The Key To Successful Client Relationships
by Joelle Steele
Communication. No greater cliché ever existed. This overused term was the catchword of the eighties and we still haven't stopped bandying it about in the 21st century! Why? Because for all its hackneyed connotations, it remains the one word that represents the single, most reliable method of establishing understanding and agreement between people, and of solving problems both before and after they occur.
In relationships with clients, communication is the key to success. It is the most comprehensive, all-encompassing means of maintaining a solid client base. By implementing sound communications techniques from the onset, client turnover and the complaint volume can be reduced dramatically.
ADVERTISING - FIRST CLIENT CONTACT
Communication is found not only in the way you and your employees handle conversation with clients, but in the written words you use to attract them in the first place. Advertising is the first contact a prospective client has with you or your company. Whether your advertising consists of a yellow pages ad or a flyer, it must communicate your professionalism and your staff must be prepared to back up that image.
The appearance of your advertising will communicate not only what you have to offer, but will also attract a particular kind of client. A neatly-drawn, typeset advertisement, flyer, or brochure, with everything properly spelled and all of your services listed, will attract clients who are looking for someone who knows what they are doing. A crudely-drawn marketing tool can be very risky as it may not only attract a client with a very tight budget, but may even attract an unscrupulous one who sees you as a naive entrepreneur of whom they can take advantage.
TELEPHONE - SECOND CLIENT CONTACT
Once a prospective client has seen your ad, he or she will call your office. This is the second form of contact the prospective client will have with your company before meeting you. The response received to their call will further substantiate your advertisement or negate it entirely. Who answers your phone? You, a secretary, an answering service, or a machine? A live voice in the form of a secretary is preferable, but since most small businesses have answering machines, you should learn how to use this device properly.
Nothing sounds worse than a scratchy old tape recording that is poorly scripted and narrated. I heard this one recently when I called a general contractor to do some work for me: "Hi (pause) this is Jack (pause, shuffling sounds) I'm not here (pause and throat clearing) so please leave me a message (long, scratchy pause) and I'll call you back." No last name, no company name, not even a confirmation that I reached the right number. This message said a lot. It confirmed for me that an answering machine is not the mark of a non-professional, but that a message such as Jack's certainly is.
Once you make phone contact with the prospective client (whether it's you or an employee who connects with them) exercising good communication skills should be your utmost priority. Be sure that you and your employees take the time to answer the phone as if you all want to talk to the caller. Try to sound cheerful even if you are dog-tired and longing to go home for the day. Speak clearly so that your prospective client can understand you, get their name (spelled properly), and all their particulars, and exercise good telephone etiquette while doing so. Remember to say please, thank you, may I, etc. Avoid long, tedious preambles that sound contrived and are often unintelligible: "Thank-you-for-calling-the-ABC-Plant-Company-serving-the-greater-Los-Angeles-metropolitan-area-this-is-Joan-Smith-how-can-I-help-you?" Keep it short and sweet: "Hello, ABC Plant Company." Put the "may I help you" in your tone of voice and offer your name only after you find out whether the client needs to know it or not.
During the first telephone contact, it is a good idea to screen callers to see if they fit your criteria for a prospective client. If you only service the small residential accounts in the city of Riverton and the caller is a large commercial account thirty miles away in Glenview, then why pursue the conversation further unless you are already prepared for and in the process of expanding into commercial service in that city? Learn to say no. It's your best defense against potential client problems.
You can tell a great deal about the personality of a prospective client during your telephone conversation. If they are rude or abrupt on the phone, if they expect you there yesterday, if they are already whining and complaining before you've even met, you might want to take a pass. They are communicating that they will be difficult to work with. Listen and heed that message.
SALES PRESENTATION - THIRD CLIENT CONTACT
By the time you have set up an appointment for a sales presentation, you will hopefully have weeded out most of the potential problem clients. The sales presentation is the third contact that your prospective client has with you and your company, and it is a critical one. It sets the premise for all future client relations because it is the time during which promises are made to be kept — or broken. Rule number one for sales presentations is "be prepared," and rule number two is "be on time."
