Stacking Up

Regardless of what industry you're in, the size of your operation or how long you've been doing what you do, every business has to deal with competition. But it's not who wins or loses, right? That may be nice for the little league ball field, but in business, understanding your competition is integral to coming out on top in your market. That's why it's so important to effectively monitor and track your competitors, so you can be in a constant state of improving your own operation and outperforming theirs.

So, what is it that makes a consumer choose one land care company over another? Although this question may not have a simple answer, there are plenty of variables to consider when developing an effective plan to close deals over the competition.

THE EARLY BIRD GETS THE WORM

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“In certain instances, we'll come in and see three or four brochures from other companies,” says Clark Parriott, owner of Lawn Doctor of Towson-Lutherville-Timonium-Cockeysville and Perry Hall-Phoenix-Monkton in Maryland. “It really depends on the individual. Some people say, ‘We'll call two or three companies.’ Some people will call everyone in the book. In most cases, it's about who's first to the door.”

Although responsiveness may be one of the most beneficial ways to differentiate yourself from the competition, to get the opportunity to be responsive you have to get in front of the consumer first. Tracking your competition's marketing is a great way to stay on top of what's going on in the marketplace, understand what works and what doesn't, and what promotions are getting your competitors' brochures in consumers' homes, along with your own.

“When we're just driving around, I try to keep track of the flags, to see where competitors are marketing aggressively,” Parriott says.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT

But, the competition's marketing isn't all you should be aware of. In many sectors of the green industry, it's also important to keep an eye on pricing, so your business can remain competitive without sacrificing profitability.

“Every once in a while, I'll do a survey on pricing,” says Rick Luberger, general manager of the landscape division of Illuminations Lighting Design in Houston, Texas. “A lot of our business comes from a network of landscape professionals who work as sales agents for our company. They'll get bids from other companies, as well, and they'll share those prices with us, along with the variables.”

However, some business owners don't find much value in monitoring price, citing that there can often be such divergence in the services provided by certain sectors of the industry that it becomes difficult to accurately price your services against the competition's.

“Pricing, it's difficult in the design business,” says Zachary Berger, owner of Zachary Berger Associates in Kearsarge, N.H. “Pricing is all over the place. I've never really set my price based on what everyone else is charging. We rarely get hired because of price.”

KEEP YOUR EYES AND EARS OPEN

In general, many land care operators (LCOs) agree that staying observant and networking with other local industry players — and even those outside the industry — are great ways to track what the competition is up to.

“Just watch,” says Mark Wolinski, owner of Lawn Doctor of Saginaw-Birch Run-Frankenmuth and Midland-Bay City in Michigan. “I'm out there doing estimates every day. All my networking contacts are telling me what [the competition is] doing. Networking is where it's at. It opens up a million doors.”

For some, it's a matter of tracking quality more than it is tracking customer acquisition techniques and pricing. Wolinski, for example, looks “to see how well [the competition is] doing on lawns. When I see their signs out there, I want to know how good that lawn looks.”

AT YOUR SERVICE

There is one important area that any business can benefit from focusing on and improving. Despite any outstanding initiatives employed by your competition or even the fact that they may be larger, more established and have a greater market share, focusing on customer service will inevitably help foster your business's growth and support it as you become a more dominant force in the market.

“[Customer service] is everything,” Luberger says. “That's the whole thing. You have to build your business with that.”

Going the extra mile for your customers is the most effective way to develop strong and loyal relationships. Naturally, those relationships will lead to the beneficial referrals many quality, established businesses thrive on.

“You have got to make people happy, and then you've got to communicate that too,” Luberger says. “Anytime that we get a little note with a payment, or someone makes a comment to me, I ask if they mind if we use that quote, and I'll put it on our Web site.”

Parriott agrees, saying, “The personal touch makes it much more difficult to switch. The interaction goes a long way in customer retention. We started sending thank you notes out to every customer, and we've gotten a lot of positive feedback from that. We make suggestions to them, but it's not a hard sell — unlike our competition. People love to buy; they hate to be sold.”

USE WHAT WORKS

Another area that's worthwhile to investigate is what's been successful in other similar industries. Or maybe industries that are very different. What can you get out of knowing what different industries are doing? Well, let's take a look at an example: How many times have you received a menu from your local take-out restaurant or pizza parlor wedged between your screen and front doors? It's probably been quite a few times. Aren't companies in the green industry using similar methods of hand distribution with marketing materials? This is just one example, but as you can imagine, there are a wealth of others.

“Marketing ideas, yes,” Luberger says. “I think that you can always look at that. You see a good marketing idea and say, ‘How can that apply to my business?’ If you see something that works, you might want to look at that.”

And what about your presence in the local media? Many other industries benefit from positioning themselves as media darlings, so why can't you? The simple answer is that you can, but you have to give the media a real story. Something interesting that will appeal to their diverse audiences. Keep in mind, however, the importance of understanding that PR is not an outright sales pitch. Maybe it's tips or an announcement about your business. The fact that Joe's Lawn Care is offering $25 off in the month of July is uninteresting to the media; and thus, unseen by the general public.

However, knowing what the competition's doing in every area of their business, for many LCOs, isn't tantamount to making sure what their own business is doing is the right thing.

“My philosophy is to keep your eye on what you're doing,” Luberger says. “I can't control what my competitors are doing. I can control what I'm doing. I do look at what's out there, but I don't spend so much time worrying about that. I have control over my people and my purchasing and my design.”

So, although it's clearly important to know what your competition is doing in your market, it shouldn't supersede your own company's progress and creativity, be it in marketing, design, pricing or the like.

Sean Gallagher is a freelance writer who resides in Toms River, N.J.

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