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Home arrow Archives   The American Surveyor     

Building a Client Base—or GIS: If you Can't Beat `em, Join `em Print E-mail
Written by Chad Erickson, PS and Linda Erickson   
Friday, 02 January 2015

A 1.919Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

When the Idaho section corner monuments are buried under 18" of snow, and Linda's knee--broken when fleeing an attack of Africanized bees--aches, we do what the cowboys of the 1870-1­890s did: head south. Rather than wrangling cattle for a spring drive back to Montana we spend the winters in Arizona wrangling a survey business and avoiding more bees.

Three years ago Linda's sister moved to Green Valley, Arizona, and sisters being the best of friends, we changed our snowbird location. So, we fledged a survey business in a State that almost died in the 2008 market collapse. Arizona after 2007 is really tough.

Contrary to what we recently read on LinkedIn, "Personally, I believe the days of the small surveying practice are now over," for Land Boundary Surveyors we believe the opposite is true. Of necessity, most good land boundary surveyors are in solo, family operated firms. For example, the research files for each of our last four projects in Idaho are three inches thick and each took four days to gather and analyze, whereas the field work for each was only two days. Thus it is difficult for large firms with three crews per PLS to do anything but wham bam boundary surveys and the only things that such surveys accomplish are confusion and more corrective surveys for us. The big firms keep us small firms busy.

However, first building a loyal and appreciative client base is tough. In Green Valley we racked our brains for ideas and approaches including newspaper ads with introductory coupons. From the latter we learned this, "don't ever discount your work, the good clients think less of you and the others expect the low rates forever." One client xeroxed the coupons, passed them around and three years later we are still running into them.

We tried seminars for Real Estate Agents and newsletter follow-ups. This did give us exposure and some projects did trickle in, but what we really learned is that most Real Estate Agents have a cavalier attitude toward property corner monuments, surveyors and fiduciary responsibilities in general. There will be little appreciation and loyalty from this crowd.

Subdivision Background
We started in Green Valley with a couple of surveys for relatives and neighbors. We found that 90% of the lots in these retirement communities were missing at least one lot corner monument and 30% were missing all of them (missing = not visible). Not much different from the rest of American, but these are subdivisions from the 1960's­1980's for crying out loud. What happened to all the monuments? For a lark we sniffed around some built-up 2005 and 2006 subdivisions and found nearly the same percentages except that all the centerline monuments were still in.

For an explanation we hearkened back to our time in Lake Havasu City, AZ, a city founded in 1963, where we witnessed monument degradation on a massive scale. When we first started surveying in Lake Havasu in 2002 the experience was wonderful. A modern town with excellent survey control where 90% of the monuments were in and all were in precise agreement. Beginning in 2004 the city installed sewer mains down the middle of the streets and knocked out all the centerline monuments and half of the front corners. From a surveyor's viewpoint, Lake Havasu passed from a "new city" to an "old city" almost overnight. The resulting property limbo is typical for many old cities, big or small; each limbo being a product of engineering and government ineptitude. The lost value, replacement expense and resulting litigation expense over the years will probably be greater than the cost of the sewer infrastructure itself.

Additionally, many subdivisions everywhere have had their gas lines replaced, and in the process knocked out many of the back lot corners.

However, what put the 2005/2006 subdivisions nearly on par with the 1960/80's subdivisions was the initial landscaper. Fortunately, his task was to place 4" of topsoil or decorative rock, so, many of the monuments missing due to his/her activities are simply buried.

Failure
By the start of last season we had our ads in the newspaper, in most of the phone books, and appearing on all the Internet maps and directories, all to little avail. With 90% of the lots in Green Valley having at least one lost or invisible corner monument, how could it be that there was little demand for our services? The combined population of Green Valley and Sahuarita is 47,000, and this population could not keep one survey firm in beans? The nearest other surveyors were 30 miles north in Tucson or 40 miles south in Nogales. How could this be? The old ones couldn't all be cramming for their finals. The Real Estate market had improved, there were sales being closed, how could it be that buyers were buying without knowing what they were buying? Well, they were.

New Approach
With time and pain we evolved a service which we titled the "Discovery Report" (see sample). The real purpose of the report was to expose the client to the legal principle that properties are defined by monuments and entice the client to hire us to find and/ or replace the monuments.

From our "Contact the Banks" program we had only one response, from a bank manager for his own home; but he loved the report. The same goes for Title Companies. The Brooklyn Bridge Title Company did take our card and flier but stated, "It's been 15 years since we have ordered a survey." We didn't hold our breath, but we did wonder, "How the heck can there be good title without a known location?"

However, having the service defined and practiced made for quick and reassuring responses when property owners themselves called. We soon found that the percent of take-up from property owners was high, about 80% of the callers gave us the go ahead for a Discovery Report. We just needed more callers.

How the Discovery Report Works
The Discovery Report is initiated by phone conversations such as, "My Home Owner's Association says my back wall is six feet onto the common area. How can I find out if it is?" or "How can I get my property ready for my heirs?" or "My neighbor is bullying me. How can I get him to stop moving my rocks?" Or, the one we have yet to hear, "My buyer won't buy until I show him the corner monuments."

