06/07/2013 12:49 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2013

The Stable, the Unpredictable, and the Bully -- More Tales From the Garden

My social life has changed significantly in the last year and a half that I have been in a relationship with a curator at a major museum. He has dinners out frequently for business and most of the time I join him. When people ask what I do and I tell them I am a landscaper, they usually respond by saying " A landscaper, how wonderful you get to work outside in nature everyday". Well yes, and no. Landscaping is probably one of the most challenging jobs there is especially if you are a designer and a contractor. You not only have to come up with creative ideas for a space, but implement them as well. You have to be creative and a good project manager. But the most challenging aspect is working with the variety of personalities that you need to work with when dealing with clients. I have been landscaping homes and businesses for close to 15 years now, not to oversimplify, but I have found there are roughly 3 personality types that you find.

The folks that are the easiest are the ones that are the most stable, don't sweat the small stuff, and want a professional that has the skill and knowledge to do the job. In many cases these are the folks that have done a lot of research and have decided that we are the best company to do the project. They are easy because simply, they let us do our job and treat us as professionals. They may make some changes along the way, and definitely ask a lot of questions, but their interaction with us is professional and respectful. They have clear expectations which make it a pleasure to work with them. These folks are the ones most stable and when they make a decision they are comfortable with it.

The second personality type is the unpredictable type. These folks are the ones that are frequently easygoing when in the design process. However when you get into the actual installation phase and plants are coming out and things are torn up, they can come a bit unglued. You can see that they are wondering if they made the right decision. In the course of the project their personality fluctuates dramatically. They can be perfectly happy on one day and completely unhappy the next. Unlike the stable clients that did the research and feel comfortable with their decision and let you go about implementing the project, they are not secure in their own decision-making ability so are constantly questioning if they make the right decision. These folks put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect so are in constant fear of making a wrong decision. Unfortunately, this fear most frequently manifests itself in anger and frustration, which is directed to the service professional.

The third personality type you know what you are getting up front. You have a sense from the beginning that they won't be easy to deal with. In a perfect world most service people would run from these folks, and 5 years ago many of us did. But today we don't have the luxury of picking and choosing our clients as much. These are the folks that believe that anyone that they are paying can pretty much be treated as they see fit if they expect to be paid. Being paid by them can be a trick in and of itself. These are the most disrespectful and most unpleasant to work with. These are the bullies.

In the last two months I have had all three personality types as clients. The emotionally stable personality was a young guy, probably in his thirties (young to me these days). He had done a lot of research on the Internet before contacting us. He had got several estimates as well. He settled on us because of our ideas and experience. This project was reworking a backyard that was newer, but was not very attractive or functional. We reworked the planter beds to get rid of a lot of straight lines, installed a flagstone patio and a fire pit. Along the way he asked a lot of questions, we did a lot of emailing, pretty much daily, but he let us do what we were hired to do. When we finished he really liked the project and we are now doing a project for his mother.

Our unpredictable client was a woman that had found us through the showcase house we did last year. Not sure why, but the showcase house clients are frequently the unpredictable type. The project started with a design that was supposed to be done for the backyard, but then changed to a design for a driveway. Then quickly changed to redoing the planting around the driveway in an updated Mediterranean look. This look was second-guessed several times in the course of implementing it. At the end of each discussion I thought there was an agreement, but at the start of the next day more second-guessing and changes were made. These are the clients that even though they have signed a contract really pay no attention to it and are actually surprised when you refer to it as though they have no memory of it. Payment by these folks is really a matter of catching them in the right mood. I have learned to ask for the next payment when you get them on one of the good days (or hours).

The bully client was in the Bush Administration (which should have sent me running). His wife fell into the unpredictable category, so an interesting combination. I knew he would be difficult. He barked at his wife frequently throughout the initial meetings. They had found us through a friend of mine. My friend works with them on a volunteer basis but warned me about taking on a project with them, as their difficult side was quite obvious as he put it. Somehow I thought I could make it work and would just keep my head down. Being a former engineer, the bully client felt he could do all of the irrigation work himself. We informed him via email that more heads were needed to provide complete coverage. He responded that it was unnecessary. The next time we were at the property he attacked my crew about a broken pipe (which it turns out the hardscape crew he had hired separately had broken). Regardless of who broke it the reaction was way out of proportion and hostile. When I arrived he blew up at me for being unwilling to replace plants that might die because he refused to install more sprinkler heads. Being responsible for his own work was not something that he felt comfortable with. I stood up to him in a calm manner, explaining that it wasn't reasonable for us to be responsible for his work. This only infuriated him more (which is very common with bullies, the more you reason the more upset they get). Because of this series of outbursts we left shortly thereafter as I wanted to assess if we were even going to continue. I don't feel we should have to deal with harassment by a client - that is going too far. The day after, my crew told me that the other crew that did the hardscape was very happy with the way I stood up to the bully. They told my crew that their boss would never have stood up to him. Instead, their boss just took the yelling and insults so he would get paid. For better or worse I am not able to do that. I don't tolerate bullies well. Against my better judgment we did finish up. The bully when he was out in the yard acted as though we weren't there. But have I seen the final payment? Still waiting on that as the unpredictable of the pair who was making out the checks left on vacation for two weeks without paying us.

So how do I usually respond to the folks that say to me that I have such a wonderful job? The nature part is great. I just wish that was mainly what I did.