Tools of the water trade
Chase Coates focused on sprinkler service to separate his company from the competition.
Like so many other landscape businesses, Chase Coates started his when he was in high school. His father was in the industry and it was something Coates grew up around so it was a natural fit. As Outback Landscape evolved from a mowing business into a full-service operation, Coates began to delve into the irrigation field. Learning on the job, he has turned that portion of his business into a successful division and separated himself from the competition.
“Everyone in this area has sprinklers so it’s a big industry here,” Coates says of his Rexburg, Idaho-based business. “It also lends itself to a lot of service work from sprinkler blowouts and turnoffs in the winter to getting the system up and running again in the spring. We really got into working with sprinkler systems because of the demand – we were being asked to do that work a lot – and it grew from there. I’ve learned a lot about how to run that portion of my business over the years.”
One of the key things that Coates says he’s learned is efficiency. He says they used to spend days working on a system but have focused on getting the timeframe down to a single day – or two if need be. “The difference between spending days working on it or taking care of it in a day was being organized, having a plan, and having all the parts there when you need them,” Coates says.
“If you’re running back and forth to pick up parts, a one-day job can take three days. So we’ve really drilled down on that and won’t tackle a job until we have everything we need.”
In order to promote efficiency, one thing Coates has stopped doing is having parts sent directly to the site.
Everything comes to the shop and a job doesn’t get started until it’s fully ready to go. “We do all of our staging at the shop,” Coates says. “The guys are no longer involved with supply and inventory because we get it all staged at the shop before they go out to the site. This effort has had a tremendous impact on our efficiency. These days we can usually do a residential system for a half to three-quarters-of-an-acre in a day.”
The uneducated customer. With a primary focus on residential work (about 25 percent of their business is commercial), Coates says the biggest challenge for his company is helping the residential customer to understand what they’re paying for. They understand why they need a sprinkler system but they likely don’t really understand water conservation and efficiency and the value of having a system that doesn’t waste water or require it to run longer than necessary.
“It’s just an area that’s difficult to educate the consumer on,” Coates says. “When they buy a house and pick out their materials, they see exactly what they’re getting. But when it comes to things like drainage and irrigation, they don’t really see what goes into it and therefore don’t understand the costs associated with it. We’re always striving to find better ways to educate the customer on what they’re getting and exactly what their sprinkler system does.”
One of the ways Coates does that is to try and get “in front” of the customer whenever possible. He prefers to do a live sales presentation and get some one-on-one talking time with the client. But he admits that can be hard in today’s rushed society. “We find that everything has shifted to E-mail these days and we get a lot of customers that say ‘just e-mail me the estimate and I’ll get back to you.’ They essentially try to skip over that education phase,” Coates says.
“So if we can’t get in front of the customer, we put together a packet of information rather than just send them the estimate that way they can see what they’re getting. But we feel we’re definitely best at sales when we can actually talk with our customers.”
Coates says he definitely avoids mailing bids or sending them blindly. “With a presentation we can actually show the customer how using 2,500 gallons of water every time they water their lawn doesn’t make sense when they can do it with 600,” he says. “We want to give them some substance behind what they’re buying. Not just a number that has no greater meaning to them.”
Bundling as a package. In trying to stand out from the competition and also keep clients on a regular service plan, Coates has put a major emphasis on grouping services together. He says that it’s not uncommon to find a homeowner uses one company to do the sprinkler system blowout, another company to get the system up and running for the new season, and possibly even a third company for repairs, and then uses the kid down the street to do the mowing. “At least in this area, we found that there wasn’t always a lot of consistency with homeowners using one company to do it all,” Coates says.
“So we’ve had a big push to change that. With our residential customers, we’ve rolled all of the services we take care of – sprinkler turn-ons and shut-offs, sprinkler maintenance, mowing, and even snow removal – into one big seasonal contract and we split the payments up monthly. So it becomes like a cable bill that you get used to paying every month. We also try to get as many of our customers on auto-pay as we can and right now about half of them are signed up for that.”
One of the things that bundling does is take price out of being at the forefront of the conversation. Coates says that has really improved client relationships. “The first question they ask isn’t always about price,” he says. “The conversation with customers becomes more focused on ‘what needs to get done’ and not ‘what’s it going to cost?’ They know they have the monthly fee and if there’s something that needs to be done beyond that, it just gets tacked on.”
The other important thing it does is give the company more control over the property. For one, the workers are on the property more often and therefore more likely to notice problems. “And since it’s always us coming to the property – and not split up between a bunch of different companies – there’s more consistency,” Coates adds.
“We have the same people coming out to the property all the time so they’re more familiar with it and definitely may notice problems that could’ve otherwise gone undetected. And problems get taken care of faster because we’re already there so we just take care of it quickly. I think customers get more out of their money by having everything packaged together and they appreciate that.”
As Outback has grown over the years and added services, Coates says it’s been important to ensure that they’re becoming specialized in each of their offerings and not just being a one-stop-shop that “does it all” but doesn’t excel. “Anyone can say they ‘do it all,’” Coates says.
“That’s what a ‘handy-man’ does. But we didn’t want to just be a ‘handy-man’ the rest of our lives. We wanted to actually specialize in these services. So we have different employees that do different services. Our focus is on being professional and specialized in every service we offer. With all of the business decisions we make our emphasis is on showing the customer a specialized and professional business that can manage a completely property.”