Working with Difficult Clients: When to Stay and When to Go - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Working with Difficult Clients: When to Stay and When to Go

As a lawn care or landscape company providing a service, you are bound to encounter difficult clients. While you can’t control another person’s behavior, you can control how often you end up working with these individuals and how you respond to them. If handled properly, you can even transform these ‘problem’ customers into loyal proponents of your business.

“Even a formerly difficult customer could become a loyal easy-going customer, if you get the relationship right,” says Brandon Sheppard, a Weed Man franchisor in the Mid-Atlantic.

Proactive Practices

A key to avoiding working with difficult customers is to know your preferred client niche. Paul Fraynd, LIC, co-owner of Sun Valley Landscaping, based in Omaha, Nebraska, says often you get upset clients when you make an exception or do a job outside of your wheelhouse.

Typically, the cause of a customer being difficult comes down to a communication issue. Fraynd says they work to keep the customer informed every step of the way but if a customer is reaching out too much, they will pick up the phone and call them.

“Don’t reply to an angry email,” Fraynd says. “Because you can misconstrue their tone. Pick up the phone and say ‘Hey, let’s get back on the same page.’”

If a client isn’t being responsive, Fraynd suggests trying different methods of communication.

“Sometimes you just have to say, ‘Hey, look, unless we get confirmation, we’re going take you off the schedule’ and then all of a sudden they answer,” Fraynd says.

In the same vein of proper communication, it is important to set clear boundaries and expectations from the beginning of the relationship.

Josh Flynn, CEO of Seabreeze Property Services, based in Portland, Maine, says it’s their responsibility to match the customer’s expectations and present that in a thorough and detailed proposal/sales process so everyone is on the same page. In addition, he says there needs to be ample follow-up to make sure their service is aligning with the customer’s expectations.

“I think it’s easy to assume that the customers are always the problem and they ‘just don’t get it’ but I think difficult customers are made, not born,” Flynn says. “If that’s the case, then the very few just picky and awful customers will gradually filter out of your portfolio and the reasonable and understandable ones will stick around for a long time. When you aren’t clear you leave the door open for assumptions to be made which is way different than expectations being met or unmet.”

Loriena Harrington, LIC, owner of Beautiful Blooms LLC, based in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, says her company has pretty lengthy descriptions of their services written into their contracts. If a client takes the time to read it, they’ll get some education about what Beautiful Blooms does and why they’re doing it.

“We can tell right away if they’ve read the contract, based on the questions they asked,” Harrington says.

If a client is disappointed that something wasn’t included or if the company did something they weren’t anticipating, Harrington says they will refer back to the contract. Fraynd says they also make sure to put the scope of work in writing.

“No verbal agreements,” Fraynd says. “I trained my sales team even if you just had a verbal conversation you need to follow up with an email.”

Sheppard says another issue can be when businesses are only thinking about a visit from a technical perspective and aren’t putting themselves in the homeowner’s shoes.

“I think one of the problems that our businesses and so many businesses fall into is we start trying to define what a good service relationship is from a very self-serving perspective,” Sheppard says. “We don’t do a good enough job putting ourselves in the shoes of the consumer. What is their understanding of what we do, how we deliver it, what were their expectations in terms of the results they are going to see and the manner in which we deliver our work?”

He says one of the best ways to prevent customers from being upset is to reduce conflict or friction wherever possible and anticipate their questions and concerns. Leading the conversation and framing what the customer will experience will help get their expectations right from the start.

Red Flags to Watch For

Unrealistic timelines or expectations are a major red flag to watch for as it will be easy to disappoint and upset a customer when you can’t meet them.

“We can’t operate on rigid timelines with no flexibility,” Harrington says. “The shorter the timeline, the more flexibility there has to be. If you tell me in April the family wedding in the backyard is in October, that’s not an issue. If you call me in April and say that graduation is in three weeks and you need your yard to look amazing, but it’s been neglected for two years, I can’t do anything about that.”

Harrington says another red flag is on the initial sales call if the potential client is complaining about all their previous landscape companies.

“The common denominator there is the client,” Harrington says. “That’s my biggest red flag and it’s usually early in the conversation.”

However, Harrington will ask more questions to determine if they’ve truly worked with some bad contractors or if the complaints were something out of the previous landscapers’ control.

“If you’re paying attention from the beginning you can probably know if they’re going to be difficult,” Fraynd says. “For example, if they start with ‘I fired the last seven landscapers that came here because they couldn’t do XYZ.’ That could be either an opportunity or they’re just not a good person to work with.”

Flynn says one red flag during the contract negotiation stage is if there is a lot of nitpicking on prices or suggestions to reduce services that are going to cause other issues that you’d be held responsible for, such as weeding monthly versus biweekly.

“Some are always going to be particular about price and if they can’t be convinced of the value of our services then it’s probably best we part ways,” Flynn says.

