Pre-Season Checklist: Preparation Results in Increased Profits

If youíre not ready for the coming snow season by early fall, youíre not going to be ready for it by the first snow fall.

It is 4 a.m. and snow is fallingóthe 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 machineóat 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. Itís the key to a successful snow and/or ice event.

There are four main areas of pre-season preparation:

  • Customers. Without them, we wouldnít be in business.
  • Employees/subcontractors. They execute our best-laid plans.
  • Equipment. We canít 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.

Customers

If we had no customers, we couldnít 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, thatís right. You decide whether or not you want a customer, not the other way around. It sounds cocky, but if you donít 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 donít get lost.

Employees

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 donít 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

Equipment is the heart of all snow-removal operations. Without the equipment, you canít 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.

Products

To determine the coming seasonís product requirements, look at the totals for the previous year. This is your baseline for ordering the coming yearís 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.).

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