Category Archives: Blog

Setting clear expectations

In business, setting expectations is very important. Clear expectations insure that everyone knows exactly what they’re supposed to do and they are on the same page. Without clear expectations, it is left up to the imagination of everyone and there are no boundaries. All employees should have their expectations set so they know exactly what is expected of them. When there are expectations it makes it easy to hold people accountable because if there are none then it is impossible to keep people accountable for something you never told them they should be doing. Also, clear expectations insured that people don’t step on each others toes and everyone knows exactly what they are supposed to be doing. This means that if one person is assigned a task someone else won’t be doing it it will just be that one person. I have found that people want to know what they’re supposed to be doing they want clear expectations. Sometimes when expectations aren’t clear the employee will run wild and do a million things that you don’t want them doing. Has the company evolved so do expectations so it is important that you keep a job responsibilities list so each employee knows what the expectations are of their roles. There can also be a growth chart so they know what the expectations are if they grow into another position and what the pay rates will be in each corresponding position. They know exactly what they have to do to get a raise.

Being stern and straightforward as important as a manager. The biggest part of setting expectations is the ability to hold people accountable. Holding employees accountable for what they are supposed to do is super important to keep everything running tight and efficiently. I have any expectations clearly said, you can spring the employee aside and say it is your responsibility to do this. Why has this not been done? It is also very important in reviews to be able to use a measurable set of expectations and how they are performing to each expectation.

What I have learned is that sometimes in the beginning it is hard to be clear with the expectations because you’re not sure if you are self what the expectations are supposed to be for any given position. In this case, you will learn the hard way when the employee runs rampant and they are out of control. Once this happens, the only options are to either set these new expectations and forced the employee to cooperate and to the new expectations, or, unfortunately usually what happens is the employee does not want to conform so they quit. The good thing about this however is that now you can hire a new employee and you have clear expectations set for them.

 

Dumb-proofing the business

There are some daily frustrations we all face, and one of mine is simple things that continually are problems in the company. I have found that it is best to dumb-proof anything and everything that is possible to dumb-proof in order to make mistakes or not following procedures impossible. Dumb proofing, as I define it, is making it so employees have to comply and do things the way you want them done, they do not make any decisions in the process.

One such example is locks on our trailers. I found that I was constantly replacing locks that were lost which was incredibly frustrating. I started charging my employees when they lost locks. Then I would look bad and I would have to remember to make a payroll deduction and it would not resolve the issue that I still had to order new locks which took time. Just another thing to worry about. A small detail, but it was a recurring problem and frustration. This is no longer a problem.

Why? Because I dumb-proofed it. I tied the locks to the trailer door, I made it possible to not even need a system for it, because I resolved the issue by dumb-proofing.

Another example. I would constantly have to remind the employees to put the equipment where it goes in the trailer, so it wouldn’t break and smash into each other. This happened all the time. I handled it the same way; I would reprimand them as well as charge them when equipment broke. It continued to be a problem.

So what did I do? I made it so tools only fit in certain spots. They couldn’t mess it up, they had to put things where they belonged! What a miracle.

A third example is I wanted employees to put out door hangers. I would tell them to, but would they do it? No. So I created a dumb-proof system. I made it so that with our software, they couldn’t view the next job until they entered 3 house numbers. The system won’t let them move forward to view their next job until they enter 3 numbers. If they try to half ass it, I know, because they put in random numbers and I can ask them about it. There is full accountability.

So in  conclusion, I have found it is best to handle things in this order:

  1. Is the problem dumb-proofable? Then dumb-proof it.
  2. Only if the problem is not dumb-proofable, create a system to handle the problem.

How to filter out bad leads

Many leads and phone calls come in on a regular basis, and the demand peaks during the busier times of the year. Being lesser staffed with the overhead this year, we were forced to make processes more efficient and focus on priorities. As they say, necessity is the other of creation!

We get leads from all over the place location wise, and in the past I used to tell people we didn’t work in that area. Not very smart! I didn’t want to expend the resources sending an estimator driving across the state when we could get work locally. But I especially didn’t want to send them a 45 minute drive away just to maybe book a job but most likely, just waste time and resources. So what did I do? I tried two different approaches:

  1. I told the potential clients that we required a $50 deposit that would go towards the cost of the job for an estimate. And
  2. I quoted them hourly.

Both approaches successfully turned off customers that were price shopping or not serious about the work. But I did notice more resistance from the deposit method- people said things like well how do I know you’re not going to send me a very high quote and then just keep my deposit? I felt that we got less of these jobs than when I told people hourly.

