Sargent's Solutions: Fresh eyes on the labour challenge

Do you really need an extra pair of hands to cope with your workload or should you consider revamping your offer? Alan Sargent weighs up the options

I have been asked several times, and in several different ways, for a potential solution to the problem of finding suitable staff. I have previously endeavoured to provide some words of wisdom, including an article on finding good labour (HW, 3 October 2014) — although that question was from a landscape contractor, thoroughly disillusioned with the sources and suitability of any sort of reasonably capable personnel. The current enquiries are from maintenance contractors, desperate to find extra hands, even if for only one or two days a week.

Optimal timing

I fully appreciate their dilemma. In a normal year the financially rewarding season for maintenance works is during the spring and autumn, when gardens are sprouting weeds and grass everywhere, or plants are dying back and leaves are carpeting the ground.

Summer months may be too hot or weed and grass growth may have stabilised — or customers want peace and quiet during the day when they are sunbathing — and things quieten down slightly. The winter months may be busy with planting and planning but are generally less frenetic and you have to work with the weather as well as the diary.

You sometimes have far too much work to do. You have to service a sufficient number of clients to maintain income that will cover the slower months and do not want to lose or upset customers by providing a less than perfect job at each visit. This is extremely frustrating and worrying when all you need is an extra pair of hands.

Although most of the businesses concerned are small — mainly sole operatives — and the regions vary, and localised difficulties need to be addressed, my proposals are suited to all. There are several points to consider and they are generally valid for all areas.

Reasoned analysis

Take a considered and dispassionate look at your business. The most important factor to recognise is
that you are successful. The fact that you are so busy is the strongest possible indicator that you are good at your profession.

Now consider why you feel that you are successful. Is it because you are the cheapest? Or that you offer a service that is scarce in your area? Do you have a unique selling point, offering something that your competitors do not? Analyse your success, as you see it. Is it because you are more reliable, knowledgeable and efficient? Perhaps a combination of all of these.

It does not matter where you are based or how much local competition you have. You may be the only gardening services company within 50 miles of your competitor, or 50 yards in the case of the Home Counties. Your business is successful for a reason.

Turn now to your finances. Taking into consideration all outgoings, both personal and company costs, are you profitable? After paying for all business expenses — including rent and rates, hire purchase on the van and monies put aside for new tools and equipment — are you making a genuine profit at the end of each financial year? It is important to be strictly honest with yourself because if you are not making a profit by yourself then you will not be able to afford additional labour.

Perfect person

It is all too easy to visualise another pair of hands as being the answer to all of your problems — even just one or two days a week to help out. With any luck you may manage to find the perfect person to help your business to grow and you will eventually take them on as a full-time assistant.

Here I must emphasise that I am not discussing business expansion, which is a major decision that is only to be undertaken with a considerable amount of forethought, as well as professional advice from your accountant. I am concentrating on the question of finding extra help in the busy periods.

The challenge is to examine your business and assess and recognise the reasons why you are rushed off your feet. If the primary reason is because you have too many customers, then why do you need to service so many? If the answer is that you must work for them all to earn enough money to survive, something must be wrong with your profitability calculations.

Apart from finding the elusive skilled labour, you will need to instigate a fee-charging and payment structure including wages, expenses — including transport and employer's liability insurance — plus other Government fees dependent on the number of days worked, including the soon-to-be-introduced pension plan.

Alternatively you could operate with a bona fide self-employed person who holds all the necessary insurance and other documentation. Having established the additional costs, you need to gain agreement from your clients, including rates and regularity of visits.

Cashing in

There is another option. Why not cash in on your popularity by fine-tuning your skills base and concentrate purely on what you do best and what makes you so special, different and successful?

Reduce the number of clients and therefore your travelling time and expenses, and renew your offer to your customers. State that you are so busy and find it impossible to find any decent labour — which reinforces your talents — to help you with their gardens that you have decided to rebrand.

Repackage and reschedule their garden works into appropriate sections — perhaps even omitting some of the more basic jobs such as mowing that could be carried out by the customer — and offer yourself in a new light, with an appropriate increase in your rates.

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant at the School of Garden Management —

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