Answering tough questions

Businesses have good years and tough years, and those that survive have developed good customer relationships.

The lawn service industry has grown exponentially during the past several years, leading to increased client awareness of fertilizer and pesticide applications to lawns. As a result, some customers may come to you for more information about products being applied to their lawns. How you respond to their questions will impact your business. It's up to you to make sure that experience is positive.

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Risk communication is any public or private communication that informs individuals about the existence, nature, form, severity or acceptability of risk. Risk communication for the lawn service industry involves developing a positive message and response to community and customer questions about practices and products.

Get to know your customers, promote yourself as a professional and let them know you are interested in their questions and concerns regarding maintenance practices. One way to generate good customer relations is by providing a newsletter with an overview of your maintenance practices and philosophy and by attempting to address real and perceived concerns. The following sections provide information that you should offer consumers about your products and services.

Improved technology

Make your customers aware of the numerous improvements in products and technology and how they affect your business. For example, the National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) conducts turfgrass cultivar trials, which rank all major species. Customers should know that turfgrass cultivars are now available that are more tolerant of environmental, cultural and pest stresses, and turf quality can be maintained with less input.

You may want to discuss current maintenance practices with your customers. For example, it is now possible to program irrigation systems to deliver water needs based on science and not guesswork. Universities and cooperative-extension services routinely monitor evaporation loss in some areas of the country and provide recommendations on irrigation requirements. You can apply fertilizer products as a granular or spray and adjust nutrient release depending on the carrier. Mowing equipment also has improved with numerous safety features such as automatic cutoff switches and equipment that produces less exhaust.

Information on current practices is available from a variety of outlets. The Internet provides numerous sources of information for both lawn service workers and customers. Many green-industry periodicals, companies, organizations and universities have web pages that provide information about products and services. Online help is readily available from university extension agents and company technical experts via e-mail and Internet forums. The Turfgrass Information File (TGIF) at Michigan State University (www.lib.msu.edu/tgif/tgifspecs.htm) can provide research information for most turf-related topics. Also, various state, regional and national turf conferences provide continuing-education opportunities for lawn service operators.

Benefits of turfgrass

You might also consider educating customers on the benefits of turfgrass. Turfgrasses have a dense, fibrous root system that helps reduce erosion. Turfgrass also improves the quality of the soil. During an average growing season, 1 acre of Kentucky bluegrass adds more than 6,000 pounds of organic matter to the soil through the death and decay of root systems. Turfgrass also captures and cleans runoff water. A 1992 study at The Pennsylvania State University calculated that an average 150-acre turf sward absorbs 12 million gallons of water during a 3-inch rainfall. In many instances, the same study did not detect any pesticides or nutrients in the runoff water collected.

Turfgrass can also benefit the public directly. Dense, well-maintained turf helps reduce weeds and the subsequent pollen that aggravate allergy sufferers. Turfgrasses trap much of the dust and dirt released annually into the atmosphere. Turfgrass can also moderate temperatures. One study found that green, growing turf is 16°F cooler than bare soil, 38°F cooler than brown, dormant turf and 70°F cooler than artificial turf.

In addition, green plants continuously produce oxygen from carbon dioxide. A healthy lawn averages 850 grass plants per square foot — more than 8 million grass plants in an average 10,000-square-foot lawn. A turf area 50 × 50 feet produces enough oxygen to meet the needs of a family of four.

Newer, safer pesticides

Of the many facets of the lawn service business, the public is generally most concerned with pesticide products and applications. Under the purview of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), manufacturers thoroughly test pesticides before they can register them. New products take 7 to 10 years to develop, undergo more than 120 safety and efficacy tests that are required by the EPA and cost up to $60 million to produce. The EPA will not register a pesticide unless it meets stringent safety requirements.

Manufacturers are developing pesticides with lower-risk carriers and active ingredients and utilizing innovative packaging that reduces potential exposure to handlers during the mixing and handling of pesticides. Manufacturers strive to develop products that the EPA will classify as reduced risk, which means they may have relatively low toxicity. These products reduce the risk to non-target organisms, limit the potential for off-site movement and work well with integrated pest management (IPM) strategies.

Easing fears

Customers may be alarmed by pesticide packages, which prominently display “Caution,” “Warning” or “Danger” Signal Words that relate to the toxicity of the product. Explain to your customers that it is mandatory that manufacturers put Signal Words on their labels and that regardless of the actual toxicity of the product, at least the word “Caution” would have to be present. Also explain that application instructions are designed to ensure that the diluted, applied product poses no unreasonable risk to homeowners, regardless of the toxicity of the concentrate.

