March 2, 2020

Simplify your landscape business

Mark Bradley With spring just around the corner, it’s time for most contractors I know to finally make New Year’s resolutions, to make you better, bigger, faster or cheaper — whatever your goals may be.  
But most contractors take on more than they can handle. The year starts with a grand plan for fixing all kinds of problems. Then suddenly, you find yourself in mid-May and everything’s gone back to what you did last year — and some things might even be a bit worse.
So this year, I’m advising you to make changes and improvements, but to focus on simplifying your business. Take a careful examination of what causes the chaos, and systematically eliminate it through better processes. 
Reduce options
When you are growing your landscape business and hungry to add clients, you can develop some habits that really stunt your future growth; one is offering too many options.  
There are almost an infinite number of ways you can structure a maintenance or snow contract.  While you have grown your business, you likely come across customers who want things in all kinds of different ways. They might want to be invoiced by month, or by occurrence. There could be requests for specific invoice dates, for specific additional services, and even for specific occurrences of those additional services.  
As you grow the business, the result is potentially hundreds of different-style contracts — each requiring careful attention when it comes to execution and billing. 
  • Sales and estimating take longer to negotiate the options.
  • Operations has to carefully ensure each property gets all of (and yet only!) the services paid for.
  • Foreman have to ensure they perform all of (and only!) the correct services on each site.
  • Each different property and service must be accurately tracked to provide each customer with the information necessary to substantiate your invoices.
  • Accounting must ensure each contract is billed correctly.
Using a simple example of a contract that includes only basic services like mowing, edging, fertilizing, beds and cleanups — you can come up with over 12,000 realistic, but unique, variations!
As you continue to add jobs with new and custom structures, it takes more time to manage them. And every job carries a greater risk of mistake. You need more overhead time, and eventually staff, to manage planning and tracking; you are far more likely to perform work where you shouldn’t; and you are likely to miss invoicing for work that was completed.
Additionally, your customers make budget-driven decisions that reduce overall quality, resulting in both a frustrated customer and a frustrated contractor.

One of the easiest ways to avoid this scenario is to define the contracts that work for your company and stick with them.  
  • Clearly define a few of the most popular contract structures.
  • Ensure there is a good mix of budget and quality in the options you define.
  • Sell those limited options.
Operations, billing, quality control, profitability, and customer satisfaction all get much simpler when there are fewer options to plan, manage, and execute.
Automate data entry
One of the simplest ways to simplify your business this year is to just simplify the way information flows from the field to the office. Good communication is essential to a well-run landscape company. Someone needs to sell the job — and make commitments to the client. Someone needs to plan and manage the work. Someone needs to perform the work, and then someone needs to manage what was performed and be able to track and invoice it accurately.
In all but the smallest companies, these roles are taken on by different people — and communication is vital to ensuring success. However, communication is also time-consuming, and it is one of the first things to fall off when things get busy.
Automating communication and tracking will save hundreds of hours each year.  Of course, the kind of business you run has a big influence on the time it takes to enter information — maintenance will have far more clients, and far more services to track vs. an installation company. But either way, the time savings are enormous. Using software and apps to manage daily tasks like timesheets (payroll), service tracking, invoicing, scheduling and more, you can eliminate all kinds of headache-inducing paperwork each week.
Take a minute to examine the chart; think of how many hours per week are spent just sorting through data manually versus using technology.
Entering and updating schedules 5 1
Entering hours for payroll 3 0.5
Entering hours for job costing 6 6
Fixing mistakes and omissions 2 0.5
Invoicing 3 1
Entering information into accounting 8 1
Generating reports for customers or operations 4 0.25
Generating reports for owners and decision makers 4 0.25
Total time spent 35 4.5
Manually, you are looking at a full-time job just managing information. But with technology, you could condense that time into just a small portion of someone’s week. And because technology validates the data as you enter it (e.g. you can’t submit your time without a.m. or p.m., or you can’t leave an important field blank), the information is far more accurate. 
The only companies that don’t benefit from automating their data are those who aren’t tracking it.  If you are not job costing, or you don’t have the reports to help the owner make better decisions, I guarantee you are losing far more time in mistakes, re-work, missed billing, payroll errors and more.  
Focus on the 20 per cent
A really common rule in life is called Pareto’s Rule, stating that 80 per cent of the effects of something come from 20 per cent of the causes. It is better communicated with a few examples:
  • 80 per cent of your breakdowns come from 20 per cent of your equipment.
  • 80 per cent of your losses come from 20 per cent of your jobs.
  • 80 per cent of your time is spent managing (and fixing) 20 per cent of your staff.
… and so on. Instead of looking at all the fixes you could be making in your business each year (and sure, they’re endless), just laser-tune your focus to the few big items that are causing most of the chaos.  
The paperwork example above is a brilliant example of Pareto’s Principle in action.  You can run around like crazy trying to solve each problem individually, such as time (payroll) theft, daily logs being handed in on time, payroll accuracy, job costing reports, invoice accuracy, customer communication, quality control, scheduling … etc., etc.
Or, you can use a service and time tracking application that will solve most problems in one elegant solution.

Or maybe you constantly fight battles of unprepared jobs, crews showing up and not knowing what they’re doing, jobs taking too long, schedules getting constantly messed up, crews waiting on materials … etc. You could tackle each problem individually — or you can step back and realize that each one could be solved with a clear and complete estimate.  
Estimates that clearly spell out hours, materials, equipment, notes and more are invaluable tools for managing the job once it is sold. Good estimates take a bit more time to put together, but they save hundreds hours (and mistakes!) per year — resulting in extra revenue by completing more projects and contracts in the same amount of time.

Mark Bradley is CEO of Ontario-based LMN and the former CEO of TBG Environmental.