Little Things. BIG IMPACT.

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Snow contractors and business pros share the little practices, processes and procedures that have the greatest potential to change your business for the better.

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July 24, 2020

So often in business we hear phrases like “Focus on the big things,” and “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” However, when it comes to business success it’s often those simple adjustments and tweaks that have the greatest impact on both short- and long-term success. Our panel of snow fighters and business thought leaders offer their experiences and insight to provide some of the simple habits, practices, process and procedures that any business owner or leader can assimilate into their daily operations that’ll post significant dividends immediately and down the line.

Become A Better Communicator

Snow fighter John Langton doesn’t hesitate when he suggests contractors improve how they communicate with clients as the best way to have a major impact on one’s snow and ice management operation.

“It’s probably the easiest thing you can do and it really doesn’t cost you a lot to do, but it really has a marked impact on the client and how they regard you,” says Langton, the owner of Langton Group, in Woodstock, Ill. “And I’m not talking about just communicating before the start of the snow season, but before, during and after every snow and ice event.”

For most, Langton relies on text messaging clients the key details about the upcoming event, what the forecasters are predicting about the event, how he anticipates crews will manage the event and their properties, and what lasting conditions may occur that could create complications or problems.

“When the customer believes they know what’s going on with a winter event and how the contractor plans to handle it, well, that’s worth its weight in gold,” Langton says.

And a solid communication strategy isn’t reserved solely for clients. Langton says he’s found clear and consistent communication with his winter crews to yield impressive results. “We use a voice communication system that sends the same message to everyone working the storm,” he says. “We communicate that they need to be on call, updates on storm details, and if there are any changes to the plan for how we address the event. And the final message they get is that it’s time to go.”

Show Your Appreciation

From a leadership and management perspective, conveying your appreciation to your employees for a job well done is the No. 1 thing people want more of in a business environment, says management coach Liz Uram.

“Individuals and employees want to feel appreciated,” Uram says. “and they want it in the form of sincere verbal praise. They certainly don’t want an animated ‘Attaboy!’ from the boss or manager. People can see how insincere that is from a mile away.”

Uram recommends keeping your acknowledgement specific and timely. A good rule of thumb is to strive to give each employee one verbal acknowledgment a week. “A simple verbal acknowledgment for a job well done really goes a long way,” she says. “In fact, studies have shown that simple verbal praise will boost productivity, especially when you’re trying to keep people motivated and you don’t have the means to throw money at them. In the end, this can help to keep people around longer. Often, being treated well simply outweighs money with employees.”

A word of caution, warns Uram. Know the personality of the person you plan to acknowledge to determine whether public or private praise is most appropriate. “Some people love being in the limelight, while others would die receiving praise in public. If you don’t recognize this, then you’ll defeat the purpose of the praise.”

And don’t forget a sincere verbal acknowledgement is appropriate for conveying thanks to a long-term client or a vendor who has performed above and beyond expectations, Uram adds.

The Value In Values

One very simple addition to make is to add your company’s core values to the backs of your employees’ work shirts.

Kevin Shackleford, CEO of Shackleford Landscape Group, Bear, Del., began doing this to reinforce with employees the important roles these five values – Honor, Safety, Quality, Training and Accountability — had in ensuring success.

“It’s symbolic of the fact that we take our values into the workplace with us everyday … and they’re not just hanging framed on the wall somewhere in the office,” Shackleford says. “It’s important that we’re proud of our core values because it’s what defines us in the market. I believe since we’ve been doing this our employees have really bought into their importance because they constantly see them on each other’s backs throughout the day.”

Make Moments Matter

Nearly every business owner or manager laments that there’s just not enough hours in the day to attend everything they need to accomplish. Business coach and consultant Jill J. Johnson suggests identifying those tasks where you’re wasting the most time, especially those routine responsibilities that cause the most stress and consternation.

“When we’re involved in activities that we don’t do regularly – or we don’t enjoy because they’re a struggle – they tend to demand the most [attention] from us,” Johnson says. “And most of the time, we wait until the last possible second to address these tasks, which only complicates the situation and requires even more time to complete them.”

Johnson suggests establishing a written, step-by-step instructional processes for these tasks you don’t do regularly or requires the most time-consuming attention. “These are cheat sheets that offer guidance – through visual and written cues – and simplify these tasks,” she says. “This takes those complex and irritating tasks and simplifies them so you can get them done in a minute … In the end, it’s me coaching me.”

And as an added time saver, store these cheat sheets – whether they’re physical or digital files – in a central location where you can find them at a moments notice. “Make sure these tips and tricks are accessible when you’re faced with accomplishing a certain confusing or unpleasant task,” she says. “You can save yourself even more time if you’re not hunting down what’s supposed to be saving you time.”

