Don’t get me wrong, it’s fantastic running your own gardening and landscaping business. If done correctly, you will earn more money than if you were working for a company as an employee as well as choosing your own hours. How ever, there are downsides to running your own business, one of which is bad customers! Which is why I feel it important to share my experiences with those looking to start there own business when it comes to bad customers and how I have dealt with them. This post in particular is based on my worst customer to date, which in the grand scheme of things isn’t that bad. But I’ll let you be the judge of that! Please don’t let this post scare you away from starting your own gardening and landscaping business (or any other business for that matter), as the pros definitely outweigh the cons!
So, where do I begin…
This is a true story, but I won’t be sharing real names, but is based on 2 people, a husband a wife, who for the sake of this post we will call Annabelle and Mark. The last thing I want to do is have them, or someone they know reading this post and knowing it’s about them!
Like most of my new customers, I received a phone call on a sunny afternoon by Annabelle, asking if I can provide landscaping services on her garden. She explained that the work involved was the removal the old decking, raised (brick built) flower beds, the laying of paving to expand the walking space in their garden and to re-render an old existing wall. We had a lovely conversation, I felt confident doing this work and agreed to come and have a look to discuss further with a view to providing a quote for the garden work needed.
A couple of days later, I arrived at Annabelle’s home with an employee of mine called Luke to have a look at the garden. Annabelle was pleased to see us and we were all in high spirits as we walked around the garden measuring everything and talking her through the process. We shaked hands good bye and off I went to send a quote across.
That evening I sent the quote, Annabelle haggled a little (like most of us do), and we settled on a price that we were both happy with. So far, I had nothing to worry about. Just another happy customer looking forward to having her garden transformed, right? No!
Here is when the problems started…
Well, looking back, the first sign of worry actually started on the first day of work. Annabelle wasn’t there in the Morning due to work commitments, but arrived early afternoon. At this point, the skip had already arrived first thing in the Morning and we had removed all of the raised flower beds and was loading the skip up. Upon arrival, she seemed happy and amazed with the amount of work we had accomplished during the day and offered to make us a cup of tea.
It was at this point that Annabelle says, out of the blue:
“I will know if you are an experienced landscape gardener, and if your work is of a good quality as my grandfather was a hard landscaper, and my uncle a shop fitter (rendering)”
I replied with:
“That’s good then, it’ll be nice for someone in a similar field to confirm how good my work is (I say as I laugh, assuming she was joking)”
It’s only as I walk away that Luke explained to me that she wasn’t actually joking and that she was being dead serious that I started to worry. I insisted that no one would say that, and she must have meant it light heartedly, and maybe she is just worried. Who knows, maybe she has had cowboy landscape gardeners in the past and is just trying to be careful. I didn’t think much more of it to be honest!
Day 2 of my landscape gardening project…
Well day 2 is when I met Mark, Annabelle’s husband. I hadn’t met him before, and up until this point, I didn’t even know he even existed. He was waiting for us, sat on his garden chair, as we walked through the back garden. It looked like he was upset about something, so I politely said Hello and thought nothing of it. I didn’t get much of a reply though! The strangest part is that he stayed at there, whilst we unpacked our tools and began to work, Luke’s face (my employee) was a picture to remember. I had never seen someone look so awkward before.
An hour goes by, and I couldn’t stay working whilst being so obviously watched, so I stopped what I was doing and began to start a conversation with Mark.
“It’s a lovely day today Mark, are you enjoying the Sun?”
Mark just nods. No words are spoken.
“Have you lived here long Mark? It looks like a new housing estate”
“About a year”
Just as I thought talking wasn’t one of Mark’s strongest points, he says to me
“Did my wife tell you that I am a shop fitter and I will be checking your rendering work”
Immediately I was annoyed. I honestly could not believe it. I felt like there was no trust in the work that I was providing, despite having a large portfolio of landscaping work, with pictures of before and after work that they were looking for in particular, and here they were watching me! Not only that, but Annabelle had actually told me that it was her Uncle that was the shop fitter, and not her husband! I had to take a short break at this point, just to have a talk with Luke, maybe have a laugh at the situation and recharge ourselves. That’s the best thing about having someone to work with, to laugh and make light of situations. I mean here we had a man who was willing to sit on his chair for 9 hours per day watching us. And this is how it was for the rest of day 2.
Day 3 of my nightmare customer…
The Morning of day 3 was a hard one to wake up to. Knowing that Mark will be there watching us, but hoping that he wasn’t at home. He wasn’t there on the initial meet and he wasn’t there on Day 1, so maybe he won’t be there on day 3! I had to persuade Luke to come to work with me that day as he was adamant that he wouldn’t come in, but I had to be strict with him and tell him that it’s his job regardless of the customer.
Well, Mark was there again! Sitting in his chair! Waiting for us! Watching us! For the hole day! We had hoped to have all of the digging completed on this day, ready to start laying the type 1 MOT ready for paving. I explained to Luke that things won’t be so bad when we start paving as we will be much more relaxed. At this point we just wanted to get out of there!
