In the November/December 2010 issue of Pond Trade Magazine, we wrote an article titled, “Starting a Business in a Down Economy.” Columbia Water Gardens first hit the market in 2007 as an Internet reseller/drop shipper. Since then we have slowly but deliberately grown our retail presence and one of our big secrets is about to be shared here. Before I really dive into this, I want to state the obvious. The pond business is a service business. Think about it. How many of your customers need just a little push in the right direction, or some massive overhaul of a bad design gone worse? How many of them are so knowledgeable that it would frighten a Ph.D.? The bottom line is that from either end of the spectrum, our customers call us because they need help. To that end, customer service must be and cannot deviate from being the benchmark of your success.
When I opened our retail location, I actually solicited house calls after hours. I wanted to be in front of as many of my customers’ ponds as possible and help as many as I had the energy to do so. What’s even more interesting is that I did it for free. One of the fastest lessons I learned is that customers would gladly pay for those visits and the light bulb went off. I realized my time was actually valuable. What’s even more interesting is that my customers led me to realize that there’s actually a market for performing pond maintenance and making service calls. In my market area, there are some of the most amazing and talented pond builders in this industry. Some of them are nothing less than booked solid. It’s not uncommon to have the phone ring and it’s a new pond owner that can’t get a hold of their contractor and they are having problems that appear to have no solution. They know nothing of this thing called the “nitrogen cycle,” don’t understand what this new pond startup process should look like, and are more or less lost. That’s where we come in.
Last year we began a maintenance route. Today, we have a substantial list of customers that either have used our services or continue to do so on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Here’s why:
A maintenance route keeps your business’s name in front of your customers weekly. You will have a customer that is loyal, attentive, and for the most part, captive. They also build neighborhood interest in the simple fact that there is a water feature at the neighbor’s house further advertising your business.
Here’s a few do’s and don’ts.
1. Put your best face forward. The person you choose to be on the maintenance route is a direct reflection of your business. This person should be professional, courteous, and have a very strong attention to detail.
2. Train you customers. Get them involved and interact with them. Teach them as much as you can, train them as best as possible, and empower them to do every part of the job. Trust me, they will try to do what you do a few times and gain a better appreciation for your services, and help you maintain the pond or water feature – and that’s a home run.
3. Be accountable. Maintain your appointment times. Keep records of water testing, give copies to your customers weekly, and keep a copy in your customer file.
4. Take your time while you’re there and do a good job. We have gotten our most loyal customers from other pond professionals that were in and out too fast and the customer lost the value in what they were doing.
1. Don’t assume anything. Communicate with your pond owner and see that you are meeting their expectations. If you happen to go there on a day when they’re not home, follow up with a phone call to answer any questions they might have had.
2. Don’t give freebies. This is a business, and if you get in the habit of giving away too much too often, your customers may take advantage of that and be offended when you charge them. If you must give them a freebie, invoice them for the full price and on the next line of the invoice show the discount.
3. Don’t hide your mistakes. If you break something, fix it. If you have to come back, then be back right away. We picked up a very loyal customer because their pond professional broke the auto fill valve while cleaning the skimmer. The installer didn’t install a ball valve to shut off the water at the skimmer so he just let it run. Needless to say we came in, fixed the auto fill valve, added a shut-off, and have had this client for over a year now.
If you are thinking of adding a maintenance route to your retail store, here are a few ideas to get started.
• Make friends with your local department of real estate. Lots of realtors, lots of homes, lots of connections.
• Solicit your counter customers and have a before and after proof book right there on the front counter.
• Solicit the neighbors. When we do a cleanout, we have a postcard that apologizes for the mess that we mail out the day after we service the pond.
• Drive by’s. If we see a pond in the front yard, we write the address down and mail them a post card advertizing our services.
• Referral program. If we have a customer refer us a new customer for the route, we comp them for that month.
• Online marketing via Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler, etc. We Facebook – a lot. We ask our customers to tell their friends out of courtesy and we do get business from that.
• Cleanouts. When we do a cleanout, we get the customer on the route, fast. Whatever it takes, we want to capture that customer.
It’s the little things that make you big. It’s the attention to detail, the mark of excellence and professionalism, and the attentiveness that rewards your business with loyalty leading to growth beyond expectation. Like I started, this is a service business. We take care of people. We are extended stewards of people’s landscapes, their pets, and their lifestyles.
Our service route has been a massive part of our growth. It puts our business in front of our customers, and we embrace it. If you are new to retail, never forget that we are called on to be the experts of our field. Customers expect us to know more than they do, and sometimes that can be a real challenge. Be the face that your customers expect, and exceed their expectations. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, and in some cases if you work hard enough, richly rewarded. Have a great pond season, and make it happen!