Meet customer expectations head-on

More than many other industries, the green industry presents challenges that make every sale a unique experience. When a plumber installs a 2-inch pipe, it almost certainly will meet the client's expectations of a 2-inch pipe because most clients' expectations will center around one issue-does it work? By contrast, when you install a 2-inch-caliper tree, it may or may not meet the client's expectations. This is because client expectations of ornamental plants are partly, or mostly, a matter of aesthetic taste, which means something different for every person. In addition, and more importantly, lawn-care and landscape contractors often deal with sites that have poor soils and drainage, too much sunlight or shade, or no irrigation. All of these factors can affect the subsequent health and development of the plant material, perhaps resulting in unsatisfactory performance or appearance. Thus, unlike the plumber who only has to dig a trench and lay the pipe, you must consider all of these conditions when designing and maintaining a landscape. You also must deal with clients who may not have the background to understand why a landscape is not living up to their expectations and whether their expectations are realistic.

As a professional, it is your responsibility to inform your clients and prospective clients of these conditions, even if it is not what they want to hear, in an effort to better educate them on what will harm the landscape. This is especially true with current clients. You are responsible for educating them about which turfgrasses and ornamentals to select and how to provide proper cultural practices.

This is a challenge for landscape professionals. You always have at least one client who wants to install a shade-loving plant that likes wet conditions in a dry, sunny spot or request some other inappropriate planting. While you want to accommodate the needs of your clients, you must inform them of any problems that exist with what they want or steps they must take to overcome problems that may arise. Don't be frustrated with these situations-they can be good opportunities. This type of conversation may lead to additional sales, such as drainage work or incorporating other plant material to provide the conditions best for the health of the desired plant.

When maintaining a property for a client, you must provide proper pruning, fertilization, mowing and irrigation. Many times, however, clients ask you to perform maintenance that goes against what you know to be proper. When this occurs, you must inform the client of the consequences that can result from what they're asking you to do. This is the perfect time to educate your client on the proper maintenance techniques for their landscape.

After you have informed your client about proper maintenance, they may still ask you to do something their way-something you know is counter to proper maintenance. Now you must make a decision-do what they are asking or risk losing the client. Do you acquiesce because "the client is always right" or do you refuse?

Most of the time, you should swallow your pride and provide the client with what they ask for. Every contractor has been asked to prune a tree or shrub in a way they know is wrong. Your job is to warn the client of the consequences and place the final decision in their hands. Replacing a tree or shrub is easy, replacing a good client is not. Do what it takes to keep good clients happy.

Starting out right with new clients When dealing with clients, don't promise something you cannot deliver. This is important with difficult clients, especially prospective ones. The tougher customers are always looking for some way that the contractor has let them down. They expect that you will not meet their needs. Therefore, be as up front as possible about what you can and will deliver.

With existing clients, it is easier to decipher what they like and dislike. With prospective clients, however, you are going in blind. It is extremely important that you listen to them carefully and determine what they prefer. Prospective clients may not always express this specifically, so it is important that you ask the right questions and seek out answers about what they expect.

We have all made the mistake of giving the client what we thought they wanted, only to find out that it was not what they wanted after all. Then you have to go back and do the job again. If this happens with a new client, you've already tarnished the relationship. Your goal is to exceed the client's expectations from the beginning. This will result in future work with that client and could blossom into a long-term relationship. However, this can only happen when an open discussion of both parties' expectations takes place.

Addressing complaints After a long day of dealing with personnel, purchasing, billing, sales and scheduling, the last thing a manager wants to address is a customer's complaint. Unfortunately, we all receive them, and we have no easy way around them. However, you can take a few steps that help rectify these problems as peacefully as possible. * Step 1: Gather information about the job, such as who was the last person to visit the job, what they did, what tasks remain to be completed and what problems may exist. Try to assemble ideas for correcting the problem before you contact the client. * Step 2: Contact the client as soon as you have gathered your information. If a client calls with a complaint, the worst thing you can do is make them wait to hear from you. This will give them more time to turn a small problem into something far greater.

After you contact the client, give them time to express their complaint. Try to put yourself in their shoes-don't automatically go on the defensive. Try to think of yourself as the paying customer and try to understand their frustration. If the customer believes you are sympathetic to the problem, you're more likely to be able to work together to solve the issue. * Step 3: Meet the client on site to discuss the issue and what steps to take to correct it. You cannot always solve these issues over the phone. Sometimes the best way is to visually inspect the problem. * Step 4: Determine your course of action to resolve the issue. The solution to the problem must be a joint decision between you and your client. If your solution does not meet his or her expectations, the problem will continue. Try to work out a plan that works for both you and the client. The goal is to make the solution as fair to both parties as possible. * Step 5: Follow through with the plan of correcting the mistake. You initially can satisfy a client by telling them you will correct the problem. However, if you fail to follow through, the problem will become much worse. We all make mistakes, but if we never fix them, we will have failed in the eyes of the client.

