Keeping your customers

How can you ensure your customers won't go elsewhere? Here's how to make your company stand out from the pack.

If you want to keep a customer, remember three words: good customer service.

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Over the past 30 years, I have come close to producing anything and everything this industry has to offer to our customers and then some. At an early age, I started working with my brothers mowing yards, trimming shrubs, pushing snow and landscaping. No matter what I was asked to do, I knew I was to do my best and strive to produce excellence in all that I did. For my first 20 to 25 years in the industry, I believed if you provided an excellent product for your customer, you would have that customer for life. Even though there is some truth to that statement, I subsequently discovered that it is not the whole truth.

As I have grown in this industry and "wised-up" over the years, I have found that it is impossible to produce excellence everyday, consistently, day-in and day-out, especially with all the variables that we have to juggle each day to produce our product. One day we have our arms completely around the customers' projects or properties, and things look great. They're happy, and we have those customers for life, or so we think. Then two weeks go by, temperatures rise, it's 105øF outside, and the irrigation controller malfunctions. Three days later, flowers are dying, you have hotspots all over the turf, and established shrubs and trees begin to show stress. We have all been there and know that panicky feeling of driving up to see an account that is having problems.

Producing our product at a high level can be an endless roller-coaster ride full of stress and anxiety, especially in mid- to late summer. Variables may include the weather, diseases, insects, water, labor-force availability, machinery, vandalism, budgets, human error or accidents, and miscommunication, to mention just a few. How can we retain customers in an industry that has so many variables, so many things that can and will go wrong outside of our control?

Product vs. service Five years ago, I decided to get off this roller coaster. I was tired of the pressure of producing that perfect product. I began to change my focus of attention from being so heavily weighted in perfecting the product, which is impossible, to a much higher emphasis on simply serving the customer. I changed my business philosophy from one of "product driven" to "customer-service driven." Product performance is still important, but not as important as customer service.

I am familiar with several landscape/maintenance companies that I would consider product-driven businesses. Not too long ago, a potential client, then a customer of one of these companies, called our company for bids on additional landscape projects on their property as well as a total lawn-maintenance proposal. As I inspected the property and began to prepare my bid, I was amazed by how nice this property looked. I asked myself, "Why am I here? This property looks great!" I wasn't even sure I could do any better under the same budget constraints. I later found out I was there because something was wrong with the customer service from the previous company. The problem had little to do with product quality. Someone was not effectively servicing this customer's needs.

In my own firm several years ago, I was taking care of the landscape and maintenance needs of an office complex and had done so for years when I received a call, out of the blue, from the customer. He informed me that he no longer needed my services, and that as of the end of the month, all contracts would be terminated. I was shocked, to say the least. I went over and inspected the property and didn't find anything wrong. The property looked fine. I went by to finalize things and to have an exit inventory with my account representative. What I heard over the next 15 minutes completely changed my views on customer service. What my client wanted was attention. He admitted that the property looked fine overall, but he didn't feel like his account was important to us. We were out of touch with this client. He wanted a customer-service person driving to his property twice a week. He wanted thorough walks of all properties every 2 to 3 weeks and wanted continual input and suggestions from me on how we could improve the overall look of his properties. He wanted me to improve his account. I missed the mark. I had a client who had a large budget and was willing to spend whatever it took, yet I did not know what he really wanted.

Listening to the customer We can spend so much time and money developing systems to manage production and product quality and yet lose focus and spend too little time and money on what is really important: customer service. If you want to keep a customer, serve them. You must find out what makes this customer tick. What are they passionate about? What is important to them? Get to know them in a way that enables you to treat them as a person and a friend, not as an intimidating customer. Then, you can begin to ask the questions and observe behavior to discover your customer's needs. Keep an open mind, and you may be surprised how different their expectations may be from yours.

Do not force your expectations and desires for their project on them. Listen and learn from your customer, and then decide if this is a project or customer you wish to embrace. If not, don't go any further; it's acceptable to back away. Simply say, "Thanks, but no thanks," and go on your way. However, if it is a project and customer you want to serve and embrace, then, with honesty, respect, humility and passion, develop a detailed plan of how you will fulfill their expectations. Remember, a plan should meet their wants, not just yours.

Formulating a plan The plan or proposal you develop is an important tool for the success of serving your customers and meeting their expectations. This plan should clearly delineate "what," "when" and "how" all services will be produced. They should have a clear understanding of the cost of each service and when payment is expected. Don't be afraid to address your expectations. This is a business relationship with two parties, both of whom should know what is expected from one another.

Take time in developing the plan. Make it as black and white as you can. The majority of all customer-relations conflicts begin with undefined, misunderstood expectations. Thoughtful consideration at this time may save a lot of heartache and, potentially, a lost customer down the road.

After your plan is completed and is agreed upon by your customer, it's time to implement it and get to work producing the product. In our industry, this is a work in progress. We continually produce our product everyday. We may mow one day, trim shrubs another and chemically treat the turf and shrubs on yet another. We are constantly at work throughout the year producing our product. At the end of the season when we have completed our final applications and mows, we're still not done because there soon will be snow or off-season activities for this account. Serving your customer is a 12-month per year job. Don't lose touch with your customer over the off-season. In fact, this is the prime time to creatively be thinking of ways to better serve and produce for them.

...And everything nice We should also be serving our customers with "sugar and spice." This is what will make you unique. This is what makes good customer service great and a lot of fun! "Sugar and spice" is the little added extras you bring to the table that your competitors probably won't. "Sugar and spice" comes from your imagination and from your heart. It is only effective, however, if you have taken the time to get to know your customer and develop a relationship with them. Then and only then will you know what "sugar" and what "spice" is appropriate and when it should be added.

Of all the things I get to do in this industry, this is one of the most enjoyable and fulfilling. "Sugar and spice" includes sending flowers at an appropriate time, writing a heartfelt letter of appreciation, sending a Christmas gift, buying a lunch, giving a needed smile, going along with an appropriate joke, speaking words of encouragement, praying for someone in need, providing tickets to a sporting event, and much, much more. "Sugar and spice" means passionately expressing your creative inner self to your customer in a variety of heartfelt acts.

Retaining a customer is a lot of work, like all good, fulfilling relationships. It takes time, money and a little creative energy, but the outcome is worth it all. Continually give your customers excellent customer service, full of passion, respect and humility, as well as a good product, and you will have a customer for life.

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