August 15, 2011
By Arthur Skolnik

arthur skolnikHomeowners say they look for contractors they can work with, while on the other side of the coin, contractors say they’re looking for homeowners they can work with.

When I arrive at a potential client’s home, brush off the dust, grab my clipboard and tape measure and ring the door bell, I really don’t know what or who to expect. I’ve already spoken to the potential client on the phone, but people are generally on their best behaviour during the initial phone conversation. When I’m on their property, they rightfully feel at ease and it’s during this critical time I need to evaluate if they’re going to be the type of client for whom I want to work.

My instinct is on high alert. I need to weigh the size and scope of the job against how easy I think it will be to work for the client. Potential clients can ask me for references, speak with my last few clients, call Landscape Ontario, or check out my website, but I can’t do any type of background check of them. All I have is my instinct.

Sometimes I’m invited into the kitchen or living room for a brief discussion, and then we move outdoors. Other times I wait until the dog settles down and my potential clients puts their shoes on before coming outside to walk the property and discuss what they want. During this critical get-to-know-each-other time, my feelers are out and my instinct at work.

Once in a while, a husband and wife will start arguing about the extent of the landscaping they had in mind, because they’ve just realized they have different needs and wishes. I hate when that happens and feel uncomfortable. Sometimes spouses will disagree with a comment from their partner, just grit their teeth and squeeze out the words, “Alright dear, as you wish.” My instinct is definitely on high alert when these situations take place.

Most of the time things are smooth and comfortable for all parties and my instinct doesn’t set off any warning bells. However, once I have the job signed, the mood can change as the job begins. As a contractor, I never know what each day will bring. I know I am decent, honest and have integrity. All I ask is that the client behaves in the same way.
Here is a brief list I wish I could give to all my potential clients:
  • Landscape contractors and their employees are people too, with pride, honour, dignity, feelings, families and responsibilities. Don’t disrespect us.
  • Don’t bring your stress onto my job site, even if it is at your house.
  • If you have more money than I have, it doesn’t give you the right to talk down to me or behave badly.
  • If you offer me and my crew water or juice — especially when it’s hot outside — or washroom facilities, that sort of kindness bodes well.
  • Words of encouragement like, nice job, looks great, it’s exactly what I wanted, are words we respond well to.

Many years ago, I was asked to quote on a very large job in arguably the most exclusive area of Toronto. The homeowner thought my initial price was too high, so I lowered it before meeting him again.

For the next week, after he again thought my price was too high, I couldn’t bring myself to call him to discuss my lowered price. Finally his wife called and asked when I’d be back to discuss the new budget. With great courage and some trepidation, I told her I wasn’t going to be working for them. At that moment, I felt the weight of a great big heavy backpack being lifted off my shoulders. My instinct had been knocking, but I hadn’t been listening.

Three things can happen at the end of a job: you can make money, break even, or you can lose money. The worst thing that happened by not doing that big job was, I didn’t lose money, which I would have, had I agreed to do the job for the price he wanted. The following year, I heard that the contractor who took the job lost his shirt.

As it turned out, another job came up with margins at which I felt comfortable. Instinct trumps ego every time. Don’t start a job just because you think it can be profitable. Know it will be profitable, or let someone else’s ego rule their decision to do that job.

The bottom line is to use your instinct. It may become one of your most valuable tools. Unfortunately, some of the lessons aren’t worth the price you need pay to learn them. But fortunately, lessons cost less as time goes on and your instinct becomes more acute.

What do you look for, or listen to when you meet potential clients that shapes your decision to work for them or not? What comments would you add to a list which, if you could, you’d give to all your potential clients? Send me your comments.
Arthur Skolnik owns Shibui Landscaping in Toronto and is a member of the Landscape Contractors Sector Group. You may contact him at