Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Take out gardening

Something about gardening stirs the emotions. Experiencing the sites of the garden in spring certainly feeds at least one or two of the senses. Harvesting from a vegetable garden feeds a few more senses – along with making the hungries disappear.

I’ve not made an objective study of how many gardens there are in the Heights area, but as a regular in many back yards throughout the Heights I have noticed a stark decrease in gardens from what I recall as a child growing up. As a child, it seemed as if almost all of neighbors had gardens as did many of my lawn customers. One of my long time favorite customers, Robert Stanger, a master gardener, would talk with me at great length about gardening and the “projects” in his back yard. For sometime he ran the community garden at Canterbury Elementary School. Bill Valis who lived down the street always had a prolific garden in his back yard – I stood in awe at the size of the plants in his garden that towered over me as a youngster. I’m not sure what he fed those plants, but I think if he was a follower of Jerry Baker I’m sure some of the Pabst Blue Ribbon he always had at arms reach was included in the plants fertilizing program.

I’m not sure if gardening is as popular today as it was twenty five years ago when I was growing up. But I can appreciate the challenges of a time constrained schedule and how it does not marry well with gardening. There are many things a garden provides. For some it’s the experience, exercise, and joy of planting and harvesting. For some it’s more the enjoyment of fresh produce that you can really taste. Local in many cases just tastes better than produce flown in from across the country.

Well, if fresh produce is what you’re after, there are options. I was interested in an article I read in the Plain Dealer from the end of May about the growing number of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs. CSA’s provide an alternative to either gardening or the grocery store for fresh vegetables. At a nominal cost, you can basically order or contract for your produce throughout the growing the season. This benefits the farmer in planning and helps with cash flow, while the consumer gets local, fresh produce at regular intervals throughout the season.

The concept of CSA’s struck a cord with me. While my plan is to begin gardening this summer with my son, I’m a bit more of a pragmatist and want to make sure we have fresh produce on the table. I’m not confident that much of the harvest is going to make it past the edge of the garden once my three year old discovers the fruits of our labor. I can only imagine between the nibbling off the vine and the fun he has squashing things that this year we’ll be gardening more for the experience than the harvest. Perhaps the CSA’s can provide the harvest so we still have something fresh for the dinner table.

Friday, June 20, 2008

When service fails

I'm fairly certain that businesses do not intentionally set out to disappoint their customers by providing poor service. It is truly amazing when you begin to think about recent experiences and how poor service has become the norm rather than the exception to rule.

Recently I attended a trade/convention show in Buffalo, NY and was on the receiving end of my fair share of poor service. I had some distance away from our business and therefore an opportunity to reflect on the topic and more in particular about the experiences that our customers have when interacting with our business.

When I'm the recipient of poor service I'm human and find myself getting irritated or frustrated to varying degrees. Depending on the situation I consider my options and decide what I'm going to do. Often times I grumble, walk away with a poor taste in my mouth and catalog the experience so I can decide in the future whether or not I choose to do business with the establishment again.

When I'm the recipient of less than satisfactory service I begin to ask myself a series of questions.

  • Is the business owner or manager aware of how their employees are failing their customers?
  • Will I come back to this business again?
  • How many repeat sales is this business going to loose because it can't get the basics right?
  • Should I say something to owner or manager? Wouldn't they like to know what is happening?

The extent to which I ask myself these questions in part depends on the relationship I have with the business and my need or desire to continue a relationship with the business. It is opportunities like my time away from my own business where I can reflect on these questions and begin to evaluate how other businesses succeed at customer service and how others seem to fail.

I know that we have let down our fair share of customers over the years. For me, the topic of customer service is very personal. While certainly this is no excuse, we have gone through and continue to experience growing pains. In the process I know that I have let down my fair share of people by failing to follow through. I ask myself why have I let this happen and how do I fix it. As a business owner I make it my goal to insulate our customers from having to experience our growing pains. Our customers have enough frustrations in the day, we certainly do not need to add to the list.

For me, I recognize that we are not perfect. It's the reason that I often give other businesses a second chance when I feel let down from their service. What I hope to see is improvement in other businesses where I may have been the recipient of bad service. In our own business I have recognized some areas that we are weak. In many cases it was our customers who pointed out some areas where we needed to improve. I appreciate those customers who take time from their day and risk sharing their thoughts and feelings regarding their experience.

