Keeping customers happy during unpredictable snowstorms is no easy task. When phone calls and emails start coming in with complaints or requests for more services or issues, do you go above and beyond? As a contractor looking to run a profitable business, where do you draw the line when a customer continues to demand services beyond the contract agreement? See how this PlowSite member handled a difficult situation while maintaining professionalism.
BILLIOUS: My company took on a larger corporate customer with a number of properties this winter, which easily doubled my number of properties. I’m well equipped for it, and we’ve been providing good service. This customer is a nonprofit organization that has retail outlets, a corporate office and a number of residences.
We’ve definitely serviced this client above and beyond the terms of our (well-written) contract, but they are starting to demand services in excess of our contractual terms. I get the impression that since their account manager knows we’re a smaller company and they represent a large amount of business for us, they are pushing us.
Has anyone else been in this situation? The relationship isn’t beyond salvage, yet — but I’ve put my foot down recently, and out-of-scope service requests are being met with T+M billing. Any helpful hints on how to stand firm without damaging the ongoing relationship?
EDGEAIR: Just keep the communication open, maybe have a sit down with the director and review their needs vs. the contract inclusions. Approach things from their needs first, make them feel important. Then compare that to the contract and offer to make an amendment to the contract for $X. Don’t rely on just sending them invoices for extras without the communication to go with it. That will build their resentment and may cause problems over time.
MAXWELLP: Sounds like it is time for a face-to-face sit down to reaffirm what is in the contract and what is not. I think to do this by email, text or phone is just not the same and leaves too much room for misinterpretation. Plus, you cannot read body language to see if it is sinking in.
BILLIOUS: Several face-to-face meetings have been had. Seems reasonable face-to-face, then I get hit with emails that act like nothing we talked about actually happened. I feel like somehow there’s some game happening on the client’s end.
We had an 8-inch snow last week, and we were very proactive plowing with the storm. No fewer than four visits (and we don’t bill per visit, but per depth) to their retail locations. In the afternoon I get an angry phone call saying, “Our retail people are saying you’ve never shown up.” I responded with the times and durations we have visited, and was faced with, “Well, you still need to go over there right now and meet with our store managers.”
Next day, I get called to one location because “It’s drifted, and why did you go out starting at 9 p.m. last night knowing the wind will blow all night? You should go out no earlier than 4 a.m. and be done by 7:30 a.m. on a storm like that.” (Nine inches, and we service 20 properties of theirs). I show up at the site, there isn’t a single drift, things look great, the store manager’s complaint is that there is still some hard-pack on the pavement at a loading dock. Hardpack was melted by 1:45 p.m.
A few days later, we get a panic phone call that a fire hydrant has been buried at a different location. I show up, dig it out and send a photo that reflects that the neighboring property’s snow contractor pushed a pile onto my client’s property, covering the hydrant.
Client has a 1.6 acre lot at a corporate facility, where they want the entirety of the lot to be pushed to one corner where there is a drain field. Problem is, for most of the winter they’ve kept a semi-trailer parked where to the drain field is. So, with the 9-inch storm, we pushed to another corner and now they are demanding we move the entire pile at our expense (nothing in our contract says that all snow must go to the drain field). Same property, they keep storage containers parked at the end of the lot. Our contract says we don’t plow within 3 feet of a parked vehicle or obstruction, but they are demanding our walk crew clear a whole line of parked storage containers every storm at no additional cost.
We provide top-notch service, and our prices are competitive. But I feel like I’m caught up in some corporate power struggle game, and I don’t appreciate it.
EDGEAIR: Sounds like you are beyond the face-to-face damage control. Maybe the next step is to make a professional letter outlining all the things you have listed and handdeliver it to this person, and cut and paste the sections of your contract that apply to each instance. Explain what happened, and show why they have to pay extra. Let them know that you can provide a copy to each manager, but he should issue a company memo indicating what is not included. Stick to your guns, otherwise they will keep walking over you.