You can take this a step further by creating similar cheat sheets for tasks that cause your employees a considerable amount of time to complete, Johnson says. Likewise, create accessible tip sheets for clients that address tasks they often find confusing – such as paying a bill online or lodging a service request – or requires considerable amount of your time to coach them through.

Training To Get Along

Employee training and development is the foundation of any successful snow and ice management company. However, skills related to training and development can mean much more than just knowing how and where to push snow, or the proper way to operate a liquid spreader.

Snow fighter Kevin Shackleford added conflict resolution as a part of his employee development program.

“Without a doubt, this has had a dramatic impact on our company, and not just with how we interact with our clients, but how we manage one another inside the company,” he says. “We teach people how to respectfully voice their concerns and how to respectfully deal with their problems with one another and how to keep things from going over into the red.”

Too often Shackleford would witness coworkers raising their voices with one another or using course language during a disagreement. In addition to the emotional upheaval it was having, it was also a colossal waste of the workday to then cool down and come to an eventual resolution.

“We teach people how to respectfully voice their opinion and why they disagree,” he says. “[Employees] learn that when you talk to people in a calm manner you tend to get a better solution.”

And this isn’t just sage advice for frontline works. These skills apply to those in leadership roles, as well, Shackleford says.

“For example, let’s say a team member has been showing up late,” he says. “Instead of yelling at them ‘Why are you always late!’ simply pull them aside and asks what’s going on and if there’s an issue that’s causing them to be late.” Shackleford suggests getting to the root cause of an employee’s issue because you never know what’s happening outside of work that’s prohibiting them from focusing on the job. “Just by helping people along really helps make a difference, and it really strengthen that sense of family and the atmosphere of culture that you’re trying to build at your company,” he says.

Know Your Numbers

Snow fighters, especially inexperienced contractors, too often become fixated on the big numbers, says Larry Yaffa, CEO of Brilar in Detroit. Instead, they take contracts at face value without working the numbers backward to determine the material and labor costs associated with providing quality snow and ice management services. In the end, there’s often very little, if any, value left in the contract to make it worthwhile.

“You must know what you’re getting into – including your expenses and what your bottom line is on a per-job basis,” Yaffa says. “There are too many companies out there that operate from a capacity of this is how much came in, this is how much went out, and at the end of the year these is the dollar amount I have left. But at the end of the day they have no idea what jobs those dollars came from.

“The biggest reason why [contractors] don’t do this is they don’t realize the real benefits of tracking these numbers,” he adds. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of owner/operators out there with their heads in the sand who just go out and do the work and at the end of the day they hope they have money left over.”

There are a number of business software options available to snow contractors that can assist with accurate job costing, Yaffa says.

In addition to evaluating the costs and value of individual contacts, Yaffa suggest contractors assess the value of their entire portfolio.

“For example, let’s say you have 100 contracts in your portfolio but 75 of them aren’t profitable,” Yaffa says. “Wouldn’t you want to focus in on the 25 that were? And then, wouldn’t you focus on getting more of those types of jobs for your portfolio?

“Job costing has really helped us find our sweet spot in the market and has allowed us to focus in on the properties that makes sense for us, and those that we really should avoid,” he adds.

Stay Cool Under Fire

Difficult, busy times can strain relationships, but they also forge stronger bonds when handled the correct way, says leadership coach and business author Quint Studer.

"When your team sees you pull things together and navigate them out of a tricky situation, it can be a huge credibility builder," says Studer. "Conversely, when they see you fall apart, it can create a trust deficit that is hard to recover from, even when things settle down."

While seasoned leaders develop through years of trial and error methods for managing stressful scenarios, Studer cautions new leaders often lack the correct tools and tactics to manage the stress and stay the course. He offers a few simple suggestions for managing your team with grace under fire:

First, eliminate as much stress as you can by being a well-run organization. Work to create a best-odds environment for eliminating problems. Things will go wrong from time to time, and you can't control everything. However, there are lots of things you can control. Make sure you have good processes and procedures in place for eliminating avoidable headaches. For example:

  • Plan for disaster by learning from mistakes and fixing the culprits.
  • Identify stress points and think critically about who they impact. What causes increased workloads? Use this evaluation to delegate work and identify team members who might need additional support. Don't lower expectations. This will only breed excuses and erode performance over time.
  • Say no to some requests. This way you don't have to scurry around trying to do them and then later explain why they didn't get them done.

The Power Of Feedback

Another simple practice to adopt is the addition of an end-of-season review with the client, says Langton Group’s John Langton.

“Get together with the client and ask them: What did we do good? What did we do bad? And what can we improve upon for next season?” he advises.

While asking these questions impresses upon the client that you’re concerned about self-improvement and offering a high level of service, the real key is following through on the recommendations. “What’s important is getting those recommended changes made or in place for the next snow season and then point out to the client that you took their feedback to heart,” he adds. “The great thing is they will recognize what you’ve done and they will respond positively with loyalty and continued business.”