Sargent's solutions - how to ready your business for proposed changes to customer rights

Alan Sargent advises that the Customer Rights Bill should be regarded as an opportunity to tighten up professional practice rather than treated as a threat.

There is an increasing amount of concern regarding proposed legislation currently being guided through Parliament. I have received several calls from people worried about the likely impact of the Customer Rights Bill, with much of this concern being fed by a somewhat overenthusiastic press.

Stories abound of potential customers making clandestine recordings of conversations at the initial site interview, with provocatively chosen words and phrases deliberately couched into making the contractor promise something they cannot produce, then refusing to pay for the work because their "brief" was not met.

Examples given include "the perfect lawn", a "level" play area, a "rabbit-proof fence" or a "beautiful rose garden" — among a range of other terms subject to personal and subjective meanings — that are then referred to when the time for invoicing and payment arrives, and thrown back at the contractor for non-compliance with their instructions.

These are some of the more "reasonable" potential pitfalls. Others include a direct challenge to the skills and ability of the contractor, almost daring them to come up with a fantastic scheme that the site or budget could never meet. There have always been these "professional non-payers" and the Customers Rights Bill — or whatever the final title may be — could be seen by some as a complainants’ charter, especially when targeted at new or smaller firms.

As with all bills — or so it seems to me — they are thought up by politicians eager to create favourable headlines for themselves or their department, while the bare bones are given to others to fine-tune and hopefully by the time they have travelled through various committees and public consultations they will be acceptable both to the wider public as well as the legislators.

With the Customers Rights Bill, it is bound to be seen as favouring the hard-done-by public, with those naughty contractors being forced into raising their standards, completely irrespective of the actual benefit to the public.

There has always been a strong case for all contractors, including designers, landscapers and maintenance firms, to ensure that their contract documents are in good order. Every project, no matter how large or small, should be tightly controlled. Consider when you hire a car. Each vehicle is carefully inspected by both parties to ensure that even the slightest scratch or blemish is recorded at the time of hire and the condition is signed for by both. When the vehicle is returned, the same process is carried out and any variations are noted, and charged for if necessary. This common practice is not questioned by either side.

Increase your professional standing

The advent of this bill should be welcomed by all contractors and instead of being treated as a threat to our businesses turned into an opportunity to be welcomed by the industry, being the foundation for all our undertakings.

Site surveys, customer instructions given in writing, budgets set at the time of tendering, method statements, insurance matters, payment methods and terms, specification and product libraries — all of the usual documentation should be produced and given to the client as a record of your association with them. Formally identify the client as Mr and/or Mrs, Mr and/or Mr, Mr and/or Miss, etc, to prevent any problems in the future. At each stage of presentation, ensure that the nominated client signs for the documents as being received and understood, citing the new bill as the need to do so.

No matter how contentious the new bill is or becomes — there are bound to be a lot of press stories detailing how some poor unfortunate householder was saved from being ripped off thanks to the wonderful new law and a lot of sad stories in the trade press about unscrupulous homeowners. The fact is that it cannot change the established laws already enshrined in our country, many centuries old and forming the very basis of our democracy.

The established law — the laws of tort and others that are the backbone of our society — are there to protect all parties and may be seen as impartial, favouring justice without sides. The new bill will have its flaws and cannot override the established law, for example, that says the buyer must beware (caveat emptor) or the craftsman must be paid for his work (quantum meruit), both of which underpin a host of other solid laws.

This would require the complete rewriting of all laws and, provided that you have all of your documentation firmly in place, you will not only protect yourself from opportunistic non-payers but also use the chance to review and tighten up on your procedures, and increase your profitability at the same time.

Should anyone attempt to embroil you in such a complainants’ charter, and you suspect a scam, be mindful that there are also laws to protect you from the "attacks of the insidious" — including attempting to obtain a pecuniary advantage (by deliberately attempting to withhold payment on some spurious pretext) and slander/libel laws.

Let’s celebrate the Customer Rights Bill or at least seize the opportunity to examine our working practices and tighten up/fine-tune our documentation to ensure that we are seen as professionals, not subject to opportunistic attempts to take advantage of our goodwill
and enthusiasm.

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant. His latest book, The Landscaper’s Survival Manual, is available from www.alansargent.co.uk.


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