MARK OOMKES: Sounds like someone had a preferred contractor and that contractor lost out to you and the contact person isn’t happy. Been there, done that. I fired the customer. I’d go with another face-to-face and be blunt. Tell them what you see vs. what they request.
BILLIOUS: I’ve been proactive about logging contacts, taking pictures, etc. As I’ve said before, I have no doubt that our service has been above industry standard. We’re a small company, and it would hurt to lose this customer going in to the growing season and for subsequent snow seasons. But I have to put my foot down and defend our right to bill for work above and beyond contract terms. For what it’s worth, here’s a redacted version of what I emailed him this morning:
CLIENT, I’m sorry to hear there are still lingering concerns, as I was under the impression we had addressed these items during my site visit last Thursday? Regarding your bullet point items:
As to the snow pile at the northeast corner, we discussed that snow was piled there because a semi-trailer had been parked longterm blocking access to your drainage field. We do not have the capability to move your trailers, and we have had our hands tied in choosing where to stack snow. You have a very large lot, and any comparable lot we’ve ever cleared has had multiple storage points, as well as mid-lot piles. It’s commonly understood that in snowmanagement, some lot space will eventually be lost to snow piles — unless arrangements are made for post-event pile management.
When we receive a 9-inch snow fall, the existence or lack-thereof of previous snow accumulation becomes moot. With 72,000 square foot of parking lot, 9-inch-deep — with drifts up to 4-feet-deep, all pushed to one area, we are going to lose storage space. It would have been good to use the drain field to the east of the building, but once again your organization had completely blocked our access to push snow there.
That being said, on Monday the 2nd we mobilized with the skid-steer and cleaned up some piles in the lot at no charge to CLIENT. When I met with you in person earlier that day, I asked if there were any other piles that needed to be addressed. I specifically mentioned the snow near the shipping containers, and the response from you was “No, it’s OK, we have a snowblower.” No mention was made of the pile in the northeast at that meeting.
Tuesday the 3rd, I received an email from you with concerns from your transportation manager — regarding the pile in the northeast. I sent several responses asking if we could meet, and mentioned I could get a skid-steer mobilized same day — and received no response.
Thursday the 5th, we met in person, and you pointed out that you expected the snow pile in the northeast to be moved or managed, and that the snow in front of the shipping containers needed to be cleared. We discussed in the company of your transportation manager that the drainage field was being blocked by a trailer, and developed a plan to make space for that trailer elsewhere. I then cleared a space in the grass for that trailer and used my plow to stack and relocate snow at the northeast pile. Once again, I did not charge CLIENT anything for this.
I followed up Thursday with an email where I stated the following: “I used the plow to clear out the northeast pile — hopefully enough to make things accessible for your trucks. Please let me know if that is not sufficient. I did all I could with a plow, but if we need the skid-steer I will move the pile for the 1-hour minimum price listed on the contract and will eat any additional time/cost past an hour. I hope you recognize that trucks have been getting repositioned frequently, so we’ve been trying to anticipate traffic patterns in a very dynamic environment.” I re-sent this email after a phone call on the 9th as well with no response.
The point I would like to make is that we have been extremely responsive AND proactive with your accounts, and I’m having difficulty accepting responsibility for addressing conditions that are not of our making. When we initially met in October, I told both CLIENT and yourself that working with CONTRACTOR will represent a good balance between service and cost. I believe we have gone far above and beyond on a number of occasions, while providing service at a cost that is below market price for a lot of such size and challenges. I’ve always done my best to be flexible and reasonable, without nickel-and-diming my customers. But with the goal-post constantly moving, I think I need to be clear about some of our contract provisions:
“Unless otherwise specified in writing, service areas are to include all parking lots, driveways, city sidewalks and entranceways. All snow will be retained on-site. Skid-steer service for management of drifts and piles available at $150 for the first hour, and $130 per hour thereafter (1-hour minimum).”
