The To-Do List

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Don’t let downtime get you DOWN. We provide the tasks to pursue in between snow events that’ll transform your ops into a lean, mean snow-fighting machine.

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October 15, 2020

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One certainty about Winter 2020-21: It’s nearly impossible to predict the weather for this coming snow season. Sure, meteorologist examine El Nino and El Nina trends. They ponder the tea leaves in the data of winters gone by for clues as to where we’re at in a three-year, five-year or 20-year winter cycle. Heck, folks even look to Mother Nature for telltale signs, like robins nesting close to homes (bad winter), or squirrels with bushy tails (cold winter), or even squirrels burying nuts earlier than usual (really terrible winter).

What is true, though, is it’s a monumental waste to go into winter unprepared for how to utilize any extended downtime to improve your overall business. So, with the help of some industry friends, Snow Magazine has compiled a Winter 2020-21 To-Do List.

The following tips, practices, suggestions, and recommendations are presented in no particular order. So, when you’re faced with some downtime in the coming weeks and months, you can literally start anywhere. However, I would recommend reading through this editorial package in its entirety to give you an idea of what you can knock out relatively easily, what may take some time and forethought, and what may be an improvement project that requires more than a few free afternoons.

So, good luck. Stay safe. Keep our fingers crossed for a consistent and productive winter season. And in the event this winter proves to favor your golf handicap rather than your bottom line, then at least you can improve and strengthen your operations to successfully weather this season and seasons to come.

TO DO: Assess Your Sales Strategy

One of the greatest mistakes snow contractors make is believing dry ink on a winter service contract is when client relations conclude, says sales coach Marvin Montgomery. Therefore, reaffirming and strengthening client relationships is a productive activity when faced with extended downtime.

“What we don’t want is our customers thinking that the only time we contact them is when it’s time to renew or when we want to sell them more stuff,” Montgomery says. “Not just during periods of downtime, but you need to make time in your routine to reach out to clients.”

Reaffirming the relationship should be introduced early on in the relationship, advises Montgomery. “If you’re a new client, then the first time I sit down with you some of the value-added should be me saying to you, ‘First of all welcome to Montgomery Landscaping & Snow Removal. We’re excited to have you on board. We’re going to meet with you a minimum of three times a year: once right before we start the contract; a second time to go over the contract with you and to make sure everything meets your expectations; and then I’m going to come back mid-way through to see if you have any questions or concerns because I don’t want to wait until the end.’”

Snow contractors must set the stage early on to let clients know they intend to have more than just a plow-and-go relationship. For example, when checking and reaffirming the contractor-client relationship, Montgomery recommends looking for ways and reasons to connect with the client. Regardless of how seemingly insignificant, he says they can end up leaving a lasting positive impression.“I always ask [contractors] ‘What are you doing ongoing?’ And ‘ongoing’ can be recognizing birthdays, or sharing an interesting podcast or sending out seasonal tips,” he says “Sometimes, it’s just informational things to stay in front of the customer. Myself, I write a motivational tip that goes out every week.”

Therefore, it is important to develop these touch points and make them a part of the regular routine, Montgomery says, adding downtime is the right time to begin reviewing these again. “For example, I use a customized thank-you note that goes out around Thanksgiving that expresses how much I appreciate the relationship with clients for how every long it may be … one, three or five winters,” he says. “What’s important is that I find a way to customize the note to the particular client.”

Another activity to engage in during extended downtimes is cold calling. “You need to be cold calling and prospecting for potential new opportunities,” Montgomery says. “My philosophy is to not wait for your ship to come in. Rather, go swim out to it. You can’t sit back and wait for something to happen. You must go out and make something happen.”

Some winter service contracts come from repeat business, but others will stem from referrals. Therefore, downtime is the perfect opportunity to engage existing clients for new client prospecting, Montgomery says.

“Always be prospecting” he says. “There are so many companies out there that may not be satisfied with their current [snow and ice management] provider and you’re giving them an opportunity to move to someone who can really take care of them and satisfy all of their needs.”

