Best business practices: The basics of backlog

Updated Mar 11, 2019
As director of operations for Kinghorn Gardens, Dan Moore knows which crews to assign to what projects based on their skills. This Kinghorn Gardens employee works on building a pergola. Photo: Kinghorn GardensAs director of operations for Kinghorn Gardens, Dan Moore knows which crews to assign to what projects based on their skills. This Kinghorn Gardens employee works on building a pergola.
Photo: Kinghorn Gardens

While to outsiders backlog sounds like a bad thing, landscapers know that having a healthy backlog is an important vital sign of a successful business.

“Without it, maintaining employees and positive cash flow is near impossible to be successful,” says Mark Smith, construction and tree operations manager for Belknap Landscape Company, based in Gilford, New Hampshire. “With a healthy backlog it is crucial to have all your resources identified and operating at peak efficiency in order to maintain client satisfaction and also maintain a successful sales department as they typically want to get their new sales/jobs in as soon as possible.”

Depending on the type of clients your company services, the timeline of what is considered an acceptable backlog will vary. For Denison Landscaping & Nursery based in Fort Washington, Maryland, one of its primary customers are homebuilders, so it has hard dates it must hit.

“It is our goal to never let a job go past three to four days past the scheduled installation date,” says Jonathan Wright, general manager of Denison’s eastern shore division.

Communication is key

Whether a project only has a few days of wiggle room, or can be pushed off until the fall or early part of winter, landscaping companies agree that communication is key to keeping everyone happy.

“If we do get backed up due to workload or weather, communication is key,” Wright says. “We must keep the customer informed of any schedule change. The same is true for residential landscaping. If we cannot meet the start date given to a homeowner, then we communicate with them as to when we can start and the reason for the delay.”

Boreal Property Management Inc., based in Jackson, Wyoming, works with some clientele’s second homes so it has to juggle deadlines and work periods when the homeowners are away.

“Education is most important,” says Drew Weesen, project manager for Boreal Property Management. “If, at the onset of the sales process a timeline isn’t established there could be a big difference in expectations. Our clients have lofty goals for us to complete during their away periods.”

Planning tools

Just like how communication is important with customers, it is also important for employees and managers to collaborate and determine a schedule when working with a backlog that could be anywhere from two weeks to three months.

Some companies like Kinghorn Gardens based in Omaha, Nebraska, leave the scheduling and flow of work across the company to a director of operations.

“I schedule it, I choose the crews that are on it, it comes down to knowing our crews and what they’re best at,” says Dan Moore, director of operations for Kinghorn Gardens. “It’s just a pen, notebook, myself and Google Calendar. It works, no reason to make it too complicated.”

Hayden McLaughlin, owner of Belknap Landscape, and Mark Smith, project manager, add Job Cards to the project scheduling board in preparation for the spring season. Photo: Belknap LandscapeHayden McLaughlin, owner of Belknap Landscape, and Mark Smith, project manager, add Job Cards to the project scheduling board in preparation for the  spring season.
Photo: Belknap Landscape

Belknap Landscape has a set of criteria it looks at to determine where the project falls within their scheduling system and backlog.

“A few of them are: are they existing 12 month recurring clients, is it a hazard or safety type situation, geographical considerations within existing operations, do they have a deadline which was considered during the sales process, are there environmental considerations dictating when we can start or need to be complete by, etc. etc.,” Smith says. “Once this criteria is evaluated, each project gets assigned to a 10-week schedule board which we use as a tool to communicate all facets of the jobs including start date and deadline date.”

The company schedules in skip days that can cover employee time off, bad weather days or any other unforeseen complications.

“For example, if a job has a budget of 10 days or two working weeks we would schedule two extra days before the start of the next project,” Smith says. “Worse case scenario is we finish the job on time and start the next job early! Much better than not meeting your start date!”

Weesen says Excel is a good tool and uses a whiteboard in his office to track crews, jobs and equipment for weekly planning.

“I am implementing a system that allows my three crew leads to choose the jobs they want,” Weesen says. “On my whiteboard I have a bullpen where future jobs live, they can choose them and even do some scheduling decisions if it doesn’t conflict with other timelines.”

Denison Landscaping doesn’t depend on a project management system but instead has a weekly production meeting to discuss the upcoming week’s work load on Friday mornings.

“We have set base crews and then we pull from a general labor pool to build up the crews to meet the demands of each job,” Wright says.

Avoid saying no

When it comes to having to turn down potential clients if the backlog gets too far out, most companies are loath to do so and either never or rarely turn away new business.

“It’s not a good business model to go around rejecting work,” Moore says. “When it’s feast or famine, you’re always going to rather it be a feast. We have the luxury where people want to work with us so they’re usually okay with waiting a month or two.”

Generally, if there is already a substantial backlog, the companies will look at the factors to see how profitable the work would be and if it is a repeat client.

“The lifeline of our company comes from our existing client base,” Smith says.  “These homeowners and businesses have been working with us, in some cases, for as long as 25 years.  We take pride in our existing professional relationships and grow based on the referrals they provide us.  Some other factors in accepting new clients are geographical, financial (do they have a realistic budget for what they are looking for), expectation of schedule and what kind of exposure do we gain from the potential opportunity.”

Belknap Landscape plans accordingly to accommodate for additional work during busy times and also cultivates subcontractor relationships to help when backlog lengthens. It is only when clients have unrealistic expectations and refuse to be educated that the company will turn them away.

“Being an organization with a strong financial plan we know what we need to produce each hour, day, week and month we work,” Smith says.

In the end, a good backlog comes down knowing your clients, communicating with them and your crews and developing a sound scheduling system you can keep track of. If those things are in order there is rarely a time you will have to turn down some extra business.

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