Tips on determining which potential clients really have potential

Updated Jul 9, 2018

By Jody Shilan

Jody ShilanJody Shilan

When we get a phone call from a suspect (potential client), our assumption is that they actually want to have work done. This is not necessarily the case, which is why I call them suspects, and you should too.

Not that they’re bad people or possibly criminals; we just don’t know what their true intentions are. Maybe they just want to find out what things cost or get some ideas from you, which is fine, as long as they plan on having work done by you or one of your competitors. However, if they are in fantasy mode, all of us have much better things to do than walk through la-la land with a couple who can’t afford landscaping or is going to do the work themselves.

So what can you do?  Isn’t this just the cost of doing business?

The answers are a lot and no.

Words to listen for

Over the years, I have created a list “buzzwords” and phrases that can tell me if a suspect is going to lead to a sale or a waste of time. It’s not 100-percent foolproof, but using it has saved me thousands of hours, and it can do the same for you.

These days, if I asked you how things are going, your answer might be something like, “I’m getting slammed” or “I just can’t keep up with all of the calls.”

Conceptually this sounds great, but in reality, this just means that even more of your time is being wasted chasing suspects, or the proverbial tire kickers. Even though your volume of leads may have picked up, all that means is that you have more suspects to meet, which is why you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off.

Even though you are “super busy,” your sales numbers may not have shown any improvement.

Wouldn’t you rather spend your time meeting with good potential customers instead of any Tom, Dick or Harriet who wants a free estimate? Of course you would. So let’s look at a great way to do that.

Another kind of keyword

When a suspect first calls, all you need to do is ask them how you can help. Let them tell you, in their own words, why they’re calling and then write down exactly what they say.

Don’t paraphrase or change the words that they use. For example, if they want a Japanese garden, do not write down Oriental Garden. Besides being politically incorrect, they said Japanese, not Oriental. The same goes for modern instead of contemporary or traditional and old fashioned. They’re not the same thing.

Let them keep talking and you keep writing. By the time you’re done with the phone call, you should have a pretty good list of their ideas and what type of work they’re looking to do.

Now, here’s where the concept of “buzzwords” comes in. During the conversation, did they ask for a free estimate, tell you that they’ve already met with four other contractors or say that they’re not sure if they are even going to do the work? They just want to get an idea about how much everything costs? These are examples of bad buzzwords or phrases.

On the flipside, did they explain to you that they just re-did the entire house and are now ready to renovate the entire property? Maybe they mentioned that they love the work that you did for their best friends, Jillian and Roger Thompson, down the block. Maybe they mentioned that they did a Google search, went on your website and really like your work. They also could have talked about creating a master plan for their property. These buzzwords, phrases or expressions are examples of the types of terms good prospects use.

Listening for real potential

Regardless of whether you are super busy or super slow, from this day forward your goal should be to develop your own list of buzzwords to help you separate the wheat from the chafe, or the moneymakers from the time wasters.

While you’re waiting for calls to come in, why not take some time and look through your old leads that turned into successful, high-profit jobs and see what buzzwords they used when they first called?

Did they ask for a master plan, say that you were referred by a friend or that you worked for their neighbor? Conversely, did your bad leads start off with terms like free estimate, Yellow Pages or not much money to spend?

Bottom line: Set appointments right away with the leads that use good buzzwords and thoroughly grill suspects that use bad buzzwords. Your goal is to quickly eliminate the bad leads, so that you can focus on the good ones.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jody Shilan is executive director of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association. Shilan also offers advice to landscape professionals through his website,

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