Inevitable Response to Bad Yelp Review
November 21, 2017
I am an organic vegetable gardener by trade. 9 years ago I fell in love with the idea of teaching people how to grow their own food and started a business called Hope Gardens. For the first three years I learned everything I could about both running a business and maintaining a vegetable garden organically. After what seemed like forever, my business finally started to take off. I had a steady stream of clients I designed and maintained veggie gardens for, I got great referrals that led to new clients, there were even celebrity gardens! I was publishing a blog, I was teaching at schools. I was growing my own organic line of seedlings for my clients and the general public. I had a slew of 5 star Yelp reviews that I prized highly. I had a crew I paid well and who made my job easier. It was alright. It was allllllright.
Then the State of California declared a drought and millions of tax dollars were committed to paying water customers to replace their sod with drought-tolerant landscapes and drip irrigation. The DWP was inundated with requests and they funneled a great deal of their business into a company called Turf Terminators. I was disgusted by their business model and landscape design and blogged about it. It got some traction and so I wrote about it again. Soon my phone was ringing off the hook with customers interested in drought-tolerant landscaping. I hired an assistant to field all the calls and book appointments. We were in constant contact with the DWP re: changing rebates and requirements. I was told by DWP that my company could install these gardens without my being a contractor because demand was so high, all the landscaping had to be permeable and they knew many people would be hiring their maintenance guys to do the labor. We answered over 1,000 inquiries about drought-tolerant landscaping (that’s a lot of free advice), and installed over 60 landscapes in just under 2 years.
I was thrilled with the many unique installations we got to do. I could not have done it without Carina and her team. I had a crew of about 10 guys and girls who helped with the heavy labor required of these jobs. I met Carina through a mutual friend when I was looking for help with irrigation for my veggie raised beds. She was so talented and intuitive when it came to irrigation. She was the answer to my prayers. And I soon realized she was like that with every aspect of landscaping! Carina has her own landscaping business as does her father, sister and brothers. They are all in the business and there’s nothing I wouldn’t trust them with.
Carina’s crew gave 100% in 100 degree heat. They showed up every day. They would help train new people. When we added a young man with autism to the crew, they embraced him. They were polite with my clients. They were kind to me. They were honest and trustworthy and I credit them with my success. For over 7 years, they have made Hope Gardens possible.
Last year in April, one of my drought-tolerant, cash-for-grass clients decided to sue me in small claims court. She knew more about the law than I did and she was able to collect the full cost of her garden (and keep the garden) without having to argue or prove I did anything wrong, all because I was not a contractor. My “waiver” from DWP didn’t hold up in court. I wasn’t allowed to have representation or speak on my own behalf. I couldn’t afford to appeal and really had no case. I also didn’t have the $6000 my client was awarded and so it was sent to collections which ruined my just-starting-to-improve-after-divorce credit.
It was a bad time.
After about a year of trying to figure out my next move, I decided to bite the bullet and become a landscaping contractor. Even if it was a very expensive and time-consuming piece of red tape, I loved my business, it was successful (even when I was barely working at it) and even if all I really wanted to do was plant veggie gardens, it was time to go legit. I filled out the requisite paperwork, payed the fee and passed my contractor’s exam on the first try. I was feeling optimistic.
Because of past experiences with nefarious clients, I was carefully choosing who I took work from. I was trying to avoid drama and bad outcomes but that’s hard to read on the surface. I hated being so paranoid because I really, really, really, really wanted to help people. And I couldn’t help but give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Why I don’t know, but here we are.
So I thought this client was a little eccentric. Melissa lived with two dogs in a small house across from the ocean. Her house was at the end of the street, adjacent to the Getty Villa in Malibu but she was officially in Pacific Palisades. A very exclusive and expensive neighborhood. She was not a fancy person however, she was comfortably dressed hippy-like with a big personality. She gave me the grand tour of her property, her house, history of the neighborhood and her relationships with her neighbors. She clearly loved her dogs and was very excited about the prospect of a veggie garden. I was there for a long time but I enjoyed her.
Her backyard was on a steep terrace and she wanted a vegetable garden planted in a fenced off back corner. It was completely inhospitable, uneven, choked with weeds, dangerous to walk around. But she was sure a garden could thrive there. I was not so sure that was the best place so I pitched that garden site and another one, providing her with alternative plans and estimates.
