GUARANTEEING CLIENT SATISFACTION

by Joelle Steele

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When one first considers the topic of client relations, it seems that there are many different types of problems that could arise. However, after examining the subject more closely, one begins to see a common denominator in client-related problems. That is, in all cases, the problem situations could have been avoided or solved through the use of proper communication, tempered with tact and diplomacy.

The value of good communication can never be emphasized enough in business and personal relations. We read about how important it is to communicate with our spouses, parents, children, and friends. We toss the word "communicate" around freely. Some examples are: "People need to communicate better" and "We don't communicate any more." However, communication extends far beyond the intimate social and familial relationships we so carefully strive to preserve. Communication exists on many levels, and whenever it is nonexistent or inadequate, we find conflict.

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In business, communication is critical on both oral and written levels. Unfortunately, many of us forget about good communication as we fail to execute good written documentation in the forms of letters, proposals, contracts, and so on. And then we exacerbate the problem by following up with even poorer oral communication.

The initial written documents we present to our new clients set the precedent for all future communications, be they written or oral, and the consistency with which we maintain those forms of communication dictate, in large part, the course of our relations with those clients. There are several types of client situations in interior landscaping in which communication with clients plays an important role: installation and maintenance records, personality conflicts, mischief-making clients and money problems.

GIVE THEM THE WORD

Whether it's the first or last written document, keep it simple, and direct it only to the individual for whom it is intended. If you use the phone to communicate an important message, such as a rate increase, plant replacement, or technician change, follow it up immediately with a written confirmation.

Keep thorough maintenance and installation records that indicate exactly what work was done and who did it, as well as when, how, and why it was done. Use work/change orders to either avoid or document discrepancies in billing.

In maintenance records, you might want to note any special observations made and the date. These observations could include temperature changes, signs of someone else watering, plant relocations by technicians or clients, and so on. If problems are noted in the records, clients should be notified immediately and their assistance requested to correct the situations.

If a problem occurs and the client is frequently out of town and/or is unavailable by phone, leave a written note (or letter if the matter is serious). In addition, leave a message with the client's answering service/machine. The client won't appreciate the surprise when he comes home to find a favorite plant defoliated, grandma's antique cachepot broken, or an expensive Persian carpet water-stained.

PERSONALITY CONFLICT

Have you ever known anyone who you couldn't stand, someone with whom a simple everyday conversation turns into a tense, anxiety-ridden confrontation? You may not be aware of the cause for your discomfort, even if you have thoroughly investigated the situation. The reason could be that you and/or the antagonist remind the other of a parent, former spouse or old acquaintance. These personality conflicts are inevitable, and sometimes the best way to handle them is to substitute technicians and see if that solves the problem.

If, on the other hand, clients (or technicians) are just rude and abusive to everyone, letting them go may be the only answer if calm discussions don't work. These people frequently cost more than they are worth in the turnover (technician and client) and anxiety they generate. "Running away" from problems isn't always the best idea; but business is economics, and from a business standpoint, such action is likely to be the most economical.

There are always those clients who are hypersensitive or in some way overly concerned with the condition of their plants. Take a few moments sometimes to just listen and acknowledge their concerns; assures them you will do your very best to keep their plants in good health. If they start to show unnecessary concern again later, you can kindly and cheerfully (wearing your best smile!) reassure them by saying, "I understand how important your plants are, and I'll do my best to take good care of them." Be sure you do just that.

THE MISCHIEF MAKERS

Sometimes clients (and their employees) unknowingly cause trouble. In these cases, good verbal communication becomes especially handy. Mischief makers include:

Helpful waterers. These are commonly known to claim, "But it was thirsty". The secretary is watering between visits again. So is the janitor; only he adds a little cleaning fluid each time. It's possible that the controller is watering his plants too, most likely with some coffee. Everyone wants to be helpful. Think about how often they call you in a panic saying their favorite plant is dying. Simply explain that you can't determine the proper amount of water to apply on each visit if both you and the client are watering. It's hard to prove that you know the client is watering with the aforementioned "additives." Don't antagonize the client about this, but you should let him know that soda and coffee can be dangerous to plants. Most clients don't know the technical jargon, but they usually understand the words "root rot" and "toxic," so feel free to use those terms and back them up with real facts.

Movers. Personnel changes are always being made, and changes are frequently made in plant arrangements at the same time. For example, a Ficus tree suddenly appears in the photocopy room, or a seven-foot Kentia palm is found squeezed against the walls of a tiny office. Calmly and quietly explain what can happen when a plant is moved, particularly by people who aren't interior landscapers. Mention potential root or foliar damage that could result from improper handling. Talk about the differences in lighting requirements. Tell clients that you are available to assist them in any future moves that may become necessary. Letting them know that you understand the need to switch offices from time to time and that you are available to advise them in such instances should minimize such surprises for supervisors and technicians alike.

Jet-setters. These clients leave town for three weeks and forget to leave the key with their secretaries — again. When the technician gets there, he can't get in. Executives travel every so often. It's just part of their way of life and there's no use fighting it. This is the type of situation that must be attended to in the beginning, before service begins. Consider using controlled-watering containers if you can't obtain a key.

