We’ve all been hearing a lot about branding lately. I suppose this is the latest thing on Madison Avenue, or at least in the advertising world. Really, it’s all about association. What is associated with your company? Hopefully, it’s something that you’d like to overhear at a dinner party.

One way to answer the question in the title of this article is: When your customers hear your company name, do they think of pest control? If your recent efforts on their behalf have been guided by how much Talstar you can extract from your tank and apply to their trees rather than keeping their trees healthy, the answer is “yes.” Another way is to ask yourself which response you would prefer; something like: “Oh, my tree service? Yeah, they spray my trees” or “Oh, my tree service? Yeah, they take care of my trees? This is an important difference.

Is it pest control, tree care or a little of both?

Bagworm

Bagworm Photo: James A. Kalisch

PHC

The concept is to create the healthiest growing environment for the trees you care for as possible. Largely, it’s about replicating what Mother Nature provides for trees not planted by man. It involves a multitude of factors. This approach is called plant health care (PHC).

One core tenet of PHC is the realization that trees make their own food from elements in the soil. As such, fertilizer products are not “tree food,” rather they are materials that can be applied to replace essential minerals that are lacking and are preventing the tree from properly photosynthesizing and respiring, resulting in the production of real tree food: basic carbohydrates and sugars.

IPM

Integrated pest management (IPM) is an even older term. The idea came out of failure, really. An insecticide was sprayed on a cotton field to kill the cotton boll weevil, which eats the fibers that are later processed into cotton. It worked pretty well the first few times. Of course, as in any population, there are one or two oddball critters, and it’s one of these that started the downfall of spray and be happy. How did that happen? Well, it turns out that the oddball — the one in a thousand — didn’t die from the spray. In fact, the insecticide application didn’t seem to have much effect at all. This result would have been acceptable, because really, how much can one boll weevil eat anyway – except for the fact that it mated with other boll weevils and passed on the trait of resistance to its offspring, oddball junior. Junior mated the next year and produced more boll weevils that could resist the spray. Now the farmer had a big problem on his hands. Out of necessity, IPM was born to deal with the issue of resistance.

Classic tree defects to note in an inspection include cracks, decay, root plate injury, girdling roots, leaning and codominant leaders. Photo: John Fech

Theory versus reality

OK, enough theory. Your company provides tree services and needs to produce profit. You can’t sell someone a platter of PHC or IPM and call it good. The key is to figure out a way to deliver what the customer wants and what the trees need, and then implement a strategy to accomplish each of these goals.

What the customer wants

What does the customer want? Think about it; you’re a customer too. You want and need many other services and products in life — trucks, truck parts, kitchen flooring, windows, office supplies, groceries, tickets to sporting events and so on. Start by thinking about what you want as a customer.

Fast response time. How fast is fast? This is somewhat market driven in that if your competitors routinely can respond the same day or the next day and it takes you three or four, this tends to discourage the customer from hiring your company. At the heart of this issue is the true meaning of the term “rightsizing.” Your company needs enough technicians to be able to respond to customer demand and your marketing goals without racking up excessive labor costs.

Knowledgeable customer service representatives. Sure, much of the time you can grab what you need off the shelf at a box store, but what if you need a specialized part? My neighborhood hardware store helped me out with this sort of thing just last week. I only ended up spending $4.83 on nuts and bolts, but the knowledgeable clerk didn’t seem to care; he was focused on meeting my needs regardless of the purchase price. As a result, I’m a happy customer and am more likely to go back in the future. Having to check with a supervisor if the technician doesn’t know the answer is not a heavy-duty problem, in fact, it’s admirable as opposed to making up an answer to appease the customer. On the other hand, if the technician doesn’t know the answer to any or most of the customers’ questions, then a real problem exists. These technicians simply need to learn more about arboriculture. Abundant opportunities are available. In fact, touting the fact that all of your company’s technicians are ISA certified arborists can be a real marketing advantage.

Sawflies

Sawflies Photo: James A. Kalisch

Someone to listen to them. The sweetest sound that the customer will hear is the sound of their own name in conjunction with a restatement of their concern and a ready solution to their problem. It goes like this: “Yes, Mrs. Jones, I hear what you’re saying. You’re worried about your maple tree because the leaves are brown. Our technicians are specially trained to determine the difference between minor issues and significant threats to tree health. Can I schedule an inspection with you?”

Quality workmanship. The job done right on time. callbacks to fix problems that were caused by poor pruning cuts, applicator errors or inattention to proper timing not only cost your company money, they also tend to anger the customer. From the customer’s standpoint, not only did the mere fact of the need for your callback reinforce in their minds that you messed up the first time, they may have had to take time off from work to be home to let your technicians in the backyard, or at the very least change the security code.

Reasonable prices. Sure, some clients are fickle and will drop your company if they think they’ve been charged $10 too much. This is especially a problem in the lawn care industry. Rough economic times make this more pronounced. You can think about it several ways. Sure, it’s disappointing to lose a customer and an influx of profit. On the other hand, losing a fickle customer is better than losing a good customer, one that is satisfied with your service, recommends your company to their friends and pays on time. The best pricing strategy in the current economic cycle is to charge reasonable fees for inspection and treatment based on actual costs.

What the trees need

First and foremost, regular inspection — a systematic assessment of each woody plant in the landscape — is what trees need to flourish. The classic tree defects of girdling roots, cracks, decay, root plate integrity, codominant leaders and leaning should be noted, as well as common tree pests such as borers, cankers, aphids, anthracnose and leaf miners.

In addition to obvious pest or structural problems, design your inspection forms to document conditions of a good growing environment for trees. Good soils, proper mulch placement, moist but not soggy roots, fertility based on soil test results and adequate rooting space are crucial to a tree’s success. Proper planting techniques should also be noted to convey reasons for possible poor growth due to being planted too deep, leaving wire baskets on or staking injury.

Charging a reasonable fee for inspection is much preferable to just throwing it in as an added benefit to other tree work. Doing so will establish your technicians as knowledgeable representatives of your company and possibly provide an advantage over other firms in your market.

Written reports of inspection results. Sound arboriculture stems from customized care based on the inspection results, not predetermined, arbitrary spray applications. If feasible, provide customers with the results of the inspection, enhanced with visual cues. When inspecting with the customer present, pointing out defects or pest problems is straightforward. However, when the inspection is made when they are not, the critical information may not be easily conveyed with a written report, especially when the customer is new to the property and not familiar with the tree in question. Simple digital photos can overcome this hurdle, helping the customer to see and understand the problems in the inspection report.