BTSB: Paul Stringer of DHM Landscaping

Below are some excerpts from our conversation with Paul Stringer, owner of DHM Landscaping, a commercial maintenance landscaping company in Phoenix, Arizona.  Paul purchased DHM almost three years ago with the idea of putting his tech and marketing experience to work in a company of his own.  His focus on delighting the customer with technology and service far above what is considered normal in the industry has propelled DHM to grow upwards of 45% per year.  Paul admits those rates are unsustainable longer term but remains committed to investing in his team and in technology to stay ahead of the competition.

You can listen to the full episode by clicking the audio image below, on our website, or on iTunes (more podcast players coming soon!).  Know someone who would be great on the Big Time Small Business podcast?  E-mail in at podcast@chenmarkcapital.com.

The tyranny of the urgent

The intuition that providing better service would drastically improve any firm in the industry out here proved correct.  We were able to successfully implement a customer service plan and strategy that I can credit for the majority of the growth and the retention that DHM has experienced.  That has been very rewarding, however the way that its come to fruition was different than what the initial strategy was.  My background prior to this was marketing technology, so it was a lot of data driven, automated customer management systems.

I was thinking that I could come in and instantly infuse this company with a turnkey solution that would drive retention, revenue per customer, and also retention of our labor force.  We did make relatively significant investments up front and quickly learned that the adoption rate of the industry [was slow].  I had referenced landscaping as a mature industry [but] really it’s more than mature; it’s a little bit archaic.  As such, it just operates in a way that is far less technology reliant.

Even our customer base, property managers across the board, were somewhat resistant to building the muscle memory to interact with what would ultimately simplify their lives–our reporting relationships, the level of certainty they have in their budgets and forecasting, everything.

So we had to take this relatively sizable investment and put it on the back burner because the other strategy was to create automation throughout the workforce.  [But it’s hard] when folks aren’t showing up to work or you have high levels of turnover.  I definitely knew about [that] but didn’t really anticipate it would be as disruptive as it was to the day to day.

Talk about the tyranny of the urgent and urgency over importance.  We really had to put out fires for a couple of years–nothing that was going to threaten the very existence of the firm, but rather how are we going to sell this absolutely ideal landscaping experience if we can’t get our guys to show up on time or show up and let us know?

When dream meets reality, focus on what matters most

Yeah, initially we wanted to throw everything into the central control system and just hang everything off of it.  Which means we [would have] a central stack essentially that would hold all of our data for all of our customers and it integrates budgets, quality reports as well as service calls.  It would send notifications through a customized dashboard that lives on the laptop or desktop of several of our customers throughout the valley.  That would notify them of approvals that needed to be made–at the touch of a button they would be able to approve work orders.

It would also allow folks from the field to send photos as proof of performance in real time to customers.  It also had everything operationally where I believe that the lack of trust in the industry exists.  How do I know you’re actually doing your job? It would really fill that gap.  At the same time, an extensive budget management system on the back end that allowed us to do job costing and run extensive reports.

Now all of this was too much of an undertaking although the vision was laid out and many hours were put against it.  So we chose what we thought would have the highest impact and we implemented off the shelf solutions for those.  We worked with a company to customize a field reporting app that allowed our managers to conduct inspection reports on a regular basis and they would automatically be sent to a series of folks to inspect, and then off to customers.  That created a significant amount of customer satisfaction.

Time and again we heard, “We never see anything like this. If I pay $250 to change out a valve, I never know if it’s done because I don’t get any pictures to prove it.” Something as simple as that we decided to solve, and we did successfully.

The Devil you know versus the Devil you don’t

For us it has come down to investing in quality people.  What we’ve done is we’ve created this culture of accountability.  And we’ve learned as management that if you don’t truly subscribe to it and commit yourself to it, then it won’t be believed and followed by everyone else in the firm.   That means if you find someone who doesn’t live up to certain standards that are set, then they’re asked to leave the company.

It’s very scary because you don’t know [if it will work].  It’s the devil you know versus the devil you don’t, and we’ve time and again had to believe that the devil we don’t know would be better because we are committed to the standard.  We’ve had to, unfortunately, move away from a lot of folks due to that, but it has resulted in a much higher quality team today.

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark  Team

Subscribe to Weekly Thoughts