Managing Expectations

I am wondering how others approach this sometimes thorny issue. I can find that some clients have unrealistic expectations about how much time a job is going to take, or how much you're going to achieve in one gardening session, and therefore how much they're willing to pay to achieve the result they want. I guess sometimes quoting for a job rather than doing so many hours makes this easier, but then if someone wants you to tidy up a whole large garden, and keeps adding tasks every time you go there, it is difficult to cost for that. It is a lot like 'how long is a piece of string' and how do they see the job - ongoing indefinitely or a few sessions and then 'Garden Beautiful'. If I go alone to a job they're more likely to see it as the former, otherwise the latter, as it happens.

I find the less the clients knows about gardening the more likely there are to be issues with not matching expectations, and it can be so difficult to convey it's the amount of work that there is that's at issue, not your inefficiency at dealing with it all! They want everything to happen 'now' and aren't prepared to think of it as different to, say, a building project, which has a completely different sequence and much more obvious changes which you can see until the finished 'fab' result which also, incidentally, stays looking smart for a lot longer than any garden!! Sometimes you can weed a whole patch of ground, or cut something back by quite a bit, or dig out a whole patch of aster daisies for example which root just under the soil surface and it can be hard to see what difference has been made. Is this why some of you guys will just round off shrubs, whatever it is or its natural habit, and try and make as big a visual difference as possible so the client can 'see' what's been done?

The clients I have who know about gardening are totally understanding about how long it can take to weed a large bed, or move plants, or remove huge plants that have been stuck in pots for years to try and put them in the ground, but it's managing the expectations of those who don't garden themselves that I find difficult. What they really seem to want is a garden makeover team to come round and magic their garden into looking beautiful again after sometimes years of neglect and - oh of course it has to be for as little money as possible. 

I know most of you out there are guys but I also occasionally - not often - get prejudice thrown my way because I am female. I was working on a garden recently, the one which has prompted this post, with a male colleague who doesn't have my training but is an extra pair of hands, and a very good and willing colleague he is too, and she asked him to come back on his own because she didn't think the tidy up was progressing at the pace she was expecting. How she thought just he as one person could do more than we could together I'm not sure, but she got to find out he was earning less than me (which I do so client isn't paying double, and because it's 'my' job). So I think that had a lot to do with it unfortunately, even though the difference isn't that great. When I told her I wouldn't be coming back, I explained that I have more knowledge, and you're paying for that too. It seems that knowledge isn't something that's always respected in gardening, although I have had several clients say they are very grateful that I know what I'm talking about because they have had experience of using people who didn't and they have cut something back too hard, or at the wrong time and ruined a plant.

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  • PRO
    Tough one. I avoid jobs like this for a few reasons the first being my knowledge base is far from excellent on plants and I have had the same issues with weeding big borders. I’ve only one big garden I do weeding at now and it has borders that can take 6-8 hours to weed as they don’t get done often enough, this client is fine and just a bring me tea and biscuits and pays the bill before I’m done for the day normally.
    So yes charge for your knowledge it’s a big asset but only to people who care unfortunately.
    I’ve ruined a plant or 2 in my time oops. I’ve replaced them and moved on.
    As for the money thing if you are taking someone with you to help on one of your jobs if you are not making a decent amount more than them why bother? If you’re making nothing from it you might as well do it slowly on your own in my opinion.
    Just keep doing what you are doing as long as you are doing enough for what you need/want all is good.
    • Good points, Richard. Thanks. On the point of working on your own versus working with a colleague, the idea is to speed things up, and no doubt we achieved more together although yes, I find people may well be more patient if you work on your own. But she was just the sort of client who noticed what you hadn't done rather than what you had I think as well.

  • PRO

    Managing the client's expectations is an inevitable part of the job I have found, especially for the one off jobs. Constant communication is key. Having a long chat with them before the job starts to make sure they know what's involved & how long it's going to take & that very often it will take longer & that there may be delays etc etc. Plenty of email updates throughout.

