How to get commercial lawn care accounts, without commercial references.

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How to get commercial accounts without having commercial references.

Before you make the jump from residential customers to commercial customers, ask yourself why you want to do this. Many LCO’s would suggest taking a few years to get your footing in the business world before making the jump from residential customers to commercial. The vast majority of commercial accounts will take the longest of your customer base to pay you. They will use up most of your resources to service them. They will almost always go for the cheapest bid price. Most will require proof of insurance as well. If after reading this warning, you are still ready to take the jump, continue reading. We don’t want to discourage you, we do however want to give you a heads up before you act.

This article, which appeared in the April 2005 issue of Irrigation & Green Industry Magazine, was created by the staff at to help lawn care operators make the jump from servicing residential customers to commercial.

In 1961 Joseph Heller wrote a novel entitled “Catch-22.” It is about a WWII era bombardier who’s Colonel keeps raising the number of missions a flight crew must take part in order to complete their service. Yossarian, the bombardier, wants to get out of these missions. He thinks he finds a bureaucratic rule that will get him out. The rule states, a soldier is considered insane if he continues to fly dangerous combat missions. However, it continues, if a soldier files a formal request stating he is insane because of flying such missions, the very act of doing so states you are sane. Thus the catch-22.

We recently had been asked the following question which could be viewed as another example of a catch-22.

“My company is currently trying to expand into the commercial division, meaning condominium complexes, apartment complexes, and buildings. We are trying to convince property managers to accept our bids for the landscape maintenance of their properties. Our problem we have been running into is that we don’t have any experience in that field, because for the last years we have been servicing residential properties. Without any commercial references all the property managers that we have dealt with refuse to accept our bids. But if we can’t get any -commercial properties how will we ever have any experience. My question is, what do you think would be a good way to sell our services even though we lack commercial experience.”

What a great question! We asked some of our friends in the industry to shed light on this problem and how to break out of this never ending loop.

Richard Murphy of Landmark Design LTD said:

“I put together a professional portfolio and went to board meetings. I let them know that I can offer them something more to their property, show them your knowledge of Botany and Horticulture. It is all about presentations as well, right down to how your write your proposals/quotes and contract specifications.

When you know that property is out for tender, bid on it and show interest, let them know a five year plan, and how you can improve the current landscape, even just by implementing a weed control and fertilizing program.

Property managers don’t rely on experience (most of the time) they want someone that can adapt to their ways. You might be working for the property manager, but they are working for hundreds of people, at just one address.”

Matt Ruesch of Matthew’s Lawn Service suggested to get your start with small commercial properties.

“If you have any friends, relatives that work at a small commercial building see if you can get some kind of reference to do the job. I was also asked about references from commercial properties when all I had was residential. I told them I have been doing it for a while, worked for other companies servicing commercial, and have just started out on my own. Gave them the choice to sign a two week agreement so they can get a feel for the kind of work I do before being committed to a full year. Take pictures of bigger residential jobs and show them to potential commercial jobs. I guess just sell yourself, show confidence that you can perform good quality work.”

Mark Witcher of Specialty Lawn Care said:

“From my own experience I have found that most larger clients want someone with a proven background in large properties. As stated by others, you need to start with the smaller commercial properties and build a client base and resume. My company specializes in large retail complexes and apartment complexes now. But we didn’t start there. We first did banks, restaurants, retail stores and similar sites that were under 1 acre in size. You just can’t expect an owner to hand over a contract for services worth $30,000 or higher to someone who has never done anything larger than a $50 lawn cut. They want to be sure that the contractor will have the experience, manpower and equipment to handle a job of this size. We all have to start at the bottom and work our way up.”

Andrew Harrigan of NV Lawn Specialists:

“And to expand on what Mark said, you can get your foot in the door with the “low-end” commercials by knowing your residential customers a bit. Odds are you have customers on their Home Owner Association board, customers that are in decision-making roles at their jobs, customers that are also business owners. If you let them know you’re looking to get into the commercial market, they might be more than happy to give you a shot.”

Dan J. of Mastercare Lawnscape located in Shelby Twp., MI added:

”Not trying to be redundant, but start smaller first has been the advice. How do you do that?

1. Networking. This is a scary term for some, but it means that you use every contact you can think of to get a job! If you have friends or family, you have a job that’s yours for the asking. My brother works in the offices of a machine shop. I just asked him to see if his boss would accept a bid. Now I’m cutting the lawn. Who cuts the grass where your family works? Are they part of a HOA? Kid brother who waits tables at a local restaurant? The guy who cuts your hair? The gas station near your house? Does your accountant have an office building? Your dentist? The list is endless. IF you start writing a list of contacts you know, and where they work (small places are best) you’ll come up with an impressive list of opportunities. Very few small companies will turn down the offer for you to submit a bid. What do they have to lose?

2. Once you get a handful of these jobs and prove yourself. Contact the decision-maker and ask if they’ve been happy with their service. I assume the answer will be yes. Then all you need to do is thank them for their business and ask if it’d be okay to list them as a reference. Why would anyone say no? Now you have experience and references.