Bargain hunters. These people find great bargains at the gas station — palm trees for $7.95 each (mites included at no additional charge), just what their offices could use! Bargain hunters mean well. (After all, who can pass up such deals?) What do they know about mites? To the untrained eye, the plants look just like expensive Kentia palms. Bargain hunters merely want to green up their workplaces a little.

You can't tell your clients where to buy their plants. (It's still a free country.) But, you can request that they set aside any plants they buy until your next visit at which time you can check out their purchases and treat any insect or disease problems present.

LEAVE ME ALONE

There are other kinds of trouble-makers as well. They are the lonely and bored ones for whom you are the main source of entertainment for the day. No doubt there are times when you long to say, "Leave me alone!" Instead, you bite your tongue. There are at least three types:

Meddlers. These clients love to assist you and they usually do or at least try to. When they attempt to help you transplant or install, show your appreciation for their offers but let them know that you are allotted only so much time and that there is less change of making a mistake if you work alone. Acknowledge that they may know how to, say, transplant, but make it clear that your company has certain ways of performing tasks and that you need to maintain that consistency for future care.

Followers. These people watch you and make sure that you don't spill, steal, or miss a plant. As they follow you, they chat about your job: "how do you like it? What did you do before you became a 'plant person'? Be sure not to miss the plants in the conference room" and so on. This is usually the role of secretaries; they feel that to control their own environment they must have control over outside services. Who else do they have to control? They're usually somewhere down at the bottom of the totem pole, and you are all they have. Besides, they may envy your job; it looks rather fun from the outside — "just walking around and watering plants..." Secretaries have a lot of power. They can say one bad comment about you, and your job is over. They can say one good thing about you and you may be referred to a job that pays for the house you've always wanted. Be understanding, and develop a positive relationship with them. Once they trust you, you'll find your job much easier.

Enquirers. These onlookers would absolutely love to do your job! It seems so incredibly fascinating! And, they have so many questions: "What do those little yellow spots mean? Can you make them go away? How? What's a fungicide? How much do you water a Boston fern? Doesn't this tree need to be transplanted?" The list goes on. Thank them for their interest in your field. Take a little time one day to explain how important it is for you to be aware of many details while doing maintenance. Explain gently that, while you would love to answer all their questions, you have a time limit and you get distracted when you try to do two things at once. Recommend a book on the subject that is simple and directed at the amateur.

MONEY PROBLEMS

Late payments, nonpayments, bounced checks ... our industry has them all. A client's financial problem might be temporary. Find out what the trouble is. Talk to the individual who makes the decisions, not the bookkeeper. Then write a letter requesting payment in full or a negotiation of terms. Give a deadline to respond. If you don't get a response, give the client written notice of intent to cancel. State the exact date on which the service will be discontinued, and hold to it.

If the client wishes to reinstate the service, start again with a new contract requesting payment in advance. Stick to it. In any case, always enforce late charges and fees for bounced checks. There may be an isolated instance in which you wish to waive those charges, but that decision should be made carefully to avoid setting a precedent for future late payments with no late charges.

Interior landscapers are in business to make money, not give it away. When establishing client relations, interior landscapers should make this quite clear in both oral and written communication, so that neither party has the ability to manipulate the other financially.

HOW YOU SAY IT

Two important words in client relations are "tact" and "diplomacy." Tact is the ability to appreciate the delicacy of a situation and do the most appropriate thing. Diplomacy is the use of tact in dealing with others. Together, tact and diplomacy can enhance your oral and written communication and enable you to gracefully conduct your relations with clients, as well as other business associates. Some examples of using tact and diplomacy in a trouble situation are listening without interrupting, tolerating rather than accusing and disagreeing with emotional outbursts.

For example, an important executive at one interior landscape firm's largest and oldest commercial accounts became outraged when a dead, unsightly Dracaena was removed by a technician. When he refused the replacement plant and did not return calls, the firm became concerned about the status of the account; this individual was the one who made the decisions regarding which interior landscaper to use.

So the interior landscape company wrote him a letter of apology. Why an apology when the firm wasn't in the wrong? The answer is simple. He was upset, and the firm apologized for upsetting him. The letter also explained that the technician was doing her job as directed and why the plant was removed. He wrote back saying he was sorry and offered to "name" his new plant after the technician who had removed the old plant!

The company's apology was sincere and necessary. It was the diplomatic thing to do. Backing down is often the way to win — he was appeased, and the account was not lost. Winning through intimidation does not have a place in business. It's tactless and unprofessional, and it accomplishes nothing.

CONCLUSION

In conclusion, the following are some points to remember when dealing with clients:

* Confront your clients' problems immediately. If possible, anticipate problems, and write contracts accordingly. Return phone calls right away, and answer correspondence in a timely manner.

* Resolve problems at the onset; never allow them to get out of control.

* Keep the lines of communication open between you and your client and between all members in your business.

* Treat your clients with respect — they are paying your grocery bill. The old saying, "the customer is always right" might not be true all the time, but you should treat your clients as if it were. You'll both turn out winners.

This article last updated: 01/22/2002.