Setting Standards for Customers’ Unusual Requests

Working with Eccentric Customers

Over the years, we’ve received many strange requests. Fortunately, many of them are mostly harmless. Others, however, definitely are not.

Five or six times a year, we’re asked to by someone to literally cut their neighbor’s tree in half — vertically. Someone wants their neighbor’s tree cut back to the property line. They don’t care where we prune off the limb or branch, as long as there’s nothing left overhanging on their property. They may object to the shade the neighbor’s tree throws onto their yard, to the seeds that fall on the patio, or to the branches that block a view. Whatever the reason, they believe they can do whatever they want on their side of the property line, whether it kills the neighbor’s tree or not. We don’t honor those requests.

Other people have asked us to spray for spiders, ants or even birds. The “pests,” as they describe them, are causing no harm to the trees or shrubs, but instead are beneficial to the landscape. Such clients often ask us to use the most potent product available, whether it’s labeled for that purpose or not. We turn down these requests, too.

A golf course superintendent once asked us to remove trees in the middle of the night to avoid a confrontation with the club members who wanted the trees saved. We decided to refuse this job as well.

A university arborist once asked us to treat 300 ash trees on campus for emerald ash borer — and not to tell anyone what we were doing. The “keep it quiet” instruction was to avoid a confrontation with certain professors who considered any application of pesticides a great evil. We did decide to keep it quiet, but did post the site afterward, as required.

If you work for a tree care company, you almost certainly face similar unusual requests. Some may be from people you admire, like the Swansons. Other requests may come from strong personalities that you fear to oppose, such as Ms. Thornton. And some requests may come from people you believe are misinformed or suspect may suffer from mental problems.

I don’t expect every client to share my philosophy on environmental stewardship, or even how best to care for trees. But I do have certain standards that guide me when asked to do something “strange.” They’re professional and moral standards that took me many years to acquire.

So, what are those standards?

There are too many to describe, since each situation is unique and different. Also, it’s not my place to tell you what you should do. What I will say is that you need to prepare yourself for the unexpected. For the real question is: What will you do when someone wants you to cut their neighbor’s tree in half? What will you do when a client asks you to spray ladybugs or other beneficial insects, simply because they’re annoying? What will you do when faced with a request to clear-cut a healthy, mature woodlot because the client wants more sun to improve his or her tan lines? (Yes, that was a real request.) Would you string twine to save song birds?

There are no ANSI Standards to guide us in these unusual requests, nor can you find them mentioned in an association manual; these are personal standards. Setting standards, whether they’re professional or moral, can mean doing some internal wrestling. Take it from someone who has made some mistakes: knowing how to reply ahead of time to that eccentric request can make life far easier.

Prepare for the unexpected. You’ll be glad you did.

Here are three examples of unique requests from customers:

The Swansons

Dr. Alfred B. Swanson designed and developed the first joint replacements for fingers and hands for people suffering with severe arthritis. Patients came to him from around the world to find relief from this terrible, debilitating condition. Over the years, he shared his revolutionary surgical procedure with thousands of doctors who would, in turn, provide the same relief for countless other patients.

Dr. Swanson was also an outspoken environmentalist who cared deeply about trees. Before he would agree to speak at the many medical conferences he headlined, he insisted that he be allowed 15 minutes to address environmental issues such as water and air pollution, recycling and, of interest to arborists, tree preservation. To show that he put his money where his mouth is, he and his wife, Dr. Geneviève de Groot Swanson, created the Children’s Tree Planting Program. Together, they spearheaded the planting of over 300,000 trees throughout the Kent County (Michigan) Intermediary School District. I have three of these trees in my backyard, as they were given to my sons when they were in second grade — these three maples are now 40 feet tall.

Dr. Swanson passed away last year and is sorely missed. He certainly lived what he preached. I can still hear him tell me in the blunt approach he took to all that he did (referring to my recommendations for his trees at their home), “Why haven’t you done that already? If that’s what our trees need, don’t wait for my permission, just do it.”

As with many brilliant people, the Swansons had their quirks. One day, they asked us to run twine throughout the canopies of their trees at their home. When asked why, Genny, his wife, told me they needed to stop the hawks from diving upon the song birds and squirrels at their bird feeders. We agreed to do the job and by the time we finished building this “safety net,” the property looked like we’d strung an enormous spider web. The Swansons were great tree care clients.

Ms. Thornton

Ms. Thornton was also a great client, but cut from a different cloth; she was a retired school principal. With her strong leadership skills, Ms. Thornton was selected as chairperson of the grounds committee at the condominium community where she lived. Like Dr. Swanson, her instructions to us were also blunt and straightforward. She had run a large school and was accustomed to being in charge. Disagreeing with her, even when necessary, often felt like I was lipping-off to the principal. But Ms. Thornton wasn’t big on saving trees. “When in doubt, cut it out,” were words she lived by. There were times when I had to explain to her that when healthy trees lose their leaves in the fall, the “mess” they create wasn’t a good reason to remove them. Ms. Thornton was a great tree removal client.

Mr. Ernstein

We also care for Mr. Tom Ernstein’s trees. Tom is a nervous, anxiety-ridden individual, who is constantly afraid that one of his oaks is going to fall on his house, his fence or his children. He insists that every tree bigger than 6 inches in diameter and within 40 feet of his home be removed. His paranoia about falling trees seems odd since he’s a successful software designer with production facilities located on three continents. He certainly doesn’t appear to be financially nervous, nor fearful about taking business risks. Yet, when it comes to his trees, he’s a nervous wreck. Two or three times a year he requests me to check on his trees for any new splits, cracks or symptoms of trunk decay. Eccentric as he is, Mr. Ernstein is a great consulting client.

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