In most cases the feedback I get is taken very personally. As the owner of the business I'm responsible for the experience our customers have and it begins with me. I think back to the times when I know I let someone down because I didn't follow through. Some distraction got in the way between my commitment to them and the follow through they expected. I've worked to change things internally so I can avoid making these same mistakes again.

Hopefully our customers can see the difference we're making - and in any case, will continue to provide the feedback so that we can continue to improve. Some of the feedback we get is louder, more direct and shall we say... obvious. While at other times the feedback we receive is more subtle. Anyway the feedback comes it is appreciated and please know that you are heard.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Learning from others - Thank you Thornton Landscape

I'm grateful for a recent opportunity to explore and learn new business practices by visiting an established landscape design/build company located north of Cincinnati, Ohio. Rick Doesburg of Thornton Landscape generously opened the doors of his business and gave a day of his time to share his business operations with us.

Last week I set out accompanied by two managers from the Lawn Lad team, Adam and Drew, en route to Cincinnati as a part of the PLANET Trailblazers program. In a continuing quest to learn from others who are successful in this industry, we took the opportunity to learn about Thornton Landscape and what has made them a successful business for nearly fifty years.

As a growing business we face challenges each day. I know that others before us have experienced similar frustrations and any chance we have to learn from the successes, failures and lessons learned the better off we will be. I have made plenty of mistakes in business and it pains me when I look back and think about how I could have avoided making those mistakes and possibly souring relationships with our customers in the process.

As a business owner who has to make the books balance, I questioned the wisdom of three of us taking two days from the office and away from the business here at home and spending money on travel, lodging and the lost opportunity of working here at the business. In hindsight I do not regret making the investment - we learned a lot from the trip. Perhaps one of the more valuable things to come from the trip thus far is the conversations that have been started on numerous topics about those areas in our business that we can and should improve.

To be certain the conversations are just beginning and the investment in the trip will pay dividends for some time to come yet. I believe the out of pocket costs we incurred will benefit Lawn Lad tremendously as we prioritize areas for improvement.

I value the input from our customers - as this is the primary source for ideas on how we can improve. One of the key questions I want to ask and have answered is, "What could we have done differently to improve your experience?" The feedback provides us with the necessary information to make improvements in areas where we may not have realized we were lacking. Taking the trip to Thornton Landscape and getting outside of our bubble allowed us to see how another successful business is meeting the needs of its customers.

Thank you to Rick and Andy Doesburg and the Thornton Landscape team for having us down and helping us to learn from your experiences. Thank you also to our customers who provide us with feedback about how we are doing and their experiences so that we may continue to improve our service to our customers. I invite you to share your experiences and suggestions for improvement.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Trees & Grass - the contradiction of our suburban landscapes

We love our landscapes. After working in our customer’s landscapes all day I enjoy going home to my own yard so that I can relax and spend time with my family.

When I do have the opportunity to take a walk through the park, which is not quite as often as I would like, I often reflect on the natural cycle in nature. I’m in awe of how complex, yet utterly simple it seems. The seasons change and the life cycle is always working. The natural ecosystem balances out without man’s interference.

In our rectangular suburban plots we can’t wait or don’t want to wait for Mother Nature to run her course. For example, fall leaves don’t settle into the landscape and decompose over the ensuing months. Instead we rake them up and sweep them to the curb, where they are picked up and hauled off to a composting facility. Leaves and other landscape trimmings and debris are composted for a year or more resulting in rich organic compost, available then to rebuild our beds replenishing much needed organics and nutrition to our landscapes.

We ask our suburban landscapes to do things that Mother Nature did not intend. We love large shade trees and a nice green expanse of cooling grass below. Mother Nature did not intend for grass and trees to grow together – but we insist that they do, and then wonder why neither is thriving. Grass grows in meadows where it receives full sun, where as trees grow in forests and groves - each thriving in its own ecosystem.

In our suburban landscapes the trees take the brass ring. With their expansive root systems and over arching and shading limbs, grass doesn’t have much of a chance. Compacted soil and poor drainage also conspire against our own green pastures often resulting in mud, muck and frustration.