Being prepared means two things: dressing the part and knowing your business. Make every attempt to dress for a business meeting. Schedule your appointments at times when you can change out of your maintenance duds into more appropriate clothing. If casual wear is acceptable in your geographic area it should be clean and upscale, not something you drag out of the hamper to wear while cleaning the garage on a Saturday. If you cater to a "classy" clientele, put on your finest. Your wardrobe communicates your knowledge of your prospective client's lifestyle and your desire to conduct business on a professional level.
Have everything you need with you: pictures, brochures, business cards, forms, price lists, etc. If you want to appear organized, be organized and carry everything in a neat briefcase or portfolio. Know what it is that you need to say to your prospective client. Rehearse if necessary. If you are not prepared, the next interior landscaper making a sales presentation surely will be.
Being on time means only one thing: if the appointment is scheduled for 10:00, be knocking at the prospective client's front door or be standing in front of the receptionist's desk no later than 10:00. Period. Punctuality communicates respect and courtesy for other people whether it is for a sales meeting or for any scheduled contact. The prospective client is taking time out of his or her busy schedule just to meet with you and to offer you an opportunity to do business. If at all possible come about three to five minutes beforehand. Appearing any earlier can make you appear too eager, even desperate, or you may appear to have no other business to take care of. If you must be late, call and apologize, let them know how late you expect to be, and offer them the chance to reschedule.
Greet your prospective client with all the proper business courtesies: a warm hello, a firm handshake, an exchange of names, and a sincere smile. Avoid wisecracks or telling jokes. A sense of humor is fine, but let the client initiate it and do not carry it on excessively. Go for a friendly but business-like rapport.
Your sales presentation should communicate everything that a prospective client could possibly want to know about you and your company and you should not make any promises that you either cannot or do not intend to keep. What you say in a sales presentation is what the prospective client will use to make a decision to do business with you — or not. Many people believe that such decisions are made based solely on dollars and cents, and some of the very large corporate accounts are. But, most are based on the trust and rapport that is established between the sales person and the prospective client.
Gather information. Asking questions communicates your interest and concern for the welfare of their existing or future interior landscapes. It shows that you want to give them what they want and need and that you are willing to do whatever it takes to understand those wants and needs thoroughly. Likewise, if prospective clients ask you questions for which you lack an immediate answer, be honest and tell them that you do not know but that you will find out — and do just that by following up within 24 hours.
Another important part of your communication during sales presentations should be geared towards educating prospective clients on what they can and cannot expect from you and your company, and from interior landscape services in general. It is folly to assume that everybody knows what an interior landscape contractor does or that they know all the pitfalls of plant care. You are the expert; communicate your expertise.
WRITTEN AGREEMENTS - FOURTH CLIENT CONTACT
Some small business entrepreneurs balk at the very idea of a written agreement. They view a contract as an unnecessary piece of bureaucratic red tape and avoid using one. This is unfortunate, because a well-written contract is the single most important piece of communication that any interior landscape company can ever have with a client.
Most contracts are submitted to the prospective client in the form of a proposal/contract combination. You can call yours an agreement or a contract. They are one in the same thing: a complete outline of your responsibilities and those of your client. A contract is meant to communicate in writing what your spoken mutual intentions are with regard to your business association.
If you are promising weekly service it should say so in your contract and it should further state exactly what that weekly service should entail. Is pest control included? How about trimming of the 15' ficus trees in the food court? Is color rotation billed separately? What about holiday plants? Do you service plants on holidays weeks? What happens if the 4th of July happens to be the regularly-scheduled service day? What constitutes a plant that needs replacement? How is such a replacement handled? Is it free? What happens if the proposed replacement plant is in dispute? Will your company pick up half the cost? Twenty-five percent? When is payment due and what happens if the client does not pay or if they bounce a check?
