I have been a groundskeeper for 14 years. I am conscientious in my work, have a degree in horticulture, and always work hard, long days. The last few years I have enjoyed a good market share and good-paying customers. But lately I am running into competitors who jump in and low-ball-bid every job way under what I know some customers have been willing to pay for my services. Do you have any good suggestions? Or is it time to find another profession? — via the internet
It is dismaying to see how many conscientious professionals find themselves in your situation. What I hear from consultants is that the key to competing with low-ballers is to not compete with them. You can accomplish this in two ways: define and target a market of customers not so bottom-line-driven; and market yourself as a unique service provider.
Create the most professional image possible for yourself by promoting your certifications, qualifications, memberships, insurance…anything to let your customers know you are a true professional worth doing business with. And, of course, the quality of your work must deliver on the promise implicit in your qualifications. Those who value quality more than low price will stick with operators like you.
Offer add-on services, including and especially those that might be beyond what the typical low-cost competitor is likely to offer (for example, specialized applications, add-on constructions, irrigation auditing, etc.).
Also, be sure to pursue commercial accounts in addition to residential accounts, if you don't already. This will expand the pool of customers who appreciate quality over cost. This can be especially important in smaller cities, where there are a finite number of quality accounts to be had.
Everything you can do to make yourself more efficient will make you more competitive…better equipment, smarter use of chemicals, good personnel management that helps retain experienced employees. Every small edge becomes critical when the competition becomes this stiff.
If this makes it sound like a dog-eat-dog market, that's because in many areas, it is. But there are contractors doing well out there by selling quality more than price.
We ran an article on this topic a couple of years ago that should be helpful. Go to our website at www.grounds-mag.com and pull up the October 1999 issue. The article is “Competing with low-price contractors” by Ron Kujawa.
One of my customers has zoysiagrass that has started to creep into their neighbor's yard. What type of barriers would you recommend to stop the zoysia grass from crossing the property line? — North Carolina
Invasive zoysiagrass (and bermudagrass) is a widespread and difficult problem. Unfortunately, no easy solution exists. I asked Dr. Bert McCarty, a turfgrass weed specialist with North Carolina State University, and he noted that golf courses cope with similar situations (bermudagrass invading bentgrass greens, for example) by edging around greens or installing physical barriers 4 to 6 inches in the ground. However, these approaches still require regular (almost daily) trimming to clip spreading stolons. Though it spreads somewhat more slowly, the same would be necessary with zoysiagrass and its creeping stolons and rhizomes.
More substantial barriers — a concrete curb, for example — might work in a residential setting. This would require a substantial investment, however. Whether your customers could justify the expense would depend on how much they are willing to invest in good neighborhood relations.
Eric Liskey has a bachelor's degree in ornamental horticulture and a master's degree in botany. He has been licensed for pesticide advising and applications in California and Missouri, and has more than 10 years combined professional experience in landscape installation and maintenance, nursery retailing, pest management and botany.
If you have a question about landscape or turf management, write to “Researching Maintenance,” Grounds Maintenance, P.O. Box 12901, Overland Park, KS 66282-2901, or send your question by e-mail to email@example.com.
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