Data mining

Features - Snow Management Operations

Audits are essential to measure your performance and to protect you from lawsuits.

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August 13, 2012
Jason Stahl

Every business needs to conduct regular performance audits, both internally and externally. Not doing this is like driving a car without a steering wheel – you’re liable to veer off course and crash into flames. Those businesses that do conduct audits have a much better chance of staying the course and following the road to success and profit.

It’s even more important for snow and ice management companies where a large part of the work force is spread out in the field. How do you ensure work is being done in a quality manner and that all company policies and procedures are being followed? And that’s not to mention one of the main reasons for performing field audits: avoiding liability.

Without fail, some sort of post-event review should be conducted on each site, says snow industry consultant John Allin. The process can be as formal as a quality control manager visiting the site and filling out a form or as informal as the person who actually plowed simply driving around and examining the site. “The important thing is that someone needs to take a look-see to make sure that what was supposed to have been accomplished has been,” he says.

Some companies go as far as supplying their quality control personnel with digital cameras and mandating that they take photos of every site post-event and turn those photos in as a permanent record. “That makes for defending lawsuits rather easy,” Allin adds.

With the popularity and quality of iPhones and related handheld technology, many contractors are taking pictures and documenting work done at a site. Even shooting video for quality control is becoming more commonplace today. Technology is allowing audits in the snow removal business to be done that much more easily. Some snow and ice management companies are buying iPhones for their crews so they can be tracked through the phone’s GPS function, Allin says. Verizon also has similar smartphone technology that allows for GPS tracking.

“It’s becoming more and more apparent to progressive snow contractors that the more data they have, the better off they are – not so much from the standpoint of making sure their service providers or employees aren’t ripping them off, but from a liability standpoint,” says Allin. “The more data they have, the easier it is to defend themselves from the inevitable when a slip-and-fall lawsuit occurs.”

Simplify internal audits

Progressive snow and ice management contractors perform regular internal audits to gauge their own success during and after a snow or ice event.

A couple days after the event is over, meeting with the entire management team to do a “post mortem” on the event and everyone’s performance can be an enlightening experience. What went wrong? What went right? How can we improve? What changes might be necessary in order to achieve higher customer satisfaction, or faster response to inquiries/requests/complaints?

Good contractors communicate amongst themselves as well as with their customers. One such contractor performs a management evaluation of field performance after each event which nabs problems – or potential problems – before they become insurmountable obstacles’ to customer satisfaction.

How often does your company evaluate overall performance as compared to customer satisfaction?

Allin goes so far as to say any operational audit conducted today in the snow business is primarily geared toward protecting the snow contractor and their clients from any claim that arises as the result of their work. But that concept, he says, is sometimes hard for the workers in the field to grasp since they believe the audits’ primary purpose is to keep an eye on them and make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

“Guys in the field look at internal or quality control audits as, ‘You’re checking to see if I’m doing my job,’” Allin says. “Whereas, the owner is thinking of it in terms of, ‘I want to make sure we protect ourselves when a lawsuit comes down the pike.’”

On the business, non-operational side of snow management, the goal of audits is to capture all the data needed to build a suite of services that have been provided to the customer. Accurate billing is another goal, as it can often be challenging. There is a big disconnect between the operators in the field and those in charge of billing in terms of making sure the billing department has all the information they need to invoice accurately.

“I can’t tell you how many times I hear guys say we’re missing this or that,” says Allin. “You have a guy who’s billing out $200,000 on a snow event and you ask him how much is slipping through the cracks. I’ve had some people say it could be 10 percent.”

Why is money falling through the cracks? Because some snow operators are still using paper, and paper is difficult to manage, says Allin. For example, consider that a fair-sized contractor may have 100 people out plowing, each of whom turn in three pieces of paper for a total of 300 pieces of paper. Then you get slammed with two storms in one day and now you have 600 pieces of paper.