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Now is the prime time to develop a cold-calling formula – or how many cold calls must be made every day, every week, every month to ensure a contractor hit his or her numbers. “Your down-time calls should have three purposes,” Montgomery says. “One, calling to say how and to see how you’re doing. Two, making sure your expectations are being met. And three, if those expectations are being met, can they recommend anyone who could benefit from the excellent service you’re providing?”

Lastly, don’t underestimate the value of virtual meetings.

“The pandemic has forced more and more companies into using virtual meetings as a means of conducting business,” Montgomery says. “And this may be more favorable [with clients] because virtual meetings can be more time specific – like taking only 10 to 15 minutes of an individual’s time rather than having to carve out two to three hours from the day to travel to and from [client] meetings. And those 10-15 minutes can be just as valuable [for relationship building] as 60 minutes.”

“What we don’t want is our customers thinking that the only time we contact them is when it’s time to renew or when we want to sell them more stuff. Not just during periods of down time, but you need to make time in your routine to reach out to clients.” Marvin Montgomery Sales Coach Marvin Montgomery & Associates

TO DO: Determine The State of Your Finances

Any extended period of downtime is the right time to take a hard look at your finances and review the money coming in, the money going out, and the money set aside for lean times. Snow Magazine’s finance and accounting writer Mark Battersby outlines eight areas for snow contractors to focus in on during seasonal downtime.

Taking Stock Of The Operation’s Assets

Disposing of unneeded, unwanted, obsolete equipment or other property deserves some thought as part of year-round tax planning. There is, after all, no point in letting excess equipment take up space when it could be contributing to the operation’s bottom-line.

“Selling, donating those unwanted assets to a charity or actually abandoning them, creates cash and/or tax write-offs,” Battersby says. “Don’t forget to document each event, keep receipts and physically abandon assets, not merely store them away.”

Employee Or Not An Employee

California’s controversial new law for freelancers and others in the so-called “gig” economy is spreading the worker classification issue to more states. And the IRS also continues to challenge whether workers are employees or independent contractors.

Independent contractors are not subject to withholding, relieving the employer of liability for payroll taxes.

“Workers, for their part, can avoid higher tax bills and lost benefits by knowing their proper status,” Battersby says “For those uncertain whether workers are classified correctly, the IRS can provide a determination letter telling how it views the operation’s workers – as employees or independent contractors.”

In addition to using IRS Form SS-8 to request a determination of worker status, an employer can apply to the IRS if it has been erroneously classifying workers as independent contractors. This application for “530 relief” allows the operation to get relief from liability or payment if it has been classifying workers as independent contractors in error.

Shopping For Another Banker

Despite bank branches disappearing in record numbers and the growing number of financing options, credit card processors and other services available from a variety of sources, every small business still needs a bank. However, despite how important banks are to small businesses, the majority of businesses appear to be experiencing significant challenges when it comes to banking services.

According to a recent survey of more than 1,000 business owners, only 9% of small business owners say their current bank meets all of their needs. What’s more, a whopping 69% of small business owners don’t believe their current bank is meeting all of their needs and, thus, would be willing to switch banks.

A credit-card processor may offer less-expensive fees and the fast-growing Web financing community might offer more attractive rates. But only banks allow a business owner or manager to negotiate lower rates based on the number of services they utilize.

“Banks want your business,” Battersby says. “But while they’ll sometimes offer significant cash bonuses for opening a business account, remember, no matter how appealing that cash bonus might appear, it is the operation’s day-to-day banking needs that count. In the long term, meeting the needs of the business will have a bigger impact on the health of the business than any immediate cash benefit.”

Coping With Reality

What better time to take a closer look at the operation’s cash flow? Every business owner should have a plan for periods of tight cash flow, upcoming projects and financing needs.

“With this in mind, it is no surprise that the best-performing businesses in past downturns had strong balance sheets and were even taking on additional debt to purchase more assets, expand or even acquire competitors – all relatively inexpensively,” Battersby says.

Make The Most Of Customers And Clients

The importance of increasing the number of customers the operation has can’t be overemphasized. After all, the unexpected loss of a big customer, contract or project can impact even the most financially stable business. And it is unfortunate that customers are usually the first to go during tough economic times.