She decided she wanted to go for the terraced back corner garden and I told her I would have my partner Carina who runs my crew come out and make sure my estimate would match hers since this job was going to be very heavy on the labor. Carina came out and assured me she could do it for the price and we set a start date and I received the deposit for the job from Melissa.
Melissa ended up having to postpone the start date without much notice but Carina and I were able to move things around and salvage the days. The new start date arrived and we arranged to meet Melissa at her house early that morning. This would be the first time for all parties to meet and double check the plan.
I, Carina and her crew arrived on time in the Palisades having left our homes at 6:30am for an 8am start. As I pulled up beside Carina I noticed a man sitting in a car right outside my client’s door. He was on his phone, was shirtless and shoeless and had the car door propped open. A little weird. As I walked up to the front door he jumped out of the car, “Hey what are you doing?” I explained why we were there and he introduced himself as the husband. This was odd as she had never mentioned a husband. He said he was planning a surprise for Melissa and we weren’t to bother her, she was sleeping. I said we had an appointment with her, we were starting a big landscaping job right that very second and had to go over details with her. Still he wouldn’t let us see her. He did let us go in the backyard, but it was totally surreal. I was actually concerned for Melissa. I decided to go ahead and start the job. I had the deposit and the crew was there so we set about demoing the back and hauling in supplies.
Later that day, Melissa texted me asking why I had missed our meeting that morning. Evidently, she didn’t know her husband wouldn’t let me see her so I filled her in. She seemed as confused as I was. But then she went on to ask “So what are we doing today anyway?” She really didn’t seem to know we were doing the retaining wall project. I seriously thought about getting out of the job at that point but I was so far invested I assured myself, I will be super careful with communication and just get through the project.
Well Melissa was right. It was a beautiful place for a garden. Carina transformed the unruly slope into a set of stairs and two raised beds. It was amazing!
There were a few hiccups that made me nervous. I asked Melissa for a progress payment half way through the job and although that’s standard procedure, she questioned me about whether or not that was actually a thing. She would say things like, “Well I never heard of it before” as if that changed the outcome of whether or not a progress payment is a thing. It felt prickly.
She also asked my guys to haul a bunch of flagstone out of her backyard and around the front of her house. I hesitated when she asked me this. She saw me hesitate and quickly interjected “If I can move them, they certainly can. I carried them all back here myself!”
My hesitation was not because my guys can’t carry flagstone. They certainly can. The hesitation is in whether or not I feel this is reasonably within the realm of this project. I am very specific about what my crew is going to do and for how much, because I’m the one that has to pay them. If she is going to ask me to have 4 guys spend 30 minutes (that’s how long it took in the end) doing something outside the scope of the job, that’s an extra 2 hours of work. Can I fit that in the budget? Can we fit that into the day or will that cause some other work to go unfinished?
Additionally, I have to figure out if this is something I want to ask the guys to do. Often times my crew gets asked to do additional work at a job site that either is outside the scope of the job, in conflict with what I directed them to do or not landscaping at all. I understand that it’s tempting for home owners, when there are strong workers at your house to want them to do other tasks, but the fact is they are there for a specific job. I have contracted them for a particular task. They are not general laborers a home owner has hired for a number of hours. They are talented landscapers.
The guys were willing to move the flagstone but I did have to add the hours to the invoice. My guys are good like that. In fact it is safe to say they never complain. I feel protective of my crew and I know they are loyal to Carina and I. Carina has had the same guys almost since I met her and they have never let us down. A quick couple stories to illustrate the issue.
I had an older gentleman client who was selling his house and we were installing a large planting in his backyard. He had a huge pile of trash and old junk on the side of his house he needed to get rid of and while we were there he asked my guys to drag it to the curb where he had a bin parked. I had to stop him and say my crew couldn’t do that. Again, I understand the temptation but I have the crew scheduled for a certain number of hours to perform a certain number of tasks and they were there to plant trees, and install DG, and fix irrigation. They were not hired to drag your trash to a bin. I honestly find it insulting that they are treated this way. I know my crew has witnessed my standing up for them. I have their back and they have mine.
