Not all customers understand the need to heed for various arboricultural practices, pay their bills on time, give great word-of-mouth or Yelp! reviews and follow your recommendations for watering, mulching and injury prevention.

Some argue with every word you say, grumble about the cost of maintaining their trees, complain if three leaves remain on the lawn after pruning and simply don’t appreciate the level of expertise, training and experience that most arborists utilize to keep their trees as assets rather than liabilities.

As such, from time to time, less-than-desirable conversations and interactions may occur with these “problem customers.” So, what to do? Blow them off? Ignore them? Yell back?

Many options and strategies are possible; some are more effective than others. Astute arborists are able to implement the ones that are best for each situation.

Planting sites such as these often produce problem trees as well as problem customers.

Start with this

To tackle a tree care issue such as borers or stem-girdling roots, it’s necessary to accurately diagnose the actual cause of the trees’ decline. Sure, it may have an aphid problem, but are they there on their own, or being encouraged by the over-fertilization of the turf surrounding the tree?

Diagnosis of the actual problem should start with consideration of all possible causes, including a mistake made by a tree care worker in your company, one(s) made by the client or other service providers and misunderstandings in communication. In order to find the real cause, it’s important to ask the question, “so, what are you asking about?” and then be quiet and listen.

Listening is actually an active process, not a passive one. It comes easier for some than others; many extroverts find it quite difficult. Listening starts with the question, then moves to a focus on the message from the customer.

Care should be taken to avoid interruption, even if it means biting your lip at times. Writing notes on a clipboard and note pad is helpful as both a symbolic and actual means of concentrating your attention on the details at hand.

After the client has fully explained his or her concerns, clarifying questions can be asked, followed by more listening and note-taking. After the initial discussion is over, the discussion can continue in several ways, depending on the specifics of the situation.

Distractions

The next part is the preconceived notions in the minds of both the arborist and the customer.

My suggestion to both parties is to simply acknowledge them; they’re normal, so be honest. People make judgments based on previous experiences; it’s just how we as humans function. Along the way of the message being sent, there are distractions, or noise, as it is generically referred to in the communication field. Common distractions include background noise, family members interrupting the customer to add their two cents’ worth (even if they’re irrelevant or wrong) and other conversations taking place at the same time.

Following the sent message comes the receiving and interpretation of the words spoken by the customer. These are processed through the filter of the arborists’ experience and training, then a response is formulated. As the response is shared, there are more distractions such as before. As well, since there are often many back-and-forth messages in the communication channel, conversation fatigue often sets in, where either person becomes tired of the process and loses focus; this, in itself, is a distraction.

What to do

Start with listening…for several reasons. First, it shows that you care. Second, it is a helpful documentation of what occurred, at least from the customers’ point of view. Third, it provides valuable feedback. It may be incorrect, but feedback is a form of perception, and, as the old saying goes, “perception is reality.”

Be sure to thank them for their comments, even if you don’t like to hear the message, if it’s wrong or it casts your company in a poor light. Assure the problem customer that the only way that a good outcome can happen is if they let you know when they are unhappy.

Next, be patient: Patience is more than a virtue; it slows the conversation down, allowing you time to fully understand what is going on, what happened and why it may have happened, and giving you the time to think on your feet as you formulate a response.

Be simple: Simple is like pushing the easy button. Like most of us, your customers’ lives are likely to be filled with complicated issues, such as deciding where to put their parents when the time comes when they can no longer take care of themselves. Simple cannot be misinterpreted; simple responses are easy to understand. In most cases, they’re a breath of fresh air.

Let the facts do the talking: Whether it’s explaining that the customer is late with his or her bills or that a tree is actually dying from poor placement by the previous owner, calmly explain the facts—no more and no less. Facts are powerful, whereas opinions and hearsay can be taken a number of ways and are often confusing. When dealing with unhappy customers, let them vent frustrations for a few minutes, then redirect the conversation to the facts—when, how, appearance, actions taken, initial/long-term results, etc.

When appropriate, own it: If you or your company made a mistake, admit it and acknowledge it. Get it out there in the open. Offer something in return to make up for it. Depending on the degree of the infraction, a free dinner at the Outback can go a long way toward keeping a good customer or turning a problem customer into a neutral or positive one. Another way of owning it is to fix it. If possible, repair a damaged specimen, plant a new tree, re-spray or send a corrected invoice.

One of the reasons that this tree is struggling is the presence of stem-girdling roots. Customers may not understand this and will need it calmly explained.

What not to do

To go along with the to-do’s above, here are four don’ts:

  • Don’t charge into battle: Take a deep breath, and talk softly and calmly. When customers raise their voices to you, return their rage with an even and measured tone, possibly even a relaxed one. It’s important to take their concerns seriously and let your voice convey that you care, but matching their anger with a similar degree of defensiveness is a sure ticket to failure.
  • Don’t make comparisons: Especially with neighboring properties/landscapes, or even other customers in other parts of the city. They are often not helpful, as customers usually doesn’t care about other customers, they only care about their trees. Plus, arboriculturally, comparisons are usually not fair or even accurate. It’s likely that other properties have different soils, have been cared for differently and may involve entirely different species than the ones of concern to the customer.
  • Don’t take it personally: After all, this is their tree, not yours. Taking the personal nature out of the conversation directs the exchange of messages back to the facts, not emotional salvos. As best you can, ignore customer assertions that you don’t care, you’re not doing your job, they’re going to report you to the Better Business Bureau, they’ll tell all their friends and that they’re wasting their money.
  • Don’t be glib: Be careful about canned phrases such as “I understand and feel the same way.” Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. If you really do understand, use common personalized messaging such as “you know, that makes sense, sometimes trees do respond that way, and it can be a bit alarming. However, when pruned correctly, a little sap flowing down the tree trunk from the newly cut branch is normal and expected, and doesn’t hurt the tree at all.”

These strategies may not work in every case. Hopefully, they work on at least a few. If they don’t, letting a problem customer go may not be the worst thing that happens. Some clients won’t be happy no matter what you do, and honestly they’re a drag on your bottom line. But, for the ones who can be turned around—focus on relationships that LAST; Listen to them. Apologize for any wrongdoing. Solve what can be solved. Thank them for their comments.

In the end, in most situations, it’s worth the trouble.

PHOTOS: JOHN C. FECH, UNL, ISTOCK