Annabelle came home at around 3PM, and an argument actually broke out between the 2 of them as she had caught him smoking in the garden. She was trying to bring me into the argument by asking me how many he was having to which I was saying that I haven’t been looking. That I couldn’t possibly know if he had smoked at all! The names they were calling each other was crazy, to the point that I was hoping we’d have the job finished before they divorced! After 3 days of being watched, and the odd instruction here and there about how we should be doing the work to speed things up, we began to worry that they were hoping to have something go wrong. Something small. Something that would stop them from paying upon completion of the work. Something didn’t sit right with me but I had invested too much time and money into the landscaping project that at the same time I did’t want to walk away. I had never walked away before, I never intended to! After all, reputation is everything and the last thing you want is a negative review by a nightmare customer affecting future work as a landscape gardener.
Day 4 of my landscaping project with my worst customer yet…
This is the day where I decided enough is enough! I could deal with being watched, I could even deal with Mark thinking he was better than me, if not everyone else in a skilled trade and giving instructions on how to do things. But I was not prepared for what Annabelle said next.
“Craig this is your 4th day here, and your only just getting started on laying the paving slabs. You do know that the rendering still need doing and I have my party on the weekend, so all of this has to be completed tomorrow or else no one can come into the garden”
I calmly explained that…
“Annabelle, I have been been warned that if my work is not good enough then you will know. Being confident in my work I carried on. I have been watched the entire time and taken instructions and kept my patience. Been forced into an argument between yourself and your husband. And now you are telling me that this work needs to be finished tomorrow. Please can you explain to me, when exactly we had a conversation about your party and that there was a deadline in place”
It’s worth noting that me and Annabelle, or her husband for that matter, had never had a conversation about a party or a deadline. Even in the quotation that I emailed across, I estimated that the work would take 2 weeks to complete, and here she is telling me that I had 1 week. Even if she had read it wrong which is highly unlikely, I make it very clear that everything is estimated.
“Annabelle, if I had known that you had a deadline then I would have never taken the job on out of risk of not finishing the work on time”
I let her know that the paving could not possibly be finished by the deadline, so decided to stop work there and then before coming up with a solution. I offered to lay 20mm shingle over the area that had been dug out and type1 MOT laid and wacker plated so that her guests can enjoy their time in the garden whilst work is going on. She agreed to this. I spent a couple of hours laying the shingle and I went home fort he weekend, coming back on Monday. Oh and instead of a thank you, I got a…
“Craig, you are paying for this shingle aren’t you”
At £100 I swallowed the invoice for an easy life. Just to go home for the weekend a re-evaluate the situation. To come back refreshed.
The day I decided that enough was enough!
So Monday Morning arrives, and I drag myself out of bed, into the van, and into their garden, where I met with Mark yet again! The first thing he says to me is, “where were you on the weekend?”. I told him that I had explained I’d come back on Monday, that I was never planning to work on the weekend (not for these nightmare customers anyway) and that they had a party. He replied with “Oh, so I guess you are providing your gardening and landscaping services for other customers, and that we aren’t a priority for you”.
I told him that I’ve had enough and that I will give Annabelle a call later on that evening to see how we are all feeling. When I called Annabelle, my words were:
“So far on this job, including wages and materials, I am down approximately £3000. I would prefer to walk away now, and lose that £3000 than to carry on working with yourselves as I just can’t do it. I am not saying that you are bad people, I am just saying that we can’t work together”
Annabelle actually apologized for her and Mark’s actions and asked for me to come back. But I respectfully declined her offer. It’s strange because I felt terrible, I thought I’d never walk away from a job, and here I was doing exactly that! Especially on a job that I was perfectly capable of doing, had they just left me alone! But on the other hand, I have people telling me that I was too nice, that I should have charged them for the 20mm shingle as well as the additional labour to lay it, and that I should have sent an invoice for the £3000 I had invested into their garden at that point.
What I have learned about this
Most customers are great. It’s rare to get a bad customer so don’t let it put you off from starting your own business! And it’s OK to walk away from a job considering that it’s for the right reasons!
I am not a cowboy or rogue trader. I take great pride in my work and love being a landscape gardener. There are no short cuts taken in my work and I never over price, I am fair to my customers and expect the same back.
It is OK to walk away from a job providing that it is for the right reasons. But you have to be careful too as no doubt you may get some customers accuse you of leaving a property in a worse condition as to when you arrived. If you are a builder and you knock a hole in the wall before deciding that the customer is not right for you, then fill that hole back up and leave it in the condition that you found it before walking away. In my case, I had removed the flower beds and replaced the ground with 20mm shingle, which is a makeover in itself. I had before and after pictures too. But I am pretty sure that the customer left the garden with shingle and was happy with the free work!
If you are a customer, be careful of rogue traders. But don’t take advantage of true professionals as they may not stand for it. If you are a professional trader, remember that there are rogue customers out there, who don’t pay or cause problems. Always have a contract written out, and take deposits if unsure.
I would love to know your past experiences of bad customers! Please share in the comments below!