|Sample Survey Questions|
End-of-year or even mid-year customer surveys allow you to fine-tune your service and communicate to clients that you care about the quality of your work. The contractors interviewed for this story recommend asking the following questions:
The ferocity of Winter 2007-08 shattered snowfall records throughout the Midwest and New England, resulting in a busy season for snow removal contractors. But while the accumulation ends in early April, there’s still more work to be done before contractors close out on the winter season..
Savvy snow fighters start thinking about securing next year’s contracts in April at the latest. Many start laying the groundwork for renewing clients well before the end of the season. They know they exist in a competitive marketplace, and if they don’t make contact with customers at the right time, they might start losing accounts.
Want to keep your competitors’ plows off your clients’ parking lots? Then realize now that you’re engaged in a nearly year-round business. Communicate with customers throughout the season, and especially at the end, maybe in the form of a survey. Also, quickly and professionally address property damage caused by your plows, and start planning for preseason walkthroughs with clients to ensure a mutual understanding of site conditions before the snow starts falling again.
Nothing drives away a client faster than the impression that you don’t care about quality of service.
So whether it’s via phone calls or e-mailed survey forms, make contact near the end of the season with customers to review how things went. You’ll be able to better know your client’s individual preferences, and maybe learn something about your company’s overall performance.
If you’re going to send out client surveys (see Sample Survey Questions, page 38), timing is important, says Todd Gill, snow business manager for the Bruce Co. of Wisconsin in Middleton, Wis.
"This year we decided we’d do it midway through the season, in the third week of January," Gill says. "It shows clients we’re concerned."
The midseason surveys allow the Bruce Co. to fine-tune its service. "At least we’re not going to go through the whole year and not know the customer is unhappy," Gill says. "We have made a few changes on some things based on the feedback. Every snow removal customer is a little bit different."
Gill sends out another performance survey at the beginning of April – which unique among contractors in his market – but it gives him a strong edge in retaining longtime customers.
"We stay in pretty close contact with a lot of our customers," he says. "A lot of them we’ve had for a long time. We know them on a personal basis."
Cutting Edge Property Maintenance of Plymouth, Minn., sends out comprehensive surveys in early March to coincide with the term of its service contracts, which go through March. This gives the company enough time to correct any problems before approaching clients about renewing for next season, says Brian Berken, vice president of sales and operations.
"One of the main things we learn is from asking, ‘Is the scope working for you? Do our services match what you need?" he says. "We’ll get feedback on individual sales reps or individual drivers. No news is typically good news, but sometimes we’ll get specific good information on individual [employees]."
But surveys don’t have to be the only form of communication with clients, says Phill Sexton, New York regional manager for Brickman. When signing a new client, Sexton ensures his company and the customer have each other’s phone trees so concerns or questions can be addressed efficiently. "Every storm is a little different," he says. "Have that point of contact identified."
Melting snow reveals a season’s worth of scrapes and cracks wrought by winter’s mischief.
When time comes to discuss which of those were caused by your drivers, a delicate and fair touch is required. You’ll save a few bucks on the front end by nitpicking every customer’s nitpick about ruined curbs or burned green areas, and sometimes you’ll be justified in not allowing a client to take advantage of you. But the savvy contractor will realize being fair and sometimes generous in making season-end repairs is an investment in long-term relationships.
"We have in our contracts a limitation of liability. It reads a little bit cold in my opinion," says Gill of the Bruce Co. "In fact, every year we have a new customer who comes and questions that a little bit. But we know that when we damage something where it’s large scale at all … we’re going to repair it at our cost."
From experience, Gill knows being reasonable and friendly about repairs leads to repeat business. "Most of our past or renewal customers know that we spend a fair amount of time in the spring repairing things we’ve broken," he says. "If we’re keeping them happy we know they won’t go find someone else in the future."
The chance for potential conflict regarding damage can be reduced months earlier, by conducting a site walk-through before the flakes begin to fly. This is the time to document the preexisting condition of the site and point out areas where snow-plow damage might occur. Berken’s Cutting Edge Property Maintenance does this every fall at all of the more than 100 properties it serves, even the ones that have been with the company for years.
"It’s a fair way to conduct business," he says. "We present it as a walk-through as a way to exceed their expectations."
While tending to customers is the most important thing to do at season’s end, Sexton says other duties are necessary before moving from winter snow removal to other postseason activities.
A year-end review with the production staff is critical, Sexton says. "Find out what worked and what didn’t," he says. "Do it now what it’s fresh in your minds. [Ask questions like] ‘Was there a piece of equipment that didn’t work for this site."
Snow contractors need to properly service and repair their snow removal equipment prior to summer storage. "A mistake a lot of snow contractors make is they tend to rush right in from one season to another," Sexton says. Or, if a snow fighter doesn’t have time between seasons to service equipment, he should consider contracting with his vendor or local commercial equipment dealer for proper service and repair.
And a contractor should use this time to focus internally on his business operations. Sexton advises contractors set labor rates for part-time employees and subcontractors, and confirm contract rates with temporary employment agencies. Also, it’s a good time to take a fresh look at their marketing plans. Do these plans still address venues for growing their snow removal operations before next winter and how is the company attracting new business?
Set labor rates for part-time employees, and confirm contract rates with temporary employment agencies.
Lastly, to sweeten your customer-retention efforts, do what Shea Hughes, president of American Snow Professionals of Menomonee Falls, Wis., does every St. Patrick’s Day.
"If all else fails, bring ‘em a box of cookies," Hughes says.