Overall the hourly approach worked better. What I ended up doing was trying to book the customer on a small hourly job for a small portion of the work- say 2 guys 2 hours clearing out some beds. If they agreed to that, well, we made some money and didn’t even have to send an estimator up there. If they wanted more work done after, well, sure, they are now an existing client and we provide free quotes for existing clients as we already have a relationship and recognize there is a high chance of them booking a job. Even if they don’t, at least they are not just money out of our pocket since we already are making money with them.

Better yet, we have the crew that arrives take photos on their hourly visit. This saves us a trip for the drive.

Overall I am very happy with this experiment, and it has enabled us to capture revenue from every potential lead, as well as expand our work area. As soon as we picked up a handful of clients in one area, it then subsidized the drive for all the clients in between!

Going to be a good year

We have been working hard and are ready for a big year. I realize that in hindsight one of the biggest problems last year was that things were out of control. This year I feel like things are under much better control in terms of money, employees, and equipment. This is what we have done to improve each:

Money:

This year we decided we were tired of chasing people down for money once and for all. We forced 95% of our customers onto weekly credit card payments or weekly credit card pre-pay. We offered a 5% discount if customers prepaid the whole contract by check. The way I figured here is that we save the 3% credit card processing fee, so we ultimately borrowed the money at 2% apr which is cheaper than I get get the money elsewhere. Using our customers for credit instead of banks. Great! Much better cash flow.

Secondly, we raised our prices a lot. We aimed for an across the board 20% price increase. We knew we would lose some customers, but after last year I didn’t care. I don’t need to make a lot of money but I have never lost money before and it wasn’t fun. So we got our charge rates rock solid and made no exceptions for making sure we were earning that on all of our jobs. And how awesome that price increase is. Since we had essentially paid all our costs but not profited, that 20% increase mostly goes to profit and what a difference it is going from no profit to 20% profit. Surprisingly, we lost only a handful of good customers out of the gig; out of the small percentage we lost most were the large unprofitable accounts we didn’t want anyway. Most people once experiencing our service considered our higher prices worth the value.

Employees:

We prepared much earlier for workers. We set up a job fair at a local university. Put job listings on indeed and craigslist. Contacted our local DLT. Networked. Yard signs. Everything. Some of the best advice I ever got was to market for employees like we do customers. They are equally important.

Equipment:

Lastly, we have new equipment this year. A brand new mower, 2 new trucks, new weed wackers, blowers, wheelbarrow.. On top of the added reliability, we invested in equipment that increased our productivity such as a compost top dresser to replace wheel barrow and shovel, and a garden bed edger which I was told can do in 13 minutes with one man the same thing two men take 1.5 hours. And it looks better.

So there is less stress, everyone is happier, equipment is working, we are making money. Business is good! We are relocating to a shop with a garage to keep our mechanic happy and so we can all operate out of one place.  Working from coffee shops only works for so long.

How to get money when the bank won’t give you a loan

Sometimes in business, you need to do some tricky things and be creative to make things work.

After being declined for a line of credit, and exhausting our small credit card limit, I was forced to be creative to get much needed funds in the spring.

I have used a couple methods:

  1. 0% APR offers

I have good credit and plenty of credit cards available which come in handy. When you aren’t using your card frequently, the banks will frequently send you a 0% apr offer. These offers are for balance transfers but you can use them for a 0% loan. Usually, they come with a transfer fee of 3% but if its 0% apr for a year or longer, this translates to a 3% APR loan which is a good deal. Sometimes its for 18 months so thats even longer of a period and a lesser equivalent interest rate.

2. Charging your own credit card

This isn’t ideal, but this past year I depended on 0% credit card offers but only got one! I quickly tried to think of other ways to get cash, and I decided on charging my own credit card.

Our company has credit card processing, so what I did is I took my now (higher limit) business credit card and ran it through our credit card processing. Expensive- and you have to pay the fee on both your company end and you have to pay interest on this money. Ouch. But it works in a fix and for a short term loan. This year if I have to use it again (I hope not!) I will swipe the card, since swiping the card is a lower processing fee charged than entering it online through the portal since it is more risky for the banks.

Cross Training

Last year one of the things we actually did RIGHT was cross training.

Really, out of necessity it happened. I didn’t plan on cross training, but being short handed in certain positions I was forced to cross train.

We had planned on having a mechanic when we started the lawn mowing service business last spring. I advertised everywhere- local tech schools, craigslist, indeed.. I never found one.

The season was so crazy that I had no time. I had to play mechanic this year, but I didn’t have time to do it! So in the mornings, we would start out the day by servicing the mowers. I taught the guys how to sharpen their own blades, grease the mowers, clean the air filters, etc.

