Q. I run a garden maintenance business and I think I can offer a better service than my competitors. How can I get that message across to the public?
A. Last year, I wrote an article about unique selling points (HW, 29 March 2013) in which I discussed setting yourself apart from the crowd by various methods involving marketing strategy.
In a way your question is different because you wish to convey your belief that you offer a better service, not an alternative one. Yet in many ways these both tend to address the same target - to gain more or better work by attracting a greater number of potential customers. Such is the subtle nature of marketing, they are somewhat different.
You could do one or two things immediately, without a lot of expense or moving away from your core business. You currently service around 50 customers, many on a regular weekly basis, but also monthly and quarterly. This workload indicates that you operate an efficient business, with good bookkeeping and accurate records.
Have you considered polling your clients? A simple sheet of A4 paper asking about their perceptions of their gardens and the services of your firm should provide you with a lot of information. You could state that this is an important part of your company's three-year strategy policy and thank them for their assistance in completing the questionnaire.
Avoid leading or closed questions and do not just ask whether they are happy. Rather, use open questions such as: "What aspects of your garden do you enjoy the most?" Keep the questions friendly and positive, gently ascertaining requirements by asking: "What would you like to see in your garden? Can we alter our services in any way?"
Try to avoid sounding as though you are trying to sell something - although, why not? You could add another question asking whether they would like you to undertake other works and then list them, such as winter jobs or things they may not realise you can do. This list is purely secondary to the main questionnaire so avoid getting bogged down. Perhaps a separate paper for "other services" may be wiser.
As always, keep records of the questionnaires and cross reference the responses. If you are lucky, you should have an 80 per cent return rate, especially if you hand deliver and collect the forms.
During my work as a consultant, I frequently hear complaints - not particularly about the shortcomings of maintenance companies inasmuch as they arrive on the designated day and cut the lawns/weed the beds etc, but about the speed in which the work is done. The usual comment/complaint is: "Why don't they offer a more thorough service and stop rushing around? Put decent stripes on the lawns, edge the lawns properly and clear up afterwards, and don't just charge off to the next site. The staff are polite and friendly but they just don't have time to do the job."
Customers are genuinely aggrieved when they cannot get their garden maintenance firm to charge more money and offer a top-quality service. "Silver service to a gold standard," is how one elderly chap put it to me. Being an elderly chap myself, I can completely sympathise with him. Money is not the issue. Quality most certainly is.
By using the questionnaire as a business strategy tool, your customers will soon let you know whether they are happy or desperate for a better service - one that will set you apart from your competitors. I suggest that you do not advertise your strategy in advance to prevent your competitors from running the same campaign. Have your letters delivered in one operation over a short period of time.
It will mean that you have to reschedule your work programme to accommodate the extra time spent on the gold-standard clients and you may wish to drop some of the more awkward or less lucrative customers to take on more of the discerning customers. More time spent on one site, for more money, means lower running costs and higher profits. It may be important - without knowing your workforce and their abilities to change their work style - to use the same team(s) to avoid disrupting your programme.
Your work schedule should be based on areas and related routes to ensure minimum time spent on the move. Your company will become famed for its quality of service. You already have the skills, the equipment and the workforce. Your desire to offer a better service than your competitors becomes a self-fulfilling wish. Obviously, there will be some of your existing clients who may not wish to pay for the gold standard - at least, not every visit.
If you adopt a "class" of service, say bronze, silver or gold with differing prices based on individual gardens, they may choose one or the other for a special occasion. Such a package would make a great birthday or Christmas present. It is only one step from there to adding pre-priced items such as fitted herbaceous beds suited to both site and budget that also make great presents or mark special occasions.
Once you begin to think along class standards, in your capacity as a provider of high-quality garden maintenance, you will quickly establish a sought-after product - silver service to gold standard.
Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant. His latest book, The Landscaper's Survival Manual, is available from www.alansargent.co.uk.
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