Being customer-centric is no longer an option for companies that want to succeed. Today's customers don't just appreciate brands that treat them well and have their backs, they expect it. And with increased competition, organizations have no choice but to meet their customers' wishes.
What is more challenging for organizations is that customers are no longer comparing brands solely to their competitors. Instead, they are comparing each company they do business with to best-in-class organizations that excel in customer service. Thus, a cable company or utilities provider will be compared to the likes of Amazon, Zappos, or the Ritz Carlton, organizations that have come to be seen as examples of optimal customer service.
Lawn and tree care company Spring-Green Lawn Care is one organization that's well aware of the importance of being customer-centric and has gone on a journey to be more client-focused. As company president James Young explains, this is an especially challenging job for an organization that has infrequent one-to-one contact with its customers since most customers are not home when the service is provided.
Further, because Spring-Green doesn't offer mowing services but treats the lawn to make it healthier, greener, and weed free, results are not instantly visible. And to add to the complications, these results are partially dependent on several variables, like the weather, over which neither the company nor the homeowner has control.
Despite these challenges, Young is adamant to make sure that Spring-Green not only appears to be, but actually is, customer-centric. This means that not only does the company itself have to excel in customer service, but as in any franchise system, Young and his team have to make sure local service providers are also delivering on the brand's promises. "We rely on local owners to be the customer service agents for the brand," Young notes.
While some organizations struggle to give up control over their businesses, franchise organizations have to operate in a different manner. Spring-Green's board room has to trust that its national network of franchise owners which are representing the brand will do the right thing for customers. "They are the face of the brand," Young stresses.
However, for such a system to remain successful, the franchisor, in this case Spring-Green, has to help its independent partners. For a start, franchise owners need to be fully aware of the brand promise in order to live it daily. Secondly, small outfits are unlikely to have the resources that bigger organizations do. In Spring-Green's case, many of its independent partners are small, generating between $500,000 and $1 million in annual revenue, making it necessary for the owner to spend time taking care of operations and therefore needing support to make the business successful.
Yet, the small size of local service providers is beneficial for the brand image. Because service providers tend to serve their own communities, they are known by their customers, overcoming the very anonymous aspect of Spring-Green's service. In fact, Spring-Green describes itself as a "neighborhood-based lawn and tree care service company." Young describes the relationship between individual service providers and the homeowners they serve: "Customers know who the service provider is, where he lives, where his children go to school." This aspect means that when customers think of Spring-Green, they see a local provider rather than seeing a national company that operates in 26 states.
Spring-Green recognizes its advantages of this perspective. "It's a strongpoint that they see the individual franchise owner [as the face of the brand]," Young stresses. The intimate working relationship between customers and their lawn service providers leads to increased retention, contributing to a higher lifetime value for each customer and better profitability for the local franchise.
Despite experiencing extensive growth since it was founded in Illinois in 1977, the franchised business model is allowing Spring-Green to retain an intimate relationship with customers that is very rare among larger organizations. In order to continue leveraging this intimacy, Spring-Green is providing its franchise owners with the needed technology to deliver a personalized service. Lawn care providers tend to do their job when homeowners aren't at home and therefore aren't always able to speak with them about the condition of their lawns. With very little face-to-face interaction, the company had to find another way to connect with its customers. Understanding that each customer expects the company he does business with to know him and their specific lawn needs, Spring-Green is using the Internet to personalize its communications with homeowners individually using personal URLs that are created specifically for each individual customer and include recommendations on their specific problems, for example tips on how to maintain their lawn or alerting them if their lawn needs extra care. Service providers are equipped with a tablet and the technology to take pictures while in the field, which can be uploaded on the dynamic Web pages to provide a better explanation. Links to the PURLs are sent to customers by email immediately, while the service provider is still on the property.
John David Andrus, a franchise owner in Alabama, stresses that tablet applications that allow service providers to send customers an email while they're still on their property have gone down well with customers. "Most people prefer to receive an email rather than have us stick a piece of paper to their front door," he says. Not only do customers at times not see a physical notice for a number of days, but they are less likely to misplace an email that has important recommendations on how they can better take care of the lawn. "Everything we do revolves around the customer," Andrus stresses, adding that technology is essential to improve the customer experience.
While personalized digital communications help to notify customers about their individual lawn needs, Young also notes that in many cases, these communications are easier to make verbally. That's why it's essential for customers' information to be available to contact center agents and fully integrated with the Web interface in real time. When a customer receives an evaluation, he might contact the call center or go on the Website to make a purchase, so it's imperative that both contact center agents and the e-commerce platform offer the same products that the customer's evaluation recommended.
Spring-Green's efforts, including the seamless integration between the different touchpoints and its work with local franchise owners, are helping the company deliver a higher level of service. As Young puts it, Spring-Green does not focus on the level of service experience provided by its competitors, but rather concentrates on the companies that are setting customer expectations for the future. "After a customer experiences the likes of Amazon, he expects that same level of experience from us regardless that we are simply their lawn care provider. We're trying to keep up with them because that's what our customers will come to expect from us," he says.