You can probably think of many other items that should be included in a contract. It can seem like an overwhelming amount of information, but most of it, if written properly, can be contained in a two- to three-page document. The idea is not to intimidate, but to confirm information that has already passed between you and your prospective client orally during the course of the sales presentation. If you do not confirm that communication in writing, you may be opening yourself up to potential problems. What happens two years down the road, when an expensive specimen takes a dive and you say it's the client's fault and they say you promised to replace anything that died? Did you actually say that in the sales presentation? You may have. On the other hand, the client may have forgotten that you also qualified it by saying, "...any plant that we kill." Most words fade away with time. A written contract can last forever. [Check out my contract templates for the horticultural industry.]
ADMINISTRATION - PERIODIC CLIENT CONTACT
If you are doing the maintenance yourself you have constant contact with your clients and you know first-hand what is going on at every account. As soon as you hire employees, that all-knowing, all-seeing ability begins to disappear. You may not see a client more than once a month for a quality control visit, if you even manage to get there that often.
The administration of your clients will be relegated to billing, work orders, new proposals, rate hikes, notifications of change in technicians, and any other new policies which you and your company decide to implement. The importance of these seemingly impersonal documents must not be minimized or overlooked. They eliminate confusion and insure that details are being handled properly, and they provide a permanent record of all your business transactions. If a client ever complains that something was not done, you have it in writing that it was.
One of the most important periodic administrative chores is that of quality control. Showing up at regular intervals to inspect your accounts communicates your concern for your clients and your pride in workmanship. It also helps you stay on top of how your employees are doing and gives your clients an opportunity to voice simple concerns without having to call you and complain, something which most people avoid until they are so furious that they are screaming when they finally do contact you.
Other administrative forms of communication can include staying in touch with a little newsletter or holiday greeting now and then. You or your supervisor or technician can drop off holiday gift plants. Thank you notes or a small orchid can be used in gratitude for a client referral. You can drop by regularly, either to perform quality control or just to drop by and say hello if you happen to be in the neighborhood. Other means of maintaining good client communication include having a regularly scheduled yearly review of the account with your client. You may also want to send out periodic surveys asking clients what they like or do not like about your service and soliciting their suggestions for ways you can improve. And, of course, you can communicate with your technicians regularly about each account.
MAINTENANCE SERVICE - ONGOING CLIENT CONTACT
Technicians provide a system of ongoing communication between your company and the client. They are there every week, and they will either uphold your image of professionalism or they will destroy it. For this reason, it is imperative that you exercise the utmost care in employee selection.
When you first screen a job applicant for a technician position, screen for attitude above all else. A job candidate with a good attitude will preserve sound, positive relations with all your clients. He or she will be responsible, reliable, and capable of learning anything, including interior horticulture. An individual with a bad attitude, no matter how much they know about plants, will ruin your client relationships in no time flat.
One of the best technicians I ever had was a young man named John who was horticulturally "so-so," but was by far and away the most personable employee I have ever known. When he broke his wrist and was unable to work for a few weeks, I filled in for him at a large corporate account twice a week. Everyone there knew me, but they were very concerned about John's absence. Every floor had at least two people on it who wanted to know where he was, what had happened to him, and when was he coming back. They all expressed how much they liked him and looked forward to his visits. The plants, in my opinion, looked mediocre at best. but, when I finally encountered our contact person, he said he hoped John would be back soon and stated that he thought everything looked great. Go figure.
It pays to hire a trainee with a good attitude. Once you do, they should be trained in your version of good public relations as well as in plant maintenance. Make sure that they know what your client expects, what you have promised the client, and how you want the service performed. This should all be in writing in the form of a procedure manual so that your technician can look things up in your absence. A procedure manual should back up your training program as a body of knowledge your technician can reference in order to perform the service and handle problems that come up the way you would want them handled.
It is not enough to include horticultural tips in your procedure manual. They are important, but what you want to emphasize in these reference materials are those aspects of service which deal with people and relationships and not just with plants or inanimate objects. One such item which is particularly useful is a step-by-step system for handling client complaints and other on-the-job problems which could turn into complaints if not handled properly.
