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Marin Water District ET certification. Crystal Award at the San Francisco flower and Garden Show
I am sorry when any client does not feel delighted with us. Sylvia is not happy and that means I failed. I made a number of choices that played into this and I've taken some time to examine what I could have done differently. If you are a home-owner and want to avoid tension with your contractor, I invite you to read on and avoid any of these pitfalls with your designer/installer:
1) I think the first mistake I made was trying to save Sylvia money at the expense of a thorough design process. I loved the idea of helping kids and although I had no business desire to try and transform a playground for $5,000. it seemed like one of the most exiting design challenges to try and make that money go as far as possible. So rather than spending 4-6 hours getting to know Sylvia and the kids and site, I did the consultation in two hours. I think this was a mistake because it did not allow enough trust/rapport to build with Sylvia prior to doing the work.
2) My second mistake was designing a free material to save Sylvia money without first securing that material and verifying that it was free: I assumed that it would be easy to get a tree company to deliver a truck of logs for free for a daycare and, based on that assumption, gave a bid that included me doing work with logs with zero money allotted to finding or delivering the logs. This turned into our project bane: Starting two weeks before the project we called all the tree companies at least three times and no one wanted to bring the logs. I kept Sylvia informed of this process and told her not to worry: I would, at my own expense, go and get logs in our trucks and deliver them at no charge. We did this but still, to my surprise, ran out of available logs. This became a bigger block than normal because the job was so small there was nothing much to do. At full speed we would have completed the job in three days. But with the shortage of logs (I know, it's hard to believe with all the tree work going on) I worked several half-days hoping we would get logs the next day or the next. I started my next job, and told Sylvia that I would be back as soon as their were logs. It was the 14th and our contract said we would be done by the 17th and I still felt confident we could find logs within that time-frame and do our last day.
3) Sylvia had not given me her cell phone and when I called the University of Play sometimes she was there, sometimes she was not and she had to be called by a staff member. I don't think we would have had the misunderstanding we had if I had gone through this process and spoken with her directly on the phone more often. Instead, I chose to send e-mails which were faster but I suspect allowed her questions, which might have come out in normal conversation about schedule etc. to go unanswered without my realizing that there was any tension (e-mail is never as good as in person or on the phone).
4) Another thing I could have handled better was an awkward moment in which Sylvia called from about 30' "What do you think about getting some more umbrellas." Since the only reason I had not designed more umbrellas was to stay within her stated $5,000. budget and she seemed to want to spend more now, I said
"How many do you think we could use."
"At least 15"
I thought she meant for the future but she said
"Ok. I'll buy them," and walked further away. I should have run after her and clarified two things:
1) Are you expecting me to hang these?
2) Do you want to know the cost, if so, for my labor, before you buy them? I did neither.
I was uneasy about this gray area but I was busy working and she was walking away busy. Normally, a client does not assume that if they buy a new item not in the contract that I will install it for free. I say in my contract "any changes will be penciled in" and address the importance of this. I had by no means agreed to put these up at no charge and she was perfectly capable of doing the work herself or with staff if she did not want to pay me. Later, I sent an e-mail stating that she could put them up herself or I would charge her $350. This was with a $100. discount because I knew she did not have a lot of money and I felt a bit off with the ambiguity. She replied that I should have told her at the point she had ordered them that there would be a charge to put them up and said she did not want to do it herself and would only pay me $200.
Knowing that we were doing a lot on this job for a discounted price and I had told her that and that I had already bought and installed an umbrella not in the contract, I felt very uncomfortable with the insistence that we do more for less. I agreed to her $200. even as I realized I would need to buy $60. in rope and go buy it to install them. It would be another item done below cost.
5) When writing my contract I left the sound-garden and vegetable garden as undefined items. During our meeting Sylvia told me that she could get lots of donations from her parents and I made a list of things that would be useful to the project. "Rather than spelling this out in detail, let's see what get's donated. I want to use as many free items as possible so your money will go further." Without knowing Sylvia well, writing these line items without much detail (to allow for the spontaneity of donations), became a friction point when Sylvia, a month after I had given her a list of things to ask her parents for, did not present anything. Instead she e-mailed me a photo of an elaborate sound garden where just the materials would have cost $850. with no room for the many hours of labor. She said "I want this," which left me in the awkward situation of explaining why it would not be anything like that.
6) My next choice was to bring all this to Sylvia's attention in a long detailed recording: Why we had agreed to leave the contract vague, that I had given a list of things that would be helpful, and that in general I was not happy that after giving more for this job in discounts and freebies she was using all the gray areas to ask for more - much more - than I could do for the budget. I felt it was important to re-state our intentions, agreements and what I could do or I would end up paying to do the job. At the same time she said that she was getting ready to hire me for stage two. I felt I needed to explain to her that if she was not thankful for the upgrades, demanded free stuff be delivered on her schedule, was angry and wanted more than agreed that there would not be any second round.
