Selling irrigation to residential customers

The first questions any contractor must ask when looking for additional business are, "Who would be interested in my services, and how do I reach them?" These may seem like obvious questions, but many contractors fail to define exactly whose business they're after. And not every contractor is looking for the same customers. It's up to you to decide whether you wish to deal with residential or commercial clients. Do you specialize in a certain type of irrigation system? Do you wish to restrict your operations to a particular geographic area? These are questions only you can answer for yourself. But it is critical that you do so. Without knowing who you're after, you won't know how to reach them.

Don't keep your business a secret Most irrigation contractors advertise their services in the Yellow Pages. This is fairly expensive and provides mixed results. If the Yellow Pages work for you, then by all means, continue to advertise in them. But many contractors are successful without larger display ads in the phone book. Consider some other means of marketing, such as your own web page or site.

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Check out the competition's website. You'll find lots of suppliers and irrigation contractors on the web. Do they know something you don't? In a recent survey of businesses that had web sites vs. those who didn't, those who had web sites indicated their business volume was up by an astounding 46 percent.

Homeowner Associations are an avenue for website marketing. Many such associations have their own websites. Check with them to see if it would be possible to place a link to your site on their web page.

New-home construction reports are also available in your area via building associations or county or municipality records. These indicate whether the owners are building the home themselves or using a general contractor. A letter, personal visit, postcard, colorful company brochure or other type of introduction to your company will help make the owner or contractor aware of your services.

Speaking at homeowner meetings, fraternal organizations, the local Chamber of Commerce, or some other organization frequently generates new business activity. Try exhibiting at local home-improvement or landscape shows.

Truck signage is also an important marketing tool, and relatively inexpensive as well. Your name, your service and phone number should be colorful and stand out for easy recognition. And don't forget job-site signage. "Irrigation system by Raintree Irrigation: (555) 123-4567." Don't keep your business a secret.

Customer-friendly communications The last thing you want to do is make it difficult or unpleasant for customers to reach you. The expense of a dedicated, incoming business phone line as well as a dedicated fax line for receiving bid requests, customer information, plans, is well worth it. If you don't have a secretary or someone else to answer the phone professionally, add a digital recorder with a professional-sounding message. Also, you should check your messages at least every two hours from your mobile phone so you can provide a prompt response, if necessary.

Getting to know your prospect (and vice versa) Let's say you're successfully generating plenty of call traffic. We often are so busy in our profession that we don't take the time to fully evaluate or "qualify" prospective customers. However, it's something you should definitely do. This is the most critical step in the sales process. You need to ask questions to separate good prospects from non-prospects to avoid wasting time. For example:

- Why do you want an irrigation system? What is their reasoning? Adding home value? Installing new landscaping? Better maintenance of the existing landscape? The neighbors have one, so we want one? Get the answer. It's critical because it may tell you whether they have a serious need for a system or simply are toying with the idea.

- What is your water source? City, county or well? This gives you important information about what it will take to install the system, including whether you'll need to subcontract for well drilling.

- What kind of budget were you planning on? They may need a seven-station system but were hoping to pay around $300. They are probably not a prospect for you if that's all they want to spend.

- Is a survey or a scaled site plan of your property available? This is a great tool to use when demonstrating the system design and determining linear and square footages. Have them fax it to you.

- How many quotes are you getting? If they say more than three, you may not want to enter into this bidding war. You don't want to win this one. If they are getting three or less, there are ways to separate yourself from the competitors.

- When do you want it done? The time frame is important for your scheduling. They may not even want it until next spring. Don't waste your time now. Contact them then.

- What kind of system do you want? Do they just want a manual system or an automatic system? Can you make money on a manual-system installation?

Now, depending on the answers to these types of questions, you can decide at this point whether you want to waste your time with the prospect. If you don't feel they are "qualified," don't waste your time and money chasing them. Anyone can bid. A professional gives proposals. Let your competitors chase bids. You want to be able to "cherry pick" the people you do business with. This makes it necessary to generate adequate calls in the first place, so you can see how the different aspects of marketing tie together.

Visiting the site Once you have a qualified prospect, set a convenient time for both of you to meet to discuss the job on site. You've already begun to separate yourself from the competition just by qualifying the prospect. Now's the time to really set yourself apart and gain new and profitable business. My advice is to arrive early and look over the site to get some ideas of what it needs. You may be dealing with roots, hard pan or muck, extra digging, sleeving or some other extra task to complete the job. Get some ideas together before you talk to the prospect.

Never be late to the appointment. Arrive professionally dressed with a business card and clipboard in hand for note taking. Turn off your mobile phone and pagers. Interruptions can be a great distraction while trying to win a job.

Never turn away a great prospect! I've heard contractors say, "I'm so busy, I'm turning work away." My question is, "Why?" I prefer to keep the good prospects, convince them it's in their best interest to wait so they can have a "professionally" installed system and by all means, raise your pricing on these jobs. These prospects are saying "We want you," and they will definitely increase your bottom line.

Now is the time to really separate yourself from the competition by continuing to ask questions. Don't feel uncomfortable because you may think you're "no salesman" with a gift of gab. Don't worry about not being a smooth talker. It doesn't matter. You must know about plants and turf, how to professionally design and install the system, and how to convey that knowledge to them. Good customers want, and are willing to pay for, value.

Take the consultative approach by asking questions about how they'd like the system to be designed. Give them pros and cons of doing it their way.

- What, in their opinion, needs watering, and how much?

- Do they want an automatic timer? Where would they like it located?

- What about installing a rain sensor? What are the advantages?

- What about their plants? Do some need more water than others? Are you dealing with xeriscape plants that need little water? Should that particular zone be a drip zone?

