Multiple divisions cover all aspects of landscaping and lawn care
The landscape division is a key segment of Chalet, a third-generation family-owned business on Chicago’s North Shore. Its customer base now extends to the tri-state area. The landscape division is based in a 28,000-square-foot complex on 16 acres in North Chicago. Chalet’s garden center is located on a 4.8-acre site in Wilmette, Ill., and its nursery growing operations cover 183 acres in Salem, Wis.
“Our existing clients are our top priority,” says Kevin Marko, Chalet’s landscape division manager. “Even with three locations and multiple divisions, we’re a united team becoming a one-source service center for them. They don’t need to make multiple phone calls to deal with the different aspects of their property. It’s one contact for them with the team concept we initiated about 18 years ago covering the internal communications needed to deliver the services they want and need.”
Those clients that first contact Chalet for landscape design are connected with a senior architect who runs the design/build team. If that client expresses interest in maintenance services once the installation is completed, an account representative is assigned to work with the architect. The architect then sets up a joint site visit, so the two can work in tandem with the client to ensure the account representative gains insight into the family’s lifestyle and needs.
Marko says, “It’s an introduction by someone the client already has confidence in that addresses all the key issues from their weekly and monthly expectations down to preferred day of the week and time of day for the maintenance services. The account representative will keep an ongoing relationship with the client and the architect will remain in the loop while specialists in up to four different departments within the landscape division may be providing services.”
The maintenance department handles mowing, trimming and edging of the turf; hand-pruning of shrubs; and basic landscape and plant bed maintenance. Chalet manages approximately 500 weekly maintenance clients, operating with 18 crews. Each crew has a foreman, a lead and a laborer. There are five account representatives (including the maintenance manager), with each overseeing around 100 clients. These representatives connect with the clients based on each client’s preference, which could be once a week to once a month.
Most of these crews serve an assigned list of clients on a weekly basis. A few serve as swing crews, stepping in to assist with mowing, pruning or other specialty enhancement or maintenance services as needed throughout the season.
Marko says, “Charges for our maintenance services are based on the materials used and the crew’s time at each site, rather than a flat rate. We determine a fee range with the client and work within those parameters. If they request services beyond their regular maintenance, they understand there will be additional costs. This works well for us and them since 98 percent of our maintenance clients are residential and most of the 2 percent of our commercial accounts are businesses owned by one of our residential clients.”
The tree care department does all the scouting for tree and shrub problems and handles the fertilization and any required control applications.
The newest division is the perennial/herbaceous plant department. It serves three functions: seasonal container planting, design services for extensive flower beds to supplement the landscape architect and maintenance services for the more complex herbaceous plantings. Marko says, “We have two specialty maintenance crews within this department. They tackle the fertilization, mulching, dividing, thinning, deadheading, weeding, staking and tying within these plant beds. We provide these maintenance services either monthly or bi-weekly.”
The lawn care department wasn’t established as a profit center, but rather as a means to provide the best product for Chalet’s maintenance customers. Bill Leuenberger, lawn care manager, says, “Our focus is client satisfaction through turf and soil management. We hire the best people, train them very well and continually refine our product mix to deliver the best results. We analyze the types of fertilizers, the number of fertilizations, the types of control products and the timing issues, determining if, when, where and how to apply them.”
All services provided for a client, as well as client calls and feedback, are recorded in that client’s file on a computerized tracking system. Marko says, “We track who, what, where and when. Anyone within the landscape division can tap into the client’s file to track that information. In addition, any problems or potential problems noted by any of our personnel on the client’s property and any concerns expressed by the client are reported to the account representative to be directed to the appropriate individual for action. Any client requests for even small landscape enhancements are reviewed with the senior architect to ensure the integrity of the design is preserved.”
Turf and soil management operations
Leuenberger operates his department with an assistant manager and three applicators, two of whom work with helpers. They handle the fertilization and IPM program for the turf of approximately 1,000 accounts. He says, “our maintenance department covers about half of those clients. The remainder either do the work themselves or use another maintenance company.”
Leuenberger notes, “We never want to make another lawn care company, large or small, look bad because it reflects on all of us as an industry. If an individual contacts us with a problem with their current company, our first suggestion is that they discuss the problem with them. If that happens and the problem isn’t addressed, then we will talk with them as a potential client. We want them to want our service for real quality reasons.”
Chalet’s applicators make contact with the client if they are home to answer any questions they may have. If changes in turf care cultural practices are needed by a do-it-yourself client, the applicator will explain what to do and why.
Leuenberger says, “We consolidated nine different programs into two: an organic and a traditional. While that simplifies the selling and billing processes, our main objective was to make our staff even more responsible for their properties. As they scout each site, they assess how the overall program is working and make adjustments according to their observations. For example, preemergence control is needed only in sunny areas. Changes in shade patterns, due to tree growth, pruning or removal, should be taken into account when making those applications.”
Both programs avoid surge growth and overly lush turf. “We want healthy turf that is able to withstand the stresses of our fluctuating Midwestern weather,” says Leuenberger. “Granular products are used for all fertilization. Even our traditional program is about 40 to 45 percent organic. We’re not against the synthetics; we want the best product to do the job. We’ve found the organic fertilizers reduce a lot of the stress-related disease pressure.”
Training is a vital part of the program. Leuenberger says, “We train our applicators so they’ll have an in-depth background on turf needs and know what they’re looking for as they scout. We hold a staff meeting every Wednesday to review what’s happening and develop a proactive approach to it. We may include a challenge, such as bringing in 10 to 12 different weeds for each person to identify individually.”
Every 10 to 14 days Leuenberger takes all three crews to a few of the job sites to compare the results of fertilization and control product applications. “If one property is looking better than the others, we track down what was handled differently, so we can all learn from it and make changes where needed,” he notes.
Active involvement in industry associations is a key component. “Our applicators go to the Field Days to keep up on technical developments, track the new products coming into the market and understand how they work,” notes Leuenberger. “The interaction with university researchers, suppliers and the networking aspect locally, regionally and nationally is essential to our operations and the advancement of the green industry.”
The Chalet teams meet once a month to review how well they’re meeting their goals. All aspects of the programs are analyzed to strengthen those that are working well and adjust those that aren’t. Marko says, “Each year, we review our systems, including customer feedback recorded in computerized client records and responses to surveys we conduct at least annually. Every four or five years, we bring in focus groups to ask our clients what we can do better and how we can make their lives easier.”
This analysis has proven that teams work in getting the job done right. “The missing link was letting the customers know what was happening,” says Marko. “Concerns were addressed right away with problem resolution scheduled, but, in some cases, the appropriate conditions for that action might have been from a day or two to a week or so from the initial contact. The client needed to know that. So, a few years ago we established the policy that every phone call from an existing client must be returned within 48 hours—with the goal within 24 hours. It’s been extremely effective in boosting customer satisfaction.”
It all goes back to the united team providing proactive, one-source service. “This is a great business to be in,” says Leuenberger. “It’s always changing with new products, new ideas, new ways of doing things to better serve our clients. Our staff buys into that excitement. They understand that their lawns are the best advertising brochures we have. When their clients refer their friends and neighbors to us because of the job they’ve done, they consider it the highest compliment they could receive.”
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.