“An economic downturn or recession means that now is the time to take care of loyal customers, since they could also bring new customers to the business,” Battersby says. “Telling customers how much their business is appreciated or rewarding them through discounts, loyalty cards and gift certificates can reap big dividends.”

Win A Competitor’s Customers

Any business hoping to prosper in tough times must continue to expand their customer base – and that often means drawing customers away from the competition. This can be accomplished by offering more or something different than the competition does.

“Providing better customer service is often viewed as one of the easiest ways to outdistance the competition,” Battersby adds.

Find A Pro

Now might be a good time to shop around for a pro. While most business owners and managers know their operation inside and out, there are highly technical matters of law, accounting, management and marketing that are usually best handled by outside experts.

The first step to finding the right tax professional requires an inventory of what you – and your business – actually need in the way of services and advice, and equally important, how much you can afford to pay for that advice or services,” Battersby says. “The best way to find someone to render needed advice or guidance is via a referral from business associates, your banker or an attorney.”

TO DO: Train, Train, And More Training!

Snow contractors can utilize any span of downtime to engage in ongoing professional development and workforce training as a means of strengthening and improving their operations. And as an added bonus, a fair amount of quality training materials covering a diverse array of topics are available in digital format for consumption by both in-house teams and service providers.

Zack Kelley, director of operations at Sauers Snow & Ice Management, a snow-only firm based in Philadelphia, suggests organizing training into three specific buckets – Operations, including day-to-day tasks; Risk Management, which encompasses not only legal issues, but first-aid training; and Culture Building, which includes team building and improvement, as well as leadership.

“During any sort of downtime, polishing up on each of these three areas is a good use of a contractor’s time,” Kelley says.

Operations

This is Sauers’ biggest training bucket and includes a number of different subcategories, Kelley explains. “And the biggest thing we’re focusing on is client communication,” he says. “And that goes for the guys shoveling the sidewalks all the way to the individuals managing clients’ sites.”

For example, if a client approaches a Sauers’ employee with a question, to request additional service or has an issue that needs to be addressed, then they need to be educated on not only the appropriate response, but what the next step in the process is, Kelley says. Every employee must have a working and thorough knowledge of not only how to communicate with clients about snow and ice management questions, but then how to communicate theses concerns and requests internally with Sauers’ management team.

Communication can be a very deep training topic, Kelley adds. For example, how many managers know how to write a well-thought-out email, he asks.

“You want to be professional and you want to be concise,” Kelley says. “Your team must communicate the right details. And professionalism is a big point we’re trying to drive home this year. Phone calls and texts … our snow managers run into all of those scenarios throughout a snowstorm, whereas some clients prefer an email, some prefer text, and others want a phone call. So, we try to train for all of those [scenarios].

“We figure, if we’re going to put our time into something, then we need to make sure our clients will be satisfied,” he adds.

“We talk about the importance of documentation and making sure they have the correct weather conditions down and they’re prepared for anything. We must limit risk, and we feel this starts out with the guys in the field.” Zack Kelley Director of Operations Sauers Snow & Ice Management

In addition, Sauers trains its employees on the ANSI Industry Standards for Snow and Ice Management, available through their affiliation with the ASCA.

“We’ll literally go through the Industry Standards with our people line by line,” he says. “The way we do training with our snow managers is weekly, so we’ll cover a few ANSI standards every week as a refresher, and we’ll incorporate photos and videos as examples to reinforce the ANSI standards … Industry Standards is always an area we drive home [with employees and service providers].”

And if there’s additional downtime, Kelley says Sauers ensures its snow managers complete ASCA-C training. “We won’t typically do this in the fall because it’s a crazy time for us getting ready for winter,” he says. “But when it doesn’t snow, we typically have our guys engaged in the ASCA-C training during that time. We feel it’s very beneficial. And frankly, it’s already pre-made, so we don’t have to remake it if it’s already out there.”

