WiseGrass uses radio, networking sites and the Internet to get the word out

Photos Courtesy of Wisegrass.
Paul Stoltzfus, owner/operator of WiseGrass, keeps communications flowing by Twittering via iPhone.

Paul Stoltzfus, owner/operator of WiseGrass in Lancaster County, Pa., uses multiple avenues to reach potential clients. Stoltzfus is on the radio talking about lawn care 365 days of the year on WROZ 101.3, a soft rock station. “We chose it for the amount of reach and the number of repetitions that would give us the best bang for the buck,” he says. “I want to hit each listener a minimum of four times a week so our message makes an impact. We decided what we could handle in costs, and then asked stations to tell us what they’d give us for those dollars. WROZ worked with us to develop a ‘run of station’ program that has my voice and my message reaching more people while hitting those repetition figures.”

The company has spent $1,800 a month on radio coverage since it started advertising in June 2007; that consistency pays. Stoltzfus says that 90 percent of their leads are initiated by the radio ads. Those radio spots move listeners to the Web site (www.wisegrass.com) to find out more. Stoltzfus considers the site a brochure with a plus: the flexibility to continually fine-tune his message. It’s a combination of need-to-know information and insight into the character and commitment of the company.

The Web site has a link to his blog, which Stoltzfus frequently uses as a mini-seminar. The blog can hit seasonal topics and delivers the message with text and photos, or a combination of text and video clips. For project-related blogs, he posts enough information so a do-it-yourselfer could tackle the project while encouraging them to have it done professionally by WiseGrass. For example, a video he’s developing on overseeding will show the benefits of slit seeding with his specialized equipment. It’s more a vehicle for information than a traditional sales pitch.

A property under thecare of WiseGrass. The same property beforeWiseGrass took over lawn care.

The site also has a link to Stoltzfus’s Twitter. Limited to 140 characters, this is a more casual connection. He first started logging in to find out what was happening in Lancaster County; what people were interested in beyond business. He discovered that many of those on Twitter used its resources for networking in both social and work-related situations. “The overall tone was positive and creative,” he says. “As I began participating, I found it a quick and easy way to communicate anything from lighthearted to serious. When I Twittered about wanting a photographer to shoot photos for my Web site, I had five suggestions within five minutes, some recommending other people, some themselves. I’ve also received a request for a lawn care quote from an individual I’d been back and forth with for months that I didn’t know had a lawn.”

Stoltzfus says this multipronged marketing brings him business from neighborhoods he might not have targeted through traditional mailings or door hangers.

Stoltzfus started in the green industry at age 11, working in the lawn installation business his dad started in 1988. That business developed almost by accident, with seeding grass providing an income source as farming revenues dropped. Stoltzfus expanded his summer and part-time involvement to full time after finishing school. At 18, he switched career paths, pursuing working for a computer company and investing $10,000 on Microsoft certified systems engineer training. After three years, being trapped indoors started to wear on him. “The computer company was in a rural setting, with an Amish farm just beyond the back door,” he says. “The thing that tipped me back was the smell of the freshly turned earth. I was really annoyed with myself, since I considered computers so much cooler than lawn work.”

Rejoining his dad and brother in the family business, he first wanted to computerize everything, and the company’s involvement with JP Horizon’s “Working Smarter Training Challenge” helped him use white boards, paper and spaghetti charts for direct interaction with front line personnel. “That brought me to a good balance,” he says. “I learned the first question to ask is ‘What does the customer want?’ Followed by, ‘How can we communicate that?”

The renovation process of a property under the care of WiseGrass.

The answer to “What does the customer want?” led him to lawn care. Installation clients wanted to keep their lawns thriving, and he’d researched how to make that happen. He started providing those services as a sideline business at the end of the 2003 fall season.

The family business peaked in 2006, with six additional employees, 290 lawn installations and revenues of $520,000. Then, the bottom dropped out of the home building market, leading to a drastic reduction in lawn installations. By the summer of 2008, that company ceased operations.

In the meantime, WiseGrass had officially launched as a two-person operation in 2007, with wife Marlena providing office support. The marketing initiatives started the formal kickoff, building from the small base of 40 clients already established.

The Web site was a vital part of the growth strategy from the beginning. Stoltzfus says, “We’re continually reviewing and revising the Web site to make it more efficient and user-friendly. We look at the quote process for points of friction, striving to measure and improve every step to make it easier. We made revisions six times during 2008. These weren’t major, just moving a photo or changing or deleting some phrasing. The content remained the same, but the format changed. Comparing the response through mid-March of 2009 to the same period in 2008, we’re getting twice the number of requests for quotes with the conversion of quote to sale now up to 60 percent. That rate was 40 percent in 2008.”

The intent of the site is to instill confidence that the company can do what it promises. They post testimonials and before and after pictures, but also go beyond that. Stoltzfus says, “We’ve worked with our guests to set up ‘show lawns.’ These folks agree to allow our potential guests to come by to see their lawns and to answer their questions.”

Clients agreeing to become show lawn sites can field questions in person, by phone, by e-mail or all three. Stoltzfus gets their written permission, then sets up a Google map showing the locations and giving out their contact information. “I wanted potential guests to see what our lawns looked like in real time and to find out directly what our established guests think about our work. If I want good word-of-mouth references, I have to do good work, and I do. This process makes it easier for people to find that out for themselves.”

There’s another advantage, too. Because WiseGrass has user-created content on a Google map on its Web site, it gives the company weighting in a Google search, pointing browsers to their site.

Stoltzfus purposely uses a no-hassle sales method. The on-site visit is scheduled the same day as the request comes in. Some guests ask to meet with him, while others give him permission to stop by without them being home. Quotes are sent the day following the visit. If there is no response within three to five days, he’ll call to confirm the quote has been received. If there’s no response in three weeks, he’ll make one more call.

He understands that approach risks losing the current year’s sale, “But, we’ve already seen the return,” he says. “We’ve had people who decide they want service later in the year that are so frustrated with other companies that kept calling them back after sending a quote they decided on the no-hassle guy. We’ve had people come to us the following year after going with a company that kept calling them back and being dissatisfied with the service.”

The front yard of a property underthe care of WiseGrass. The same front yard beforeWiseGrass took over lawn care.

Stopping the service also is no hassle. A cancellation can be made at any time with no penalties. The service simply stops at that point.

Stoltzfus describes WiseGrass services as customized turf care combining fertilization based on soil test results, cultural practices applied where beneficial, and integrated pest management (IPM). It’s not 100 percent organic, but follows a common-sense approach that is environmentally smart. He says, “We want the flexibility to change throughout the year to adapt to fluctuating conditions … It’s not about me; it’s all about the grass.”

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years.