit card in parallel with Google Maps or other free or low-cost mapping and/ or scheduling tools. “Give your employees separate cards dedicated to each vehicle, and make sure they know not to charge lodging or other expenses to it, otherwise these costs can show up mistakenly on the fleet side.”

If you do decide on a GPS system, be sure to compare brands. Many of these systems are designed with other types of fleets, such as over-the-road carriers, in mind. Using one of these might mean paying for features that provide little benefit to a landscaping company.

Support is also important to consider. “If a contractor is using a GPS fleet tracking solution or is thinking about implementing one, they should remember to take advantage of ongoing platform training,” advises Sallerson. “Look for a provider that offers free, ongoing training courses on features like scheduling and routing, so you can ensure you are using those features to the fullest.”

Another option, especially for larger, established companies, is to develop proprietary scheduling software. Clarke, a global environmental products service company providing mosquito control and aquatic services, has taken this route.

“We have an in-house scheduling system that plots all of our jobs on an active map. The scheduler uses that as a visual aid to cluster jobs together and assign them to various crews,” explains Clarke’s Director of Service Operations Michelle Selander, “GIS tools like Google Maps and Google Earth are also a major help.”

Great routing and scheduling tips

No matter what technology you use, being aware of routing and scheduling best practices will help you reach peak efficiency in this area. Here are some things to keep in mind:

Take a cue from UPS and avoid left turns. Waiting for traffic to clear for a left turn eats up time and fuel. Statistically, left turns also lead to more accidents. Since UPS adopted its “no left turn” policy and eliminated 90 percent of left turns from their routes, the company has saved more than 100 million gallons of gas and improved its safety record. It may not be possible to eliminate all left turns, but mapping out your routes as a series of right-hand loops could help you achieve similar benefits.

Monitor the weather. Weather can wreak havoc on a production schedule. Being aware of approaching weather can help minimize schedule disruption. “Weather is always a factor. We always have a plan B in place so our crews stay on task,” says Cline.

Selander agrees. “We monitor daily and sometimes hourly depending on what’s happening,” she says. “It is a very important aspect of our service.”

Keeping on top of the weather also requires clear and timely communication between dispatchers, technicians and customers. Weather mapping and other technology are invaluable when weather threatens.

“If jobs must be rescheduled due to weather-related issues, having an automated job scheduling board can make the process much easier. Contractors or dispatchers can log into their fleet tracking platform and see all scheduled jobs and assigned drivers on one screen. Dispatchers can then quickly send updates to drivers from the platform,” says Sallerson.

Group jobs. Servicing neighboring properties minimizes time between jobs. However, for seasonal jobs that require specialized or rented equipment, you may need to plan your route around the service to maximize efficiency. By offering special neighborhood group discounts for seasonal services, such as turf aeration, you can take advantage of both strategies.

Train for scheduling success

Tools and strategies are invaluable, but ultimately it’s up to people to use them wisely.

“The beginning of any efficiency process begins with understanding the process and then engraining that process in the minds of the people involved,” says Cohen. “I have found that the best training begins by training drivers to understand that unauthorized stops are not allowed. For example, a crew of four stopping for coffee for 10 minutes equates to almost three-quarters of an hour of downtime. Say your direct cost is $21 per man-hour. That adds up to $4,095 per year based on 52 weeks. That is only one crew stopping for coffee. Having pre-determined and mapped-out routes day in/day out is critical. Routine is important to achieve routing efficiencies.”

Knowing they are being tracked and monitored from afar can help keep crews on route and on schedule. This is especially helpful for preventing unauthorized use of time and equipment, but “Big Brother” technologies have their friendly side, too. Be sure your crews are aware of the features of fleet management technology that ultimately benefit them. “Having a process that saves the driver time and keeps their day running smoothly can encourage efficiency. If drivers are lost or stuck in traffic, make sure they know dispatchers can re-route them on the fly,” advises Sallerson, adding that tracking software can also be used to incentivize your crews to work more efficiently. “Employee recognition programs are a great way to motivate crews and boost morale. You can set weekly or monthly goals and reward those employees who meet or exceed them. You can also set a goal for the entire team and reward crews with a team outing or something fun where everyone is recognized. GPS fleet tracking software provides all of the data you need to monitor and measure efficiency and set goals.”

As always, communication is key. “We list what the customer expects and the allowed time it should take, if they stay within the numbers we have an incentive program in place and it’s reviewed each month. The nice thing about being able to watch in real time is that when it is taking too long (the crews) get a red flag notice. By using this we are able to communicate with them to help understand why the time is off, and implement corrective changes so we are back within the time, while still performing good service,” says Cline.

Keep customers in the loop

Employees are not the only ones to consider as you plan your perfect route. Asking your customers about their needs and plans in advance helps prevent last-minute scheduling changes and boosts customer retention.

“We contact each customer (at the beginning of the season) to give us an event list and special times when we need to give the property a fresh look,” Cline points out. “This is key, because it is a direct reflection on service and company image. Customers are hard to replace and need to make sure they know why they choose us year after year.”

Selander agrees. “We make every possible effort to grant all of our customer’s special requests,” he says. “Sometimes that requires us to pull technicians and vehicles from other areas of the operation, but that is a small price to pay for customer satisfaction.”

Routing and scheduling are complex tasks. Few landscaping companies have achieved peak efficiency in this area. However, ‘room for improvement’ is another word for ‘opportunity.’ As you gear up for the busy season again this spring, consider ways to improve your routing and scheduling efficiency— and then take action to make it happen. It may just make 2015 your most profitable year ever.