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Risk Management

As the industry gets more litigious, snow contractors must seek out ways to protect themselves. Sauers addresses this issue at both a high level and at the operational level. So even the guys on the frontlines shoveling know what to look for and what to be prepared for to mitigate slip-and-fall conditions, Kelley says

“We talk about the importance of documentation and making sure [workers] have the correct weather conditions down and they’re prepared for anything,” he says. “We must limit risk, and we feel this starts with the guys in the field. And over the last couple of years we’ve caught more things this way because our ground crews have an eye out for these details. Whereas before, a shoveler or laborer driving a sidewalk machine may not be looking out for potential hazards, like snow left on a walkway. Now, they’re looking for those things and bringing them to their site manager’s attention, or they’re handling these situations themselves.” Risk mitigation also includes first-aid training, Kelley says, and they stress the importance of being well prepared.

“We teach CPR and basic first-aid skills,” he adds. “We make sure our managers are all CPR-certified.”

Culture

“Culture” has been a popular buzz word over the last couple of years. However, the team at Sauers Snow & Ice has really focused on building a productive corporate culture over the last two or three years.

“It’s made a huge difference in how we work and how people view us,” Kelley says. “And it’s certainly something that can be worked on and implemented during seasonal downtimes.”

In a sense, culture building is an extension of Sauers’ extensive training regimen.

“We’ll train on culture,” he says. “We will train people about our company and how we expect them, and want them, to act and how that influences the image they put forth to our clients.”

Part of building a strong culture involves gaining an understanding of what they can do better as a team and as individuals. To achieve this, Sauers reviews every single employee and service provider.

“We want them to know the chain of command and who their managers are because if they have an issue it can be addressed immediately,” Kelley says.

In addition to individual assessments, the Sauers team seeks to gain a clear understanding of how their clients view their performance.

“Since last year was a down year for us for snow, we beefed up our surveying process to gain better client feedback,” Kelley says. “We survey all of our clients, all of our service providers, and all of our employees after every single snow event … regardless if it’s just a salting event or a 6-8 inch storm. Everyone receives a survey on their phone the next day that asks them to grade their manager, their response time, etc. …”

The survey has proven an effective way to highlight service issues that require the team’s immediate attention.

“For example, all of our subs at the end of the year are graded on a scale from 0 to 100 on how they did,” Kelley says. “That grade is based on their communication, the documentation and app usage, their operational skills, were they on time and followed through on the scope of work … this all goes to computing a grade at the end of the year.

“But the service provider is also grading their manager and their experience with accounting,” he adds. “So, it serves as a checks-and-balances for us, as well, to make sure everything is where we want it to be operationally.

With clients, the Sauers’ team recognizes property managers don’t have the time to fill out extensive questionnaires. So, instead, they field a single question to clients: Rate us on a scale of 1-10.

“If they respond with a seven or below, it automatically triggers a follow-up question that asks: We realize we could have done a better job with the storm, what areas specifically did you have an issue?” he says. “These responses go to me and to the regional manager for that property and our goal is to address these issues within 24 hours.”

TO DO: Get Certified!

There is perhaps no better way to distinguish your snow and ice management operations in your market than through ISO 9001/SN 9001 certification. And when faced with an extended amount of downtime, the pursuit of ISO certification can prove to be a worthwhile financial and time investment.

There are a number of reasons why ISO certification is a worthwhile pursuit, but the biggest is the opportunities. Many of the large property management companies are seeking ISO-certified snow and ice management companies to handle their winter duties, says Beth Savastano, of Detroit-based Beth Savastano Consulting, which provides ISO coaching from initial interest through to prepping for the certification audit. “So, if you’re not an ISO-certified company, then the chances are you’re not going to get with many of the big property management companies,” she adds.

ISO 9001 is an international standard adopted by more than one million companies in 176 countries and is the most common benchmark for quality management. ISO 9001:2008 is a part of the ISO 9000 family of standards and is the document that lists the requirements an organization must meet to become ISO 9001 certified.

In its continued support of contractor education and certification, the Accredited Snow Contractors Association (ASCA) created a quality management system specifically for the professional snow and ice management industry. SN 9001 – a system exclusive to professional snow contractors – works in conjunction with the existing ISO 9001. This program is based on ISO 9001 with additional requirements based on the professional snow and ice management industry and the Industry Standards.

