The Cold-Hard Truth About The Landscape Industry

truth-166853_640You’re probably reading this because you’re either thinking of starting a landscape business, or you have one and you’re “looking for answers”.

For the aspiring self-employed, or even for those considering career changes – these are big moves.  So you want to do your due diligence.  And if you already have a landscape business, maybe there’s a better way of doing things.

Well after 40 years in the trade, as you’d expect, I have some thoughts about the industry.  Maybe some of these will help guide you as to whether the landscape business is a good fit for you.  And if you have a landscape business maybe this will shed some new light on your current thinking.

What is The Landscape Industry?

Well that is one broad topic and question.  You can read about my breakdown of the industry in my article “Real Opportunities in The Landscape Industry“.

The short answer is the landscape industry is made up of professions and trades that cover all the different aspects of a beautiful and sustainable landscape.

From design to construction to care, each of these are so related, so dependent on one another, that if you compromise on any of them the landscape “pays a price”.

The landscape is a living thing — an ecosystem.  And this is what makes the industry so interesting.

Every day you’re learning.  If you embrace that fact you’ll have the first (maybe the most important) ingredient to success in this field.

Enjoy Your Work.  Isn’t That An Oxymoron?

I hope this doesn’t sound familiar:

The alarm goes off and you have no desire to get out of bed.  You can’t wait for the weekend — and it’s only Tuesday.

If that’s you, then your work is probably just another day at “the job” — which may turn into months or even years.  You might even hate what you do and feel like you don’t matter.  That’s a terrible feeling.

Many of the folks I work with in the industry truly enjoy what they do.  In most cases, it’s what got them interested in the first place.

They like the pride & satisfaction of seeing improvement on the homes they work on.  They like being appreciated and respected by customers.  And the referral work often takes care of the “selling” part.

But many landscape companies don’t ever get to really enjoy these things.  Instead, they just work harder and harder to find and keep customers.  They’re constantly nervous another company will come along and offer to do what they do for less money.

Why do some landscape companies struggle like this?  Why aren’t they enjoying the confidence, security and freedom some other companies do?

Public Perception and The Trades

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Today the home improvement trades are not generally admired for what they are.

But that’s where the problem is.  It’s because of what they are; what they’ve become.

We’ve moved away from the skilled tradesperson and craftsman to a more commodity-based service model.

“A commodity is a product or service for which there is demand, but which is supplied without qualitative differentiation across a market.”

Why did this happen?

Over time, people became less interested in the trades for a career.  They moved toward technology and other less hands-on jobs.

As a result craftsmanship and quality began to decline.  And so did the public’s appreciation for the skill & knowledge of the trades.

Now here’s some good news.  The public is now starting to be informed about the art & science of landscaping — and the other trades too.

Websites like Houzz and TV networks like HGTV are showing people what beautiful landscapes are made of.  And although sometimes this information is not the best, in general it’s all helping give our trade some cred.

But the reality is you can’t count on poor public perception changing.  That’s why here at LandscapeAdvisor I talk about ways you can change people’s perception of you.

We Are Our Own Worst Enemy

What makes people see our business as just a commodity-based service?  A service they imagine anybody could do.

I see two reasons for it — and the two actually work together to create this public perception — this problem.

The first issue, which I mentioned, is consumers are generally unfamiliar about the depth of our industry.  Many have no clue about the science, engineering and creativity that’s involved.

Shoot yourself in footThe second issue, and this is a big one, is many people in this business are unprofessional.  With a low barrier of entry, this industry is full of people with little more knowledge than the customers themselves.  You have “the uninformed leading the uninformed”.

So, as a result of consumer naivete’ and an overall lack of industry professionalism, the average customer sees it as simply a commodity — with price as the only differentiator.  And this often causes “low-ballers”.  I’m sure you’ve heard this term before.  Every home improvement trade has them.

Low-balling is giving a price that is well below the appropriate pricing level of the work.  Often times a business gives a low-ball price because they simply don’t understand the trade or proper pricing for profit and success.  They just want to get the job.

And there’s another reason for low-ball pricing, and this one is more deliberate and sinister.  It’s used as a selling technique where the service is offered at a lower price just to get the job, and then the contractor uses unethical techniques to increase prices and upsell wherever he or she can.

Either type of low-baller is wrong.  Ignorance is never an excuse — and low-balling to deceive and take advantage?…  Not good.

If the basis for your sales and imagined success is low-price, you will fail.  It is a race to the bottom, and you’ll likely win.  Using price as a differentiator screams “I’m mediocre”.  It tells people you’re a commodity — you do the same thing the other landscaper does and you’ll do it cheaper.

And as I mentioned earlier, it’s not just the landscape industry that struggles with poor public perception.

Almost every homeowner I meet has a bad contractor experience to talk about — roofers, carpenters, masons…you name it.

In the Jan., 2015 edition of Irrigation & Green Industry Magazine, there’s an article titled “Contractors Fined $1.2 Million”.  It says: “The most frequently filed consumer complaints are under the subject home improvement.”

Even the best public-relations firm can’t help with facts and articles like that.

