January 9, 2018

Protect yourself at all times


Rod McDonald “Protect yourself at all times” is the last instruction boxers receive from referees prior to a bout. For those of you who are not boxing aficionados it means, “Keep your hands up even when a blow is not apparent.” Simple, right? Boxers understand the cardinal rule: If you are not protecting your head, then who is? 

As contractors, greenhouse people, garden centre operators, architects and all others associated with our green trade, this rule applies to us as well. If we do not protect ourselves from incoming blows, then who will? Consumers have protection laws and The Better Business Bureau, as well as the courts. Contractors and others in our business also have the courts but they are costly, time consuming and rarely does a victor emerge with much in the way of spoils. Many years ago I took a fellow to court for a $1,200 bill. I won and that was the good news. It cost me $1,300 to ensure my victory. 

There is no Better Business Bureau equivalent where a contractor can call a number and find a report on a potential customer. Is the customer the type who demands extras for no charge? Does he pay bills promptly or drag payments out? 

There are warning signs, sometimes easy to read and others a bit more difficult. What brings about this conversation was the following Facebook posting. Have a read:
I’ve got the stone ready and no one seems to want to work on my garden bed walls.

I have had people out and either give me outrageous quotes or no quote at all. Then had someone lined up for work today and he’s a no show.
Would like someone to work on these stones and know what they are doing.

If you would like this job send me some pics of your work and come out to give me a quote and perhaps start working on this for me!

This is an easy one, filled with all the warning signs. Quotes are too high, some don’t bother to return with quotes and one agrees to work but does not show up. Something is going on within this situation that has consistently scared contractors away. I don’t know what it is, exactly, but both you and I have a pretty good idea. 
Over the years I have learned, from quoting, that customers who complain vehemently about the last three contractors will include you as their fourth. I find it highly unlikely any person would have such a run of bad luck, with three bad contractors in a row. 
Most customers are good to work for, but a few are the equivalent of the seedy contractor from the other side of the equation. There are those who will never be happy, no matter what you do for them. One of my friends described his former steak house employer, “If God was her contractor, she would still not be happy.” 
There are those who want reduced pricing. No legitimate reason, it is just what they want. Some argue that if you provide a sizable discount, they will tell many people and you will get more work from referrals. These people are lying. They will not get you more work; if by chance they do, those referrals will be similar to the sender, demanding and cheap. Notice how polite I am regarding these people? Some customers will cost you money, not make you money. If this is your first year in business, you do not want customers who cost you money. After a year, everyone knows that statement to be true. 

When starting out in business, I had no choice but to respond to all leads and requests for quotes. My phone did not ring continually at the beginning of my career. I had no guardian angel directing traffic and I went where I was asked to go. As time went by, I built up a customer base of regulars, and after a few years, the majority of my work came from that established customer base. I am grateful to this day that I had a list of loyal clients, because I didn’t have to put up with the grinders and bargain hunters any more. I had paid my dues. 
Protect yourself at all times. Not all wolves wear wolves’ clothing. Some actually do hide in sheep’s clothing. We had the nicest pair of sisters shopping in our Christmas store. Polite, well mannered and they knew quality. I was flattered that such well-heeled customers recognized my place as the place for Christmas. They did not care for any of the trees displayed on the floor and they asked to see a catalogue. They carefully examined it, chose a very expensive tree and asked for it to be ordered without haste. Is this one of those stories that sounds all too familiar? The sisters were provided with a price, no problem, and a quick delivery date with me picking up that added cost. The tree arrives but “It is not really what we were looking for. It just doesn’t have the panache.” Sigh, big sigh. I now have a very high-end tree on display that cost me a bundle with expedited delivery.
I am stressed and upset — or are they the same? One of my staff arrives for work, takes me aside and asks about the sisters. She had worked at Birks for many years, and informs me the sisters were well known for their stunts. She tells me Birks had to actually present the sisters with a letter informing them, due to their consistent returns, all sales would be final. Their return privilege had been suspended. According to my staff person, this was the only time Birks in Regina had done such a thing. No wonder my well-heeled sisters had left downtown, and were now playing in the outside edges amongst the garden centres. When I think back upon this event so many years ago, I smile. I was conned. They said all the right things to flatter me and I took it all in, sheep’s clothing and all. Protect yourself at all times. 

After having been burnt on more than one occasion, I insisted on deposits for special orders, required payment for items being held, signed contracts for landscape work, including notations on the scope of the work and screening of customers. 
Asking for deposits on special orders is common practice, and for good reason; I have had people not show up to purchase special-ordered items. Most people have a credit card, and a telephone deposit is easy to conduct.
After having more than one person ask me to hold an order, and never seeing them again, I wrote a ditty: If it is on hold it has to be sold. My worst-case scenario was the fellow who had me hold eight large mugo pines. I called and called. Each time he assured me he would pick them up the following week. Soon it was fall, then winter, and the following spring he finally admitted he had purchased them elsewhere. If you hold an item for a customer that is not paid for, you have given him permission to shop elsewhere.
To quote landscape architect Joe Daly, who I enjoyed working with on projects, “I have had loose agreements and I have had tight agreements, and in the final analysis, I have always been much happier with tight agreements.” That sums up how I feel about landscaping agreements. The tighter the better, and a deposit demonstrates a commitment to you.
Asking other contractors about a potential customer is a good business practice. Finding out who is trouble, and who is good as gold, is an important step in every relationship. Why not? Customers ask for references on contractors all the time; the goose and the gander sauce is equal. I had a good customer who was also an astute businessperson. In1982, he told me, “The first rule of business is to know who you are doing business with.” I have never forgotten that adage and it has kept me in good fortune when I have remembered to practice it. 

Protecting ourselves at all times keeps us on the road to success. 
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.