Communication is key

Build a strong customer service program by staying connected with clients.
customer communication

One of the attractive parts of irrigation and landscaping work is being able to just go out and get the job done. But, just simply having a job to do means finding customers and keeping them happy. A strong customer service program is an important part of growing your business, and it often comes down to connecting with customers.

“What I see as the most important thing, and what’s important to the majority of people, is communication,” says Tony Dilluvio, president of AquaTurf Irrigation Systems LLC, Elmsford, New York. “Trust comes over time, but communication is something that’s immediate.”

From the very first contact with customers, it’s important to establish that you’re available for communication, says Lona Boese, vice president of Marlo Company Lawn Sprinklers, Saginaw, Michigan.

“From the first phone call, we answer our phones,” she says. “If it does go to voicemail, it gets returned.” Marlo uses office staff to make sure that customers are always able to reach someone quickly because the beginning of a strong customer relationship is established in that initial phone call.

Client communication is based on trust and clarity, says Parke Kallenberg, founder and senior partner at Atlanta-based Advance Consulting Group. Often, when contractors do something well for a client, they just hope the client notices the good work.

“The rule of thumb is: ‘Communicate before, communicate during and communicate after,’” he says. Let the client know when the crew will show up for irrigation service and who will be on-site for the work. Then notify the client when the crew arrives and about the status of the work being done. Once the job is complete, check back in again to let the client know about any issues and set up the next visit.

“If you set expectations like that, they will trust you, and they have clarity on what’s happening,” Kallenberg says.

Developing a relationship with a client first means understanding each individual client’s needs and expectations. “Each customer is unique,” says Pam Stark, consultant at Bruce Wilson & Company, Scottsdale, Arizona. “In order to build the strongest relationship, you have to really be targeted in.” The account manager then must be able to communicate those needs to the team executing the work.

This is most important for the manager’s highest value clients, she says. For those, the manager will need the most detailed notes and have those updated and provided to the working crew. Keeping track of client needs could be as easy as developing a spreadsheet or entering notes into a customer database that can be accessed by the crew on the way to the next job.

Communication with clients needs to be relevant, impactful and credible, says Judy Guido, chairwoman of Guido & Associates, Moorpark, California. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is what I’m doing for this customer relevant to them? Will it make a positive impact?’” she says. Credibility is what makes the other two parts come together, showing yourself as an expert source in the industry.

Get talking

Managers need to be proactive about connecting with customers early and often, Stark says. Use a calendar tool to find the right time to reach out to customers about contracts or booking business. That could mean an email outlining the year’s upcoming programs or just a quick phone call to check in and make certain that work is being done effectively.

“Make sure you have a plan to communicate with every single one of your customers,” says Guido. You may not have time to call each customer, but have programs in place to reach them via email or newsletters.

“It’s got to be frequent and shorter,” she says. “You want small bites of communication, because there’s so much noise, and people have so much going on.”

Being proactive also means showing respect for the customer’s time, says Dilluvio. Know what level of data your customers are looking for in each interaction, whether that means a quick update before the job or a longer email later to check on a contract.

“If you’re not respectful of your client’s time, you won’t have that client for long,” he says.

In the days leading up to a scheduled job, Boese’s team reconnects with clients to remind them either by phone or email, she says. That also gives the customer the opportunity to reschedule if a conflict has come up. They also make it a point to let the customer know if payment is expected that day, so the customer is ready when the work is done.

With new clients, Dilluvio starts with a longer letter that includes as much information as he can share on rates and overall charges for parts and service. That can get ahead of many client questions later and shows that you’re being honest with customers from the start, he says.

Making more company information available at the start of a customer relationship helps take care of client concerns. Though having information in a website FAQ is helpful for clients, it might be useful to send it in an email to them so they don’t have to go looking for it, says Guido.

Effective communication is the top priority to developing any kind of positive relationship with a client, Stark says. Some clients respond well to a phone call, while others prefer a text with photos of the work done.

“You have to communicate in a method and style that works for the customer,” Stark says. Finding that method should be one of the earliest questions to be asked when onboarding a new client.

Those procedures need to be checked occasionally even with longtime customers, because “as we know, clients are never static,” Stark says.

With smartphones, crews have more options than ever to connect with customers to show a job well done, says Kallenberg. Crew leaders should take quick photos of the work on the job site and make notes about the details of the job. If the client appreciates texts with photos, send them along immediately. If they prefer emails, collect some of those updates into a short email about the finished work, thanking them for the business.