- What's the elevation and pitch of the site? What about runoff?

- Would you want the control valves centrally located so you can find them when needed? Should we use PVC or another type pipe?

You must educate the customer on their particular requirements. You are the expert and must guide them correctly. The design is critical to your sales success and keeping the prospect in the loop and educating them will benefit you as well. Use their site plan to do a pencil draft of the system or use your laptop computer with a CAD system to layout the design. That almost always impresses potential customers.

Pricing the job So far, you have qualified the potential customer, avoided a bidding war with numerous competitors and established a "personal" relationship with the prospect. Make sure the prospect is familiar and comfortable with you personally, not just your company.

However, sooner or later, you and the prospect must get around to discussing pricing and budget issues. Inevitably, you'll have to ask, "How much are you interested in spending?" Most prospects either don't know or don't want to give you a figure. They think that if they say, "$3,000," your price will be $2,999. That's human nature at work.

If they don't have a clue or won't tell you, your job is to give them a "ballpark" price. Make it high so they are not shocked when it's time to sign the agreement to do the job.

If they do give you a budget, say $3,000, never come in at or below this price. People who fear a rip-off tend to think you took advantage of them regardless of the price you give. It's better to give them a slightly higher final price, say $3,250, and let them know you "tried" to hit their budget but the system you both designed requires more work and materials.

Don't get hung up on pricing. Quote them the price and let them respond with any concerns they may have. If they are really concerned about the price, don't simply give in. Start negotiating. What can be removed from the system? Perhaps change the design to get costs down, or go with a less-expensive timer.

I am not recommending exorbitant pricing. Customers almost always assume a system will cost less than it ultimately will. The key point here is to negotiate as a professional businessperson and not give them a "Mercedes" for a "Chevrolet" price.

Smoothing out the wrinkles Now for the "work session." You've qualified the client, completed the design based on a two-way conversation, finalized the pricing and have established the all-important personal relationship. When you did your pricing, you included direct job costs, overhead recovery and an acceptable profit, equaling the selling price. The next step is to assure the customer that you understand their concerns and ensure that they understand the plan. Meet with them again to confirm all the above. Review the plan once more and gain agreement from them on the design.

Closing the deal Will this selling system always take four steps to complete? Probably. Each of these steps is important. However, they are not necessarily difficult or time-consuming. Qualifying prospects shouldn't take more than 10 minutes over the phone. You may want to have some basic questions written out by your phone. Meeting at the job site and taking a personalized approach are critical to getting a sale and, in any case, necessary. The work session and signed agreement are the final steps.

If you think about it, you really must do all these steps to be successful. So why not do it right from the beginning? A proper qualification process can save you a lot of work in the subsequent steps.

It's not as complicated as it seems Can you do all these steps together and save time? Absolutely. Qualify first. Meet them on site and have preparations such as your documentation and designs, a pop-up and a rotor ready to go. Demonstrate a typical system and show them how a mister or a rotor works. I've closed many jobs with a yellow pad, a calculator in hand and a contract on one visit. But don't rush profitable business. If you've done your job and have the expertise, it will happen for you.

How can I earn extra money on new jobs? Let's look at potentially lucrative jobs to see if extra opportunities exist for profit. If they need a well, sub it out and mark up the price. Can you add a rain sensor to gain extra income? It may or may not be required in your area. At least provide the option. Tell the customer what they could save on their water bill with a rain sensor. Does it have value in their case?

Do they need landscape repairs? Refer them to a qualified landscaper for a finder's fee. Will they need a qualified pest-control or fertilizer applicator? Refer them and get another finder's fee. What about tree trimming?

Ask them if any friends or neighbors may be interested in your services as well. Try to get names, addresses and phone numbers.

Don't work for free! Naturally, many people are reluctant to go through an extensive sales exercise only to end up with nothing to show for it. Even after qualifying clients, this will inevitably happen.

Is there a way around this? Consider charging for the design and consultation before you do it. Depending on the scope of the job, design fees typically are about $150 or more. Let the client know the fee will be deducted from the job price assuming you get the job. By doing this, you let them know your time has value, and they will appreciate that fact. It will add to the perception of your professionalism.

How can I earn "residual" income from jobs? Typically in our industry, you're in a hurry to get in and get out, collect your money and go to the next job. I suggest you slow down and look for "residual" opportunities such as monitoring the system for the client. What if you put together a "Sprinkler Watch" program for all your customers? You could check the system every other month, monthly or quarterly for a fee.

Depending on the warranty you provide for the system, your services could include flushing the lines, setting the timer for appropriate watering during the year, head adjustments and ensuring the heads pop up and recede as designed. And think how simple it would be to monitor the system. You already have the "as-builts" and know where the valves are. The timer is outside so you don't need to call for an appointment to get in the garage. Often, you'll only have to check for brown spots.

Now look at the numbers at the end of the year. Let's assume you install 100 systems during the year and offer these add-ons to all customers. Assuming just 40 want the program at $45 for each quarterly visit, that's a whopping $7,200 per year of additional income with limited overhead expense. The system shouldn't need that much work the first couple of years, you have increased your marketing exposure in the neighborhood, and repairs, parts and replacement labor is extra. Your cash flow should improve as well.

This simplified and methodical approach will increase sales and profits for you. Or, you can continue to chase bids and hope to make enough profit from jobs you've won on the basis of low price.

When prospects call, think of the "10-3 rule." Of the ten prospects that called, you may eliminate five with your qualifying process. The other five will be excellent prospects. Of the five you pursue, new and profitable business will generally come from three of them. Less time wasted on your part and increased profits and sales will follow. Try it. You might be surprised.

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