It was early spring 2021 when the client first contacted us. She absolutely loved the pond we had built at a local nursery that she frequents. The nursery owner sent her our way to get one of her own. We love referral leads because they tend to be people who are already comfortable with our build style. Our credibility is solid with the reference, and that translates to a nice warm start to our relationship.
First, she visited our showroom with her husband, and they both loved our work. She asked us to convert her swimming pool into a water garden, which is a request we get a lot these days. We designed this pool-to-pond conversion with some quirky upgrade features, including two large tree trunks with water raceways carved into them — something she had seen at the local nursery. This nursery pond she had fallen in love with was a rebuild of an existing water feature. The nursery owner had asked us to leave and re-use the carved-out log that was already in place.
One of the cardinal rules of sales is, “Don’t show it if you are not willing to sell it.” This was built as a sales display for us. We must have done at least 30 home and garden shows in our first decade in this business, and I know this rule to be absolutely true. Yet I must apparently relearn it again and again, along with a related rule — to charge accordingly for unusual requests.
A Sonoran Jungle?
The on-site design consultation following the showroom visit went well. However, we found that access was going to be a major problem, especially considering the two large tree trunks that were to be included in the installation. The tree trunk theme from the nursery feature was expanded during the design phase to include installing a nearly 18-foot-tall tree trunk against the constructed wetland filter wall, which she would cover in a vine like King Kong, and later a fourth trunk to be used as a bench seat. She was looking for a jungle-like atmosphere in her Sonoran Desert garden. This is a typical track-home backyard, about 30 feet deep off the back patio. From contact to contract took about a month. And that was only the beginning.
As time went on after signing the contract (April) and awaiting the start date (October), several plan changes were made before we even began construction, including the addition of a third and fourth tree trunk to the order. I should have added more money to our transport and installation budget for that, but I failed to pick it up and account for it. So naturally, one ended up being very large and costly to move and secure into place.
Multiple on-site meetings took place between the contract signing and the beginning of construction because the client kept changing the design, adding to it or wanting to discuss how to placate her homeowners’ association. Eventually, we completed this process via email. Whew!
However, adding insult to injury, two weeks before construction was set to finally begin, she backed out. Not permanently — she just needed to put the project on hold due to a family emergency back in India. She would be out of the country for an untold amount of time and would get back to us when she returned. We had to scramble to find something to put in its place because we were approaching the holiday season, and it gets tougher to fill the calendar during that time of year, when no one wants their yard all torn up.
She did come back, and we were finally able to begin construction about six months after the original start date had been set.
Asking for a “Friend”
On the very first day of construction, she surprised us with a “friend” showing up on site shortly after we had started our morning. This “friend” was an interior designer who fancied herself a designer of all things, including landscape and, apparently now, ponds. It turned out that the client had hired this lady for the specific purpose of micromanaging our rock placement to suit her aesthetics, without any consideration given to functionality and stability. This is despite the fact that she had hired a professional pond builder whose work she had professed to respect.
This client was a micromanager from the start, but I didn’t really pick up on it until after the project construction had gotten under way. I should have noticed on the first day when, barefoot and wearing a house dress, she tried to “help” the crew move tree trunks into the yard. She would not listen to reason from our foreman, whom I had introduced as our construction supervisor with more than a decade of experience with our company. I had to drop my schedule and make a special trip out to the job site (one hour each way) to get her settled down and set boundaries for her and her designer friend.
I was able to control the situation while I was on site, but each time I left, these two ladies would set aside everything we had agreed upon and go right back to getting involved in the build, micromanaging every rock our team tried to set into place as if we didn’t know what we were doing. “A little to the left, a little to the right … can you raise it up a couple of inches?” That kind of stuff. It was very frustrating for a crew that had been trained to follow the rule of “form follows function.” The rock substrate must be stable!
We had used, splintery plywood and rocks all over the backyard. This not-so-athletic, barefoot woman and her interior designer friend got right in the middle of the action, holding up our progress and causing our team all kinds of frustration. And talk about dangerous!
We had never set up any kind of process or protocols for dealing with this kind of client. No one on our team was prepared, or willing at this point, to admonish the women to get off the project site and out of the danger zone. I had a verbal agreement with both women that they would not leave the covered patio area. However, as soon as I left their sight, the deal was cast aside, and both women were right back in the middle of what our team was doing. In fact, one single 200-pound rock was moved eight times, taking more than 20 minutes of crew time to make the client happy before the ladies would allow the crew to move on.
I was furious when I heard this, and from that moment on, I spent way more time on this project site than I had intended. Our team is well trained and experienced, having more than 35 years of combined experience in water-garden construction among them. They do not need me on site to build. After all, my job is selling and lining up the next project for them — not daily supervision of the current project site.
Unfortunately, this client made it necessary for me to spend way more time there than I had anticipated just to play referee. “Bleeeeep! Offsides! Please get back to your patio, ma’am!”
I asked her at one point toward the end of the build, “Why did you hire us, one of the most expensive pond builders in this area, to build your pond if you were planning to direct the placement of each individual stone?”
“Well, I wanted the best people possible in my yard, and you guys, as well as my designer friend, are the best people I know for the job!” was her reply.
I know she meant this to be a compliment, but it didn’t come off that way to me. The whole experience felt insulting. Her shenanigans added a couple of days to the project, so naturally we finished over budget, making it an almost break-even effort.
We did become a little more educated on what can happen with certain types of clients, and we came up with a training plan to deal with such people in the future.
Like all things, we needed a system. So, we set up our team members with some ground rules and a process for dealing with clients who want to “help.” We also addressed this in our start-date confirmation email that goes out several days before the crew shows up, just so it’s in writing.
The first time it happens, be polite. “Excuse me, we need you to stay out of the work area, please. The crew is focused on getting heavy materials moved without injury, and they cannot focus on their job if protecting you is a concern for them. If you need to discuss the design, please call your consultant.”
If it happens a second time, be direct. “Please stay out of the work areas. Our worker’s comp and liability insurance policies require that we keep all bystanders, including clients, out of the construction zone. Please stay on this side of the line. If you need to discuss the design, please call your consultant.”
If this doesn’t work, you have to get more specific. “This is the moment where we tell you straight up that if you insist on entering the work zone, we are required to stop work and leave the project, and you may incur a delay charge. There will be no more warnings. If you enter our work area again, we will be forced to pack up and leave. If you need to discuss the design, please call your consultant.”
If being specific doesn’t work, you have to pack up and leave. Let the client know that their consultant will be in touch to work out a plan and agreement for completing the project.
C.Y.A. or See Ya
During the entire construction process, we take pictures of job progress, so photos of client interference should be easy for someone on the crew to capture. There should be documentation if the client decides to fight about the extra charges incurred from project interference or delay. We have that language in our contract as well. (C.Y.A., folks!)
Ultimately, the project came out beautiful. I was not super pleased with some of the boulder placement, but our foreman refused to allow me to discuss it with the client. In his words, “We spent 20 minutes on that rock, and she is happy! We are not moving it again!” I can’t say I really blame him.
Hopefully this story will help you better prepare for the inevitable encounters with micromanaging clients.