Unreasonable clients Most of us have experienced complaints from clients whose expectations are either unreasonable or the result of misunderstandings. Have you ever designed and installed a landscape for a client and, after completion, they tell you it is not what they wanted? This usually is because the client did not fully understand what they were getting or the contractor did not understand what it was the client wanted. This usually results in having to re-do the job or not receiving payment for the work you did.

To protect yourself from these situations, you should follow certain procedures. When you redesign a landscape, first listen to the client closely to find out what they like and dislike. Then you can proceed with preparing a sketch or drawing showing exactly what you think the client expects. Photos or examples may help the client better understand what plants look like and how big they can get. By doing this, you give the client the opportunity to approve the concept. If they do, they are showing that they understand what they will be getting. Then, if they do not like the result, they will most likely accept some responsibility for the changes they want.

In most cases, you will elect to re-do the work so that you do not lose a good but sometimes-difficult client. However, with extremely difficult clients, you must take steps necessary to protect yourself. Even if you did the work properly and in the way you presented it, some clients simply will not accept any responsibility. In such cases, you may decide that the client is not worth the trouble and simply move on.

Open communication is the best way to minimize misunderstandings with clients. By explaining clearly what you can provide, what your services will cost and meeting unrealistic expectations head-on, you will reduce the number of unhappy customers and help foster a long-term business relationship based on respect and honesty.

Tim Lynott is landscape-management division manager with Chapel Valley Landscape Co. (Woodbine, Md.).

Grounds Maintenance readers seem to be quite familiar with clients who demand perfect turf. Estimating the proportion of their clients that they would describe as having unreasonable expectations about their turf, a majority of respondents provided figures in the range of 5 to 20 percent. These readers were about evenly split when asked if this figure was rising, falling or staying the same.

Apparently, unrealistic clients come in several varieties, ranging from those who want top quality regardless of cost to those that demand perfection but don't want to pay for it. Still others just don't realize what is and isn't possible. Based on their responses, GM readers were all too familiar with the whole range.

The unrealistic expectations readers cited included numerous issues. For example, an operator from Florida noted that some customers expect quality turf in spite of the fact that they take "no responsibility for meeting their mowing and irrigation needs." Another had a customer that was unhappy about weak turf growing in shade. Several readers noted that some customers paradoxically want quality turf but don't like the increased mowing that results from fertilization. However, respondents cited two issues much more frequently than the rest.

First, some clients expect completely weed-free turf. An Ohio horticulturist noted that customers can be unhappy with just "one or two weeds still in the lawn after treatment." Second, many clients have little patience for the time it takes to achieve quality results, especially after they've let conditions become quite bad. A North Carolina operator explains that, "After they let their lawns get overrun with weeds, they expect overnight results when a weed-control program is started." An Oklahoma reader stated that customers want "results in 2 days."

What causes customers to part with reality when it comes to their lawn? Frequently cited by respondents was the expectation that has practically become a nemesis for lawn-care operators: customers want their lawn to look like a golf course. Also of interest is that green-industry advertising apparently raises expectations about what a lawn should look like. In their responses, several readers noted this.

Is this a different situation from any other industry? Probably not. You will always encounter people who are not satisfied no matter what level of service you provide; you will always find that many people are unwilling to pay a cost that matches their wants; and you will always have customers that simply don't understand what you can and cannot accomplish.

Can you educate an unrealistic client to become more reasonable? By about a two-to-one margin, readers said "no." An operator from Nebraska reflected the feelings of several readers when he said, "They are not receptive to anything less than perfection. If I don't come through...they'll hire someone else." A Racine, Wis., reader noted matter-of-factly that such clients "tend to switch service companies often."

The situation is not as bleak as all that, however. Remember that unrealistic customers are a small minority of total clients. And although they were outnumbered, a significant number of respondents found their clients to be receptive to education. For them, one of the oldest truisms holds the answer: Honesty is the best policy. This means telling customers up front what they can and can't expect, and what costs they can anticipate for the level of service they desire. The Ohio horticulturist cited earlier suggested a straightforward approach shared by other readers: "Simply listening to their concerns and then laying out basic horticultural principles [to achieve] a successful lawn." Add the comment of a Louisiana operator, "Tell them before, not after, [a problem arises]," and you have a basic roadmap to improving relations with nit-picking customers-at least those that are willing to listen.

Despite your best efforts, you'll never satisfy some people. A North Carolina reader observed that some clients "think they know everything there is to know about their turf." What do you do with a client like this? "See ya later...," quipped one Florida operator. How many problem clients did he have? "None. I get new accounts."

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