For all the information and training available on the technical aspects of tree care work — chainsaw operation, climbing, chipper safety, etc. — one topic that’s often overlooked is estimating. And, really, for a business to succeed, nothing could be more important. Estimating is the foot in the door — the chance to make an impression on a potential client — and it’s the process that, as much as anything, will determine the profitability, or unprofitability, of a job. In other words, estimating is essential.
Ironically, it’s also the one service that’s typically performed for free. “I don’t know of any tree care company in our area that charges for estimates,” says Jordan Upcavage, vice president of Independent Tree Service, serving the Tampa Bay area. “When you give free estimates, yes, you can waste your time, but it’s a foot in the door.” He just recently visited a site to provide an estimate in response to a call that had come in just days earlier. “We’re swamped – we’re booked out at least six weeks out with work. But I showed up the same week she called to give an estimate and the work was already done. So it was a huge waste of my time, but it’s rare for that to happen. To be competitive, you have to give free estimates.”
Some companies have tried to cut down on the number of wasted trips for free estimates. “If someone calls you and you go out there to give an estimate the next day and they’ve already got somebody else doing the work, that’s pretty rude of them not to have called and canceled,” says Harlan Clemmons, who operates Indiana Tree Service in Indianapolis. “All they had to do is pick up the phone.” He’s instituted a $35 charge in those cases to help cover his time and the cost of fuel for the wasted trip. In reality, Clemmons acknowledges, it’s hard to get property owners to pay the fee, but he sends a bill anyhow to try to discourage the practice.
“If we could charge for estimates, we would. But, at least in our area, the way the industry runs is with free estimates,” says Chuck Lowe, plant health care coordinator and certified arborist representative with Beyond the Leaf Tree & Shrub Experts in Pennsylvania. Charging for estimates would definitely limit the number of calls — and potential work — a company received, he states.
Upcavage says that it makes sense to try to weed out any inquiries that might not be worthwhile prior to scheduling an estimate. “If they have one palm tree to trim, we can’t go do that at a competitive rate; it’s just too expensive to send the truck down the road. Or maybe they’re too far away,” he explains. Those jobs are passed on in order to save an estimating trip for a job that can’t be done cost-effectively.
And there are certain types of estimates — those that involve very detailed, time-consuming visits — that can be charged for. “We charge for tree evaluations where we do full write-ups of trees on a property including DBH, species, condition, etc.,” says Sean Lewett, general manager of JL Tree Service in Virginia.
A personal touch
When called out to provide a quote, “It always makes sense to try to do an estimate face to face with the customer,” advises Beyond the Leaf’s Lowe. “It doesn’t always happen that way, because oftentimes they’ll say they’re busy or at work and we should just stop out. When that happens, your success rate drops somewhat, because they don’t feel any sort of personal connection with you. So I do always try to press for a face-to-face meeting.” Being able to discuss the project on-site with a customer also ensures a better understanding of what tree work they are looking for, and therefore a more precise estimate, he notes.
When estimating, Upcavage says he takes an intentionally non-sales approach. “I give lots of estimates every day, and I don’t sell tree work. I teach arboriculture to my customers,” he emphasizes. “I don’t let them say that they need us to cut this and this and this. Instead, I ask them their goals: What are they trying to accomplish or obtain? I listen to what their goal is and then I try to accommodate that goal with respect to arboriculture.”
Many times, Upcavage says, that involves reducing the scope of the job that the client had originally envisioned. “Many times it involves educating them on why we don’t need to do things,” he explains. “I treat every property as if it were my home and my trees.”
If a tree is diseased, for example, he finds out what the client wants: Would they rather remove it now rather than spending money to maintain it only to have to pay again to remove it in the future? Or is it valuable to them enough that they’d rather do some crown work to buy the tree more time? “Again, I figure out what their goal is.”
Upcavage says he believes in being genuine and bluntly honest during the estimating process, rather than pushing services. “And I have a very high closing rate, because I’m not there to try to get the deal. I’m there to teach arboriculture,” he notes.
Factoring in all of the factors
Effective estimating needs to take into account not only the specific tree work that needs to be done, but an individual company’s philosophy or approach to tree work. For example, at Beyond the Leaf, “We try to operate with machinery as much as possible – maybe a skid-steer with a grapple or a mobile spider lift to get up into trees, and we also do a lot of crane work,” says Lowe. “So, in the field, I need to determine what equipment would be required and what kind of rate we would like to see per hour when we’re using that particular equipment.”
Good estimating requires both a knowledge of tree care, and how a particular crew works, he emphasizes.
“Additionally, on each individual job, you need to find out whether they want the wood left or whether it will need to be removed. And that will influence the cost of the job,” says Lowe.
Then there are other customer-specific considerations: If they don’t want equipment on their lawn, for example, that will likely alter how the work needs to be done and the price that needs to be charged.
When he’s estimating, Upcavage says he has a checklist, but it’s one in his head rather than a formal spreadsheet. “I go through all the steps and estimate how long it’s going to take, but I don’t price jobs on man-hours on an hourly rate and put that into a formula that spits a number out,” he explains.
As someone who has worked as a climber, he looks for details such as tie-in and rigging points and what is easy or difficult to limb-walk.
“Then I factor in things like whether I need to bring in a grapple truck. And how many loads with a grapple truck? And what about dump fees?” he says. “Then there are pruning costs, debris disposal costs, permits, stump-grinding.” Experience, he says, lets him know what time and costs will be involved so that he knows how to price a job.
A written record
And Upcavage prefers to present an estimate while he’s on-site with the client. “I think it’s a big advantage to have the opportunity to close on the spot in front of the person,” he explains. “I type the proposal in a software program, I have a printer with me, so I can hand them a formal proposal and look them in the eye and have the opportunity to talk about the costs.” If cost is an issue, then there’s a chance to make adjustments to the scope of work. “That way, I don’t just straight lose because I was too expensive. I have the opportunity to do something that fits the customer’s needs a little better.”
Beyond the Leaf uses Quickbooks for its estimates, so Lowe says his approach is to take his notes back to the office and prepare an estimate there that can be emailed to clients. He says people like to see a professionally prepared estimate like that.
“I know there are some companies that just provide a hand-scratch piece of paper with a price on it,” he says, “but we put everything on our letterhead.”
He includes a line item for every tree to be worked on with a description of the service to be performed to each, but unless a client asks for an individual price for each tree, there is just one lump sum at the bottom. When you price each tree and service separately, customers tend to want to start cherry-picking trees and services in order to try to lower the price, Lowe says.
The company also includes fine print on its estimates that the estimate is good for 60 days, “but in reality, we let it go longer than that,” says Lowe. “Normally we don’t have to change it much for year to year, even, unless our costs suddenly go up.” Still, having that language there is good protection against a client wanting an estimate from many years ago to be honored.
Finally, Lowe says that follow-ups are important after submitting estimates. “You want to give them at least a day or two to look it over, but then follow up if they don’t respond,” he states. “They might be on the fence between you and another company, and that follow-up might be what makes the difference.”