Another situation that commonly arises is concern over newspaper articles or other news reports that say pesticides are present in a water supply. These reports often describe levels in parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb). To put these numbers in perspective, 1 ppm is the same ratio as 1 penny in $10,000, 1 square foot in 23 acres or 1 minute in 695 days. One ppb is the same ratio as 1 penny in $10,000,000, 1 square foot in 36 square miles or 1 inch in a 16,000-mile trip. Such comparisons help customers understand and put in perspective numbers that may otherwise be mystifying.

Finally, you might also point out that numerous household products — cleaners, solvents and over-the-counter medications, for example — exhibit toxicities similar to many pesticides used in landscapes. Again, the simple process of relating pesticides to something more familiar is often enough to reduce customer fears.

Developing your risk-communication plan

How you interact with customers often determines how long they remain customers. The lawn service industry is a competitive business, and you must have a solid agronomic plan, business plan, employee-training and incentive plan as well as a customer-relations plan to build and maintain business. The following are a few suggestions for building customer relationships as part of your risk-communication plan.

  • Listen to and understand the roots of customer concerns. It is likely they know little about the business, but their concerns are real. You need to seriously address them.

  • Be open, honest and frank. Honesty can often disarm someone who is upset. Adverse environments, employee turnover and equipment problems are all part of the job. Businesses have good years and tough years, and those that survive have developed strong customer relationships.

  • Collaborate with credible sources. Locate and use experts such as county extension personnel. A customer may need to hear an explanation from a neutral, credible source to verify information you have provided.

  • Speak clearly and with compassion. Enthusiasm is contagious and most people get into the lawn service business because they like to make things look good. Body language, comments and level of professionalism can make or break a customer relationship.

  • Have a couple of key messages on the benefits of turf. Use statements like “We specialize in maintaining property values and the environment,” or “I am maintaining your 8,000 square feet of turf so it will continue to provide enough oxygen for your family plus several others in the neighborhood.” This may spark curiosity and provide an opening to educate the customer and become their friend. After all, it is hard to fire a friend.

  • Promote your business through talks to civic organizations, schools and neighborhood home associations. Write columns for local publications and appear on radio programs. Create your own web page.

A risk-communication plan will help you better deal with questions from customers. Make a list of questions a customer might ask, and develop answers that will alleviate their concerns and enhance your professionalism. If you take care of your customers, they will take care of you.

Dr. Dennis Shepard is a technical support specialist for Syngenta Turf and Ornamental Products. He can be reached at dennis.shepard@syngenta.com

EXAMPLES OF CUSTOMER QUESTIONS

How do lawn service and landscape professionals decide when to use pesticides?

The first step is to diagnose the health of the lawn or landscape. Then diagnose the soil nutrient level and pH, insect, disease and weed problems and prescribe the best solution. All options are considered, including altering cultural practices such as mowing or irrigation. Sometimes the best solution is to selectively use a pesticide.

Successful turf-management programs have been developed in many areas of the country. These are the results of university research, field experience by industry professionals and records of environmental conditions for extended periods. For example, lawn service operators know it is likely that brown patch will be a problem on tall fescue in the southern United States during the summer. Lawn service operators in the midwest and northeast United States know when applications are needed to prevent grub damage. They have developed a program of periodic fertility and pesticide applications needed to maintain turf quality for the customer. All of the products cost money, and lawn service operators do not use them unless necessary.

If these products are not dangerous, why do applicators wear protective gear?

Applicators work directly and somewhat regularly with concentrated pesticides and have more potential for exposure than the general public. In addition, pesticide labels, by law, require that applicators take certain precautions. Regulators base these precautions on the assumption that the same person may be exposed repeatedly to the same product over many years, and protective gear is used to maximize the safety of the applicator. If properly applied, the levels of pesticide to which homeowners are exposed poses practically no risk in part because the applied product is generally very dilute compared to the concentrates handled by applicators.

What kinds of education and training do green-industry professionals have?

Many professionals hold associate, undergraduate or graduate degrees in horticulture, turf science or another related field. Most applicators on staff are certified through professional associations or possess state licenses for pesticide applications.

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© 2014 Penton Media Inc.

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