Sargent's solutions - protect your business by having thorough, orderly records

Having all your paperwork in order from the start of a job is the best way to avoid problems later on, Alan Sargent advises.

I have been involved in court work as an expert witness for more than 25 years, but rarely more so than in the past couple of years. It is now so easy for a disgruntled customer to apply to a small claims court to settle real or imaginary disputes.

With the advent of recent customer protection laws and an awareness by the public of the power of consumer rights, the result has been a surge in the number of people simply applying online to a courts service for compensation or dispute resolution, without proper thought or explanation of what is really involved.

Without discussing matters with a solicitor and taking appropriate advice, the public can fill in various forms online, pay a standard fee and simply push the "send" button, then sit back and wait for resolution by capitulation on the part of the defendant. Little or no thought is given to the cost and possible implications of their action. They are not happy with something and want compensation including payment of their court costs, hoping that the defendant will simply settle on demand.

Often, of course, they get the result they want without any further problems because the contractor will pay or settle because they do not know how to respond to such officialdom. It is simply too much trouble to fight against a court document and they cannot afford to employ a solicitor to represent them.

Problem prevention

As with all problems, it is better to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Many new outfits are so busy working on site or spending time visiting potential customers, chasing payments, maintaining equipment and all the other tasks their job demands, they neglect the paperwork side of their businesses. Even supplying the most basic of written quotations is too much trouble, relying instead on verbal agreements or a sketchy letter to secure the work.

I cannot overemphasise the importance of contract documents. Unless you have time to produce detailed and specified contracts, you leave yourself wide open to future disputes. There are basic online forms available for use as "tender" documents, but they are essentially too generic to be of real value to you as a business. Their "tick box" layout is useful but not necessarily relevant to the site, and any discrepancies may render the document useless.

As well as the disgruntled, there is no doubt that some customers may be considered "professional non-payers", and these seem to be attracted to smaller firms, knowing that they are unable to afford legal representation. They often wait until the end of a job to declare that they are unhappy and will not be paying the final bill.

Without question, the best way to avoid these difficulties is to ensure that your paperwork is in order. This discipline is essential, with time spent at the outset producing detailed specified quotations on headed paper, including as much information as you can. Include the date and time of the visit as well as the date of the quotation.

If the job concerns or includes something that may materially change over a few weeks - such as a hedge-cutting or mowing contract - your quote should be time-limited to prevent a customer from accepting a quotation that bears no relation to the site at the time of agreement and access to site.

Therefore you will need to note existing conditions prevalent at the time of writing. If the job is weatheror temperature-dependent, this should also be noted and a time limit placed on acceptance. If time is of the essence - the customer requires work to be completed by a certain date - then this fact must be included in writing.

Think of each quotation as being a story to be relayed to the customer, with a step-by-step guide as to how the job will proceed. Even simple projects such as grass cutting should be explained by including your method of entering the site, the size of the machine to be used, the condition the site should be in when you start (often regarding debris, toys, dog mess etc). You should also explain the condition in which you will leave the site. This may include removing rubbish or leaving it placed in a compost area.

By fully detailing and explaining your quotation, you leave no room for dispute. If you do as you say, there can be no further problems, and the fact that you have followed your storyline means you will have no need to worry about disputes.

Acceptance form

The customer should sign an acceptance form - this is usually a blank space in the quotation agreement - that includes instructions of payment times, dates and method. Another signature is required at the end of the job, when any minor defects can be agreed and resolved.

This discipline may seem tiresome at first, but after a while it will become second nature. As your business expands, and projects become more complex, perhaps taking on construction or landscaping jobs demanding high standards of detail under different legislation, you will be used to working in an efficient manner.

In my experience, if a contractor has all of the documentation in place and the project has been completed accordingly, then the chances of a dispute situation arising become almost non-existent.

Court cases can become a very expensive process. With due diligence and sound documentation, you will be able to avoid any such unnecessary, unpleasant and time-consuming worries.

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant and founder of the Professional Garden Consultants Association.

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