Planning Ahead -- NOW

You have much to gain -- and a lot to lose -- if you don't take the time to plan for next winter now.

The plowing season's over for the most part. Most contractors and property managers are getting ready for the upcoming summer season. Most will take time to reflect on the past winter, tally up the numbers, look over their equipment and determine if they can deem the season "successful." Contractors should know by now if they made a viable profit. Property managers will check actual expenditures against budgets to determine if they met projections. Generally, this is a time for planning as well as reflection.

Most people in the snow- and ice-management business make a mental assessment of which equipment they'll need to replace, reair or simply paint as they store it for the summer. But it only takes a few moments more to truly scrutinize your equipment as you prepare it for storage. For example, a formal checklist of aspects to review could include:

  • Worn hydraulic hoses on plows
  • Worn shoes or cutting edges
  • Leaking packing nuts on rams and lift cylinders
  • Cracked welds or loose bolts on plow frames
  • Misaligned plow headlights.

Do you need to replace these items, or shoudl you consider replacing the entire plow assembly? If you must replace it, now is the best time to get a quote from your local vendor. After all, leftover inventory from the preceding winter often will carry a discount in the spring, reflecting significant savings for you. If the plow you want is out of stock, you still might be able to make a good deal by putting down a deposit on a new plow now. Keep in mind that manufacturers and distributors will ask local snowplow vendors to place orders for next season during the next 60 days. Most dealers and manufacturers will allow you to place an order now (with a minimal deposit) so you can lock in pricing and be assured the equipment will be available for delivery when you need it. You can avoid the inevitable price increase by placing your orders now.

The same is true for snow blowers, tractors or hand-held equipment, such as snow pushers. You often can purchase leftover inventory for discounted pricing or favorable terms. When considering such equipment, check to see if the engine is sound. Once purchased, drain the oil for summer storage. You also might need to replace shear pins and wear bars. Even though it might seem unimportant to do so now, waiting until that first snowfall is not the time to discover what aspects of the equipment need work. Discipline yourself to spend the time now to make any necessary repairs. You will thank yourself come fall.

Tending to "leftovers"

You also should consider scheduling a spring meeting of all plow subcontractors and employees. Order some pizza and supply beverages. Advertise it as a "thank you" for the time employees spent working in dreary and miserable conditions during the recent winter months. Then, dedicate the session to discussing the past season. You'll likely be pleasantly surprised at the information your plow-truck operators (employees and subcontractors), sidewalk crews, loader operators, salt-truck operators and dispatchers can supply regarding the accounts they serviced. These people typically can tell you which accounts were easy to deal with, which were difficult to plow, where things were "sticking up" in the lots, where damage may have occurred and what to avoid next season. This information will give you a grasp on who you should keep as a customer and who you should consider dropping.

If you have not already developed a listing of snowplow damage that requires your attention, this meeting also is a good time to get feedback from those in the field about this important issue. (Subcontractors and employees need to know that accidents happen, and they won't be fined or punished-- within reason--for such repairs. Assuring employees of this ensures you'll receive the most accurate list of damaged property.) One of the best public-relations moves you can make is to attend to such repairs before you hear about it later in the summer or, worse yet, next fall. Customers appreciate the fact that their plowing contractor will automatically repair minor damage that occurred during plowing opperations. This might include reseeding or sodding areas where plows peeled up turf, refacing damaged curbs, resetting mailboxes or cleaning up debris. If your contract does not cover repairing such damage, consider approaching your customers with an estimate to make the repairs before they hire someone else. After all, why allow that revenue to go elsewhere? Additionally, talking with the customer about the repairs gives you the opportunity to renew the contract and address any concerns they may have about perceived problems during last winter. Sometimes, all you have to do is listen to them to make them feel better.

Marketing for customer retention

Now is also the time to make plans for next winter regarding your customers. Evaluate which customers you want to retain. Evaluate your plowing operations and write up renewal contracts. Then, while it's still fresh in your customers' minds, present these renewals. Keep in mind that most renewals shoudl contain a price increase of some sort. By discussing and negotiating your increase now, you will avoid the "Let's-go-out-to-bid" mindset that could become an issue in the fall. Besides, if you've done a good job, the customer is probably ready to renew anyway. Therefore, renewing now means you reassure customers you've got them covered and you won't be booked up next fall. Besides, if you get renewals on the books now, you have a jumpstart on how much additional new business you'll need for next winter.

This also may be the time to institute a multi-year contract with your customers so you don't have to go through the same process next fall of spring. After all, you already have an idea of what is involved in plowing and maintaining your accounts. And by offering a multi-year contract, the customer can "lock in" pricing for an extended period, giving you a better handle on potential revenues. It also keeps competitors from getting a foot in the door with a good customer and prevents customers from canceling a contract because they don't liek their prices being raised every year.

Digging out new customers

Are you a contractor who won't take on just any new customer who calls during a snowstorm? If so, now is the time to contact those who did call during those hectic times but that you had to turn down. If you explain that you are a conscientious contractor who does not overbook yourself, it should be an easy sale to get this customer to commit now to next winter's plowing. And, by signing them up now, you will be able to more effectively plan your workload for next winter.

As mentioned, now is also the time to thank those who worked with or for you this past winter--as well as your customers for their business. Goodwill is easy to achieve with a little extra effort. Whether you hold that spring pizza party or not, consider sending a simple "thank you" card to subcontractors and employees as well as customers and suppliers. It will go a long way toward building good faith for next winter. Perhaps you could even send a mug with cookies, delivered along with the thank-you card. Everyone likes to think they are needed. A little effort in this area can pay off in big ways.

Snowplowing is not just a 3- or 4-month long though process. To be a viable profit center, you need to consider it year round. After all, landscape contractors, pavement-maintenance contractors, property managers and excavators think about their core (summer) business all year long. You should do the same with snowplowing. And when those good customers begin thinking about snow in July--when a lot of proposal requests are on the street--you'll be ready.

John Allin is board president of the Snow & Ice Management Association (SIMA) and CEO of Allin Cos. (Erie, Pa.).

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