Keep it simple

By Rod McDonald

Over the years, I have complicated many things needlessly. Had I chosen to keep those things simple, life would have been easier and more enjoyable. End of my true confession, unless you would like to know why I was grounded for two weeks in Grade 11.

My friend who owns a successful, high end maintenance company called recently. He has a customer who is always slow to pay bills. He wants to run his prepared speech by me for critique. He plans to call this customer and to itemize all the outstanding bills needing payment in order to keep the business going. Included are fuel, insurance, tool replacement – but that is just the beginning. 

“Got it, great speech,” I tell him. “But I have one problem. Why do you feel obligated to explain why the customer needs to pay his bill? You did the work, he owes the money. ‘Pay up. End of story.’” 

When a customer owes us money, we are under no obligation to explain why we want our money. There is no need to complicate things.

 At the retail level, how often have we seen “deals” offered that are so complicated, so filled with conditions, that it’s impossible to see why it’s a “deal” to begin with? “If you buy two, you can buy the third one for half price and the fourth one for free if you apply for our credit card with a 36 per cent annual interest rate.” Tell me again what you are selling?

I understand limited-time offers, as they signal urgency. However, it is also important to clearly state the offer. In my ads, I always made sure to place the exact quantities available for the sale, so readers understood inventory was limited.  And when we were clearing out products, we would let our clients know that it was the last opportunity to purchase the item. Above all else, in our search for simplicity and clarity, we have to be fair.

I absolutely love that I can go to an airline web site, book a ticket and know exactly what it is going to cost me to fly from one city to another. All of the taxes, gate charges, fuel surcharges and so on are now included. Of course seat selection and the dreaded luggage fee are not, but still, the main ticket price is fairly inclusive. I know what I am buying. We can thank the government regulators for that one. 

Compare that to buying a vehicle. Can you walk into the dealership and get a vehicle for the advertised price? I doubt it. Once in the dealership, out come the taxes, the delivery charges, the dealer prep charges, the tax on the air conditioning and to sing a ‘60s song, “The beat goes on.” One local dealership now adds an administrative fee of a few hundred dollars to “take care of the paper work.” Wow!  I would prefer an advertised price being exactly how much I must pay to drive the vehicle off the lot. 

I have never understood contractors who hedge when asked for a ballpark figure. I never hesitated to give ballpark figures, as they were useful in eliminating tire kickers. If a potential customer knew how much it would cost to landscape his backyard, I would ask a few questions and eagerly quote the price range. I was never legally bound by that range, if it turned out the job was much more expensive than first described, but it did help me decide how much further to take the conversation. If a customer said, “I thought it would be in that range,” I knew he was a realistic prospect. If he said, “I was talking to ABC Cheap Landscaping and they quoted half that amount,” I would get a different impression. I do not believe in trying to convert a low-end customer into a quality prospect. I tried to keep things simple by estimating only where there was a reasonable expectation of closing the deal. I much prefer to work for clients who really want me, not for those who really want to grind me.

Most people prefer to know the bottom line when receiving an estimate. They want to know the quoted price includes labour, materials, taxes, overhead and delivery charges. A few years ago, I hired an interior designer to convert a bedroom in our lovely house into a spa bathroom, with all the bells and whistles. We were empty nesters and wanted something special for ourselves. The designer convinced me we did not need a general contractor; instead, she would look after everything on our behalf. Stupidly, I agreed. We had no fixed price. I told her I wanted to keep the price under $35,000 and she assured me $33,000 would be closer to the finish line. To keep a long story short, the renovation took more than 18 months — 15 months over schedule — and cost $47,000. Each time I asked the designer about the bills coming in, she assured me we were still on budget. Apparently, math was not her strong suit. This experience confirmed why I insist on fixed pricing. If there are unforeseen problems, I understand and I am flexible, but they must be unforeseen.

Sales people with complicated pitches seldom earn my business. I often tell the story of walking into a computer shop; I was ready to be closed. The fellow who waited on me was more interested in sharing how smart he was and showing his command of technical knowledge. He never even asked me what I wanted. I felt like a hostage. He “techie talked” me the entire time and I walked out. I have a simple rule for any and all of my seminars, no matter who is the seminar leader: “No techie talk!” You must answer customer questions in clear, easy to follow, understandable English. No one needs to know how smart you are. They just want to know how to look after their flower beds, so tell them how easy it is. If you can’t tell a customer how to look after flower beds in three easy steps, you are not nearly as smart as you think you are. 

The same applies to accountants, investment brokers, lawyers and financial investors. My basic rule is: If you cannot understand what they are telling you, then it is time to find someone who can. My investment broker, who has been advising me for 25 years, is excellent at explaining how a new tax rule will affect me. I don’t need the doublespeak some professionals expel. An investment broker wanted my business a few years ago. He complicated his sales pitch so much that I left his office when he paused to catch his breath. I went there to see what he could do for me, not to listen to how smart he was. Smart people have no need to tell you how smart they are. You will figure that out on your own. 

A local artist, who has had pieces displayed in national galleries, told me many years ago “simplicity is the keynote to good taste.” Our conversation was centred on the design of landscaping projects. Her take was that too often, landscaping projects are overly complicated. The eye does not know where to focus and there is too much competition for attention. I have quoted her advice on many occasions, including when a customer who handed me a list filled with hundreds of plants she wanted in her yard. I had to ask my customer, “After we plant everything, where will we walk?” Keep things simple. 

All of us have to make choices about what is really important to us, with an understanding of what we can live without. This applies to all aspects of our businesses. A set of books must tell us the information we need to know. No one should have to explain what they mean. We have to make choices to stay on the road to success — and choosing simplicity is an excellent choice.     
Published in the October 2016 issue of Landscape Trades