The path toward ISO certification is not as complex or difficult as snow professionals may imagine.

“The first step I’d suggest is reaching out and contacting other snow professionals who have gone through the ISO process and who have earned their certifications,” Savastano says. “Then contact me and we start with a ‘gap assessment,’ which is exactly what it sounds like. It assesses and closes off any gaps in their snow and ice management systems before we bring the auditors in for third-party certification.”

There’s a misconception in the industry that ISO certification is a long and complicated process, Savastano says. In reality, a successful snow and ice management contractor is already doing many, if not most, of the things necessary for ISO certification. “All I do is help contractors get to the final audit,” she says of her role in the process. “I don’t tell them what to do. I don’t look at their financial statements. No one is going to get fired or reprimanded because I’ve been brought in to assist in ISO certification. It sounds unusual, but a lot of contractors and those individuals working for snow and ice firms unfortunately believe this. However, when all is said and done, the typical feedback from ISO contractors is that this processes was easier than they thought it would be.”

Savastano adds that the COVID pandemic has not been a barrier for ISO certification. Many of the meetings that once took place in person can now be handled virtually, which has resulted in a substantial costs savings for snow and ice management contactors.

TO DO: Update Your Handbook

As a business owner, consider an employee handbook as creating the least amount of risk for yourself, and as a way of reducing your chances of being sued over and having to defend against a workplace issue.

One of the biggest issues employers without handbooks have to contend with is inadvertently creating an arbitrary approach to things in the workplace where you allow one person to do one thing, but another person is prohibited, says Justine Baackman, an attorney with the Philadelphia office of Freeman, Mathis and Gary. This leaves an employer vulnerable to an employee’s claim of discrimination.

For example, he or she perceives they are not permitted something due to gender, or a disability, or a plethora of other things.

“You, as the business owner, may have a very good reason for why you allowed one person to do one thing and another person to do something else,” Baakman says. “But from someone looking at this as potential litigation, you want to be able to say you have a policy and procedure in place that is documented, and everyone is treated the same way.

“The laws are constantly changing about COVID policy and we’re constant learning new things about this virus. That’s why it is so important to consult with your legal counsel before you start creating workplace policies on your own about what should be done.” Justine Baakman Attorney Freeman, Mathis & Gary LLP

“And as a business owner, you need to look at [an employee handbook] as creating the least amount of risk for yourself, and a way of reducing your chances of being sued over and defend against a workplace issue,” she adds. “And not only is it important to document that new employees have read your company’s handbook, but anytime it’s updated employees should acknowledge they’ve read the update and understand it, as well.”

A good starting point is to reach out to your legal counsel, who will have a template of an employee handbook document that can serve as a starting point for your company’s own document. In fact, it’s very easy to remove and add particular sections that fit they type of business you’re operating and based on the overall nature of your business.

In fact, a number of recent issues have created circumstances to either update existing handbooks or create an all new up-to-date and all-encompassing employee document.

First, your handbook should include a policy related to the COVID pandemic that address a number of issues. For example:

  • • Are you requesting your employees have their temperatures checked every day?
  • • Are you going to have them certify when they arrive every day that they haven’t experienced certain symptoms related to COVID, such as a cough or fever?
  • • Are you going to have a policy that says if a worker is exposed to someone who is COVID positive, then at what point do they need to report that to you, the employer?

“There are the types of questions COVID has forced employers to deal with, and they need to set policy to deal with them,” Baakman says. “With snow and ice management, you may have people who are working in close proximity to one another throughout the day. Obviously, if they’re working outside, then they can hopefully socially distance. But when they are traveling from site to site in vehicles together, presumably they’re not going to be able to six feet apart.

“So, it’s important to assess and determine what types of policies do you want to have in place to address these issues and to guide employees on what they need to report back to you,” she adds.

The bottom line is you need to have these policies and procedures in place and to be certain that your workforce knows what they are, whether that’s through an email that documents your policies related to COVID and what your require of them whether they end up being positive or someone else in their household tests positive.