As you know, it is a real put off for many clients to be told any of the following:
1. "I cannot give you a firm price";
2. "I can give you a price after we start the job";
3. "I work by the hour and our rate is $160.00 per hour plus travel, copies and recording fees"; or
4. "Our estimates are lower than any other surveyor's." (Whattaya bet their invoices are higher?)

We avoided the "put-off" by having a product and price ready. We explained to these potential customers that the first step was to know where their property corner monuments were. "What are those?" "They are 1/2" diameter iron rods that define your lines. Have you seen any?" "No."

Thus arrived the moment to be of service, to ally worries and answer questions. We would say something like:

"The original iron monuments define your property corners and are recognized by the courts as the indisputable definition of your property*. For the price of __________ we will do the following: 1. Obtain an image of your subdivision from the Recorder's Office (hopefully on-line) and an aerial image of your lot from TNP** or Earth Explorer; 2. Rectify, scale and combine the two images; 3. Insure that all record lot dimensions are upon that image; and 4. Visit your lot, search for the monuments and make visible any that we find. This will usually solve your problem."

Keep in mind that a Discovery Report is not a survey; the RTK GPS stays in the truck and the handheld GPS, magnetometer, shovel, compass and 300' tape come out. The Discovery Report is only a search that any lot owner is entitled to perform himself, without the need for a license or newly recorded Record of Survey. Keep in mind that the purpose of the Discovery Report is to begin the dialog that will lead to a survey if a corner is lost and must be replaced. Price accordingly.

Upon arrival at the address we immediately give a preliminary copy of the report to the client, who is invariably impressed. One client cried out, "This is what I have always wanted of my property. Everything is there on one page." High praise for something so easily generated.

It is especially rewarding if the client follows you around during the search and experiences the humor when you dig up a tin can and the joy when you dig down 18" to a rusty old rebar. Many clients are intrigued when we raise the monument to the surface and secure it with dry-mix earthcrete. "Will that really get hard?"

What Next?
It was surprising how often the results of the Discovery Report fully satisfied the client. Either all the monuments were found, at least the critical one(s), or just knowing the general location, as marked by our search points, satisfied their needs. It was no less surprising how often the Discovery Report matured into a request for the reestablishment of a lost corner monument.

So, we have a product that 80% of the callers will commit to, of which 50% lead to an actual survey. Now we need more calls. We think that this winter in Arizona we will use what has been so successful in Idaho; write a column for the local newspaper. This will build upon last year's newspaper ads which had our pictures and names. When we did get calls last winter they usually used our first names, talked like old acquaintances and had our photo ad on their bulletin board.

Well, these are our experiences and ideas for building a client base. Got thoughts? Send them to us at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it
 
*Known as the "adverse possession lot exception."
**Terrain Navigator Pro.

Over the course of the last 44 years of surveying Chad Erickson PS and Linda Erickson MOM have opened four survey offices. Opening a new office is always hard and not always successful. By 1989 their business model was migrating exclusively to land boundary surveying, where it is today.

Sidebar:
Product Review: Terrain Navigator Pro 10.2

Several weeks ago, as we were composing this article, we received an e-mail notice from Terrain Navigator Pro (TNP) announcing a new version, the 10.2. We have been faithful users of TNP for seven years, using it for USGS Topo Maps, but what caught our eye in the 10.2 version is the new capability to download aerial photos already overlaid with property lines. 10.2 seemed just the ticket to furnish both the aerial photographs and the property lines for the Discovery Reports. Here is what we found:

Pros:
1. The colored aerial photographs used by TNP (not satellite images) are primarily from the USDA. This arrangement allows the images to be downloaded without watermarks and the user to edit and mark without worry of copyright laws.
2. In metropolitan areas the resolution of these photos is sufficient for Discovery Reports.
3. The aerial photos can be downloaded with the property lines already overlaid, complete with parcel numbers,
4. We find TNP to be a most reliable address/lot checker, which is important when the client can only give you his address.
5. Let us not forget the ability to download separate or seamless USGS Topo Maps. Their "seamless view" once allowed us to develop a 2 foot by 12 foot full scale topo map of the Lewis & Clark trail where it crosses the Rocky Mountains. The map was beautiful, although the client had to roll it up like a Torah scroll.
6. TNP has new GIS products for sub-meter data collection which correlate with the topo maps, aerial photos and parcel boundaries.
7. The TNP support personnel speak American and are employed by TNP. This means a lot if an outsourced person has ever threatened you with a malware download if you didn't pay an additional $349.95. (We didn't and they did.)

Cons:
1. High resolution aerial photos are not yet available in nonmetropolitan areas, though the scuttlebutt is that TNP is working on it.
2. The property lines available in 10.2 lack sufficient accuracy, bearings and distances for Discovery Reports.

A 1.919Mb PDF of this article as it appeared in the magazine—complete with images—is available by clicking HERE

 
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