While many landscape contractors are content to run their operations by the seat of their pants, successful owners understand that if they want greater success down the line, they need to take the time to plan ahead and develop their business. One of the easiest and least expensive ways to develop your business is to apply best management practices throughout your operation.
What are best management practices? BMPs, or best management practices, are systems or techniques you can use in your business to make the greatest and most effective use of your company’s staff and resources.
Without a plan there’s no victory
The landscape contractors and industry experts that we spoke with have put into place some excellent procedures that have helped them in their business. We’d like to share with you their ideas on how to incorporate best management practices in your operation.
“Every business should have a business plan,” says Marcus vande- Vliet, a former landscape contractor and owner of MV Enterprises, a landscape and nursery consulting company in Wilmington, Delaware. “Even if it’s just a one-year plan, having your goals written out on paper is powerful.”
Robert Taylor agrees. “Every owner wants and needs their employees to buy-in, and one of the best ways to get it is to build a vision, a strategy and plan for how we (as a company) are going to do business. Your plan should include everything from core company values to department goals.
It may sound tedious but it really unifies people.” Taylor should know. He is the former owner of BioLandscapes, and now serves as president of Yellowstone Landscape Group’s South Central Division.
Wanted: talent, skill and personality
It may seem like common knowledge, but one of the most important and underutilized BMPs is developing a system for hiring the right people. “Contractors need to develop a job description, first and foremost, so they know what skills they need,” says vandeVliet.
“Owners often focus on current skills rather than the person’s potential talent and whether they will fit into the company’s existing culture,” says vandeVliet, who notes that new workers who exhibit poor work ethics or aren’t team players are often driven out of the work environment. “It is easier to teach skills than it is to fight someone with skills but no talent or teamwork,” he adds.
“You need to focus on hiring; even if you are good at it, you need to take the time or hire an HR person to help you with it. They know about career development, they know how to read resumes and find the person with the right skills, personality, etc., and they can also help you with developing safety and risk management training,” says Taylor.
Once you have employees, it is crucial to get their buy-in, says vandeVliet. “It’s a big mistake to develop a BMP and not include your line and production people in the development process. Some of your BMPs need to be your staff or crews’ best practices, especially if you are no longer working on the line. It’s also important to define what your expectations and goals are, so those employees know what you are looking for and how they are to go about achieving it,” he adds.
“People are important to the growth of your company,” says Taylor. “We reward people who exemplify our business’ values (teamwork, trust, customer service, etc.). We also intentionally assign some yearly projects to rising stars—people we feel might be management material—and we give them bonuses when they succeed. It gives our employees a stake in our companies’ success, and encourages them to grow with us,” says Taylor.
People are more willing to work when it’s their success on the line, too. We not only seek their input, we cross train.
Every employee is a link in our company’s chain.
“We sit down weekly with our managers and site leaders to determine how we are going to proceed,” says Nick McCullough, a landscape designer and partner at McCullough’s Landscape & Nursery, LLC, in New Albany, Ohio. “People are more willing to work when it’s their success on the line, too. We not only seek their input, we cross train. Every employee is a link in our company’s chain. It grows stronger when everyone knows how we operate and it is a smoother transition when someone is gone because anyone can step in and fill their role,” adds McCullough.
Whistle while you work?
“For us, BMPs are about planning ahead and increasing efficiency—routing maintenance, setting schedules, budgeting, customer service visits, surveys, plantings, etc. In the spring, we sit down with our crew leaders, supervisors, etc., and review our returning customer’s contracts and plan out how to complete their service plan, whether it is daily, weekly or monthly,” says McCullough.
“BMPs can also provide you with opportunities to bid on work that requires stringent guidelines, such as municipalities that require environmental practices. Some other companies might not be set up to do efficient watering, fertilizing appropriately, mulching, attracting wildlife, managing pests responsibly, reducing stormwater runoff, etc.,” says Brian Martin, vice president of business development for Yellowstone Landscape Group, Southeast Region.
BMPs can help you determine who you hire, how you structure your business, and even when you’re working on a property, such as what is mowed first. In short, best management practices drive productivity.
