Put it in writing

How often have you heard the words, "It isn't worth the paper it's written on"? All too often, I'm sure. Any guarantee or warranty, for that matter, is only as good as the company that stands behind it.

Among the definitions offered by Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, a guarantee is "an assurance of the quality or the length of use to be expected from a product to be offered for sale. A warranty is a written guarantee of the integrity of a product and of the maker's responsibility for the repair or replacement of defective parts." Therefore, you might safely assume that, for all intents and purposes, the two definitions are so similar as to be synonymous.

Please note, however, the word written in the definition of warranty and another key word in both definitions, the word product. Therein lies a challenge that both the client and contractor must contend with when discussing guarantees or warranties in the landscape-services industry.

When someone buys a product, they are buying something of substance. They can see it, they can touch it, they can store it. It can be delivered at almost any time, and it probably has some useful purpose. It could be anything from an automobile to a xylophone.

Conversely, when someone buys a service, in essence they are buying a promise, and that promise is a declaration that one will do something as specified.

You cannot see a service until it is delivered. You cannot touch it nor can you store it. It occurs only at the time someone performs it, and there is absolutely no way that any subsequent service deliveries will be duplicated exactly.

How to offer a guarantee In the landscape-service industry, how should contractors express or provide a guarantee, keeping in mind that everything has a price?

To draw an analogy, let's look at how some automobile warranties differ. Everyone wants to be at least as good as their closest competitor but also seeks to offer some unique feature to give them an edge. To be effective, it will have to appeal to the most likely purchasers of that particular automobile.

At the top of the scale, we have Mercedes Benz, whose automobiles come with a 4-year, 50,000-mile, bumper-to-bumper warranty. In addition, during that time, the company will provide the owner with 24- hour-per-day, 365-days-per-year, emergency-roadside service anywhere!

Further down, we have Volkswagen. Their warranty is for 2 years or 24,000 miles. They also have an extraordinary 10-year or 100,000-mile warranty on the engine and drive train. With price disparities that could exceed $100,000, which is the better guarantee? Because both automobiles will transport you from point A to point B, no one except the prospective customer can say which fits his or her needs best, and that its worth is commensurate with the price.

As for the xylophone, the manufacturer will or can guarantee the instrument will have a certain amount of wooden bars of varied length, which will produce a musical scale when struck. However, I doubt whether any xylophone manufacturer will guarantee the musician will be able to make sweet, melodious music.

In the context of interior- or exterior-landscape design and installation, and of subsequent landscape maintenance, just what can anyone realistically guarantee, and what is it worth?

The answer can be as simple or complex as the client or contractor wishes. And, obviously, if it is to be worth anything, the price will reflect it. Furthermore, the reputation and integrity of the contractor will back it. Guarantee who you are and that you will do what is asked for or is specified, but not any more.

You can guarantee plants and trees to be of a specified size and species. You can guarantee that you will install them in a certain manner and at a certain time as specifications recommend. You also can guarantee that plants or trees are healthy and viable (to the best of your knowledge), and that if they die before a certain time, you will replace them. Butalways keep in mind, plants and trees are living things and subject to weather, neglect, abuse and other acts of nature or man. As an installation contractor, unless you perform the subsequent maintenance, what control over the growing conditions do you have?

Can you guarantee results? When it comes to landscape maintenance, it is probably even more difficult to guarantee results. Obviously, two or more contractors can guarantee they will perform all tasks as specified, yet so often the results are drastically different.

When you seek the services of a professional such as a doctor, lawyer or accountant, what kind of warranty would you or could you expect?

Most of the professionals, such a those listed above, will do their best to exercise due diligence and perform the necessary functions of their professional discipline according to some objective and subjective determinations of competence by all of the peers and practitioners of that particular professional group. If we had an adequate way to measure their performance consistently, we wouldn't have malpractice suits. Obviously, experts on both sides of these suits disagree frequently and vehemently.

Doctors--who study for years, serve as interns and residents and then take the Hippocratic oath--cannot guarantee a cure. Lawyers spend many years in school and must pass a bar exam, yet they cannot guarantee they will prevail in a lawsuit. Accountants must study and pass rigorous examinations to become certified and perform their duties according to Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, yet they cannot assure you that you will not get a visit from the IRS.

Compare them to the widely diverse group of people and firms who provide landscape services. Not only do we have geographic diversity but even wider differences in experience, expertise, integrity and financial stability. Unfortunately, those whose "guarantees are not worth the paper they are written on" victimize all the legitimate landscape-contracting firms and landscapers.

In their attempt to secure competitive bids that are comparable, clients often prepare and present contractors with elaborate specifications. More often than not, legitimate contractors of competence and integrity will bid to specifications--this compliance being reflected in their price and leaving the door open to less scrupulous individuals likely to "low ball" the price.

