Spring training at Emerald Lawn Care kicks off in February with a few days of dedicated, employee-led sessions that cover the gamut – weed and disease identification; turf, tree and shrub care; equipment and safety information. “It’s very much a group event, which keeps everyone engaged,” says Mark Utendorf, president of the Rolling Meadows, Illinois-based business, where training is a constant conversation.
Emerald Lawn Care’s culture is centered on professionalism and continuing education. About half of their field team is Landscape Industry Certified (LIC) in lawn care. “We come at training from many different angles throughout the year, which helps keep it fresh and top of mind,” Utendorf says.
There are pictures that make the safety topic real. “Occasionally, we show slides of scary things that happen – one showed guys who dumped a spreader and spilled fertilizer in a retention basin,” Utendorf describes. He also shared an image of a service truck in flames, after a technician put gas into a sprayer with a hot engine. “That really brings it home,” he says.
They also utilize industry events as training opportunities. “We pretty much attend every training opportunity in our area,” Utendorf says, pointing to the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association (ILCA) Turf Education Day and annual GIE+Expo in Louisville, Kentucky.
Beyond that, there are staff-run training sessions that keep employees tuned in and double as a development tool, Utendorf says. “If we see that a guy is not getting involved, we’ll figure out a topic for him to present – it’s good to push them beyond their comfort zone.”
Ultimately, a lawn care company is only as good as the service it provides, so investing in training the people who deliver it is just smart business.
“If you lose a customer, you have to sell two to get one back,” says Cory Dennis, general manager at Lawn Tech in Avon Lake, Ohio. “Training a lawn care applicator also makes them feel like you are paying attention to them, and they’ll do a better job because you took the time to train them.”
By recruiting experts to deliver training seminars, Utendorf can bring “school” to his team. He has reached out to vendors, the Chicago District Golf Association, ILCA’s Turf Committee and the Midwest Regional Turfgrass Foundation. “This season, we also added a defensive driving online course from the National Safety Council for everyone who drives a company vehicle,” Utendorf says.
When possible, Utendorf will get a turfgrass professor to conduct a lesson in the field. “If we can get them on a lawn, that’s invaluable,” Utendorf says. Though, he adds that it can be tough to carve time for in-depth training during the busy season, when technicians are focused on servicing customers’ lawns.
There’s always time for a morning tailgate meeting, and this is how Utendorf starts the day at Emerald Lawn Care. Procedural topics can’t be emphasized enough, he says.
“If we don’t follow a procedure, steps get forgotten,” he says. “So, we are always harping on the proper process for even standard applications. What do you do when you stop? What do you do when you get out of the truck? What do you do on the lawn? What about when you get back into the truck? We hit it hard.”
Utendorf adds that proper mixing and monitoring of mixing products is also a frequent topic for training. “I have a healthy level of paranoia – so we are always concerned about the possibility of spills and we talk about that a lot,” he says.
This year, Utendorf is formalizing tailgate meeting topics by following The Ohio State University Extension Service series, Tailgate Safety Training for Landscaping and Horticultural Services. Topics include pesticide exposure, preventing lifting injuries, poison ivy and heat stress, among others. “We have an entire season’s worth of sessions scheduled for every Wednesday,” he says.
Test 1, 2.
How do you know your investment in training is “sinking in?” You can spend the time, recruit professionals and beat the safety drum time and again, but how can you be sure technicians are retaining the information?
Giles Vaughan of YardApes in New Milford, Connecticut, uses an online survey program to send out post-training quizzes via email. His team receives a “survey” after a training session that is easy to complete and serves as one more way to emphasize the lessons.
“Training has to be part of your ‘winter work,’” Vaughan says, relating that he focuses on training during the off-season.
“We come at training from many different angles throughout the year, which helps keep it fresh and top of mind.” Mark Utendorf, president, Emerald Lawn Care
Aside from the post-training surveys, Vaughan says ongoing conversations among team members keeps training top of mind. And, to identify key topics to address, Vaughan reviews reports from his software system.
“We can look at our notes, the success rate of applications and general turf health to see any issues that came up that weren’t there the year before,” he says.
Those new issues are important training topics.
“This year, we had chinch bugs, and the year before they weren’t an issue,” Vaughan says. “So, we identified that problem and the timeline for those (pests) … it’s preparation to make sure we hit the ground running, because that switch from snow to spring happens fast.”
Industry magazines are great training conversation starters, Utendorf adds. He circulates trade publications, so his team can read articles, and he might highlight a certain topic at a tailgate meeting.
Again, Utendorf says to maintain interest and be sure you’re covering all the bases, “You’ve got to mix it up.”
Because at the end of the day, training is designed to assure quality and safety – to develop a team and create a culture of continuous education that promotes accountability. Utendorf says, “We want our team to treat every lawn like it’s their grandma’s.”