For example, how does a technician determine which problems should be handled on the spot and which require the intervention of you or a supervisor? To whom does the technician refer the client for corrective or additional work that goes beyond that which can be completed within the context of the maintenance period? To what extent can the technician go towards immediately alleviating a problem with a client? Can they guarantee a replacement the following week? Can they promise to deduct a certain amount from a bill? Can they alter the maintenance schedule to arrive later or earlier on the same day? What about changing the maintenance day altogether? What should they do if a client yells at them? What should they do if they are sexually harassed on the job? What should they do if the client demands to see you or a supervisor?
In most cases, having a well-structured quality control program will prevent most on-the-job complaints and problems from occurring in the first place. Having forms available for a technician to fill out at the first sign of a potential problem and then taking action on the information contained in those forms is an excellent way to stay on top of what's going on in the field while you're elsewhere. Being available on short notice or having a supervisor nearby to handle serious problems as they occur is also helpful. All of these things communicate one very important thing to your clients: you care about them.
HANDLING CLIENT PROBLEMS
It should be pretty obvious at this point that preventing problems is the optimum means of ensuring sound client relations. Preventive measures are also usually the least expensive means of dealing with the inevitable "mysterious" plant deaths, the client that always seems to close before you get there, or the client who lives waaaaaaaay out in the boondocks on the worst fifteen miles of semi-paved highway in the state.
But, as we all know, even the best planned system of preventive measures cannot anticipate every possible problem. So, we come to handling problems as they come up. Just in case you forgot, communication is still the key here. In order to get to the root of the problem and then solve it, you have to be able to communicate effectively with the client.
What do you do when a client complains to you on the job? If you really want to fix the problem you will do three things: listen carefully, ask plenty of questions, and take notes. Only a handful of clients complain for the sole purpose of hearing their own voices. The vast majority have real legitimate problems that they want you to solve for them — immediately if not sooner.
Listen to clients' concerns with your full attention and listen to what they are really saying. When they complain because you or your technician is frequently late, what do they really mean? Are they just nit-picking because they are finicky about punctuality, or is there a more rational explanation for their concern? Could it be that they have a past history of problems with interior landscape contractors not showing up at all? Do they want you to come on time so that you leave on time, preferably before their morning meetings start or some such similar office event?
To get the entire picture, ask questions. Do not assume that what they are saying is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Get some background information. Ask them exactly what it is that they would like you to do. Offer an explanation for why you do something the way you do it and ask if they understand. Ask them if there is someone else you need to talk to about the problem. Ask them how long the problem has been going on. Do not be surprised if it has been bothering them for some time as many people delay complaining until things are well out of control.
Take notes. You do not have to write down every word the client says, but at least make notes of the nature of the complaint, the time or date on which it has occurred, the size of the plant, the size of the container, the location of the problem, what the client wants you to do, what you think should be done, etc. It pays to have a written record of the communication that has passed between you or your technician, and the client.
If your technician comes to you with the client-related problem, perform the same steps: listen carefully, ask plenty of questions, and take notes. This information goes in the client's file and possibly in the employee's as well, depending on the nature of the problem. Remember that your technician is your representative and is thereby conveying the company image on your behalf. If they are doing a lousy job, you bear the ultimate responsibility for their poor performance and you may have to suffer the consequences, i.e., losing a client. In some cases, you may have to call and speak with the client personally to find out what the problem is all about.
Once a problem has revealed itself and you have evaluated it from every angle possible, it is time to weigh the possible solutions. If Mr. Johnson at the XYZ Corporation is a wonderful client who always pays on time, has been a client for five years, and never complains, you are indeed fortunate. If he complains about an unsightly rhapis palm in his private office and wants it replaced immediately, and you examine it and find that someone has been dumping coffee or soda into it, you might be better off replacing it and then sending a letter expressing which foreign substances caused its demise and advising that you will not replace at no charge any other plants which die under the same circumstances.
On the other hand, if Mrs. Brown is a relatively new client who has been complaining about everything under the sun since the very first maintenance visit, is withholding payment until you exchange the blue container for the red one, and follows your technician around while he/she is trying to perform the maintenance, you might look at her complaint from a decidedly different viewpoint. You might even see it as an opportunity to cancel her service before she drives you and your employees to the brink of insanity.
