A successful company is all about going that extra step with a customer, and Randy Owen realized that right from the beginning. In fact, he started his own tree service company because he saw the job requests that could not be taken on by the company he was working for at the time.

The company, which works in five counties in southern Michigan out of headquarters in Attica, began as a part-time job for Owen. He worked for a utility line maintenance company, and customers kept asking the crews to do other types of tree work. He started by taking on those jobs in his spare time. That was in 1985. By 1989, he had started RJ Owen Tree Service, later shortening the name, but expanding the services. It now boasts three corporations reflecting the different jobs they offer to their clients.

One of those jobs is general landscaping and maintenance, including turf. Owen listens to his clients and takes on those little jobs they need done, even if it is fertilizing a lawn.

“It’s just evolved from that. If a customer requests a service, and we can do it, we do that,” Owen says. He doesn’t do landscape construction, and still refers most of the general landscaping jobs to other companies, but if a client needs some mulch or turfgrass fertilizer and the company has a crew on the spot, they will provide it so the client doesn’t have to bring another company in.

Tree care is still the core business for this company, which specializes in high-end residential and commercial jobs. There are several ISA-certified arborists on the sales staff, including consulting arborists, and the company does everything from tree removal to disease diagnosis and treatment. Chemical management, from insect treatments to soil conditioning, has become a big part of the business and makes up its own division. The company also now offers perimeter pest control.

For Owen, customer service starts in the field. “Customer service is based on how the plants will function, and that will radiate out through the whole company. That’s a big thing for our company, that people believe in our company and that we will do the job right.” Owen says his goal is to set customer expectations on the correct course right from the beginning, and that starts with his advertised company guarantees, items he informally calls his “golden rules.”

Workers, foremen and salesmen are all trained to promote good customer relations, and that has saved Owen Tree Service from some of the ill effects of the recession. Photo: Owen Tree Service

They are in the form of a list of guarantees, which begins with, “All employees will be in uniform and professionally trained to perform his or her assigned tasks on your property. Our entire staff will treat you with respect.” It ends with, “You will be completely satisfied with all aspects of the work we do for you.” In between are several specific promises, and Owen and his employees take them seriously.

Owen devised the golden rules based on years of experience with people in this area, and what local tree care customers expect. Owen Tree salespeople are trained to speak respectfully, not block the driveway, let the customer know when he arrives on-site and have a final explanatory walkthrough when the job is completed.

The second part of setting expectations is in the early dealings with customers and potential customers. The first rule is to listen carefully to them and be honest about how the company can comply with their wishes. Never promise something that can’t be carried out. Realistic expectations set at this stage will carry the tone for the entire project, and beyond, because a happy customer will keep coming back.

The sales staff is also taught to carefully analyze client requests, says Tom Morgan, sales manager. “Sometimes what they need done isn’t what they want done.” He cites tar spot as a common example. This fungal disease looks bad, and the company gets requests to treat for it, but it is not a major health threat to the tree. It builds goodwill to tell the customer the truth and save them some money.

Morgan says it is important for salesmen to put all of the details of the project in writing in the estimate. A lot of misunderstandings can be averted by good communications up front and a detailed contract. He makes sure the wording is exact. For example, a client may get the idea that the company will remove all preexisting waste from a site in addition to the tree trimmings, and it is important to avoid a conflict by saying that “waste from removals” is all that will be hauled away.

Field workers are also indoctrinated with the mantra of customer satisfaction. There are weekly tailgate safety meetings, where company philosophy and problem issues are often the topics of discussion. Safety in itself is a part of customer service, Owen believes, because apart from the issue of employee health, a client who witnesses an accident in his yard is a stressed and inconvenienced client.

Morgan points out that training employees is ongoing and can consist of studying videos or text, as well as foremen or managers giving hands-on tutorials. Foremen are also taught to work with clients and given latitude in the field to undertake small jobs, sometimes at no cost, if the customer has a “reasonable” request. If it will cost extra, the foreman will come to an agreement with the client, or call in a salesman on more complicated extras.

“If you can accommodate the client, accommodate the client,” Morgan says. Foremen are an important part of the customer/company relationship, because they are the face of the company.

Another customer service issue in Michigan is language. Clients expect landscape workers to speak English, and Owen promises that to them. Since many of his workers are Spanish speakers, he has hired English instructors to come to the office and teach classes on the subject. Now, one of his receptionists is a Spanish speaker who helps train field workers. The company has receptionists, as well as a 24-hour live answering service, which will contact the appropriate employee in an emergency; The company is also installing a voice over IP system this year, which will allow customers to contact employees in different ways, including forwarding to their cell phones.

The final walkthrough after a completed job is an important step in customer relations, Owen says. That is usually done by the foreman on the project, but the company also has a follow-up customer survey, conducted either by phone or a personal visit by a salesman. It may also consist of a salesman going out in the fall after a busy summer and talking to customers in his region to make sure they are satisfied.

“There is a cost to customer service,” Owen says regarding the effort his company puts in to make sure customers are satisfied. He points out that the expansion of Owen Tree services over the last few years has been in response to customer requests. Some of these services grew naturally, for example, six years ago the company began mulching its own tree waste, and it was easy to segue into providing bedding mulch for clients who requested it. Some work, such as turfgrass maintenance, wasn’t as easy and required extra training for the company’s sales and field employees.

Owen says that these moves by his company, and the “continuous” attention to customer service, show results in an economic downturn in a state like Michigan. The unemployment rate in his service area has been around 18 percent, and although Owen Tree business has dropped off, the company is still healthy; much of that comes from retaining long-term clients.

Owen Tree also belongs to a lot of tree associations and accreditation organizations, listing them prominently on its Web site. Apart from the practical implications for company quality control, Owen says his clientele is informed and impressed by such associations.

“I always thought that if we were going for the high road, we should market that to our customers,” Owen says. The end result is obvious: A company that pays attention to its customers can keep them and thrive over the long haul.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2010 and has been updated.