Sheppard says everyone can easily identify the nightmare customer, the ones who you’re never going to make happy.

“If you’re not going to make them happy, just part ways,” Sheppard says. “Do it professionally, do it amicably. It’s better for your team to not get berated by someone you can’t make happy.”

Transformation Through Education

A lot of times a client may be disappointed or upset because of misaligned expectations. By taking the time to educate and explain the reason behind your actions, you can strengthen the customer relationship and build trust because you watched out for their best interest.

“Education is one of our main ways to differentiate ourselves from our competitors,” Harrington says. “A lot of times when somebody requests something that seems a little off the wall or inappropriate, we will go out of our way to educate them to let them know why we don’t do it in that way or why we don’t offer that service.”

Fraynd says sometimes they’ll get new fall cleanup clients who expect them to prune everything indiscriminately. If they complain, Sun Valley will share information from the University of Nebraska Extension Office about the proper pruning times for various plants.

“In our line of work people sometimes feel that it’s very simple and easy and you can get it done at Home Depot, but when you truly describe even a fertilizer program or a pruning program to do it properly it’s a lot of work,” Fraynd says. “So that’s where that education can come in.”

Sheppard says while the customer is not always right, they do have a right to be upset. The best thing to do is to listen to them. Once they’ve been heard you can start educating them or fixing a problem.

“There’s a skill to asking questions effectively and it’s a very effective tool for us when dealing with upset customers,” Sheppard says. “Questions suggest to the customer empathy, and that you’re listening and you’re a partner in resolution, but they also allow you to take control of the conversation.”

Flynn says they always try to salvage relationships and spend a lot of time and money to provide a good experience and quality service.

“We are always open to joining board meetings, facilities meetings, property walkthroughs, whatever is going to help mitigate the situation through explanation of our actions and strategy,” Flynn says.

He says in recent years they have provided more financial education to explain the increase in their costs. Flynn has even brought in state scientists to provide further background on things like soil conditions and turf health to help illuminate the need for certain services and actions in order to improve their communities.

“We regularly have retention rates in the mid 90 percent range for our grounds maintenance contractual customers and a lot of that is due to the level of attention we pay to their individual needs and how hard we work on maintaining relationships,” Flynn says.

Terminating a Relationship

There is no set rubric as to when a client is no longer worth working with, but Fraynd says they try to treat their customers just like their employees in terms of fitting their values. Harrington says if a customer is derogatory towards her staff, using racial or gender slurs, that’s a deal-breaker.

“As soon as trust is broken and respect is not there, we’re done working with each other,” Harrington says. “It’s toxic for myself. It’s toxic for my entire team. It’s not to say that we’ll easily throw a client relationship away, but I have many other clients to protect and a team to keep engaged.”

She says if she’s sending employees to an environment where they feel they’re going to be trapped by bad reports due to someone’s unreasonable expectations, that’s not fair to them.

“I really go to bat for my employees to make sure that they’re protected, that they feel valued and respected on the worksites,” Harrington says.

Sheppard says before ending a customer relationship you should strive to get the situation to a neutral position and the dispute is resolved.

“Unhappy customers aren’t good for you and they aren’t good for your brand,” Sheppard says. “You have an ongoing risk of your brand and reputation in terms of how they talk to other people about your brand, or how they might review you on online platforms.”

The more sensitive a situation is, the higher quality of communication should occur. Because texting and email are one-dimensional and hard to express emotion you should upgrade to a call or meeting face-to-face to resolve the issue as it’s easier to convey empathy.

“A lot of times just escalating the quality of communication will do a lot to defuse a situation,” Sheppard says.

When it comes to actually telling a client you will no longer be working with them be honest and factual.

“The phrase we most often use is: ‘While not every landscape company is a great fit for each client, not every client is a great fit for our landscape company,’ Harrington says. “We add in a few additional sentences to round it out, keeping it extremely professional. If it was not a good fit because of service needs but the client was otherwise great to work with, we will refer them to another company.”

Flynn says they will do everything possible to see a contract through to the end and simply opt to not renew the contract.

“I send them a signed formal letter from myself letting them know that we are parting ways,” Flynn says. “Most often these are polite, at times they aren’t if there are egregious acts committed against our employees or the company at large. We once had a customer leave an unmarked brown package on the doorstep of our front office with written threats. It turned out to be a box of leaves they accused us of not grabbing but I drew a line on that type of behavior.”

If for whatever reason a difficult client leaves a negative review, it’s important to respond to the review, to the extent that’s appropriate, with the facts of the matter.

“One of the most important things is to remember that when you’re responding to an online review, especially a negative review, you’re not actually responding to the reviewer,” Sheppard says. “You’re responding to every person who might read that review.”

Sheppard says you want potential customers who read your responses to the negative and positive reviews and see a responsible, professional and accountable brand.

This article was published in the March/April issue of the magazine. To read more stories from The Edge magazine, click here to subscribe to the digital edition.

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.