Rarely, if ever, do clients completely accomplish what they seek. Clients are wiser to concentrate on pre-qualifying contractors first and then soliciting proposals, which they can negotiate later. This can and usually does lead to true "partnering."

Commitment, integrity and reputation Whenever possible, convince your client that you can adequately provide all the labor, supervision, equipment, materials, supplies and other services to complete a job. You can do so by inviting them to your facilities, providing an equipment inventory and encouraging them to visit some of your existing sites.

If you participate in any industry-certification programs, point it out. For example, Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) and Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS) both offer certification programs. ALCA, together with various states, conducts testing for landscape-construction and -maintenance technicians. Make sure to point out that many states also require certification and licensing for pesticide applications.

Establish your reputation by listing references and notable job accomplishments, especially if you have earned state or national awards. Retention of accounts is indicative of concern for the client and the ability and capacity to serve them well. List any professional or trade memberships, activities or awards to demonstrate your interest in professional and personal growth. If a potential client should ask, be prepared to submit your certificate of insurance. Also, stipulate that you will follow the specifications as outlined or in lieu of specifications that you will perform as proposed. If replacements are necessary, do not hesitate to let the client know a certain cost is associated with it, just as a cost is associated with providing all of your experience, expertise, ability and capacity.

All of the above are real indicators of a contractor's ability and capacity to do a particular job.

It is too bad, but while price alone does not measure many of the intangibles required to be a good contractor, it is a reality that price is too often used as a constant measurement. The best guarantee a client can ask for is a contractor who is pre-qualified and can negotiate a design/build installation or landscape-management program that will most likely fill the clients' needs or desires at a price they are willing to pay.

What are some specific examples of guarantees and warranties Grounds Maintenance readers offer? We asked a few of our readers what guarantees and warranties they provide to their customers:

* Clarence Davids & Co. (Blue Island, Ill.) guarantees the plant material it installs, subject to the following conditions:

All shrubs, trees and evergreens are guaranteed to be true to name. The company will replace any shrub, tree or evergreen that fails to survive for a period of 1 year after the date of planting at no charge to the owner, except for supportive materials deemed necessary (soil amendments and drainage, for example) and labor, provided the owner has provided proper care for the plant material since installation.

Clarence Davids will perform replacements on a one-time basis only at the request of the owner. This guarantee does not extend to damage resulting from vandalism, insufficient watering, extreme cold, salt damage, owner neglect and other factors beyond the control of the contractor.

The company will guarantee sod or seed to proper installation using quality materials. Growth should take place as long as the owner provides sufficient watering. For this reason, the company does not provide an extended guarantee. The company does not offer a guarantee on transplanted material or plants in pots or raised planter boxes.

* Environmental Care Inc. (Calabasas, Calif.) stands behind all its remedial installation work, upgrades and proper plant maintenance for the duration of the contract period. Excluded from this position would be plant mortality due to conditions beyond its control such as freeze, uncontrollable pests (no registered control) or "acts of God."

Most of the company's contracts are performance-based--green grass, controlled pests, successful planting, etc.--so ECI guarantees the result. As long as a customer is not totally unreasonable, ECI will do what it takes to satisfy the customer to ensure and preserve opportunities for a long-term relationship.

* Ruppert Landscape Co. Inc. (Ashton, Md.) provides a full warranty on the plant materials it installs. This warranty covers all variables within the contractor's control such as mishandling, improper planting, poor-quality materials, lack of water or proper maintenance. Not included are variables out of its control, such as acts of nature, vandalism or factors such as insects, disease or lack of water if those services are not part of the customer's landscape-management contract.

Ruppert offers a 100-percent guarantee on turf establishment for its installations. However, the company encourages that the seeding and sodding be done in season and with a variety it feels will best suit the environment. The company also guarantees the parts and workmanship of its installed irrigation systems for 1 year.

Ruppert's guarantees of pest control vary depending on what is included in the client's specifications. If the contract is to perform full-service integrated pest management, the company will cover all materials unless a previous problem existed when it took over the maintenance of the property. None of the contracts include several hard-to-control weeds because of their rarity and invasive nature.

If Ruppert installs the materials associated with annual-color plantings and has a maintenance contract, it will guarantee the plants and work. If another contractor installed the plants and the customer doesn't water them, Ruppert offers no guarantee.

"The most important step a landscape contractor can take is to educate the client on how to read the specs and understand each warranty condition," says Ruppert's Kathleen Sheetz, director of public relations. "Ultimately, except for extreme conditions, if customer service is made a top priority, then many contractors will cover most conditions regardless of what's in writing."

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