Of course, there are those problems which occur in spite of your best effort to prevent them: the client leaves the drapes closed for weeks on end, water access is a problem, the janitor moves the plants and breaks the foliage in the process, the thermostat fluctuates drastically, the client leaves early without notice, etc. All of these situations call for tact and diplomacy. In many cases, a simple conversation will not be enough to correct the problem and a carefully-worded letter may carry more clout. The worse case scenario would be that no matter how tactful and diplomatic your communication is, you may just have to live with the problem and make the best of a bad situation if the financial rewards outweigh these inconveniences.
HANDLING PROBLEM CLIENTS
There are client problems and then there are problem clients. The problems which most interior landscape contractors dislike dealing with the most are those involving problem clients, those individuals who are chronically difficult. These can sometimes be predicted during the initial contact with the client, but sometimes when everybody is on his or her best behavior, personal shortcomings are not apparent. With corporate accounts, a change in personnel may mean a change in contact person from one who was easy to deal with to Attila the Hun reincarnated. Or, you may stop doing the account yourself and send a technician who does not get along with someone with whom you had an excellent rapport. It happens. People don't always get along and sometimes there is no real identifiable cause of the conflict and we label it a "personality" conflict.
Personality conflicts involve two people and two people only. They are usually fairly easy to solve. You can either put a different technician on the account, or you can set up a meeting between the two people and let them hash it out, usually in the presence of a "mediator" or objective third party. There is usually some miniscule misunderstanding that caused the problem in the first place, and finding out the source of it is often enough to resolve and prevent further recurrence of the conflict. Once the cause is acknowledged and the parties have apologized to one another, the conflict may be dead and buried within minutes.
When several people cannot get along with one person, that one person is the problem. Problem clients are the bane of every interior landscape contractor. Years ago, I had a client who yelled, cried, complained, and called our office regularly demanding that we send someone "who knew what they were doing." Her plants looked fine, our best technicians were on the job, but it was never enough. It got to a point where technicians were refusing to service her account. My supervisor finally said to me, "You can fire me if you want but I will not go back to that account."
I didn't want to go back there either. This woman had been casting an air of gloom over our service ranks long enough. I wrote her a polite letter canceling the service and recommending that she contact a company that could give her more personalized service than we could. It wasn't that we could not give her more attention, we just didn't want to.
Problem clients can create some very sticky situations. Sexual harassment is one of them. One of my interior landscape clients had a female technician quit after eight months. She was shocked that the woman was quitting because they seemed to get along so well and she was such a competent technician. The woman had seemed a little tense for a month or so but other than that she seemed fine. The new female technician who took over her route quit after the second week. Again, no explanation was offered.
My client decided to work the route herself. She had never serviced most of the accounts on that route because her partner/husband was in charge of sales in that area. Everything went well until she got to the small, two room office of a one-man company. The plants looked great and the man seemed friendly. It turned out that he was a little too friendly, and in addition to sexual remarks, he tried to get physical with her. He did not force himself on her, but she was very upset by the experience and returned immediately to her office where she contacted her former employees and confirmed that he was the cause of their leaving.
When it comes to problem clients who wreak havoc in a company, there is one very simple solution: cancellation. You can take steps to try and control them and put them in their place, but that is a thankless job if you are not a psychiatrist, it is not part of your service, and it certainly does not fall within the scope of your technicians' job descriptions. It is unfair to expect any employee to tolerate abuse by a problem client week after week and you shouldn't have to take it either. Neither you nor your technician gets paid enough to be subjected to such a situation, and there isn't enough money in the world to compensate anyone for doing so.
Communication is the foundation for solid client relations. By being aware of what you are both communicating to one another from the very beginning can enable you to avoid the possibility of future problems on the job. In addition, by using proper forms of written and oral communication throughout your business dealings with clients, you can virtually eliminate conflicts and problems that result from misunderstandings or lapses in memory. Some client problems may not be solved with communication, but in the majority of cases, communication is the key to successful client relations.
This article last updated: 07/20/2000.