In the off-season, landscaper Keith Kalfas says he makes more than $1,000 per day washing windows in the suburbs of Detroit. Further north in Michigan, landscaper Gow Litzenburger strives to keep his year-round crew busy by taking on “off-the-menu” handyman services in Bay Harbor’s long off-season. Landscaper Suzanne Wofford operates a stand-alone fencing company and adds pool and home additions to her list of services to survive the recent sluggish economy in East Texas.
These landscapers have all successfully provided add-on services either to get a leg up on the competition, keep off-season crews productive, survive sluggish economies or pursue personal passions. But adding nontraditional services was never a cakewalk for any of these landscapers.
Landscape businesses like theirs are constantly challenged with which services to provide beyond the bread-and-butter maintenance or design/build. Adding extra services can prove to be a burden at times, but also provide opportunities. A simple early spring window washing for a client can turn into a lifetime contract for landscape maintenance. Erecting fences or building home additions can keep crew members busy, engaged and loyal in the off-season.
When adding services, landscapers have to keep in mind the cost of training employees and the liability associated with handling these new tasks. Those who take on too many extra services beyond the traditional can burn out quickly, with few managing profitability. It can also be a balancing act for customers’ perceptions by coming off like a jack-of-all-trades versus a master-of-none.
Many landscapers believe it’s all about capacity. If they have qualified staff to perform the add-ons efficiently and professionally, it makes perfect sense to do it. But if not, looking to good quality contractors to sub out the work also can help build business. The trick, business experts say, is that add-ons should never impede or compromise the core business.
“It’s always more efficient to sell deeper or more to existing customers than it is to go out and search for new ones,” says Dan Pestretto, founder of SOD Inc., a Boston-based branding, marketing and sales consulting agency that works with many landscaping companies. “So, there’s a logical reason to add vertically to your services. There are always ways to go deeper no matter where you are on the landscape services continuum.”
Window washing provides a revenue streak
When Kalfas added window washing to his landscape maintenance business, he garnered enough customers starting off, but it was a long and hard learning curve to move the needle into profitability. “You will make peanuts at first, but if you hang in there long enough and master the service and purchase the right equipment at the right time, you can shift into profitability fairly quickly,” he says.
Kalfas, who believes in sharing his business tips on his own high-traffic YouTube channel, tells others to keep prices competitive in their market, yet err on the side of staying high for the perception of quality.
Kalfas presents his landscaping and window cleaning services as two totally separate companies. In order to secure high-end customers and cater to the woman of the household, who he believes makes the home services purchasing decisions, he uses tactics such as feminine colors and patterns on his door hangers and sales collateral. He also begins the cleaning process in front of the customer even before closing the sale. “When customers see how gung-ho you are from the get-go, you make quite an impression,” he says.
Although window washing may seem fairly basic in terms of skill sets needed, Kalfas learned there are hundreds of different styles of windows that open and close and screens that come on and off differently. “It’s also the little details like cleaning the handles and hardware and eliminating any streaks that win over customers,” he says. Together with a small, manageable crew, he offers a wide variety of window washing packages ranging from $90 to $850. He cautions against buying expensive equipment like 50-foot water-fed poles, bringing on extra crews and “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul” until the add-on service can pay for itself. “Until I learned the ropes and could justify spending over $1,000 on new, sophisticated equipment, I did just fine investing under $50 initially with squeegees and cleaning liquids from dollar stores.”
With little overhead on each job, Kalfas claims he is clearing $1,400 per day on window cleaning. His off-season window cleaning business has become so profitable that it replaced tree trimming, which involved more risk from climbing and cutting, and carried higher insurance costs. “Landscape maintenance is about 70 percent of my revenues versus window cleaning at 30 percent,” he says. “We are now on track to get our window washing revenues equal to landscape maintenance by the end of this year.”
Patching in handyman services
Jay Burlison, owner of J.M.B. Greengardens, Richmond, Virginia, and Litzenburger, owner of Litzenburger Landscape, with a year-round crew of about a dozen growing to 60 during high season, couldn’t survive without offering handyman services.
Burlison, who works alone, takes on projects closely related to landscaping, such as repairing a brick patio that needs resloping and installing new storm drains. He says this work is more profitable because it closely aligns with his skill set and he often can rely on previously purchased equipment.
While Burlison won’t shy away from a general run of handyman services in the off-season, he tends to leave the big jobs to contractors who do those things regularly and restricts his plumbing and electrical to easy items, such as fixing a faucet or replacing light fixtures. He estimates his handyman services account for about a quarter of his revenue.