During the cash-for-grass landscaping frenzy I had a young male client. We installed a good number of fruit trees in his backyard per our agreed upon design. After we were done and cleaning up, he asked me to move a tree elsewhere in the yard. I didn’t agree with where he wanted to move it and so I refused to do it. I had planted it where I thought it would do best, it was where we agreed it would go, it was planted, irrigated and mulched and I wasn’t going to go to all that trouble and disturb the tree and move it someplace inappropriate. Sorry but no. He was pissed but I put my foot down. I left my crew to finish the clean up. Don’t you know about an hour later I get a call from one of my workers. The client is asking him to move a tree but since my crew didn’t know anything about it so they called me first. That’s teamwork!
I was always grateful for the expertise and commitment of my crew and that was evident in the wonderful terraced garden they pulled off. I was a little nervous about being paid. Relations seemed pretty good but still sometimes sketchy. After I sent the final invoice, every day felt like an eternity. When you’re self-employed, waiting for the check can be just a bit stressful. I sent the invoice on the 17th, got paid on the 23rd. Not a very long wait in the end, and I felt bad that I had succumbed to worry and texted Melissa asking her if she had sent the check.
Her responses were kind of defensive and curt which made me more nervous. When I asked if she had sent the check she texted: “I sent it. I don’t know what to tell you.” In the past, most of my clients have been understanding and the communications are more like, I sent the check on this date, let me know if you don’t get it by this date, etc. But Melissa, who was so friendly and bubbly in person, now again seemed annoyed over text and email.
I texted her again asking if we could talk about the payment. And I wrote, as her husband so generously quoted in his Yelp review, “I’m getting a sinking feeling.” She texted me that she couldn’t talk but that I shouldn’t worry. She sent it. I texted with a friend about it, felt better and apologized by text to Melissa for being weird about it. She said it was ok.
Just general human being policy: I feel if I genuinely apologized for a moment of weakness, it should not be trotted out later in a public Yelp review.
I hesitantly started veggie garden maintenance with them and to my delight, they were wonderful. Excited. Eager to learn. Appreciative. Sunny. The garden thrived.
On our last veggie garden maintenance lesson, Melissa mentioned that other areas of her yard were having some issues. Plants were dying. Maybe it was the irrigation. Would I check it for her?
Now I love what I do. The veggie garden maintenance teaching appointments were my favorite. But it is a fairly high expense for the client. I bring all the organic remedies. I keep track of what is doing well, what needs replaced, what new plants they want to try, what other issues the garden has and on and on. It’s a very personalized service. It’s extremely specialized and it’s not cheap. I have clients at all price points but I don’t think anyone would assume this is the thriftiest service you could have done at your house. Because they live in such a remote, hard-to-reach part of town (2-3 hrs round trip, no hardware or home improvement stores in sight) I had to charge them even a little more than I regularly do. But they accepted the price.
Back to the story, we are finishing up the visit and Melissa asks me to check the irrigation. So I say sure, they go inside for lunch. We all wave goodbye and share appreciation for our garden time. I load up my car, grab a pen and paper and set out to evaluate the irrigation. They have an 8 zone timer and I manually run each zone to test the sprinklers.
Please let me digress again re: irrigation timers, any one can set these up, check run times, etc. These timers are meant to be consumer-friendly. Most manuals are online. Sometimes they are not self-explanatory but it is very easy to learn. With a manual, I would place them somewhere between microwave and TV remote. I have offered all my clients a free lesson on their own timer as I’m very much into self-reliance and transparency. But most people don’t want to be bothered and the same was true of Melissa and Kyle. And these people should not later complain about the cost of someone else coming out to do it for them when they aren’t willing to do it themselves. Oooookkkkkkaaayyyy.
So I’m manually running the zones to find issues. They don’t have the zone schedule written inside their timer (you all should go do that too) so I have to do that as well. It’s a bit time consuming but if you don’t know which station covers which zone, you don’t know what to fix. So at this location, the timer is on one side of the house and the only entrance to the backyard stairs is on the other side of the house. So I have to turn on the zone, then walk around the house and yard to find what sprinklers are on. Mark it down, come back, turn it off. Turn on the next zone. For 9 zones. I get really wet doing this. I’m also checking to see what individual sprayers are leaking or over-watering or under-spraying, etc. So I take all my notes and knock on the door. Melissa comes outside with me and I show her, in person, a couple obvious things that need fixed. (In their Yelp reviews, they will say I never communicated anything about the job.) I tell her I will go home and write up all my findings and email her. She says great and I email her that night. As you can see from the screen shot below her husband Kyle is cced. I tell them what needs fixed from my findings, I nicely supply them with a schedule for their timer and clearly I mention that I will send out Carina – not a THIRD PARTY, but the subcontractor who they have met and who has already done work at their house – to do the fix.