“BMPs help us prepare our capital budget. You can look at your equipment, see the mileage and hours and days of use. You can then make the decision as to what equipment you’re going to keep or put up for sale,” says Taylor. “This year, Yellowstone started a new pro request for proposal (RFP), which is a detailed point-for-point purchase bidding system. It includes line items for price, warranty, turnaround time on repairs, which vendors pay for warranty work, etc. The RFP is a more formal purchase bidding system. It gives us the opportunity to get better terms and lock in a vendor for a three-year contract,” adds Taylor.
“The more you plan ahead and use BMPs or SOPs (standard operating procedures) the more efficient your company will be,” says McCullough. “For most of our clients, we develop a yearly budget and landscaping plan with add-ons as requested. By taking the time to sit down with the client, we can better forecast our budgets for the year. The customer likes knowing what he is going to spend and it helps us determine the specifics of our budget. If we know that we will go through 160 yards of mulch a week, we can purchase it in bulk, get discounts, and keep our cash flow tight. We aren’t wasting money with multiple orders or stock that is wasted.”
“BMPs generate revenue because you know what your purchases will be or what your standards are; you know what you are doing and how you are doing it, which means you can streamline production costs and eliminate waste,” says vande- Vliet.
In order to grow a successful business, you need to hire the right people and provide them with the right tools. BMPs can help you keep those tools in optimum condition. “Downtime due to broken equipment kills us financially. That is why we employ a full-time inhouse mechanic who maintains our small engines and our fleet of trucks. He also maintains our facilities and greenhouse equipment— everything from fans to sharpening blades. We tag items that need repair as well as schedule regular cleanings and maintenance,” explains McCullough.
“Equipment maintenance is essential,” says Taylor. Our drivers do a 25-point check each week on paper, and that paper serves as point of entry into our shop’s module electronic systems, which gathers hours, odometer readings, repair and maintenance history. Even small companies can do a version of this; take a look at your fleet and make a plan. Look under the hood, check the fluids and oil, and schedule preventative maintenance.
Keep detailed records for each mower, truck, etc., so you know the condition, value and depreciation of your equipment.”
Referrals and word-of-mouth advertising can make or break your business. Using BMPs to develop your customer relations will reap you multiple rewards.
Martin explains that establishing land management BMPs can reduce costs for customers, which ultimately improves your relationship with your customers. For example, installing efficient drip irrigation systems can provide water savings; incorporating native plants and trees reduces water use and can decrease plant replacement costs. Integrated pest management practices can reduce pesticide and herbicide use.
When potential customers call, can you envision them becoming new clients and hopefully, refer you to others? It all starts with the phone call. How do you answer the phone, and what information do you write down? Do you ask them what kind of work they have in mind, how they heard about you? Are you helping the salesperson land that client and prepping the client for what their working relationship with you will be like? Do
you understand what the customer’s expectations are? If you don’t know, how are you going to give them what they need or want?
“Our customers want to come out and enjoy their landscape. So our goal is to make their landscape an experience for the client. We do not work to hear that we missed or messed up their landscape. If they want an organic kitchen garden where they can pick fresh, safe, organic food right off the vine, that is what they should get,” says McCullough. “It’s pretty cutthroat out there. So we let our work speak for itself. Doing the best work that you can leads to the word-of-mouth referrals,” he adds.
Recognizing and rewarding customers for their loyalty could be an important part of your customer service BMPs. “Maybe you should develop a rewards program— whether it’s free plants or dinner out. If you have clients that consistently recommend you, let them know you appreciate them,” says vandeVliet. “You’re not trying to sell them work at this point; you are trying to keep yourself in their mind so they will refer you to others.”
In addition to rewards, don’t forget to follow-up with clients. “I’m amazed by the number of contractors who forget to check in with their clients, then are surprised by complaints,” says vandeVliet. “Always do a final walk-through, discuss maintenance-related issues (such as stones that patina, etc.), discuss work warranties and always ask your clients if they have concerns,” he adds.
“We touch base with our clients regularly. New clients get a package detailing the different aspects of our business. We send fliers in the mail and have a blog where we showcase projects,” says McCullough. Customer add-ons have been key to growing McCullough’s business. “We now install landscape lighting, grow container plants, design seasonal planters and even decorate exteriors for holidays and parties. All of these new services have a BMP associated with them.”
So how can establishing BMPs change your approach to business and lead to dividends down the road? Do you need to bring all of your equipment to every job? Could you schedule client visits differently? Could you establish a protocol for working with clients? Could your future success lie in your employees? What small changes could you make to generate more sales and customer satisfaction?