This is where I made another mistake: I still wanted to be involved because it was quite fun to be around the kids and see their enjoyment. But I was not going to sign another contract if my generosity was used. So rather than just thinking that to myself, I spelled this out, which pissed Sylvia off rather than leading to any understanding. I wanted to say "please understand we are doing more for you than any other client and this is not about money - this is the smallest job we have done in years." But Sylvia heard "We don't care about you and you are not worth our time." I think my mistake may have been to try and say anything at all by e-mail, rather than in person and without understanding what feelings were present.
7) When Sylvia listened to my recording she replied that she just wanted to "get the damn job done." I was feeling quite stressed at this point because for some reason our contract due date did not seem to be what Sylvia was referencing. She was impatient and irritated, despite our contract saying it would be done in several days and all our communication about the log issue. I had told her we had spent $600. on our dime, had put in three free fruit trees, had fixed all the leaks in her irrigation at no charge and that we were simply waiting for logs to be available so that we could deliver them free of charge and complete the work. This left me quite alarmed at finding myself with my angriest client, someone who seemed unable to acknowledge any of the extras, and the client who was getting the most discounts for the smallest job all so I could have fun hanging around these kids. She told me she wanted to see me the next day, regardless of the availability of logs, and finish everything else that day. This was not convenient because it was much more efficient for me to supervise the logs while doing the sound garden myself, but I could tell she was quite upset and I never want a client to be upset about a garden or hiring me. So I agreed.
8) The emotion in the air was so palpable it seemed like the best thing to do was to go over everything remaining in detail if we were to proceed so there would be no further chance of conflict. I'm sure you know that feeling when someone is upset and anything at all will set them off. So I did not want there to be anything at all. I knew that in a project this creative and unusual (a sound garden without any drawings using materials I had not seen prior to bidding it) that she could tear holes in everything I did if she wanted to. The question in my mind was: "Is there any way that we can see that we are not the enemy here and that I am actually doing my best and more than most for less money out of good will. Or was I just going to be shouted at. The meeting did not go well. Sylvia was upset about everything and after I listened to her complaints for 10 minutes and apologized for all her feelings, I expressed my issue which was that she had not acknowledged my e-mail and seemed unable to listen, as well as talk. She immediately walked off, refusing to participate in the conversation further, leaving her staff to talk to me. Then she argued with what I and her staff talked about but again refused to talk to me and more importantly, to listen to anything I wanted her to understand.
9) Sylvia had told me "I will make it my life mission to get back at you and yelp you to hell." Obviously I wanted nothing more to do with the job and was in shock. However, I had erected a tall pole that still had three remaining guy ropes to secure it. I felt that even given my feelings and her stated intention to hurt me, that it would be irresponsible to leave the pole in it's present condition in a children's playground. So I told her I would be completing that for that reason at no charge and she initially said "fine." But then, as I was tying the first guy rope she walked up and asked me to sign a contract that would refund her $500. of the $2,500. amount she had paid, that would stop all work now and a few other sentences she had drawn up by hand. "Sign this now," she stated. I explained that I was busy tying the ropes and that I wanted to talk more amiccably and review her language. But she would not listen and insisted that I sign her hand written note at that moment. I said that I was happy to either talk if she would listen or review it later but that I wanted to complete the work on the pole. I'm not sure how I would handle this differently and fortunately it's a very unusual thing so I hope I'm never in this situation again.
10) When I did not sign the contract on the spot Sylvia then said that my energy was too negative for her children and she needed me to leave. Ignoring the fact that she had just promised to devote her life to grinding me into the dust or the fact that the kids and I had been happily chatting, I explained that this would probably be my last time on the job site, that the pole needed additional guy ropes and that I had come here today because she had demanded that I do these very things. I was concerned for the kids, her and my liability if this did not get attended to. That's when she said she would call the police. I asked her to do so. I met the officer at the curb, showed him the pole and said that it was not fully safe and I was concerned for the children. The officer suggested I contact the school district if I was worried about it but said it was not his job to protect the kids, only to keep the peace. I asked him to affirm my concerns to Sylvia that she was putting her kids in jeopardy. She told the officer she would complete the work herself and he captured that on camera. So while I'm not fully happy leaving it that way, I am happy I did all I could given Sylvia's resistance.
11) Next came the choice of what to do next? I've never felt so much rage coming at me in 24 years from anyone, let alone a client. Yet she was obviously upset and I had made some poor calls along the way or we would not have ended up here. I think Sylvia is correct when she said that I was not as professional as I often am. I think that I treated her more as a friend/colleague when I thought it was clear that I was doing the project and some of the work as a gift because I wanted to help and because I thought it would be fun. It's easy to think that this was a mutual awareness, but clearly it was not. It's rarely a good idea to tell a client about their mistakes, yet I thought it would allow the relationship to continue smoother if I let Sylvia know how she could change behaviors that would allow me to be OK with signing another contract at the same discount. Instead, I did behave unprofessionally by pointing out areas I felt she was abusing the good will and contract both to get more for less.