What then is a homeowner to do when the lawn is important? The physiology of the plants living in our landscapes will not take notice of the address change and therefore do not realize they should behave differently in our yards. Plants will behave as Mother Nature designed them to.
Begin with reasonable expectations. It might take some reading and research or consultation with a professional to help develop an appreciation for what is possible. But recognize that lawns will be less successful with increased shade and competition from surrounding trees.

Evaluate the area and decide on priorities. If the lawn is important then thin and/or limb up surrounding trees to improve sunlight and air circulation. Build the soil of the lawn with topdressing – adding organics is critical. Aerate the lawn once, if not twice a year. Plant grass types that can tolerate more shade. Raise the mowing height as tall as you can and skip mowings when possible to leave the grass tall. Water as necessary to keep the lawn healthy, but remember, the healthier the root system the less watering you will have to do. Shady lawns typically have week roots systems, so focus on the roots and your lawn will be much improved.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

The health care pinch

Health care seems to be a regular headline in the news. Like many small business owners I must know enough about a topic, like health care insurance, to make purchasing decisions and administer the benefits for the company. This certainly does not make me an expert on the topic – but like many, I am a consumer and purchaser of the products and services and have some very personal experience with the process.

As the owner of the company I’ve made the choice that offering benefits is an important part of the compensation structure for our employees. I believe that we are able to attract and retain excellent talent in part because of these benefits. Not all landscape service companies offer or provide insurance coverage to their employees.

Beyond major medical plans which includes an HSA option, we offer dental, vision and term life insurance. We also provide long term and short term disability plans. We just began offering an FSA (Flexible Savings Account) so that employees can use pre-tax dollars for all medical related expenses.

Our renewal rates are scheduled to increase approximately 12% this year, which I’m told is in line with the national average. This is on top of an increase from last year of 18% and similarly the year before.

I’m not sure what the solution is to continuing to provide health insurance and related benefits to our employees. I’m committed to making the insurance available to our employees and their families. However, our customers are facing increasing costs in their personal budgets and are not interested or able to simply pay us more for the landscape services they receive simply because our costs are rising.
What is a company to do? In order for us to remain competitive in the market place for customers we need to provide excellent value and keep our pricing in line with the market. We also must remain competitive in the market place for employees by offering benefits. We are not just competing with the landscape industry, but other prospective employment offerings where our talented people may go if we can’t offer what they need. Lastly, we must make our forecasted profit so that we can continue to reinvest in the operations of our business.

Do we increase prices? Coupled with rising fuel prices this has happened to some degree already. I’m not sure the market will support significant price increases. Do we cut benefits and/or compensation to our employees? Will our employees be willing to accept these cuts and will they stay with the company to serve our customers? Do we accept lower profit margins as our costs increase? I’m not sure this is a sound strategy if we intend to stay in business for the long term.

The answer is more complicated I’m sure and not so cut and dry. For the time being we have focused on increasing our efficiencies. We are investing in becoming more efficient, and as we grow, the impact of the improved efficiency will pay larger dividends.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Gardening with my son

Growing up in Cleveland Heights my mother always had a vegetable garden. After mowing the lawn I regularly put the clippings around plants in the garden with the extra clippings going into the mulch pile. I didn’t quite understand why we did these things, but I followed instructions. As the warm months passed by I recall picking tomatoes, lettuce, beans, carrots and berries from the garden – enjoying them on the spot or at the dinner table.

Fast forward twenty-five years and today I look around and don’t find the same number of gardens in the Heights area. Perhaps my childhood memory of our garden and our neighbors’ gardens formed a larger impression on me – thinking that everyone had a vegetable garden. Today though, it appears that gardening doesn’t fit into our busy lifestyles. To talk about your Blackberry today isn’t likely in reference to the fruit in one’s garden.

Last summer I began working with my two and half year old son in our yard. He sure has taken a liking to the weeding knife – as it can dig and make holes like no other tool. This spring he likes digging for worms, grubs and spiders. “Daddy… want to a see the worm?” Charlie asks a thousand why's each day, and at this point the teacher in me hasn’t tired of answering all of the why and how questions.

What a wonderful season to begin gardening with my son. I plan on building a small garden this summer so that Charlie and I can play in the soil, plant seeds, and watch the wonder of nature transform brown dirt into a bountiful harvest.

