'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.
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.
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