12) I did invite her to follow our contract, using an independent arbiter from the better business bureau, but have not heard back that she is willing to do so. Since she will not respond to any of this in writing or verbally a mediator is the only way to calm emotions down, but perhaps only if the mediator agreed with all her points. Yelp and other review sites are a great way for angry customers to vent their frustrations without having to listen so I hope there is some relief for Sylvia and some catharsis. And for me and everyone else, I think it's beneficial to look at what can go wrong in a professional relationship, and how easy it can be for small things to become big when we are experiencing moments of high stress and see things a bit differently. There are great protocols, such as "non-violent communication," but as always it requires two people to have the skill and willingness to employ them, and the patience and good will to hang in there. I think Sylvia truly believes that I don't care about her or her project and that this means I needed to do more to share my real feelings in a way she could relate to.
I've already decided to stop doing discounts, or shortening the design process even for good causes, because I find that it makes it more likely I'll treat someone like a friend and not a client and the data is telling me that that does not work. Thank you for reading and I hope that your project goes smoother because I've outlined this in as much detail as I have so that you can see how small things, when one or both parties are stressed, become a source of further distress.
Any time I have a dissatisfied client, there is a breakdown on all sides. Usually there was not enough communication to insure that the client fully understands and can digest the details of what will happen and buys into it, prior to implementation. In this case the derailment started early. I was called out to design a fence after signing a contract and, having done that and other things, sent Wendy a bill. She didn't want to pay it. I don't like conflicts so I offered her a refund on her deposit and the chance to work with another contractor. She decided to pay the bill and said she thought things would go smoothly from here. I know that the right fit is important in a client relationship so I would much rather disengage than have any tension if I am not the one for any reason.
When we bought plants, set plants out and bought pots and set these out, Wendy was with me each step of the way, looking at the options. Because she had resented paying for design, I gave her a few hours at my expense and did not push for extra design time that might have insured that we were more in sync. I had given her a copy of both my books prior to beginning, which go into great detail about my approach to working. In this case, reflecting my strengths, the job was done on time, despite several last minute requests to expand the project. All work was done for the agreed price. Looking back, some items took more time than I thought they would and some items took less. I've never been the high bidder for a total project bid in my career, so I encourage clients not to focus on the fact that some items will be over priced in retrospect and some will be under-priced. It all balances out.
Wendy told me she was happy with the plants she selected at the nursery, at the pots she and I selected selected, and at the layout when I set the pots out. But as the days have gone by it seems as if she has changed her mind, and her satisfaction has turned to dissatisfaction. This is unfortunately a very difficult thing for a designer to remedy. If a client communicates a reluctance to pay for design, gives clear verbal "yes" and then changes their mind later, it's not balanced for me to pay to undo and then re-do work that has already been agreed to and completed. When I asked Wendy why she had said "yes" to things she did not really like, she told me she wanted to give my artistic eye freedom to do something great. But that's the problem: I do like what we did. But Wendy does not and her preferences are what really count since it's her garden. The only way for me to know what a client likes is if they honestly tell me. I talk about this extensively in my books so I felt some dismay hearing that she had ignored this and had not asserted her own taste. No designer can know what a given client will like without clear and consistent input. I had Wendy rank each plant 1-10 and picked plants she rated 7 or higher. It does not get much clearer than that and this works better than a formal drawing 95% of the time.
I have invited Wendy to tell me what would have needed to happen in the process for her to give a 10 to each of these numbers. She has not responded and I do not know how I could have done more without either charging her less than any other client or charging her for more design time that she did not want to pay for. Since she gave me a 2 out of 10 for overall value and she spent $50k, presumably she would give me a 10 if I had done everything for $10k instead of $50k. But naturally I can't do that if the materials alone cost more than twice that. We took out a huge stand of 4" wide bamboo, extended the driveway, did an artistic fence, foux painted retaining walls, and amended front and back garden, graded and built berms, mulched, irrigated, added lighting and planted for that.
Wendy, I do regret that you are not fully satisfied. I also encourage you to explain what you would have needed to happen to give 10 numbers for all categories since if there is a way that you could have been satisfied without charging you less than everyone else, I naturally want to know about it. Your work was done on time, for the agreed price, with $1,000 in un-billed extras and with your buy-in at every step. You paid the final bill as agreed. That was not enough to satisfy your sense of value. I really wanted to make you as happy as most of my clients and I treated you the same way as I treat everyone.
With good wishes,