“It becomes a monster that feeds on itself the more intense the winter is,” says Allin. “This is where business systems, like CrewTracker, have become considerably more cost efficient to use. People find out that if they track all this stuff electronically, they can capture a considerable amount of data.”

Mark Ciccarelli is one guy who long ago left paper in the dust. His audits are strictly conducted electronically through GPS, CrewTracker and even Salt-Traxx, a digital job tracker that gives him a list of how much salt was used on a particular property, where it was used and the time it was spread.

“If I drop off 20 tons of salt at the beginning of the season and a guy comes to me with five yards of Salt-Traxx info, I want to know where the other 15 yards went,” says Ciccarelli, who is the vice president of operations for Neave Snow Management in Wappingers Falls, N.Y. “That’s $3,000 of material, and we go through 3,000 tons a year.”

Ciccarelli has every different kind of report you can think of at his fingertips before, during or after a storm: snow totals, how many crew members were on a property, what they did, how many hours they spent there, how much material was used, the running times of the equipment, and the servicing of the equipment. From his desk he sees where everyone is, what service they’re providing and what time they got to the site. That’s his way of making sure everything is being done properly.

Before any event, Ciccarelli has an aerial site map set up that indicates the primary plow location, the secondary location, fire hydrants and anything else that might impede progress. After a storm, he compiles all of the data that he has and has his subs compile all their data and submit it to him.

“All of our subs are required by contract to follow all of our procedures, otherwise I won’t pay them,” says Ciccarelli.

One of the things Ciccarelli’s extensive use of electronic auditing technology relates to is the size of his business. Neave Snow Management handles roughly 80 commercial properties, so having all of his information at the click of a button is important. However, he doesn’t see the need for a company handling three to four properties to have GPS.

Then there is the client component, which reinforces the need for detailed and consistent tracking.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, the expectations of our clients have increased dramatically,” says Ciccarelli. “The people expect blacktop for the most part. Expectations are so high in our area that the only way to protect yourself and your clients is to have all this information all the time.”

Ciccarelli recently went into a deposition for an incident that happened in 2009, and being able to put all of the data on the table proved that his company did not breach their contract or neglect their duties when it came to the removal of snow from that property. “I can tell you about a storm three years ago and how we serviced the whole property. That speaks volumes,” he says. “It’s big because you can get in front of these boards and attorneys in a deposition and go right down the list of the things you did. If someone slipped and fell and we were there when it happened, it won’t look as good as if we had neglected the property.”

On the business side, the audits help with payroll and helping clients know how much time Neave’s crews spent on the property. After the event, Ciccarelli sends reports to the client. “Some of our bigger clients now want something automated,” he says. “We have to send a report to them within 12 hours after the storm. If I send someone a bill for $25,000 to $30,000, they want to know what we did for it.”

 

My Guys Won’t Use It

The complaint industry consultant John Allin hears in the field about electronic performance auditing equipment is: “My guys won’t use it.” But he says it’s all about mandating compliance and properly training crews on the new technology.

One New Jersey company achieved 95 percent compliance with their new tracking system, and, according to Allin, the only reason they didn’t achieve 100 percent compliance was because of a language issue with some of their workers. One contractor couldn’t understand how the other had achieved 95 percent compliance because he had run one mock event over one-full day to train his crews and didn’t come anywhere near 95 percent compliance. It turns out the contractor who had achieved almost total compliance had run 12 mock events versus the other guy’s one.

“I said no wonder you didn’t get compliance,” Allin says. “If you do something 10 times, it becomes habit. Once isn’t going to cut it, especially in a winter like last winter when these guys plowed twice with two months in between.”

Allin admits there is an issue with snow contractors believing that the subs they hire have them between a rock and a hard place, and so if they say, “I won’t do that and if you force me to, you can get someone else to do the work,” then the contractor caves.

But that is not the case with Mark Ciccarelli, vice president of operations for Neave Snow Management. It’s a take-it-or-leave-it approach with him. “Our subs have to be on board with us or they can’t work for us.”

 

Jason Stahl is a Cleveland-based freelance writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.