By Brandon Gallagher Watson
If you want to grow your tree health care business, knowing trees is important but knowing people is more important. All tree-related industries are, at their core, people industries. Forestry produces trees for purposes of timber or paper, nursery production grows trees for use in the landscape, and park management grows trees for recreation and enjoyment. Of all the tree-related industries, arboriculture may be the segment with the closest union between people and trees. Unlike the other tree industries, which often are focused on entire forests of trees, arborists often work with individual trees that have an emotional meaning to their owners. When arborists ask us how they can grow their tree health care business, we tend not to focus as strongly on the science side of pathology or entomology but more how to effectively listen and communicate with the tree’s owner.
Know what services to offer
Identify a few key problems in your area, and become an expert with these. Every region has dozens of common trees with common health issues for each species. You don’t have to be an expert in every one of them to start growing your plant health care revenue. In fact, most areas will have one to two prominent issues that would allow you to be successful just by mastering these. Invasive pests such as Dutch elm disease, emerald ash, borer, or hemlock woolly adelgid are good examples of issues discussed frequently in media, so homeowners are familiar with them. If you have any of these issues in your area, these are treatment services you should consider offering.
Adding or growing a tree health business does not necessarily involve an expensive investment in equipment. Certainly some tools, like a new truck-mounted spray rig, would be a significant purchase, but adding soil-applied treatments or tree injection treatments to your toolbox can be done for an investment that may pay for itself in one or two jobs. When deciding what application equipment to purchase, look for products that have been extensively tested and researched by independent organizations such as universities, extension agencies and arboretums.
Know the protocol
A protocol is a detailed plan that includes identification of the problem, treatment procedure, and an expectation of the results you will get. You will not necessarily be judged on how well the application performed, but how closely it aligns with the expectation of the client. If your results meet the expectations you set, the client will begin to trust your recommendations and look to you when they have tree questions in the future.
Market your expertise
Before you can work on earning your clients’ trust, you need some clients. Getting the word out that you are offering new services is the first step in being able to actually sell them. For any tree business, the best opportunity for sales is from your current client database. Your customers already know you and may be pleased to find you are now offering new services. Position yourself as a knowledge resource to your clients, and they will start coming to you with all their tree questions.
There are many ways you can let them know about any new offerings from your company. If you send out spring letters to all your current customers, you should feature a blurb in there. If you mail invoices to clients you can insert a small mail stuffer in with the invoice mentioning what they can now get from you. Direct mail campaigns using postcards can be effective. Or if your company is actively reaching your clients through social media sites such as Facebook of Twitter you can easily update your followers about changes to your service line-up. Having crew members or consulting arborists leave door knob hangers featuring a tree health related issue relevant to their trees can also be a low-cost way to get a message to your clients. Of course, the most direct way to inform your customers is in person when you are meeting with them. Handing them a sell sheet on a tree problem can be effective by using photos describing the issue and what their management options are.
Essential steps of the PHC sales process
1. Properly diagnose the tree health problem.
2. Properly diagnose and understand the client’s needs, concerns, and investment in the tree.
3. Use your knowledge of the tree issue and the client’s needs to determine the best course of action for treatment.
4. Properly set the client’s expectations.Talking to your clients
Effectively communicating with tree owners is the single most important skill to learn when looking to grow your tree health care business. All the biology knowledge in the world won’t help save a single tree if you can’t sell the job. When talking with the homeowner about their tree, listen for clues about how important the tree is to them. Was it planted by their grandfather? Do they love the maple’s fall color? Was it stuck in by the developer and they really hate spruce? All of these help can determine what management services you may offer based on how invested the client is in the tree. For example, let’s say you were talking to a client about treating their crabapple for apple scab. If, while talking with them, you learn this tree has significant emotional value to them they may be quite happy to learn about your root enhancement and mulching services as well. The emotional value to owner places on the tree will greatly influence the economic value they are willing to invest.
When talking to homeowners it is important to focus your message and not overload them with technical information. They want to know just what is important to know for their tree. If you were trying to talk to them about why they should be considering protecting their tree from emerald ash borer (EAB) they likely don’t need to know the lifecycle of the beetle or whether it feeds in the xylem or the phloem. You could boil your EAB pitch down to three bullet points:
EAB is an invasive insect that will kill your ash tree if it gets infested.
We can protect your tree by treating it.
It is more cost effective to treat your tree for 20 years than it is to cut it down now.
In 10 seconds you can make a compelling argument for why a homeowner should opt for treating their tree without needing to be an entomology expert or taking too much of the homeowner’s time.
Other factors — such as what product to use for treatments, timing of application, or how to perform treatments in the most operationally efficient manner — will also factor into successful and profitable growth of any tree health enterprise. Pricing your services in such a manner where you can be profitable for your business but affordable to your clients is another element to consider. Resources are available in the industry that can help answer all these questions for you, and working with someone whose experience you can trust will greatly improve your chances success. Remember that, in the end, the tree health business is a people business, and meeting your clients’ expectations and earning their trust is the most effective way to grow.
Brandon Gallagher Watson is communication director at Rainbow Treecare Scientific Advancements, and is an ISA Certified Arborist (#MN-4086A).