Carina comes out shortly thereafter. She fixes leaks and pressure issues with the tools and supplies she has in the truck. She tells me that the supplies and labor for that visit will be $150. The valve to the fruit trees needs replaced which is why that area gets no water, and the timer is shot. I found the timer hard to use myself, had to press really hard to get buttons to work so that doesn’t surprise me. The cost for a new timer, valve and wiring is $280. I add $50 for the time I spent evaluating the timer and the issues, and if Melissa goes through with the rest of the work, I will let this also cover any coordinating I do between she and Carina. Melissa accepts the bid by text. Again, I clearly state Carina is coming to do the work. She clearly accepts the price. Dear Yelp: I did not send a bill for $500 out of nowhere. Not at all.
As Melissa mentions she will be out of town, so I go ahead and send over the invoice. She pays it a few days later. Meanwhile Carina’s crew makes the repairs. I get some strange texts from Melissa about guarantees and what happens if all her grass starts to die. What about the high water pressure in our house. Will she now need to get a plumber? She even asks, how did I come up with the number for the invoice. Why is it so expensive? What are the charges for? Is she getting all new pipe? A brand new system? What exactly are they fixing?
I’m confused and I tell her so. Does she not remember accepting the estimate just days before? I showed her in person what needed fixed and sent it over in writing. Had something gone wrong?
I call Carina to ask if everything is ok and she says yes. I explain to Melissa that we went through all the work to be done in writing, that she already accepted the bid and in fact, paid the invoice. Although I agree that irrigation is really expensive, a whole new system would cost thousands. She goes on in more emails about how she just had all her irrigation fixed by someone else six months before, so why would it break all of a sudden. She wants me to guarantee the work we are doing.
I tell her I can’t justify the other irrigation person’s work (I’m also starting to wonder where THAT person is…). But I tell her the valve and the timer have manufacturer’s warranties but that’s the only guarantee I can offer. The labor charges are minimal, the whole job is under $500 so legally it doesn’t even qualify for protection, and we aren’t maintaining the property. She has a gardener already. She also has two large dogs who can easily upset sprinkler heads. She asks again, if her sprinklers break in 6 months will I come back and fix them for free. I say no. The parts are guaranteed but if something else breaks or stops working, she will have to pay again. She says I should be willing to keep working until everything is fixed. I assure her: everything IS fixed. We just fixed it. Carina is done with the job. She has paid for the job. It’s done. But the emails keep coming.
I knew I was in trouble.
Melissa starts emailing me about how “Benjamin” thinks her irrigation problem is water pressure and what are we going to do about that. I email her again: Carina adjusted the pressure already as part of the job. No, she says, she’s talking about the pressure INSIDE the house.
She goes on that “Benjamin” thinks that the water pressure is the real problem. Also “Benjamin” thinks we are over-charging her. He’s shocked at what this job cost. I’m like WHO THE FUCK IS BENJAMIN?
I finally say to her that I don’t know who Benjamin is but it sounds like someone she trusts and maybe he can help her with the water pressure issues inside the house. I really want out of this situation. However that is not to be. She informs me Benjamin is my worker.
Now slap me with an asparagus, Benjamin IS the name of one of our workers. But it is so completely impossible that one of our workers would get into this kind of conversation with a client, it’s just beyond the realm of possibility. Unimaginable. Our crew would never talk to the client about the budget. Of course a crew member would never ever ever tell a client we overcharge. That would be counter-intuitive to their own interests. I’m sure they would like us to charge even more! Who wouldn’t? Especially at this level of aggravation. But they would never interfere with a job. They don’t WANT to talk with clients beyond more than a casual conversation. They don’t want to navigate these waters, trust me.
So I mention this respectfully to Melissa. You must have misunderstood Benjamin. Water pressure outside the house doesn’t affect water pressure inside the house. You already agreed to and have paid the invoice. The work is done. Hope you’re happy! PLEASE BE HAPPY.