“CONTRACTOR will not plow or sand/ salt within 3 feet from any parked vehicles, equipment or other obstructions in parking lots, drives or other areas being cleared. Please attempt to move obstructions prior to our services being completed.”
We have already — on two occasions — come to move piles around at the CORPORATE OFFICE, with no charge. We have mobilized to your RETAIL property to uncover a firehydrant that was covered AFTER service by the neighboring property’s contractor, at no charge. I have come by for a number of site inspections and meetings at no charge. I’m happy to ensure that you receive quality service, but that service must be within the realm of the reasonable and based on contractual obligations.
I will be happy to honor my offer from last week to bring by a skid-steer to manage the northeast pile based on a 1-hour minimum charge. As part of that service, we will gladly remove the snow that’s in front of your parked containers. As far as ongoing service, we can have our walks crew maintain clearance in front of those containers from here on out — but as that was not factored into the cost of our original bid (“We will not plow within 3 feet of a parked vehicle, equipment or other obstruction.”), we would ask for the following price increase:
- 0-3” – ($15 more than original price)
- 3-6” – ($21 more than original price)
- 6-9” – ($30 more than original price)
- 9-12” – ($42 more than original price)
This is a very modest increase that will reflect the added labor time for what was out of scope of our original bid.
As always, I’m here to provide exceptional service and will do all that is in my control to ensure that you get the best value for your money.
EDGEAIR: It’ll be interesting to see their response. Well done.
BILLIOUS: If their response is anything other than “You’re right, you’ve been awesome to work with, I totally remember our in-person conversations right now, let me take you out for a beer,” I’m probably going to cancel their service.
Mark Oomkes: I’ll put $100 on the fact that you were lower than the other guy, the contact was forced to accept your bid and he doesn’t like it, just like I said in my first post. He is making your life miserable so he can hire the other contractor back when you quit.
EDGEAIR: I’ve had that happen before, and I was even a tenant in the building. The lot has looked like crap ever since, but one of the other tenants was a good friend with the “other guy.”
DEREKSLAWNCARE: My hat’s off to you. I think you have handled this situation with the utmost professional and patient attitude. I think I would have lost my cool some time ago. I will say that I do have one customer that is a church. Very nice to work with, but it seems like just about every bill ends up with a phone call and me having to explain/defend everything that was done, even though it is explained clearly on the bill. I think that “not for profits” honestly feel as though they are owed something for free just because. Don’t know if that might be part of the issue here for you, but [it’s] just my opinion.
CAMDEN: Nice job on that email. I’ve never had a customer be that needy, so my hat’s off to you for handling yourself in such a professional manner.
BILLIOUS: Customer has since responded to other matters. But this email hasn’t been responded to yet.
I take a lot of pride in providing an honest service, and doing the right thing — even when it comes at my expense. But I can honestly say we’ve given this customer the VIP treatment, and that their expectations have been completely unreasonable.
ALLAGASHPM: Honestly, it is guys like you that are doing good things for this industry. That was a great email, well thought out and well written. You keep documenting like you are and keep everything in writing. Don’t let them try to push you around because you’re a “small company.”
SNOCRETE: I’m dealing with an unreasonable manager. I’ve decided to go over them, to corporate, and file a complaint. I found summer contractors that do work for this facility and are willing to write a letter describing the manager’s rudeness and unreasonable requests outside of agreed terms.
BILLIOUS: Customer never responded to this email. But all interactions since have been amicable, and we are meeting tomorrow morning to sign the contract for warm-season services. We’ve only had two snow events since this all went down, and services were met with no complaint.
Sorry to give such an anti-climactic response, but that shows that my email did what it needed to do — set the relationship with the customer into balance without damaging said relationship. At least that’s how I hope it ends up!
DEREKSLAWNCARE: Good job for handling it like a professional and glad it worked out for you.