Some contractors I know complain about the low-ballers and unprofessional work out there, and they’re frustrated with the poor image that goes with it.

But I see it differently, as do other business owners I know and work with.  There’s opportunity here…

The Unfair Advantage (That Sets You Apart)

To put it simply, poor public perception is the by-product of a short supply of knowledge, craftsmanship and ethics.  And consumers are becoming more aware of this unprofessionalism through social media and other sources.

Television shows like Holmes on Homes and Catch a Contractor are really educating homeowners on what to avoid and what to look for in home improvement contractors.

Dave Kennedy, one of the contributors for LandscapeAdvisor, makes an interesting point.  He says some of his best customers are those who had a bad experience with another company.

These customers continue to have Dave do work for them, and recommend him every chance they get.  It’s like having an unpaid salesforce. ;-)

By practicing the trade correctly and educating people through your marketing and personal experiences with them, you’re building a secure, more reliable business.

Today, the only path forward is to stand out.  Otherwise, you’re one of many – with price as your only differentiator.

So don’t be too concerned about the “poor public perception” issue.  Instead, think of it as your marketing-partner. :-)

But What About The Big Companies?

big-landscape-companyIf you try to be just like the big companies, but smaller, you can’t compete.  You have to do what they’re not able to.

Take advantage of what you have so that you can beat the competition with what they don’t.  Those are the things we talk about on LandscapeAdvisor.

A while back I said business is coming full circle — and I think we’re there.

In the old economy companies would try to look big and powerful.  Today it’s the opposite.  Big companies are trying to look smaller and more personable because that’s what people are looking for.

Build Your Business (and Tribe) of Loyal Customers

Recently a design client of mine wanted me to meet with a landscape contractor he used once before.  I was getting bids from contractors in my network, and the homeowner wanted this company’s bid too.

I’m always curious to see how contractors I meet operate, including things like how they generate work.

This contractor told me he relies on a system of ads with coupons.  He has these things set up (evidently there are ad companies that do this) so that thousands go out in mailings and in other ways.

Enough people respond to these ads with coupons that he runs around all day meeting with folks.  His percentage of sales-to-prospects is low, but because he does so many, it works for him.

By the way, he gave a competitive bid for the work, but did not get the job.  The quality of work was just not good.  He lost the job and the customer he had once done work for.

This is so common — a company is working hard, but doing the wrong hard work.

When you do the right hard work you build two critical business assets: reputation and customer base.  The two always go together.  They grow exponentially together.  I call this “momentum”.

Word-of-Mouth

In my work area there is a small landscape company that does residential maintenance.  It’s an owner/operator business with 3 or 4 employees.

The owner concentrates on doing the general yearly maintenance along with some seasonal enhancement work.  He does not attempt work outside these categories.  If his customers request bigger or more involved tasks, he uses his network within the trade to get them done.

You can actually drive through the neighborhoods this company works in and identify the properties they take care of.  The difference is that obvious.  The company does not compromise on anything.  They use best horticultural practices and meet or exceed their customer’s expectations.

I know the owner and have asked him if he’d take on some of my projects as new accounts.  He told me with all the referrals he gets there’s a waiting list.

Reputation.  Loyal customer base.  Momentum.

Build Relationships and Your Network

social-media-552411_1280It’s hard for me to imagine running my business over the years without my network of people in the trade.

Today we read how important networking is in this “new economy”.   Actually, the concept began helping me years ago — and today it’s integral to my business.

And I was thinking, how did I come about realizing the value of a network?

Strangely enough, back then looking for help and advice from others came out of “fear”.  I was afraid of not doing certain things well for my customers and losing their trust in me.

I knew enough to know what I didn’t know.

Through the years my network of tradespeople and other professionals has enabled me to do great work on my projects.  And I’ve learned so much from working with these talented people.  You can do the same.

Build your network to cover the things you don’t know and don’t do well enough.  You’ll soon realize what an effective tool it is to grow your capabilities and business — all while staying lean and productive at the things you enjoy and do well.

You want every experience customers have with you to be remarkable.  That’s where trust, reputation, customer-base and referrals come from.

Is This For Me?

What I’ve come to realize about careers is you have to enjoy your work, and it has to provide security.

It’s not hard to find enjoyment among all the different categories of the landscape industry.  Whether you like creativity, building things, solving problems, or just working with the environment — there’s something for you.

The challenge of job security weighs on us all, no matter what field you’re in.  And whether you work for a company or have your own, there will always be variables and uncertainties.

Whatever path you might take in the landscape industry, the surest way to enjoy it and be successful is to know and practice the trade properly.  That, by itself, will make you stand out.

So where to begin?  As with everything, the fundamentals give you a good base knowledge to start.  Sign up for my free ebook, “Landscape Contracting Fundamentals” to give you that base.  I also send out helpful advice to do the kind of work that builds your reputation as a professional.

Along with the fundamentals, grow your knowledge by the questions and challenges you have each day on the job.  Finding those answers and solving those problems correctly is where the real learning is.

You can then take that knowledge to advise your customer.  Educate them to the benefits of doing things properly.  People will see right away you’re different.

So what do you think about the landscape industry?  Are your experiences and observations different?  Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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