Breaking into the commercial maintenance market

Photo: U.S. Lawns
Contractors need the right knowledge and relationships to transition into commercial work.
Contractors need the right knowledge and relationships to transition into commercial work.
Contractors need the right knowledge and relationships
to transition into commercial work.

Breaking into the commercial maintenance sector can be tough, but it can provide lucrative opportunities for long-term success.

When it comes to landing commercial landscape contracts, it’s often more about who you know than what you know.

“The commercial business is very relationship based,” says Ken Thomas, principal of Envisor Consulting, a consulting firm based in Alpharetta, Ga. “Getting into the commercial market is a tough road, but it can be done.”

Contractors and industry experts agree that establishing and maintaining relationships is the easiest way to break into the commercial sector. But knowing the ins and outs of the industry, presenting themselves professionally and, of course, providing high-quality work are also important steps for contractors wanting to make a good impression in the commercial world.

“Commercial work can provide so much opportunity for the contractor, and the accounts can be easy to manage once you get them,” says Thomas. “Penetrating the inner circle of the network is a diligent process of getting to know someone who knows someone else.”

A foot in the door

Before reaching out to prospects, Thomas suggests contractors add a section about the company’s commercial offerings to their website. This step adds credibility if a prospective client researches the company. Next, look for commercial opportunities within your network. Does an existing client own a business? Do any friends or family members work in property management or real estate? Is a local homeowner association accepting bids for a new service provider? Put out feelers and start collecting intel, Thomas suggests. Even failed bids help companies test their pricing.

Mike Fitzpatrick, vice president of U.S. Lawns, a $170 million commercial grounds care franchise business headquartered in Orlando, Fla., says it’s a good idea for contractors to start with jobs similar in size and scope to the jobs they’re used to. This approach makes the transition from residential to commercial easier by preventing contractors from having to reinvent the wheel, while still building a commercial resume and becoming familiar with commercial accounts.

Contractors also need to learn how to price commercial jobs before providing estimates or proposals. Brandon Moxam, director of brand development for U.S. Lawns, says residential contractors typically price based on man-hours. In the commercial sector, an accurate estimate should consider four parts: property measurements, production rates, man-hours and frequency of service.

“Proper pricing will show the client you did your homework and will ensure you’re making money,” Moxam says.

Most commercial property managers are astute buyers. While residential customers make decisions based on emotion and disposable income, commercial budgets are based on history and goals for the property, says Fitzpatrick.

“In the commercial world, a customer knows what happens if they don’t pay enough, and they know what happens when they pay too much,” he adds.

Distinct market segments, like office buildings, industrial complexes, HOAs, multifamily housing facilities, medical buildings and municipalities, exist within the commercial sector. Thomas suggests finding which market segment is the best fit and going after those properties. Multifamily apartments and HOAs can be easier to break into because those groups are often more price sensitive and willing to consider less experienced contractors, he says. Contractors can also bid on work through official requests for proposals, or RFPs. Institutions like schools, hospitals and municipalities often choose contractors this way and make their selection based on the lowest price.

Once a contractor selects a market segment, Thomas says, the next step is to identify the trade associations supporting that segment and become an active member in at least one of them. Joining an organization such as the Building Owners & Managers Association or the Community Associations Institute allows contractors to immerse themselves in their chosen market segment and surround themselves with the players who can open the doors to future contracts.

Robert Clickenbeard, co-owner of Integrated Landscape Management in Tempe, Ariz., swears by the power of networking through trade associations. It’s the bedrock of his $20 million company, which offers 55 percent maintenance, 40 percent enhancements and 5 percent irrigation services to commercial clients. Clickenbeard says being active in trade associations puts contractors in front of the right people while educating them about industry trends.

“Just passing out cards is going to turn people off,” he says. “By getting familiar with people and building up trust, you’re likely to be invited to bid on a contract.”

Who’s who?

While face-to-face networking is the most effective, there are other ways for contractors to identify the decision makers for commercial opportunities. One method is to simply cold call receptionists at the properties contractors are interested in servicing, Thomas says. While it’s not likely this gatekeeper will offer contractors immediate access to the property manager, he or she will often provide the manager’s name and pass along the contractor’s card. Once contractors have the property manager’s name, they can do their own research to find out more information. Contractors also can request to be added to the property’s bid list.

Professionalism is also important during these visits.

“People want to work with someone they see as a business peer,” Moxam says. “Our franchise owners go in wearing dress pants, khakis, even sport coats.”

Another way to identify a commercial property manager is to reach out to other contractors who share the same target list, Thomas says. A property’s janitorial service or HVAC provider is likely to have the contact information the contractor is looking for and may be willing to share it since they’re not offering a competitive service.

Contractors also can purchase CoStar, a service that provides names and contact information for the managers of 4.5 million commercial real estate properties. At about $4,000 per year, it’s a worthy investment for contractors who want to hit the ground running, Thomas says.

Ultimately, landing the job comes down to selling the company’s services.

“Your greatest value to a commercial customer is how you can make their life easier,” Moxam adds.

Maintaining the account

Landing a commercial account is only half the battle. Contractors then have to work to maintain it. Many factors go into maintaining a commercial account, but poor communication is a key reason contractors lose contracts, Moxam says.

“You’re actually more likely to lose customers from poor communication than poor quality of work,” he says.

Clickenbeard regularly touches base with his clients, but he also goes above and beyond. He hosts happy hour events and golf outings, takes clients to golf tournaments and sends them Christmas gifts. He even sent a moving crew to help a client who was relocating.

“You spent all that time building those relationships. It’s important to maintain them,” Clickenbeard says. “It’s a long runway to establish that relationship. If you ignore it, those contracts are in danger.”

Photo: U.S. Lawns

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