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Mr. Non-Payer and Other Big Pains

By Steve Rak II


How do you define a difficult customer? If you answered they're all difficult, then you my friend have a problem that we can't fix here. In all seriousness though, we all have a few clients that we might call a tad bit hard to deal with.

So what is a landscape professional to do when confronted with one of these not so easy to deal with, difficult, hard to handle and make you want to quit your job type people?

No, throwing them off a bridge is not an option. We must learn to "deal" with them and make everything all happy and smiles. This isn't easy, but it can be accomplished with a little planning and forethought.

Let's look at a list of some of the difficult type customers:

Eight problem children

The Late Payer: This is the person who cannot pay their bill on time. They're always "out of town" or expecting to win the lottery, or something to that effect. They never answer their phone and their voicemail is always full.

The Non-Payer: Usually the late payer evolves into this one, so be careful. This one's the worst of the bunch.

The Swearing Guy: This guy swears like a drunken sailor at your employees and berates them at the same time, great fun.

The Freebie Dude: Their favorite phrase is, "Can't you just do this extra thing for me? It'll only take a minute." Usually takes an hour.

The Drama Queen: She usually calls the office on the verge of tears because the crew missed a spot on her lawn the size of a quarter and the bridge club is coming over today and this is just unacceptable - boo hoo.

The One Upper: This is the guy who can do everything better than you because he did landscaping 20 years ago while on college break.

Speed Racer Complainer: They complain that the guys are racing around the property on "those big mowers" and they are just going way too fast.

Old Grumpy Guy: Has to call the office every time your crew pulls onto the property, not sure why.

I could go on with this list, but I'm sure you get the point. As a matter of fact, I could probably keep adding to this list and make an entire book out of it.

OK, so I am trying to make light of a serious subject here, but I figured we should have a little fun with this. So what do we do when confronted with the above problem children?

Get it in writing

Here are a few things that can help when it comes to difficult customers.

First, get it in writing. Develop and use a formal, written contract that spells out the payment terms, service specifications, start and end date (this is more for maintenance contracts), legal terms and any other specifics related to the job. This task is best left to an attorney.

When I did my contract for my company I wrote it out and had my attorney review it and add the legal terms to it.

A good contract will help to avoid some of the issues listed above. For example, if payment terms are not agreed upon prior to starting the job, then Mr. Late Payer will use that to his advantage when it comes time to pay the bill.

The Freebie Dude may still come out and ask you to just trim this one tree, but if that one tree is out of the scope of the contract then you have a leg to stand on when you tell him it will be an extra cost.

If your contract has verbiage that allows you, the contractor, to determine the type and size of equipment needed to get the job done, then Speed Racer Complainer may still call to complain, but unless your equipment is damaging his lawn, he will have to understand that the equipment being used may be fast but it is also the right equipment for the job.

So what about some of the other issues listed above?

The Non-Payer needs to be dealt with. This is an issue that unfortunately happens in every business, so you're not alone if you have experienced this frustrating problem. Having a system in place to monitor your receivables daily or at least weekly will help you here. Customers who are past due need to receive a phone call to find out why payment has not yet been made. Stay on top of this before it gets out of hand and the client turns into a deadbeat.

Having a collections service to handle the worst offenders is also a consideration. And don't forget you do have a signed contract with them so if you have to take them to small claims court this will only help prove your case.

Finally we have the people we just can't make happy no matter how hard we try. Or can we? You didn't think I was going to say you should just get rid of that difficult customer did you? Or better yet maybe even refer them to your competition so they will have to deal with all of the headaches.

Yes, sometimes we have to cut customers loose, but that should be a last resort. Instead, ask what you can do to turn things around. Getting a new customer is harder than keeping the ones you already have, so go out on a limb and try to get at the root of the problem.

A lot of issues can be resolved by having a face-to face meeting. I can't tell you how many times this has worked for me over the years. Develop a policy that promotes and encourages your employees to do everything they can to make a customer happy.

So what about The Swearing Guy, The One Upper, The Drama Queen and The Old Grumpy Guy?

Some of them can be dealt with and turned around similarly to what I've already shared in this article. The few that remain, after you have exhausted every resource and effort you have, need to be let go. Do it professionally; don't burn any bridges.

And by the way, Mr. One Upper really gets under my skin, too.

The author is the owner of Southwest Landscape Management, Columbia Station, Ohio, and a partner with his brother, Jeff, in Rak Consulting. Contact him at steve@sw-landscape.com.