    I have found that some clients need more hand-holding than others & some need to be avoided at all costs! I have experienced similar situations to the ones you describe in your post & from these experiences I have learnt which clients/jobs to avoid taking on in the first place. 

    • Yes, Bernie. I know what you mean. I did smell a small rat as this isn't the first time I've been snookered by unrealistic expectations. Still I got a few sessions' worth of money out of it before dropping her!

  • PRO

    Here's why I like the mowing customers and the vast majority of the lawn treatment customers. Repeat work, they soon see what they're getting for their money, they like it, they're happy. 

    We've taken on a handful of soft landscaping jobs with the mowing reducing and the discussion of requirements, what is possible, what will be required, organising deliveries, back and forward communications with the customer etc... and for what profit margin when you add everything up? It's stressful and my guys don't understand the hours and cost that goes into it. 

    The ones that complain they cannot find a good gardener are and will likely be the ones to avoid. 

    • PRO

      Hi Angela, 

      May i ask if on this particular job you guys were using any machinery? 

      I do think the majority of clients want to see progress and that leads to often difficult horticultural choices -- ones that have to be explained or discussed with the client. 

      I have clients that will understand some plants should be hand pruned and i have clients that dont. 

      One recent client keeps asking for his shrubs etc to be kept tidy -

      - ive explained hes planted the wrong plants in the wrong places and we should move them - ive explained that these shrubs dont really want to be 'shaped' continually and its not good for their lifespan. He doesnt really care. 

      So rather than waste my time discussing it further - out come the hedge cutters 

      I think it comes down to giving the customer options - OR insisting on your principles. 

      To hand prune a large amount of shrubs takes a very long time - To use hedge cutters is extremely fast -  From a horticultural point of view - some will be fine with the machinery - some may not be long term - you can take a mixed approach and not betray your principles. 

      Machinery does make things faster and give the client a clear impression of speed and efficiency. 

      Lets face it - end of year garden clear up - anything perennial can be more or less cut to the ground with hedge cutters or electric pruning shears - lots of debris on a dry day can be blown off borders with a leaf blower - or sucked up and shredded with the petrol shredders. Re edging with the shtil edger etc etc  - Old school hoeing of the remaining soil for weeds

      Sounds like your client didnt massively care about long term shrub health and wanted shapes everywhere :( Maybe a balance could have found by you discussing these options and the overall time scales involved. 

      You could then use your knowledge to instruct employee on what to hedge cut or not and you could hand prune use more advanced technique on the more important shrubs etc 

      I think for a one off garden clear up - speed and results are important. Only way to do that is options discussed with the client and having machinery out to make light work of what is agreed.

      • Well, Dan, no big machinery like you're talking about, no. We did have hedge cutters but not like you're talking about. In fact I found what I had wasn't quite big enough to tackle the tallest shrubs (out of control eleagnus for example, never my favourite and reducing height of conifers at the back). My style of gardening works well with your style of gardening when you have the really big stuff alongside the smaller shrubs and the weeding side to do, so when I have clients that have a guy with big machinery in once or twice a year, and I do the rest during the rest of the year, that works well. And yes, I know the big machinery quickly makes a good impression. I think she definitely wanted that. I should have admitted to my limitations before I took it on instead of admitting it part way through. Made me look weak rather than playing to my strengths. I can't always tell who are going to be the understanding clients either, but I should have guessed she wouldn't be when we could only go round on one afternoon a week, not even a whole day, and she checked we'd started work on her cctv via her phone on the first day we got there and she arrived late. 

  • PRO

    When you are in a people business, there comes a point when you realise that there are some customers, that no matter what you do, say, charge, get results etc, they will not be happy, will want more for less, and maybe do something unethical, like try to employ your staff behind your back etc. Just accept, in these cases it's them, not you, they are bad customers, drop them and move on.

    Put your emotional energy to your good customers and learn from this experience.

    • Thanks Andrew. Yes, you're very right. This kind of thing has happened to me a few times before, but thankfully it isn't common. And yes, that is why I have dropped her.

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