“Customers don’t expect perfection, but what they don’t want is a lack of knowledge,” Kallenberg says.

Measure success

There are two main indicators that Kallenberg checks to track customer service. First is customer retention, followed by the customer’s overall spend compared to the contract.

When you find trackable metrics, make sure they get mentioned in meetings or shared with other employees regularly to keep them in mind, Stark says. That could look like a once-per-month discussion or notes shared on trouble clients to get a group perspective on possible solutions.

The employee who “owns” the account, whether an account manager or service manager, should be the primary point of contact for the customer, says Stark. “I like to think of it as them owning a book of business. The customers in that book, they’re responsible for having a good, solid relationship with them,” she says. “They’re responsible not just for green grass, beautiful flowers and no weeds.”

Boese uses pay bonuses to encourage strong customer service both with her employees in the office and in the field. The bonuses come through trackable metrics, such as completing jobs on time and not forgetting tools at the work site. Those bonuses can be worth an extra 50 cents per hour depending on the employee’s rank. The office staff also receives bonuses based on service contract target numbers.

“It pays off for us,” she says. “Anybody can just go through the motions. We don’t want to step over opportunity.”

While one employee should handle the majority of the contact with a customer, some tiered communication is important as well, says Kallenberg. One of the manager’s superiors or someone within the company leadership should connect with clients briefly every six months or so just to check on the strength of that relationship and ask what could make things even better.

“Building those multiple levels of relationships will safeguard you so much,” Kallenberg says.

Customer service mindset

A strong customer service program has to start with the leader. “The leader has to 100% believe that the customer relationship drives the business. If the leadership doesn’t believe in it, it’s not going to work,” Stark says. The company’s core values should be built around or at least include expectations for developing relationships with customers, so that both the company and clients benefit.

Train crew leaders to use the drive time between jobs to remind the crew of the upcoming job’s requirements and who will be tackling which assignments, says Kallenberg. Make sure they talk about the job’s focus and any major concerns brought up since the last visit. That way, if a customer happens to talk to crew members in the field, everyone down to the person using an edger sounds knowledgeable about the project and knows who to take the customer to.

“They don’t have to know the answer,” Kallenberg says. “They just have to know how to respond. There’s a difference.”

Boese’s team has a spring training session to develop customer service skills, including prepared conversations and discussions on how to respond to different situations with customers, she says.

As the person who hands out the work orders, Dilluvio has daily contact with his team about how to approach each customer, he says. While he doesn’t track every single customer, he knows a lot of the nuances of the clients and talks to the crews about how to approach the job.

“It means daily, constant contact and training,” he says.

Communication in crisis

During a situation such as COVID-19, company leadership needs to be focused on customer communication, says Pam Stark, consultant at Bruce Wilson & Company, Scottsdale, Arizona. That communication needs to start with some empathy at the beginning, where the message is about how your company understands how difficult things have been for the customers and their businesses.

“Then allow them to vent a little bit, because they’ve got things on their mind,” Stark says.

Make sure the customer knows that you’re focused more on how COVID-19 has affected them, as compared to talking about how tough things have been for your business, says Parke Kallenburg, founder and senior partner at Advance Consulting Group, Atlanta, Georgia.

“All you have to do is agree with them and then say, ‘How can I help?’” he says.

Don’t be reluctant to use available technology to get through the pandemic, says Tony Dilluvio, president of AquaTurf Irrigation Systems LLC, Elmsford, New York. Establish customer capability with email and phone communication, and be proactive about sharing safety measures being taken by your crew while on the job. Make sure the crew knows before arriving about the customer’s comfort level for interaction, and stick to it.

In the call prior to the job, the team talks to the customer about what parts of the property they’ll need access to, and what they’re doing to sanitize spaces they’re interacting with, says Lona Boese, vice president of Marlo Company Lawn Sprinklers, Saginaw, Michigan.

“That way, there’s no surprise to the client when they’re getting there,” Boese says. “We just want them to know we’re on top of things.”

Especially in a difficult situation, it’s better to overcommunicate, Stark says. Make sure the customer understands that your company is there for the customer. “It’s got to be personal and touching base with them,” she says.

This article originally appeared in Irrigation & Green Industry magazine.
Kyle Brown is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at kylebrown@irrigation.org.

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