One of Ben Franklin’s most notable quotes is, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Nowhere is this more appropriate than in the landscaping industry. As you know, we live in difficult times filled with frequent client “challenges” such as claims for damages, refusal to pay valid invoices, assertions of incomplete work, etc.
In the rush of spring planting, fall leaf season, and winter snow and ice management activities, many clients seem ready to challenge whether the work was completed as contracted. A solution we at Image Works Landscape Management use to quickly address such constant challenges is computer tablets.
Using tablets to document job site conditions before, during, and after our crews begin and finish working on a given property has proven invaluable when client challenges regarding work quality and invoicing occur.
By capturing photos and other forms of documentation using our tablets, we have tangible proof in case there’s a dispute about the work performed. A bonus of our documentation practice is we also create valuable staff training resources to assist in constantly improving our crews’ work quality. We can quickly identify areas where additional staff training is needed. We are also able to provide new team members with examples of the high-quality work we strive to produce.
That said, it takes time to produce such valuable documentation…time that often seems impossible to spare when you are in the throes of unyielding schedules and client demands. The temptation to “skip” those documentation steps is sometimes overwhelming, but using a tablet to take before, during and after photos must become standard operating procedure.
However, simply taking the photos isn’t enough. Make it a priority to load and catalog these valuable resources after expending the effort to capture them on your tablet. Failure to upload the photos and documentation you collected on the tablet is like purchasing an expensive home exercise system, never using it, and wondering why you haven’t gotten stronger or healthier.
When invoice and quality disputes occur, the photos and documentation your team took the time to record and upload to your database can quickly and easily be shared with inquiring clients; evidence that the work was done, the quality of work performed, and your invoices are accurate. This should also help to expedite the payment process. Some companies have high-end, landscape-specific software running and are already using tablets. Many smaller companies are not. If your team has not yet implemented this type of documentation process, let’s walk through the steps needed to get started.
Keep in mind it will take some time for your team to become comfortable using a tablet each day, but before you know it, they will become experts at helping to build your company’s documentation database.
Purchase a basic tablet in the $175 to $300 range that has at least a 10-inch screen. This screen size allows you to zoom in on the pictures you will capture. This is particularly important when capturing details such as mulch depth, shrub trim length, lawn heights, ice coverage and thickness, and accurate snow depth. There are many varieties of tablets from which to choose. Some have built-in cellular connectivity that can be connected in real-time with your office server. Monthly cellular rates can range from about $15 to $25. Others have just Wi-Fi capabilities and can be easily uploaded to your system once the tablet is back at your office. Also, consider getting a good protective case that has rubber corners for the many times the tablet will be dropped. (Yes, everyone will eventually drop the tablet…including you!) There are many cases available on the market for around $30.
Set up a Google cloud account, a Microsoft OneDrive account, or an Apple iCloud account to store all the pictures you will be taking over the year. All of these have pricing plans, some of which are free, depending on how much space you use.
Each team leader, account manager, and sales manager will need their own account assigned to the tablet they use. This allows for easy usage accountability. All photos are uploaded, date- and time-stamped, and organized by date after each day’s upload. Account managers can also use photos to alert the client to additional work that could be done.
Photos should be taken before, during, and after each crew works on a property. Be sure to capture EVERYTHING – the good, the bad, and the ugly – so these photos can be used to not only demonstrate the quality of task completion but also for future staff training. All account managers should also take photos during scheduled and impromptu site visits. Remember that the pictures will be time- and date-stamped, which will help with documentation of all service events.
Once your team gets in the habit of documenting all your jobs with photos, you will have an excellent selection of images to not only showcase your team’s work but also to authenticate the work that you did that subsequently supports your invoice.
Use pictures of great work to help train other crews about your company standards and how you want your jobs to look at completion.
Remember that some clients may not require this level of documentation. Many will pay their invoices on time and without question. That’s great! Others may regularly challenge your invoices and invite you to spend hours attempting to prove to them that your team satisfactorily completed the work they were contracted to do. Many of those unpleasant interactions can be avoided! (I have a colleague who always reminds me, “You don’t have to accept every invitation to fight that you receive.”)
By sending before, during, and after photos, and any additional supporting documentation with every invoice, you’ll be surprised at how few “invitations to a fight” you receive. Once you train your clients that you will be providing time- and date-stamped evidence to support your invoices, you’ll notice far fewer challenges and, surprisingly, more prompt payment.
However, be prepared that you may lose a client who unsuccessfully challenges your company about satisfactory work completion. A term we’ve learned recently that explains some clients’ inability to accept the fact that their challenge is inaccurate is “escalation of commitment.”
Wikipedia defines this as “a human behavior pattern in which an individual or group facing increasingly negative outcomes from a decision, action, or investment nevertheless continues the behavior instead of altering course. The actor maintains behaviors that are irrational but align with previous decisions and actions.” Sometimes the ego is too strong to back down.
For example, we had a client leave us a message that our crew never showed up to do contracted leaf removal work. When we returned their call and attempted to learn more about their complaint, they admitted that the crew showed up to do the work, but the work was not done to the quality level expected.
After asking several more questions about what was not satisfactory about the quality, they offered to just split the leaf invoice down the center. This would have given them a 50 percent discount, which would have been a loss of revenue for us of over $400! We obviously declined that offer. We then sent the before, during, and after photos to them.
Upon receipt of the photos that demonstrated the dates and times the work was done, documentation of our team in action on their site, and the quality of the work, they finally backed down and told us they still weren’t pleased with the quality of work, but they would pay the invoice. Seems the documentation our crew captured demonstrated more than the client could deny. They never called back again to schedule more work.
Our documentation process using tablets and software has saved us more times than one can imagine. If your company also provides snow and ice management services, the before, during, and after documentation you capture is even more important as the snow and ice melt and with them go the memories of the work that was done.
At first, taking the time to capture photo images of your team’s work can seem daunting, especially if you’re new to technology and the numerous software solutions available. The mild discomfort you and your team might feel at first with the initial learning curve will be well worth it in the long run. As many personal trainers say to their clients when the workout regimen begins, “A year from now, you’ll wish you started today.” Trust me, just do it!
Written by Mike McCarron. He is president and founder of Image Works Landscape Management, a commercial landscape maintenance and snow removal firm in Fairfax Station, Virginia, and a 22-year veteran of the industry
This article was published in the July/August issue of the magazine. To read more stories from The Edge magazine, click here to subscribe to the digital edition.