She is not happy. The emails keep coming. This is highway robbery. Now she has to hire a plumber to fix the inside water pressure. This is all costing her a fortune. And my favorite: what kind of cut did I take from this job to make it so unreasonable? She threatens in another email: if don’t bring my prices down in the future she will stop using me. Maybe in the future, she says ominously, she will cut out the middle man.
Now I think to myself, BE MY GUEST! I didn’t ask for this job. I’m not some oil salesman going door to door selling cheap irrigation fixes. If money were the real object here, why didn’t they get bids for this job? Why didn’t they Yelp some irrigation people and take the time to meet them and interview them and receive estimates? Instead, this couple turned their entitled heads, addressed the specialty landscaper already in their midst and asked me to do it for them. It took no effort whatsoever. Problem solved. Time for lunch.
Listen, if you don’t want a middle man, don’t hire one. I charged all of $50 for my trouble. For all this trouble. Fitty dollars. And that’s not a “cut.” A “cut” is a percentage a contractor adds to the bid of the subcontractor. I didn’t add any cut or markup to Carina’s bid. I never do for any of my clients. I only charge for my own time and work. And I way way undercharged this job.
I explain to Melissa in what I hope will be my final email, that I never took a cut. I was just trying to help her. I really want her to be satisfied but I also stand behind the charges and the work my crew has done. And I wish her well in the future.
Another email follows. She calls me “unprofessional.”
To accuse me of taking a cut, when I could have and evidently should have, to call me unprofessional, to make up lies about my crew members, it was all too much. I spoke to Carina finally (I try to avoid complaints filtering up to the crew) and asked for Benjamin’s take. What had he said to the client exactly? Benjamin said Melissa complained about the water pressure inside the house being too high. He explained it had nothing to do with adjusting the water pressure outside the house. He even went to the street level water to see if he could adjust something to help her. But water issues inside the house are strictly for plumbers and he couldn’t help inside the house. She said the plumber was going to be a fortune. He said THAT shouldn’t cost that much. He was shocked at what she quoted a plumber would be, not at what our costs were.
I decided to block my client’s email. I wrote them and told them how much I enjoyed spending time together in the garden. I was sorry they ended up so unhappy with the irrigation but I wished them all the best. And I blocked their addresses and phone numbers. I was filled with sadness to leave that garden. It was doing so well and I was looking forward to seeing it through the seasons. I was even nursing some milkweed seedlings for Melissa as she had expressed an interest in having visiting butterflies. I had agreed to help her move a big planted pot inside her house to a sunnier spot. These were my clients. This was my garden. I do have love. Lots of it. That’s why I’m so emotional about it! I’m fully invested.
Melissa must have grown frustrated not hearing from me as she sent me an email through a different email address insisting I send my crew back as the irrigation was broken. She said the timer was never set up and everything was dying. I know the timer was set up perfectly and Carina not only left with it working but checked on it a few days later to make sure it was still working. I’m not sending my crew out for more abuse. And I won’t tolerate being called unprofessional. Finally, I’m sure someone who answers her emails “Eternal love and gratitude” understands the concept of karma. Your brand new timer was working, now suddenly it is not? You have belittled and bullied your middle man and now want her help again? I’m afraid that’s not going to happen.
I need to clear up this idea that I was paid a lot of money for this job. She paid me “a lot of money” for the veggie garden which I executed to perfection. For her husband to say “I’ve paid you thousands” in the Yelp review is to deliberately make it sound like that payment was for this irrigation job and that is completely misleading.
Honesty and integrity is the hallmark of my business. If I can’t run my business like that, I won’t do it. I promise you that. But it takes two for a professional relationship. I’m not the only one in the relationship. The client also needs to have the expectation of appropriate behavior, including responsible self-reporting, checking estimates and asking questions before work begins, not lashing out or making threats.
To call me emotional is not an insult but I understand that was the intent. I do wonder why the husband feels so confident about throwing that intended barb at me when I’m not the one who has gone ballistic on Yelp posting as many as 3 different bad reviews for a single job. Additionally, I have not had a single direct email exchange, text exchange or in-person conversation with him about this. Not one. I suggest if you DON’T want to have drama with your “gardener,” don’t try to burn her business to the ground online.
That’s my response for now. I don’t know why this small irrigation job deserved all this energy but I hope to understand it all some day. Thank you for your support darlings!
All the best, my garden.