In the landscape industry, it’s natural for things to slow down in the winter as clients think less about their outdoor spaces and bad weather in some areas of the country presents challenges. However, keeping your design pipeline full over the winter season is still possible.
While it was more of a struggle to keep their designers busy in the past, more design-build companies are saying that hasn’t been the case as of late.
Bob Hursthouse, president of Hursthouse Landscape Architects, based in Bolingbrook, Illinois, says previously phone calls would slow dramatically in the fall and wouldn’t pick back up until the late winter, but they’ve had a solid backlog of design work since the pandemic. He says they’ve already sold about 50 percent of their production work for next year.
“While the pandemic has helped in filling a Q1 backlog, we’ve also trained for years on the importance of selling strong in Q4 to create a solid Q1 the following year,” says Corey Verch, division manager – residential construction for Dennis’ 7 Dees Landscaping & Garden Centers, based in Portland, Oregon. “There are obvious benefits to selling Q1 installations…tear up the yard when you’re not using it so it’s ready to go when you do, plants are dormant and don’t need water and root in more solidly when spring hits, materials are typically more available, etc… Nothing worse than playing catch-up on sales when you haven’t optimized Q1 first.”
Miles Kuperus, Jr., LIC, owner of Farmside Landscape & Design in Sussex, New Jersey, adds this is the prime time to sit down and have meaningful conversations with customers as you can pick and choose your work versus chasing leads in the spring.
If you are still having issues with filling out your backlog for next year, consider some of these shared strategies.
Engage Existing Customers and Former Leads
Hursthouse says they go back through all the design work they did not close as a construction project over the past two years to check with the client to see why they didn’t accept the proposal and see if they are ready to move forward. He says they are currently converting a low percentage of these, but they still help. He also encourages reaching out to repeat customers and strengthening the connection over the winter.
“I would say staying connected with current customers for seasonal upsells in winter is an important relationship to maintain,” Verch agrees. “Also, establish relationships with custom home builders, architects and high-end real estate agents. Chances are one or all of them always have something going on.”
Kuperus suggests contacting your maintenance customers and doing a free site analysis to show you are an active advocate for their property.
“It’s all about being proactive, and staying with the customer and making sure that line’s full,” Kuperus says.
Similarly, Hursthouse says in the busy season, their designers conduct a walkthrough with all of their maintenance clients so they can create some different enhancement suggestions.
“When we did struggle through winter, we would often rebate part or all of our design fees off the total project cost if they’d go to contract,” Verch says. “This was a limited window offer and a discretionary call by each designer, which has been a successful tactic for us in the past.”
Another method to stay in contact with current clients is sending out company Christmas cards or an end-of-the-year newsletter. Kuperus says in their newsletter, they recap what they’ve accomplished in the year and also remind clients it’s a good time to plan in the winter months.
Julie Patronik, director of marketing and public relations for McHale Landscape Design, Inc., based in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, advises targeting the communities you already work in and asking clients to spread the word about your firm. Kuperus agrees word of mouth is strong as they have excited customers telling their neighbors about Farmside’s work.
“Customers are excited about the project that we’ve done,” Kuperus says. “It’s changed their lifestyle and the way they enjoy their property.”
Stay Top of Mind with Marketing
Showing off noteworthy projects on social media is one way to get customers thinking about their spring plans. Hursthouse and Kuperus do this to stay top of mind year-round. Patronik says their marketing is consistent throughout the year.
“Consistent visibility and consistency of the marketing plan creates a solid and proven reputation,” Patronik says. “Our marketing budget is usually 1 percent of revenue regardless of economic conditions.”
Verch says they control their marketing message so they don’t mislead customers.
“It’s not a good look to market for services in a time period where you’ve already established a full backlog,” Verch says. “We’re sure to let them know where we stand in all our messaging and set clear expectations for when they can expect to have us on site.”
While you are aware of how early clients need to be booking your services in order to snag those prime spring slots, not every homeowner is cognizant of how significant a landscape company’s backlog can become. Hursthouse says the insightful clients often know they need to call sooner rather than later if they want an early spring installation. However, they still take the time to communicate this to their customer base.
“Our message to clients this year has been if you want a spring project, we need to be under contract by January 1 and maybe sooner and that we’re rolling over significant work to next year,” Hursthouse says.
Kuperus says they also solicit their customers with a friendly reminder.
“We’ll send out a letter to our client base,” Kuperus says. “If you’re thinking about a spring project know that by the time March hits, we’ll be booked out to July/August. So, in order for you to have us on the schedule, make sure you contact us now so we can get a design and get you a contract so you don’t miss that opportunity.”
Verch says they have a four-month backlog with 17 crews of three to five crews, while Patronik says they usually have a six-month backlog.
“We appreciate clients that plan ahead for early spring installs, but many clients get the urge to call once spring is full-blown and still are hoping for completion for an upcoming wedding, graduation, or Memorial Day party,” she says. “We are lucky to be large enough to accommodate most requests.”
Take Advantage of the Slower Months
While, in most cases, designers spend the same amount of time working on projects in the winter as they would any other time of the year, winter can be a useful time to work on master plans or more detailed projects. Patronik says it tends to be more convenient and enjoyable thanks to schedule flexibility.
“We have big designs that we’ll spend quite a bit of time on finishing up and getting ready for spring projects,” Kuperus says.
Hursthouse notes that they try to be consultative in their relationships with their clients and it’s okay at times for the design load to be lighter in the winter.
“Instead of chasing these three or four leads and trying to design for them, engaging a client that isn’t really desiring to engage, you’re rarely going to win that,” Hursthouse says. “Is there a better use of that designer’s time? Can they go walk in a nursery that they have not been to before? Can you go research some new construction material and methodology? Can you go visit an old classmate of yours who works in a different marketplace and see what that company is doing? Can you leverage relationships to be more prepared when the phone does ring again?”