3. Now you go into an industrial park with tons of small businesses. Some small, some large. Send a letter addressed to “maintenance dept.” Even if they don’t have one, they’ll get it to the right person. Simply send them a letter describing your company and services. Tell them you’ll be in the area next season, and may I submit a bid. Put a tear-off on the letter where they can answer “Yes, please submit a bid….and give a place for name and phone.” And, put the box there for them to check off “No, we’re not interested in looking for a better service provider at this time.” Most people like me hate cold calling. You’ll get plenty of people willing to accept a bid. It might cost you a few bucks in postage (I would include return envelope). But, lawn care is usually last on the business owners mind. Don’t ask for a phone conversation or face to face quite yet. They have other things to attend to. The letter is not an “in your face sales pitch” and leaves an opportunity to say no. People will be interested from your letter, and they’ll give you a name and number to call. This prevents you from wasting time getting by secretaries, and harassing people who don’t want to talk. There’s plenty of work out there….go after those who want to talk with you!”

Jason Hisch, the president of Groundskeeper Turf Mgt. Inc., told us:

“In order to sell large commercial accounts or what we call (HVCP) meaning Highly Visible Commercial Properties. First, you need a photo on a postcard displaying your equipment line (fleet of mowing equipment) along with your employee’s and a bit of info about your company. Second, you need to follow up and follow up. Touch base and re-touch base. (litter the city with your signs) Don’t be afraid to continue to call upon them year after year. It usually takes six times of talking with someone before they are willing to meet with you. Third, know your stuff, meaning your Industry. Just a little bit of Turf grass knowledge will put you leaps and bounds above the common competitor. Lastly, become full service, these type of clients need someone with extensive knowledge in areas of sprinkler systems, lawn Care, shrubbery work, and Lawn maintenance and snow plowing. If you don’t or can’t provide these services get there, because if these clients are your hope for the future then you need the above skills. Also, I disagree about working your way up through the ranks. Yes, that is the common place, but Lebron James’s exist in Lawn Care also.”

Kurt’s (forum member kc2006) view on mowing large properties.

“Well, I’ve been thinking about the mowing part of business and where I’d like to go with it and I think I have something in mind…Now all I have to do is figure out how to go about making it a reality.

After talking with people and seeing some other companies plus knowing my personal preference, I’ve come to realize that I’d like to get larger properties for mowing. I personally like the larger properties because your at one spot for a while instead of constant stop/go every 30 minutes and I just like being out by myself for hours at a time! Plus it cuts down costs due to being at one location longer. I talked to a couple companies that do mostly large properties and have a few smaller profitable residential accounts just to fill in time. One company in particular only does churches and that interested me. From my experience, churches are pretty laid back on requirements but they don’t go looking for bids every year like commercial properties do (trying to save money), they just let them come in.

So checking out the area we have a lot of churches here. On one of the main roads in my township alone there are seven. One of them is the church I attend and they’re the largest but they’re out because some guy underbid it and locked himself into a three year contract or until he folds up. Now I’m just trying to think of the best way to present myself to these churches and get my name in there in an attempt to put bids on them in the fall or whenever they will accept bids. I’m thinking a good letter with brochure that showcases the company would be a good starting point. Points of interest to them would be professional service, insured/state certified for herbicides/fertilizers, starting to specialize in larger properties, competitive rates due to being efficient. So I’d highlight all those features in a brochure and have pictures of the equipment and me.

Another big factor in why I’d like to do this is, I’d still be able to easily turn $60 Per Man Hour gross, even with an employee, and the only other equipment I’d need is one more mower. I already have the 60″ with efi engine and that thing does a heck of a workload so I’d probably add a 72″ with an efi engine or a diesel when I would step up to having to hire someone.

Now I wouldn’t be limiting myself to churches alone, I’d move to condo associations too and even go for commercial properties that have good size lots. Basically I’m trying to go for the end of mowing that requires being more of an actual company and being more professional, attempting to get away from the tons of mow & go companies.

I talked with a guy online yesterday that does only large properties (15 acres and up) and he makes a very good living with it. He gave me some suggestions on how to get my name in the door with the places I’m interested in. I thought about sending the letters out, but he said he’s never had luck with letters and the best way to do it is go right in and ask for the property manager or the person in charge of the grounds maintenance. He said to make little binders that show all your credentials and some pictures of work/equipment, and a description of the company and it’s benefits to the customer. Go in introduce yourself and give them the binder and ask to be placed on their list for bids.

So that’s going to be the next project, make the binders up. I’m already starting a list of properties that I’ll give them out to. When I break it down, the odds look a lot better. Not many companies can or want to service larger places around here, I think theres about 5-8 companies that I see servicing all the larger properties. Then when you figure out how many properties there are compared to those few of guys. Also when you factor in that I could fill a 6 day mowing schedule for 2 guys with about 20-25 large properties compared to 120 residential homes, that also means better odds of filling up a schedule quick.

Here is the breakdown of the presentation binders. It has a cover sheet which has the company logo and number. Then 2 pages that describes the business and it’s advantages, next page has copies of my fertilizer certification, business license, proof of insurance. Then a thank you page, basically thanking them for taking the time to read it and to keep us in mind when they’re looking for bids. I’m going to have a few pictures scattered in the first page and maybe one or two in the thank you page just to help fill it out and show off a little.”

Wow! Now that is some amazingly insightful information for those who are making the jump from servicing residential properties to commercial. By taking this powerful information from these business owners in the know, you can get your company to break out of this catch-22. Good luck to you and let us know if this article helped. Remember, you can make it happen. Dream it, build it, Gopher it!

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Lawn Care Business Books And Software.
How To Get Lawn Care Customers Vol. 2
The landscaping and lawn care business plan startup guide
A rebellious teenagers guide to starting a landscaping & lawn care business
The GopherHaul Lawn Care Business Show Episode Guide.
Stop Lowballing! A Lawn Care Business Owner\'s Guide To Success