It took a lot of time at first, and they made mistakes, but once a couple guys got the hang of it it was a real eye opener for me. I was now not the only person in the company to be able to service the mowers.

During the peak of the fall cleanup season, we all had to switch gears. I hadn’t been doing much sales, but my guy that typically does sales had to shift to training in the field. So I ended up doing a lot of the sales- along with my regular duties- and needed help because I couldn’t get to them all. So I took one of my partially trained foremen and had him help me with the training.

Likewise, by teaching some of my best foreman how to use our software, they were able to help out when needed. Not that I wanted to pull them out of the field to put them on emails, but if the need be, it would come in handy! Moral of the story is never underestimate the power of cross training, and being able to use your resources in more versatile ways.

How to collect bad debt with mechanic’s lien.

Bad debt- yuck- not fun.

Inevitably, some people are not going to pay their bills. The best thing is to not allow them the opportunity to do that in your invoicing system by means of prepays or credit cards. However, bad debt happens.

I have tried chasing down bad debt in many ways. Collection calls- collection agency- small claims court- and most recently, a mechanic’s lien.

Small claims court never worked for me- I would have to go to the local court, pay $65, and they would sent a certified letter to the customers house. From here it could follow several different paths.

  1. Client ignores certified letter. If you choose, you can pay extra to send  sheriff to try to deliver the document, but if he can’t get in touch with them, dead end.
  2. Client signs for letter, and at that point he is given a court date.

Route 1 is obviously a dead end. From option 2 there are a couple more ways it can go:

  1. Client shows up to court, you win case, and a judgement is issued for the debt. This client now officially owes you that said amount of money, but he does not necessarily have to pay.
  2. Client does not go to court, so you win by default. You now have a judgement that you can attempt to put a lien on their property.

So the small claims route has never worked for me. I usually end up at step 1 and waste more time and money.

Most recently, I have filed for a mechanic’s lien. Man, this is so much easier! $19, and I need nothing but a specially formatted letter saying that the said person owes a said amount of money. BOOM! lien is put on house.

Now, you have that client by the balls. If they try to sell or refinance their house, they have to either 1) pay the debt, or 2) go to court. You win. They HAVE to go to court or pay. With small claims, they can just ignore the judgement and never go to court.

Planet Trailblazer

Trailblazer visit

This past week, our trailblazer stopped by our place of business. The trailblazer is a program through the national association of landscape professionals (NALP) in which an experienced veteran in the industry is sent to visit a less experienced entrepreneur. With the Trailblazer program, we are given the choice of whether we want to visit their business, or we want them to visit our business. This year, we opted to have them visit our business since the past two years we visited their business.

Our Trailblazer’s name was Bob and he runs a big fertilizing company down in New Jersey. Although it is not the exact same industry as lawn care, it is similar in that it is still in the green industry and it entails servicing someone’s property repetitively.

We didn’t have much planned for Bob but knew he would be helpful. I had kind of an outline laid out and a rough plan, but figured I would do whatever it was that he suggested we do. I started off by introducing Bob to some of my staff, but focusing on our management. I started to show him our systems, our shop- but right off the bat, kind of abruptly he told me that these are the things that are working for me. Not to be rude, but he wanted to focus on the things that WERE NOT working for me. Which makes sense.

We drove around to a few properties, and since we don’t have an office we went to a couple coffee places and out to lunch. The day actually went by pretty quickly.

We didn’t really dig into any numbers, either, and I am a numbers type of guy. It was more just loose, open, unfocused conversation.

One thing he kept drilling into my head is that the business did not need anyone but ME. Everyone else was replaceable, even people I leaned on the most. I have gotten this advice before, but hearing it again from a different person does help drill it in. It also helps to give you confidence, and changes your behavior and how you look at your employees when you start to hold this type of mentality.

The other main piece of advice he gave me was that I need to start making more decisions. Which I have also heard before. I tend to run the company as a sort of democracy, in that I take into consideration everyones feedback and opinions. I am a very hands off manager, and let things fall into place. Bob’s advice on this was that I should get more involved, take the bull by the horns type of thing, and make things go my way.

Omar, my main man, was agreeing with everything he was saying. He wants me to take more charge and “be more involved”. With the two of them, I did feel very criticized the whole time, but I know he had good intentions.I also disagree with some things-for example, my office manager I give a ton of freedom and decision making power. She is good at it though- and she loves it. Why would I revoke her ability to give contributions, when they are such good contributions? I think that if I were to do that, we would not only lose the benefit of her great contributions, but also definitely decrease her job satisfaction to the point that she may leave us.

