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Protect Your Landscape Business from Nightmare Customers

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Business Advice

If it Looks Like a Duck, Walks Like a Duck and Quacks Like a Duck – It’s a Duck!

Before a homeowner decides to work with a contractor, they typically do some “due diligence”.  Wikipedia defines due diligence as “…the investigation of a business or person prior to signing a contract…”.

Homeowners have a variety of options available to them, from checking your references to looking up your business status through agencies like the Better Business Bureau.  Depending on which state you work in, there are insurance requirements that can be verified and license numbers that must be included on your vehicles and in your contracts.

All of these things help protect the homeowner from unscrupulous contractors, fraudulent activity and sub-standard work.  And rightfully so.  Consumers need to be protected.  Heck, when we’re not working as landscape contractors we’re consumers ourselves.  I’m sure you want your consumer rights protected as well.

However, let’s keep our contractor hats for now.

While it’s great that homeowners are protected, I just want to know one thing.

Who protects us?

Where’s the Better Homeowners Bureau or our Angies List? How do we know that the homeowners who call us are who they say they are?  It’s not like we can ask them for the names of other contractors who have worked for them and find out what kind of clients they are or go over to the next door neighbors house and say, “Hey, your neighbor called us about doing some landscape work and I just wanted to find out some things about them. Do you know if they pay their bills? Do they work hard at their jobs? Can you give us the names of some other neighbors that we can contact?”

Let’s be realistic.  This is never going to happen, at least not in our lifetimes.  So as contractors what can we do?  We can just accept it and take our chances or do our own due diligence.

A swimming pool contractor that I work with told me that last year he had a call to finish a project that was started by another swimming pool contractor.  He said that the homeowner complained about the original contractor describing everything from unethical behavior, to “bait and switch” strategies, to unreasonable payment demands.  The homeowner portrayed the original swimming pool contractor as a greedy gunite monster, while proclaiming his own innocence and that he did everything he could to keep the project moving forward and on budget while still working with this maniac contractor.

I will tell you right now, I do not know any professional contractor that would leave a job unfinished and just walk away unless the client was the real nightmare.  Chances are that the contractor was getting taken advantage of and the client was giving him the run around.

Maybe the client was trying to stiff him (which means that you are most likely next in line).  Maybe they were completely unreasonable and wanted everything for free.  Maybe the client couldn’t make decisions or kept changing their minds preventing the contractor from doing his job. Whatever it was, I’m sure that the homeowner was not an innocent bystander.

From my experience, the last thing that any reputable contractor wants to do is leave a project unfinished and in disarray, with money outstanding, regardless of who is at fault.

Like many of you, my pool contractor friend has been around for a while and has seen his share of both nightmare clients and unethical contractors.  Instead of taking the homeowner at his word and diving headfirst into somebody else’s problem he decided to do his own due diligence to try to find out what went on.  Even though there is no such thing as a BHB (Better Homeowners Bureau), there were many things that he could do.

The first and simplest thing is to just Google the client’s name and see what comes up.  Chances are you will find something.  It might bring you to their LinkedIn account or Facebook page.  Maybe they wrote an article or participated in a local marathon. Whatever it is, you can get some information as to who they are personally and professionally. The information is public, so you’re not doing anything wrong.

If you really want to do some research there are paid services like Intelius (www.intelius.com) that will do background checks and provide you with some very specific information.  It’s not expensive and again it is all legal and might be worth the  investment.

Another option is to ask the homeowner outright, who were they working with. If they tell you, call the contractor and get his side of the story to form your own opinion.  If they don’t, then that should send up a second red flag.

Even if the client won’t tell you who the original contractor was, you can still do a little CSI work (or Quincy for you old timers) and do your own “forensic” investigation.  There might be a job sign floating around the property or sitting in the garage.  Or maybe there is a plant tag on a tree or shrub that can lead you to the nursery that supplied the plant material.  If there are pavers on site, determine the brand and make some phone calls and find out who delivered them.

In the case of swimming pools, it’s even easier.  There are very few companies that spray gunite, so getting to the bottom of this particular situation was pretty easy and just as he had suspected the client was the problem, not the contractor.

And as you might have guessed, he walked away from this duck.

Jody Shilan is a former landscape contractor and award winning designer. He has sold tens of millions of dollars of installation work throughout his career and now uses his 30+ years of experience to teach other landscape design/build contractors how to dramatically increase their sales and standardize their landscape design/build/sales process. He does this through private consulting, public speaking, group workshops and his “exclusive” members only website www.FromDesign2Build.com.

Jody Shilan appears as a guest blogger for LMN Blog, Landscape Management Network’s resource hub for all things related to building a better landscape business.  For more on the Landscape Management Network, check out the website at www.landscapemanagementnetwork.com.

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