Sargent's solutions - the art of getting paid in good time

Maintaining detailed communication with your clients is key to ensuring prompt payment, Alan Sargent advises.

Q. I seem to have so much trouble trying to get clients to pay me in the proper manner. Although I supply verbal and written quotations and invoices, some people seem to treat invoices as something to be argued with. Can you offer any advice please?

A. I receive so many emails and calls every month regarding monies and finance - late, partial or non-payments - with such a wide range of varying reasons for the problems arising, I have resisted attempting to write an official response to individual queries simply due to the fact that it is such a diverse subject. I have only 900 words per article in which to offer advice on a subject that could fill a seminar programme many times over.

There are so many different types of gardening business, from "lawns and hedges only" firms to landscape companies providing a full design and build package, with a large percentage of firms offering a mixture of maintenance and construction dependent on the seasons or wishes of their clients. It is this diverse nature of our industry that causes many of the problems with clients and prompt payments, because a single form of payment documentation and logic is not maintained within the firm.

Consider for a moment the methods employed by other businesses. I think a decent analogy would be a local garage providing vehicle repairs. As a business dealing with so many differing yet connected items and services, it must work with a system that is clear and unequivocal, carefully itemising works carried out and materials used, separating labour costs and materials, arriving at a final account figure that is understood by both parties. Even if the client feels that cost is too high, because everything is clearly identified there is usually no reason for dispute.

This simplistic analogy may be described as "communication". The vehicle owner understands the need to expend money on labour and materials. It is accepted that the garage owner must have suitable premises that are covered by a range of legislation, a considerable amount of tools and equipment must be purchased and, crucially, trained staff have to be employed by the business, therefore everybody expects to pay a suitable hourly rate to recognise all of those costs.

Public perception difficulty

For many garden company owners, a major problem lays in the nature of our businesses. There is a strong perception in the mind of the public that gardening is a hobby they personally enjoy but need assistance to carry out those jobs for which they do not have time. Why, therefore, should they have to pay "garage" rates for labour carrying out tasks they themselves enjoy? Gardening is not a serious business to them but a paying hobby. They may well think that those who work in their garden should consider themselves blessed.

No matter how small a gardening firm, it is extremely important that it is run as a business. When starting out, so much time is spent trying to find more work, complete those jobs you have started and keep everybody happy by balancing and juggling your diary. The usual growth pattern of taking on mowing, hedging, weeding and maintaining small gardens, gradually taking on more complex sites as your confidence and reputation expand, is often not allied to an essential increase and sophistication in your paperwork.

Without proper documentation, detailed quotations and, vitally, terms and conditions of payment clearly set out from the beginning, backed up with an efficient finance system and records that are faithfully maintained, all contracts are liable to become confused.

Too many gardeners fail to see themselves as contractors in the full and proper sense of the word. Even simple mowing projects should be treated as contracts, with full documentation written in such a way that there can be no misunderstanding or confusion. Terms and conditions of payment should be clearly spelled out, detailing the method of payment - cash, cheque, BACS etc - and payment dates for piecework, weekly or monthly accounts.

Eliminate misunderstanding

The works to be completed must also be written in such a way that there can be no misunderstanding. The area to be included, together with the type of machine to be used, should be written into the quotation. Although you may wish to include other works in a maintenance programme, it is not unreasonable for the client to expect you to supply all tools and equipment to carry out standard gardening works including, say, hedge cutting.

Most importantly, those works that fall outside the scope of the agreed quotation must be subject to a separate quotation. For example, if you are required to strip turf and prepare an area of ground, you may need additional equipment and will have to hire in machinery. In that event, the turf cutter and rotovator would be additional costs and should be shown separately on your invoice, including the time spent travelling to collect and return the hire tools.

The client should not expect you to provide these extra costs in the same charge as regular maintenance, yet these will cause dissent if not clearly agreed in writing, creating bad feelings and late payments. This is only one small example of client/contractor potential communication breakdown that does not cover problems that arise during construction projects.

I will deal with design and build payment issues in my next column. It is a very complex question with no simple answers. All contracts require a professional payment structure to ensure timely payments.

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant at the School of Garden Management

- See


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