Pre-season checklist: Preparation results in increased profits
If you're not ready for the coming snow season by early fall, you're not going to be ready for the first snow fall.
By Dino Tudisca, Exterior Solutions
It is 4 a.m. and snow is falling—the first snow of the season. You have waited months for this to happen. So how are operations proceeding? Are you scrambling trucks and equipment? Wondering what accounts should be done in what order? Frantically making phone calls trying to line up deicers? Or is everything a smooth running machine—at least as smooth as snow removal can be?
I can think of few industries where preparation is more important than in the snow-removal industry. When we are called upon for our services, our equipment and employees have to be ready to work in some of the most severe conditions. And if your customers are anything like mine, they want results, not excuses. Make sure you can deliver those results with proper pre-season preparation. It’s the key to a successful snow and/or ice event.
There are four main areas of pre-season preparation:
Customers. Without them, we wouldn’t be in business.
Employees/subcontractors. They execute our best-laid plans.
Equipment. We can’t perform without it.
Products. These help us better-serve our customers.
At Exterior Solutions, we approach each of these areas a certain way. Of course, not everyone does things the same way, so feel free to use what works for you and add other items to fit your needs.
If we had no customers, we couldn’t provide a service. So taking care of them is crucial to the survival of our business. At the beginning of June, start looking at new customers who fit your customer requirements. Yes, that’s right. You decide whether or not you want a customer, not the other way around. It sounds cocky, but if you don’t feel someone fits your profile of a good customer, then it would be a disservice to sign them up. For instance, I was contacted by a property manager with a list of properties she wanted me to bid on for snow-removal services for the coming season. I asked if she was happy with the contractor her company used last year and if, as a matter of policy, they bid this job every year or if they sign a multiple-year contract. She said that they were happy, but bid every year no matter what to see if they can save a few dollars. I respectfully told her she did not fit our customer profile, and declined to bid the properties. We look for long-term customers who want service over pricing.
When you locate a potential customer who fits your profile, start marketing yourself to them. Even though most people are not thinking about their snow removal in June, they do remember whether they were happy with the contractor they had the previous winter. Try to position yourself so that your name will be on top of their list when September rolls around.
Also in early to mid-September, drive out to all of your existing customer sites to make sure nothing has changed during the off season. If something has changed, note it in your renewal contract. This demonstrates to the customer that you are looking out for their interests. Send out all renewal contracts by the end of September. If the contract has not been returned by October 15, call to inquire why. Most times, the contract is just buried under a pile of papers somewhere. You need those contracts back in order to set up your routes, so receiving them in a timely manner is crucial.
In mid-November, visit each of your properties and stake them for curbs and obstacles. We use a lot of stakes, and we charge for them. In fact, we require that our customers pay $3 per stake if any are missing come springtime. We lose very few stakes. Condo and apartment managers make sure they don’t get lost.
These are your front line. They get up at a time when no one should have to be up, drive in the worst conditions, work for extended periods of time and usually get little recognition. The least you can do is help prepare them.
We start with a training video. It is basic, but very helpful. Sometimes seeing the procedure first-hand makes it easier to understand than listening to my long-winded explanation. Next, train them on the equipment they will be using as well as on maintenance and quick repairs they can do on site. Explain your route-sheet procedures, along with items that need to be evaluated at the beginning of every storm.
A field visit to all of your snow-removal accounts also is in order. Your employees may never see some of these customers during the season, but in case they do, they need to be familiar with the account.
Next, go through the route with them so that they know in what order (by importance) the accounts are to be plowed. By going over the route at this time, you save countless hours trying to arrange a route plan during the storm. If needed, at a quick glance all of your drivers will be able to tell the dispatcher which properties have been completed, so that if trucks need to be moved, the dispatcher knows where to send them. Teach employees the policy for accidents and damage to trucks and equipment.
We only use a few subcontractors, but they are good. We don’t advertise for them. Instead, whenever I see a snow-plow sub-frame on a truck, I ask the owner if he or she plows much. If they say no, I hand them a card and ask them to give me a call in early November. By then, I have a good idea if I need more trucks. I will set up a meeting and give them my standard subcontractor agreement, and ask for a certificate of insurance from them.
After giving your subcontractors a tour of the areas they will be plowing, introduce them to the area supervisor they will work under. Let the supervisor outline when and where the sub will be needed during a storm.
Equipment is the heart of all snow-removal operations. Without the equipment, you can’t service your customers. Because of our pre-season routine, we have had no down-time for any of our equipment in the past 6 years.
A good start to the snow-and-ice season begins with proper storage of your equipment in the spring. Make sure all spreaders are washed down, oiled and covered for the season. This is also the time to make a note of any worn parts, and order them when pricing is lower during the off-season. Do the same for the plows; grease their hydraulic cylinders to prevent pitting, and add dielectric grease in all connections. Our larger equipment gets used all year round, so it is on a separate maintenance routine.
