GF Corner: Interacting with Private Property Owners

March 1, 2012
by Greg Frizzell, General Foreman, Wright Tree Service

Dealing with private property owners can be one of the most challenging and frustrating parts of your day as a General Foreman. I work in northern California out of a yard that runs an average of 20 crews with two General Foremen. Our work includes 60 percent climb and 40 percent bucket, almost all of which is located in residential neighborhoods. Our crews average four to five locations per day, so for my 10 crews, that is 40 to 50 private property owner interactions each day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year.

The vast majority of private property owners are easy to interact with. This may be because they understand why the trees need to be trimmed away from the power lines; they feel that it is just a necessary evil to keep the lights on; they are not concerned with the trees that they have under the power lines; or in some nice cases, they feel like we really are there to help them out.

While they are a minority, we also work with private property owners who are not so easy to interact with. They are far more concerned about their private property, for a wide variety of reasons. Some of the more common concerns I have run into are “You butcher the tree, not trim it!” or “Now my tree is lopsided, and it’s going to fall over!” and finally, “That tree will never grow into the power lines.” We also hear concerns unrelated to the work, such as other crews who have been rude, previous property damage by crews, pets that can’t be left in the house alone, or a homeowner who works all week and can’t take time off.

We as General Foremen have all had to struggle through one or more of these issues. Here are some helpful tips from my experience.


We have all heard this, but what does it really mean? It means that you let the private property owners tell you about their concerns and what they want. Don’t start with leading questions or responses that put them on the defense. You want to understand what their causes for concern are and then evaluate to see if you can do anything to alleviate them. When you take the time to just listen, there are three areas that you can put their concerns into. They are:

  • People that want to be heard. For these property owners, all of the effort necessary on our part as General Foremen is to stand there and earn their trust. The last contractor may have brushed them off, and they felt like there was nothing they could do.
  • People who want action taken. This is the easiest fix. What I mean by this is that they are agreeing to let us trim as long as something small is done to make sure they are comfortable. For example, they may have had property damage last time, and all you have to do is reassure them that you can be on site to oversee that nothing is damaged, or even let them know that they are also welcome to observe.
  • People who don’t want any action to be taken. These are the property owners who refuse any work being done on their property. For example, they may have had a tree fail shortly after the last contractor trimmed, and that contractor never followed up with them. This is where tip number two can help out.

Never leave a concerned customer without giving them something.

This can be anything from the tangible to the intangible. You, your company, and your utility need to have a shared understanding of how much you are willing to invest in this area. You may have more or less flexibility depending on if your utility is investor owned or publicly owned, where you are using rate payer funds.

The utility I work for provides many different brochures that do a very nice job explaining the work that needs to be done. I have the freedom to make one or two extra cuts that may take a few extra minutes in the tree but might save 15 minutes in property owner negotiations. I also have the ability to provide replacement trees if the property owner agrees to allow us to remove the trees that are causing problems.  With the third type of concerned customer, I have found it helpful to give them written guidelines of the type of trimming that is to be done and why. Most utility companies have a small brochure with this information on it, so carry a few with you. Walk them through a tree inspection prior to actually doing the work, physically pointing out any weaknesses or potential hazards that already exist and educating them on what can happen in the future.

Many utilities are trying to minimize the cost of clearing trees from utility lines by using Tree Growth Regulators. After confirming with your forester, this can be another great tool to help solve some ugly situations. With that third category of customer, we may be able to leave them thinking they won while also enabling the utility to get what they want: trees trimmed to the proper clearance.

Always be honest and courteous.

There are times where all of the listening and all of the giving are never enough. When these times arise, understand that it is our job to provide the public with a service. That service is steady, reliable, uninterrupted electrical power to the best of our ability. We have to keep in mind during every interaction with a private property owner. This includes, at times, very difficult conversations along the lines of “I understand your concerns, but we have a responsibility to you as well as your neighbors to ensure that we maintain the reliability of your local power and ensure the safety of all people and property near power lines.”

These are three very simple guidelines for dealing with private property owners, whether they are concerned or not. They have helped me over the years, and I hope they will help you, too.