When Tony Zalocha and his brother Neil founded Stone Age Landscaping 14 years ago in Utica, New York, their methodical and meticulous attention to detail on jobsites quickly caught the attention of not only clients, but also passersby.
“I can’t tell you how many times people were out just walking their dog and would say, ‘I can’t believe how neat the jobsite is!’ It was just my brother and I at the time, and we would always make sure all of the tools were neatly stacked in a perfectly straight line out on the front lawn,” Tony Zalocha says.
Zalocha tells this story every spring at a daylong, all-staff meeting where management goes over the company philosophy and standard operating procedures, all of which were developed from those early years when the co-founders would challenge themselves to find the most efficient ways to complete tasks and get to the next jobsite.
“When I do it myself, it sets a good example for everyone else,” Zalocha says. “I can tell them stories of us doing it for everyone in the past, and they get it. We try to explain how important it is to put off that feeling that we are professionals. In case we are a few dollars more than the next company down the road, it’s obvious that our trucks are loaded up, we have uniforms on and our tools are here neat. We hold ourselves in higher regard that way and I think it goes a long way.”
Whether it’s a hardscape project, a landscape project or maintenance job, every crew has the standard operating procedure attached to their work orders that spells out everything from where to place debris on site to how to service a property in segments rather than all at once to maintain a neat, professional and safe environment.
“We try not to cross over driveways with our feet unless we have to and we always park in the road,” Zalocha says. “Every crew has backpack blowers, brooms and hoses so that at the end of every day they blow everything off and wash it down if needed. It’s our policy to smoke near the truck, away from the clients’ view. They take their butts with them and leave no trace behind. I think people appreciate that.”
The company also switched to enclosed trailers for their hardscape sites, which has allowed for better organization that not only keeps sites tidy, but also cuts back on labor.
“That enclosed trailer is pretty much a billboard for us. Before the trucks roll out of the shop in the morning, we have a procedure for loading them so things are stacked neatly. If that’s done correctly, then they can take tools off and load back on much more easily,” Zalocha says.
To help enforce a company culture of cleanliness, Zalocha himself will periodically check to see which of his crews has the cleanest truck and take them out to lunch.
And while company culture alone may encourage employees to go above and beyond, business owners may find that those incentives can help to create that culture change and yield fringe benefits to both the client and the business as a whole. Allen Clemons, president of Great Estates Landscaping in Covington, Georgia, implemented an employee incentive program there in February.
The program involves a quality control inspection that is conducted by managers on site every 60 days where they grade crews in 12 categories, including pruning, weed control, mowing, irrigation management, horticulture and cleanliness, among others. If a crew earns a cumulative score above 87 percent for all of the properties that they are responsible for, they then qualify for a bonus. A score below 87 percent indicates that the crew has ultimately come up short for the client in some way, Clemons says.
“What it does is it incentivizes the crew to do the right thing when no one is looking. This program is just a win-win-win. The customer gets better service, we know where we stand and we have a way to measure people. Without metrics, you can’t hold people accountable. By holding them accountable, everything changes,” he says.
Crews are further motivated with a whiteboard that lists monthly scores for each crew and truck across all company branches. The crew of the month with the highest score gets an additional bonus. Employees use the whiteboard to see where they rank and to learn from the top scorers to try to improve their own scores.
“Then your management doesn’t have to carry all of the weight. Employees can help one another and lean on one another. It’s a culture change. Once everyone believes that we are the best at what we do, and they are leaning into one another and holding one another accountable because they want to get more for them and their families, it creates a momentum that is absolutely unstoppable,” he says.
Employees are told on a weekly basis exactly what is expected of them at every property. Whether it’s making sure the trashcans are empty at the mail center or making sure that a particular client’s holly is pruned 6 inches below the windowsill because that’s where she likes them, all of those details are compiled in a written job description and factored into the quality inspection grade.
“When they know these things, we give them the tools to do their job,” he says. “Nine times out of 10, they will do the right thing and go above and beyond if it’s explained to them exactly what is expected of them.”
The inspections are filled out on an iPad so that they can immediately be recorded in a software that lets the company track employee progress and identify areas that warrant additional training. The inspection is also emailed to clients to give them an opportunity to grade the work themselves and provide additional comments. While client responses don’t affect the scores used to qualify employees for incentives, they do open an invaluable line of communication, Clemons says.
“If we score ourselves a 94 and they score us an 88, there’s a problem and it creates a conversation from there. A lot of things happen because of that. Client retention continues to rise; it went from mid-60s to well above 90 percent now. Our enhancements and installs have increased almost 30 percent because of how we are communicating with customers even more,” he says.
Clemons has also found that employee loyalty has increased and acquiring new talent has become easier as a result of the program.
“We went from having trouble finding qualified people to having people to choose from because we pay the same amount as the company down the street, but we also have this incentive program that says if you work harder, you have the opportunity to make extra money for your family.
If you take care of your people and they feel good about what they are doing and they believe in it, they are always going to take care of their customers. I would spend less time calling customers and trying to sell them things and more time taking care of your employees, because your employees take care of your customers,” Clemons says.