In late October bring every piece of your equipment into the shop and give it a complete going-over. Grease all the plows and check all electrical connections. Change the oil in all hydraulic units and check all fittings and hoses. Also torque all plow bolts and truck-plow sub-frame bolts. Check all lights to insure they are operating properly.
Next, bring in your trucks and fit the plows on them. Check all connections along with any work lights. Do a dry run to make sure everything is operating correctly. Change fluid and top-off tanks on trucks that are left on site or are snow-ready for the season. Leave plows on and spreaders installed.
Adjust the spreaders and install any parts that you have ordered. Check all work lights, as well as pony motors and hydraulic motors, to be sure they are in working condition. Service your snow blowers and adjust or replace belts as necessary.
Bring larger equipment on site by Nov. 15. Service it as needed before and during the season. After attaching the pusher boxes, the unit is ready for action.
We also require our subs to bring their setup to our shop so that we can check their equipment to insure it is working properly. We also check to see if they have the same number and type of equipment as when we hired them. The condition of their equipment is a good insight to how they will work out for us.
To determine the coming season’s product requirements, look at the totals for the previous year. This is your baseline for ordering the coming year’s products. We purchase bulk salt by the ton and store it in a covered location, and then have a Magic-0 coating applied to it. We had used a sand/salt mix, but found the clean-up associated with the sand to be more trouble then it was worth. With the coated salt, we discovered that snow no longer will adhere to the pavement. In many cases, with 2-inch-or-less snowfall, we can melt it all with treated salt instead of having to plow.
Order any bagged material that you will need for walks and entrances. If you supply material for other contractors, check with them and order in quantity to reduce costs.
If you are a distributor of snow-removal equipment and products, begin contacting your customers in early September to see what they will need. Doing so will force you to focus even earlier on snow and ice control, and in turn lead to a smoother transition to winter mode.
As little as 2 years ago I looked at snow removal as a sideline to complement what we did during the other 9 months a year. However, by education, attending snow-removal seminars and networking with other larger and smaller service companies, we have not only learned the need for good preparation, but have grown our business substantially. I have also learned a great deal from the internet. There is a great forum at www.lawnsite.com. If you need more information about your equipment, check out www.snowplowing-contractors.com for detailed information on preseason plow routines.
In this business we all are looking for an advantage. By doing a complete pre-season check of all aspects of your service, you have the advantage of a smoother-running routine that will distance you from your competition.
Dino Tudisca is owner of Exterior Solutions (Bozrah, Conn.).
'Tis the season
Wrapping up bids for the coming season doesn't have to be so stressful. Just take a deep breath and focus on communication.
By Ben Boyd, Nigro & Boyd Landscape Inc.
If you don’t clear much snow in the winter (operating with four to six plows, one or two salt spreaders and a few sidewalk crews), you may be able to manage each storm using mobile phones and pagers, scratch paper and memory. However, when your operation grows beyond the point of being able to manage it "from the hip," you should implement other, more thought-out, systems to prepare for a more challenging undertaking.
The first step toward preparing for the snow season is to get motivated. One of the best ways to get this motivation is to attend a snow management seminar. By the time summer rolls around, grounds and landscaping crews are concentrating so intently on summer jobs that it is easy to put off preparing for winter. A seminar puts the snow season back in their thoughts and serves as a great reminder that summer is the time to start planning for the upcoming season. Nothing pushes us farther and faster toward getting prepared for another year of snow removal than being taught by leaders in the industry and networking with peers.
Ideally, you already have your winter plan intact for this season: customers are signed, crews are lined up, equipment maintenance is underway. But if you are still struggling with putting together your plan for this winter, it’s time to get organized. There are three areas you should evaluate before putting together your winter plan: customer communication, resources and building databases.
Challenge:Customers (which translate into properties) dictate the type and number of resources necessary for your operation. The problem for snow contractors is that our customers often put budgets together too close to the winter season, preventing them from giving us a commitment until September, October and sometimes even November. This prevents us from knowing until the last minute how many pieces of equipment and crews we are going to need. However, despite the short notice, we must still provide excellent service even though storms may occur only weeks after we have received a commitment.
Solution: Inform your customers! I asked one of my favorite customers, a seasoned property manager, why snow sales were easier to close than landscaping sales. His answer surprised me. What he said, basically, was, "Property managers think almost anybody can plow snow, but professionals are required to maintain grounds and install landscapes." I was shocked by the perception of property managers toward the snow contractor. My snow operation is much more sophisticated than my grounds operation. It can take 8 to 10 months to fulfill the contract for grounds/landscaping services. In January, however, in just 3 days we performed winter services that represented 16 percent of our gross annual sales. That takes massive support and planning throughout the year, sophisticated data management, multiple meetings in summer and fall for rehearsal, hundreds of hours touring properties to find obstacles to avoid and sensitive areas to watch out for, extensive communication, etc.
