April 15, 2010
The following letter to the editor is a comment on Rob Kennaley’s Legal Issues column from the February 2010 Horticulture Review.

I enjoyed your article (When you and your client are on different pages) about natural products. A number of years ago, I did a project involving natural stone. A sample was shown to the client, and when the job was done he complained that the colour of the stone was lighter than the sample.  I tried to explain the variation was due to the fact that it was a natural product, and the colour is determined from where and how deep in the quarry the stone is taken. I also pointed out that the stone was delivered a week prior to installing, and that no comments were made until after all of the stone was put into place, which took several days for installation. I agreed to a discount, but realized that all along they did not want to pay the contract price.  

Since this time, I have changed the way I do business. First, we always tell customers that material will vary from samples, and we show them the product when it arrives on site. Personal face-to-face communication is the best way to avoid problems – unfortunately we usually have to learn from a past problem. But the most important thing is that we choose the customers who we work for. It is a relationship unlike any other. The bigger the job, the more time is spent dealing with them and the more important the relationship becomes. If you have a hard time getting to the contract stage, due to changes and other difficulties, just imagine 12 weeks or more dealing with this same client. It is a sure way to lose money.

Many years ago, I read an excellent article in the Journal of Light Construction, which touched on this philosophy. One contractor even went so far as to get prospective clients checked as to past court actions. One potential job, for which he had received a large deposit, had 10 such past red flags. He returned the deposit cheque the next day, stating that a current job was extended which would not allow him to meet the client’s timeline.  

We need to learn to use judgment to evaluate a potential client. Do they seem to complain about all of the past contractors that they have dealt with?  Do they have unfinished projects? Who did the front yard landscaping just the previous year, and why are they calling you? Are their timelines reasonable for the work to be started and/or completed? Do they seem to listen to what you say, or do they know everything and how it should be done?

Homeowners and the press always complain about bad contractors, and there are lots of them out there, but there are many homeowners who we should leave to someone else maybe the bad contractors. The skill to determine with whom to do business is as important, and maybe more important, to success than the skill required to complete the work. We continue to learn from past clients and apply lessons to new potential leads. Once in a while, and it seems this is coming more frequently, we are invited to the client’s big party to be shown off with pride. That truly makes all the hard work, worth the effort.
Marc Arnold
Rockcliffe Landscaping, Ottawa