For these reaons, I think that my type of management does have some positive things as well that Bob’s business may lack. I will take his suggestions into serious consideration, but I will not completely change my management style.

Asking for help

Sometimes, it helps to get tips (free tips are even better!) when starting a lawn care business.

For that reason, we are members of PLANET, now called NALP, or National Association of Landscape Professionals which can be found here https://www.landscapeprofessionals.org/.

Through our roughly $340 annual membership, we get tons of free help, tips and advice. One major benefit is what they call a Trailblazer visit- or a free visit from a landscaping mentor. We have the option of either visiting their place of business (which we have done the past two years) or them coming to visit our place of business, which is what we opted for this year. We saw how a couple other landscape companies operated, so we want someone to come and see our business so they can see how our business operated and give us some free tips for landscaping business.

Tomorrow, our trailblazer is coming and this is what we have so far on our agenda:

Show org chart 2015

**Finances! We are reasonably efficient, admin underpaid, no benefits, cheap rent, virtual office- why no money??

This year, what happened?

  1. Aggressive growth
  2. Equipment neglected 2014; suffered consequences 2015
  3. Change in employee payroll system (switch to hourly)
  4. Not enough good employees- a lot of OT pay
  5. Charge rates too low/crews inefficient due to dead weight employees
  6. Waited too long to fire employees that never should have hired in first place

Recovery from 2015 plan:

  1. Sell GMC (minimum $10k)
  2. Get money from customers faster- prepay/deposits in spring

Discuss plan 2016:

  1. Marketing budget: minimize amount spent on outside marketing and hire inside marketing person instead. Focus on hiring good people, that is their primary job. Secondary job marketing for work.
  2. Finance Bobcat (mulch deliveries). Finance another truck.
  3. Shop- Either large portable office or a new shop but $$
  4. Same growth (25%) but focus on upselling to existing clients. A little more work but at higher prices.
  5. Health benefits for employees would be nice..
  6. Raise prices- should we raise mowing? (density!)

Admin time 8/29 to 9/4:

382 total hours

43.55 Omar (field)- may have worked couple days in field

31.72 Kim (office)

38.12 Shannon (office)

38.95 Justin (office/mechanic)

229.66 field hours

Admin:field = 152/(229+152)= 40% admin hours; 60% field hours

Andris- Driveway

Late policy

Mechanics- how come they can just charge us hourly, no service?

These are obviously just cliff notes, but you get the idea. We will add more to the agenda as it comes up.

What our plan is is to have him meet at our shop at 7am, then get breakfast with him. He will watch our crews head out for the day and give us tips on how can can improve this aspect of starting our landscaping business.

After this, we will review Quickbooks and some other numbers. He will come with us to visit some job sites and talk with the Office Manager. We will treat him to lunch. We expect it to be overwhelming- so need some good sleep and brain food for the time being!

Tips for Lawn Care Aerator’s Comparison

It is that time of the year to start aerating your lawn. Fall is better than the spring since the ground is warm but the nights are cool. This provides optimal conditions to core aerate your lawn.

Before you aerate, it is best to water the lawn or to perform the work after a lot of rain. This makes the soil easy to penetrate with the machinery.

After aerating your lawn, you will notice a healthier lawn. Water and nutrients are more easily able to get down to the roots of your grass as well if you provide fertilizer as well.

We have provided aerating to our customers for years to compliment their comprehensive lawn maintenance programs.

In terms of equipment for aerating lawns, we have used regular walk behind aerators with weights on the sides. These provide very good penetration but are very bulky and tiring to use.

From this machine, we moved on to a Plugr brand aerator. This machine rolls on wheels so is much more agile and less cumbersome to use. However the drawback of this machine is that it does not penetrate as well as it simply just is not heavy enough. It works by spinning tines in circles and “punching” holes into the ground. It also shakes quite a bit so easily breaks.

While at the landscaping expo down in Kentucky conducted by Planet, we discovered a machine called a Zrator. This Zrator is an add on to your existing lawn mower (which you probably already have if you are a landscaper and going to perform aerations). With this machine, you get the benefits of the weight of the machine being pushed down on the tines, as well as the speed and agility of a zero turn machine. So we have invested in this machine and will see how it goes on our properties this year. We have held onto the Plugr just so we have a machine that allows us to get into small gated back yards and smaller lawns.

The other advantage is that for most of our properties we will be overseeding at the same time. When we overseed lawns, when running our lawn care business, we will lower the deck of the mower so it basically scalps the existing lawn and the seed is able to get the best contact possible to the soil.