When you inform your customers, tell them how seriously you take your responsibility, and your liability. Tell them how complicated it is to execute a well-thought-out plan during extreme weather conditions—while coordinating multiple crews—with only a few weeks notice from them.
I am pleased with the positive response I have received from my customers and the action they have taken to improve the "turn-around time" in getting contracts out. The improved response from my customers is a direct result of informing them of the difficulty imposed by delayed decisions. It is in the best interest of the property manager to help set us up for success by signing contracts early enough to allow us preparation time.
Resources are comprised of the personnel and equipment necessary to effectively execute your winter services within an acceptable time frame. For a landscape company that services more properties than their own resources allow, subcontractors are a viable solution. If you know your subcontractors, and if you can trust them, they can be one of your greatest assets. Many times they come from larger, more mature businesses than ours. They may not be in business with our clientele, preventing them from knowing the base we draw from for snow removal. Or, they may simply prefer letting us pursue contracts, organize routes, collect money, etc. And often, subcontractors have newer, better maintained snow removal equipment than we do.
How to position your operation to use subcontractors
Pay your subcontractors well! And pay them quickly! I pay my subcontractors in 7 days or less. I doubled my available line of credit this spring just so I can pay my winter subcontractors more aggressively. Many of them have told me how helpful this income is during their slower months, and how much they appreciate my efforts to pay them so quickly.
I also pay my subcontractors by the property, not by the hour. In Kansas City, where there is a definite beginning and ending to each storm, paying by the job works well to motivate subcontractors to work quickly and efficiently, and it simplifies payment. In areas in the United States where snow persists for days at a time, this method may not work as well.
Also, never service any properties in-house that you have assigned to your subcontractors, just because you can easily do it. When you agree to let the subcontractor service a property, as long as he or she is providing excellent service, that property is theirs for the winter, no matter how or when the storm falls. When a storm falls during the weekend, it might be tempting to service the property yourself. Don’t! That is a sure way to ruin a good relationship with a subcontractor.
Also, encourage your subcontractors to participate in each service you provide. Several of my subcontractors have multiple plows, salt spreaders and sidewalk crews. When we get a freezing rain, they get to work applying salt and treating walks with ice-melt. When we get a "pushable" snow, they participate in plowing as well. Therefore, when we have any type of winter weather, they can make money.
Finally, keep in touch with your subcontractors throughout the year. Do not call them for snow-related matters only. Try to use them in various other ways as well. When I see an opportunity to pass business to a subcontractor, I jump at it. Many times, property managers run into situations on their properties that my subcontractors can handle, such as painting, remodeling, concrete work and excavation. When I find those situations, I attempt to pass the business to them. Strengthening the relationship with subcontractors during the growing season is beneficial, and the rewards from doing so can be felt during a winter storm when we must ask them to work in severe weather conditions, often for more than 24 hours at a time.
Challenge:Building strong relationships with customers and subcontractors is necessary. But how will you manage the enormous amount of information that flows from these two sources during the many varying situations winter storms present? Where will you find the phone list for either group? If a storm is coming in around daybreak, forcing you to service your offices before your retail properties (which open later than the offices), how will you separate them from your retail properties and print out a separate list? What if the storm tracks south of the city and only the south properties need service? How will you separate those properties and view that list quickly? What if a plow truck will not start, and you must replace that route? How will you quickly print out that route for a backup truck? Where is that route stored and how will you access it quickly?
Solution: Using a database will allow you to grow your snow business well beyond the point you would be able to without one. A database is a "container", or collection of data, which is organized so that it can be manipulated to bring various types of data together in a powerful and meaningful way. I hired a software programmer to custom build a database application for my operation. Without question, this one investment has transformed my entire operation into a sophisticated, well-organized, powerful structure that puts me at an advantage over almost all of my competitors. At a glance, I can see how many acres of parking lot and square footage of sidewalk on which I have bid and how many I have "verbal" agreements on, as well as how many are "signed". I know what percentage of acres and square footage is retail, office and residential property, as well as in what areas of the city they are found. Just by looking at how many acres and square feet I have, I can tell how many trucks and crews will be necessary to service our properties within a five-hour window! When I make a change in one field of the database, that change is reflected in every other related category at the same time.
My routing is also handled through my database. Drivers or crew leaders will receive a route indicating which properties they are to service, in what order, how long service should take, how much salt or ice-melt they should use and what they will be paid for each site.
Also, this year I have added the capability to merge information stored in my database with a contract template in a word-processing program, which allows me to print my contracts much more efficiently. Because the database is so helpful, my renewals and new proposals were in the mail this year by July 15th.
The demands of running a landscape company in addition to preparing for winter services can be overwhelming. The use of a database application brings peace in an otherwise stressful attempt to become organized.
Ben Boyd is an owning partner of Nigro & Boyd Landscape Inc. (Kansas City, Mo.). You can contact him via e-mail at BenBoyd1@email.msn.com.