In northern Michigan, Litzenburger’s high season lasts a mere three months, from April to June, for customers who all lie within a 7-mile radius. He isn’t able to perform standard maintenance work for his bread-and-butter clients – homeowner’s associations and resorts – during the high tourism season from Fourth of July to Labor Day. After that, snow soon falls, and by November the snow starts to stick and doesn’t melt away until mid-March. “Our season is so short and the seasons collide,” says Litzenburger. “We are doing fall cleanups when it’s time to do holiday lighting. There is too much competition with snow and ice removal. It seems as though every landscape company in town is doing it.”
Litzenburger has to be creative with supplying work to his year-round crew during the off-season and he has to look beyond the traditional off-season landscaping services of holiday lighting and snow and ice removal. After Labor Day in Bay Harbor, the town empties out, signaling prime time for Litzenburger’s handyman work to begin. “I want to keep the best people working for me, so I have to make sure they stay busy throughout the off-season, too,” he says. “It’s also a time that our resident customers’ lives slow down, so they like to hear from us about doing household projects that they have put off.”
Litzenburger puts his crews to work with any outdoor living tasks its residential customers want handled, such as tree trimming, monitoring deer fences, repairing outdoor lighting systems, repairing patio furniture and installing handrails. “Much of the add-on services we perform depend on the innate skills of our off-season workers,” he says. “One year, we took on repairing boats in the marina, and another we started livestock farming by raising chickens and sheep on-site.”
One unusual add-on service Litzenburger’s company offers is antique landscape truck restoration. The company’s unique fleet consists of 60 restored antique trucks. Litzenburger embraces the long off-season with his lifelong passion, which he also sees as a unique marketing signature generating nostalgic charm for his older and newer customers alike. “I restored my first truck when I was in high school in 1985,” he says. “It started out as a hobby but now it’s part of the fabric of our company. Although antique truck repair is far from a revenue stream for us, it garners considerable attention when we are out and about.”
Fences and pools: a splash for peripheral business
Wofford now owns two separate companies. Her 16-year-old landscape company, Artistic Eye Landscape and Pool Design, offers pool and home addition design/install in addition to landscape design/build services. She also recently purchased a stand-alone fencing company for the multitude of ranchers and farmers, security facilities and pool owners in East Texas.
“In my region, particularly during the recent recession years, it has been important for landscapers to widen their nets for survival,” says Wofford.
She keeps her recently acquired fencing company separate from her landscaping business, including a separate website, so as not to reveal her female identity. When Wofford became owner of the fencing company, she quickly learned being an East Texas-based female business owner had both advantages and disadvantages.
Keeping her new fencing business separate from her 16-year-old landscaping company also allowed her to qualify as a new minority-owned business eligible for a multitude of grants.
“There are no other woman fencers in East Texas for obvious reasons,” says Wofford. “When potential clients, typically ranchers or industrial complex owners, have the choice between calling up a gal or a guy to hire for fencing, they will call the guy first every time. But, after they connect with me and know that I talk their language, I get hired every time.”
She also is becoming known for her special artsy designs placed on barbed wire fences.
The former owner sold his fencing business to Wofford because he was pleased with the way her subcontracted crew managed the install of his fences. He stayed involved and taught her the “tricks of the trade” for two years after that.
Even though it’s not a profit center, Wofford features pool design and installation because of the peripheral benefits it provides her landscaping business.
“Pools need fences, decking, new landscaping and often adjacent buildings for storing equipment or changing. Then, outdoor kitchens and additional water features also come into play,” she says.
For now, Wofford relies on independent contractors. She manages to keep their loyalty by offering higher wages than her competitors, treating them right and keeping them busy year-round.
Add-On Service Success Secrets
The secret to succeeding at add-on services, says Dan Pestretto, founder of SOD Inc., a Bostonbased branding, marketing and sales consulting agency, is to understand the dollar value of already being present on a property. This decreases the marketing and sales costs of customer acquisition. Even so, consider the cost of people, training, equipment and the possibility of spreading yourself too thin and not being competitive with the new services.
Pestretto recommends subcontracting as a great option to learn the ins and outs of the desired service expansion and the true costs of getting into the contemplated service with less risk.
“There are several things to be careful about when starting to add extra services,” adds Adam Bowers, director of the Aid Legal division at JSD Management, a financial services company in Dover, Delaware. Bowers finds that add-on services often go unpaid due to not making formal written amendments to the original customer contract. He also cautions that business owners need to determine whether insurance will apply to these add-on services. “Another area of concern is more practical than legal: Do not let add-on services be done on an emergency basis. All rush orders in the business world are subject to becoming bad debt.”