Sometimes bad things happen: The wrong bricks were ordered. The crew got lost and showed up late. The whole lot of plants got washed out in a downpour. The client keeps changing his mind or wants something for nothing. No matter what the source of your client’s discontent, it’s vital to your company’s future to listen, decipher and solve the problem without taking it personally.
Negative feedback can make your business stronger by teaching you how to improve your product, services and public relations skills. “You may not want to hear a complaint, but it’s unrealistic to think it’s never going to happen,” says Eric Bruss, APLD, president of Bruss Landscaping in Wheaton, Illinois. “Our goal is to create a personal, positive environment within the culture of the company and turn bad into good.”
When the inevitable occurs, follow these nine pointers for translating complaints into opportunities for progress.
1. Listen and learn
Listen actively to the client, which means making a neutral comment such as, “Tell me why you’re upset,” and then actually hearing the person out without interrupting.
Next, repeat his concerns back to him. Sometimes the simple act of agreeing with a client disarms him. “An unhappy client is often more receptive to hearing your solution after you’ve made him feel he’s had a chance to air his grievances,” Bruss says.
2. Do a reality check
“When we’re dealing with unhappy clients, we have to ask ourselves: ‘Did we make a mistake?’” Bruss says.
Talk to the customer, the foreman and the crew. Examine your notes, contract and log books. Assume nothing and research everything.
Try to see the issue from the customer’s point of view: How would you feel if this were your property? If you discover it’s your blunder, ‘fess up, apologize and offer a fix.
3. Nip problems in the bud
It may be tempting to sweep complaints under the rug, especially if you’re feeling bombarded by bad weather, lost workdays and the usual stress of running a business.
But that’s never a good idea because little problems can quickly turn into big problems.
“If a client is unhappy, I’ll let the designer try to correct things once, but if that doesn’t work, I step in,” Bruss says. Hearing from the top also helps clients feel you value their business, which may help foster a solution.
4. Avoid hiding behind technology
“Growing up on a farm where every deal was sealed with a handshake, I don’t believe in relying solely on technology,” says Jason Coffin, owner of A Cut Above Lawnscapes, in Schaghticoke, New York. “Yes, technology is fantastic and time-saving, but don’t rely on it.”
Instead, go knock on the door. Even the most demanding customers usually respect you for making time for a face-to-face conversation.
5. Document everything
From start to finish, keep written records of estimates, jobs and customer preferences so you have valid points if an issue does come up.
“It doesn’t have to be complicated,” Coffin says. “For example, we keep simple log books with the trucks on each route. One column lists customer service notes such as, ‘The customer wants clippings from the backyard bagged because they have a dog.’ This also allows better consistency in the level of services.”
Some companies install GPS units on trucks to monitor routes and verify time spent on properties, which can be useful if clients dispute whether or not a crew was present, for example.
6. Lose some to win some
“I assess situations on a case-by-case basis,” says Rene West, president of Executive Landscaping in Pensacola, Florida. “It’s cheaper to keep a customer than to find a new customer, and referrals are worth more than ads.”
In one case, West had about 40 $2 plants die during an exceptionally cold winter. Though it was no one’s fault, he chose to replace them, and the client was thrilled and spoke highly of him to her friends. As a result, West obtained new clients and gained more in the long run than was lost in the short term.
7. Identify “demanding” versus “difficult”
A demanding client wants things done a certain way but is willing to pay for it; a difficult client is unhappy no matter what you do.
“I have no problem working with ‘demanding’ clients because they make you better,” West says.
On the other hand, if a client talks down to the crew, complains on a regular basis or takes advantage of your crew by asking routinely for services not part of the regular contract, the relationship may not be worth nurturing.
“Trust your gut,” West says. “It’s okay to bid high and filter these clients out the next time around.”
8. Know when to cut your losses
“No one ever wants to walk away from a job,” Coffin says. “But sometimes you and the client don’t match up. It doesn’t help anyone to stay and struggle in the long run.”
If they’re a slow payer, for example, next season may be the time to send out a carefully worded notice that indicates you’re realigning company goals and will not be able to offer a la carte services.
Or if you’re on a job and cannot make a customer happy no matter what you do, you may be better suited refunding their money and restoring the property to its original condition. Like any relationship, you may have to call it quits if it’s no longer mutually beneficial.
9. Study the outcome
Whether you resolved the issue or had to cut ties with a customer, ask yourself (and your staff members) what you’re taking away from the experience.
Did you learn a better way of ordering supplies? Have you decided you need to tweak the preliminary questionnaire when clients call for the first time? Most importantly, determine what you can do so you don’t repeat the same scenario in the future, West advises.
No one ever gets better at anything without stumbling a few times, so chalk up the occasional complaint to experience and move on a little wiser.