Who knows if we’ll ever get to eat anything this year - I’m not sure how successful our experiment will be. The deer may conspire against us and the demands of growing business make for long hours. But hopefully when I look back at this season, the draw of working in the soil – nurturing young plants and minds will have drawn me away from the business just long enough to build lasting memories for Charlie.

PS – I’d like to thank Mary, a customer on Torrington Road, Shaker Heights for sharing her stories about gardening with her children and youngest son in particular. Her stories several years ago planted the seeds for me to begin thinking about making our own garden. I welcome your stories about gardening, and in particular – ideas on making gardening fun and exciting for the little ones.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Top 5 Landscape Projects to Decrease Market Sales Time

"A number of studies have concluded that an attractive, well-planned landscape can increase the value of a home from five to 20 percent. Also, the National Association of Realtors reports that almost 20 percent of buyers consider landscaping to be a "very important" factor in the decision to buy a house." - Jill Sell, May 14, 2008 The Cleveland Plain Dealer

In the current market any advantage a seller can gain by making their home stand out from the rest of the field can greatly impact the bottom line. When selling a home an important factor to a quick sale is making the house as marketable as possible. Sales is a numbers game... and attracting as many qualified home buyers is the first part of the equation.

Excellent curb appeal attracts buyers. While unexceptional, nondescript, and under maintained landscapes can actually repel prospects. The first impression from pictures or a drive by of the property may determine if the prospective buyer will schedule an appointment to see the house.

As a landscape service provider we are often called in to help a homeowner get their house ready to put on the market. Each situation we encounter is different. For some a simple spring clean up is the solution while other projects have included entire yard make overs to help get the house ready for market.

From our experience in working with both homeowners and Realtors, here is our top five landscape check list items to help sell your home more quickly.

Top 5 Landscape Projects to Decrease Market Time:

  • Get rid of clutter: remove piles of old fire wood, brick and rubbish from the yard and from behind the garage. Get rid of the old swing sets and play equipment if possible. Clean up the yard, which may mean a spring or seasonal clean up is in order to get rid of leaves, sticks and other landscape debris. Clean and neat allows prospective buyers to better imagine how they would use the space and communicates that you have maintained your space.

  • Basic Pruning: First remove dead, diseased and damaged plant material. Remove plants that don't look healthy or contribute to a clean and neat landscape. Prune plants so they clear pathways, walks and structures. Next, prune and trim overgrown plants that obstruct or obscure sight lines. Prune to reduce over sized or overgrown plants.

  • Define the space: Layout bed lines and install bed edges that create definition between the lawn and beds. Connect smaller beds with broad sweeping bed lines, eliminating little patches and awkward spots of grass. Clean out the beds of weeds and unnecessary plants. Create a clean look by mulching newly edged and weeded beds.

  • Green lawns: The appearance of your lawn and landscape is an indicator to prospective home buyers about how you have maintained your home. A lawn in poor condition reflects poorly on the home, so renovate the grass so it will look its best. This may include spraying for weeds, aerating, fertilizing, top-dressing, and over-seeding by slice or slit seeding. A lawn in poor condition can look much better within 60 days. A healthy lawn is more attractive and helps to set off the new bed lines you have just installed.

  • Add color: Add annual flowers for instant and lasting color that will make an impact. If the house is going on the market in the spring install bulbs the fall before. If the lead time doesn't allow for bulbs then plant pansies in the spring. Follow up with summer bedding annuals like begonias or petunias, both are relatively low maintenance. In the fall plants mums and/or pansies. Install annuals in containers by entry doors or on patios, install or make room in the front walk entry area for annual color.

Decreasing market time directly impacts the bottom line by reducing carrying costs (includes: finance cost, insurance, taxes, maintenance expenses, utilities, etc.).

Begin with the basics. We often see homeowners spending time and resources on polishing and accessorizing the landscape before focusing on basic cleaning and pruning. Following these steps in order will make the largest impact and provide the greatest value. Much of this work can be accomplished on your own, although hiring a professional may get the work done more efficiently, within a shortened time frame and may be more effective with access to equipment, materials and experienced labor. The work is not complicated, for the most part it requires focus, time and follow through.

Lastly, don't overlook the required maintenance for the landscape while the house is on the market. A one time clean up will look really good for several weeks, but without maintenance will begin to loose its impact. Plan to keep the yard in tip top shape for showings that can occur at any time.