In addition, if you have an employee tests positive for COVID, Baakman says the handbook should address the police with regard to notifying others they’ve worked with that they may have potentially been exposed. However, this is considered sensitive medical information, and there is only so much HIPA-related information you can tell your employees about an individual with a positive COVID test.

“The laws are constantly changing about COVID policy and we’re constant learning new things about this virus,” she says. “That’s why it is so important to consult with your legal counsel before you start creating workplace policies on your own about what should be done.”

In addition, a lot of attention has been given to addressing appropriate behavior in the workplace environment, and this is another place that needs to be addressed and updated in your employee handbook.

“There’s a fine line you can walk between how much you want to regulate and what you can not regulate with regard to what your employees say inside and outside of work,” Baakman says. “Something I’ve seen a lot of clients do is to begin a dialogue with employees about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate language and behavior in the workplace and establish policy around that. So, someone has overheard another worker say something racial insensitive, then who can they go and talk to about that, whether it’s HR or a manager they can go and talk to.

“You want to make sure employees feel they are in an environment where they can go to talk to someone and it’s not necessarily the same person who said the questionable or offensive thing,” she adds.

This is also a prime opportunity to engage in training around these issues, Baakman says.

“If you are faced with downtime, then this is a great place to provide some valuable training, whether it deals with sexual harassment and social justice all the way to workplace cyber security,” she adds. “Employees appreciate an employer who understands that the state of the world right now is so much different than it was in February and March of 2020 and this recognizes that. It certainly goes a long way to recognizing low morale in the workplace and can end up being a motivating and uplifting exercise for your employees.”

TO DO: Benchmark Your Business

As a snow and ice management operation evolves and grows, the numbers that were once accurate and insightful can easily become obscured and irrelevant. Therefore, utilize any extended downtime to drill down into your financials and focus on providing a more accurate set of business benchmarks, says Joe Kujawa, a snow industry veteran in the Milwaukee market who now serves as a business coach for Bruce Wilson and Co.

The first thing you need to do is to figure out what your monthly number is.

“What’s the nut that needs to be made each month to open the doors and to keep the lights on – all of your indirect expenses … How big is that?” Kujawa asks. “Then, the goal should be to have that figure covered by seasonal contracts.”

So, if it stops snowing and you’re not making any money, then at least you’re not going into the hole.

“And you may have to sacrifice some of the margins on those contracts to ensure you’re getting to that figure,” Kujawa adds. “But in the long run, you’ll find you’re better off doing that because it means covering those indirect expenses. So, in the event it does stop snowing, then you’re not forced to dip into your [credit] line and you have enough cushion to make it to the next snow and/or ice event.”

Another thing, if you find that you’re in the middle of some extensive downtime, then that isn’t the time to begin wondering what you should be doing with that time, Kujawa says.

“Heading in the season you need the “honey-do” list, if you will, and figure out what you’re going to do and what you need done and have everything ready to go when this downtime happens,” he says.

Kujawa recommends contractors have these things ready to go immediately. “If you don’t, then we found it is infinitely more difficult to get those things going with a trigger. For example, X-days after the next event we’ll get on this immediately, dive into it and get it done.”

However, Kujawa cautions contractors on allotting too much time for what he terms as a “winter campaign” – or a complete inspection and overhaul of the company’s equipment. “We learned this was really a cost-intensive time suck,” he says. “Up north in the snow states, part of this is to keep people busy and employed during the winter, but if you have a good preventative maintenance plan in place throughout the season, then you don’t need such an extensive offseason plan.

“There are better and more productive things for your workers to be involved in – whether it’s more training or working on increasing efficiencies during this downtime,” he says. “Now, I’m not saying not to do [an equipment maintenance overhaul], but you need to be really conscious of the time and resources going into it.”

Lastly, Kujawa stresses the importance of having a handle on your benchmarks and what you’re expenses are in the event you need to place Plan A, Plan B or Plan C into action as a result of a poor winter or an extended amount of downtime. “This involves really thinking about what your spending money on and what discretionary spending you can do away with to get through lean times,” he says. “For example, every company has different things – perks – that they may provide employees or the company, like stocking the fridge with soda. When no cash is coming in, do you really need to keep doing this?”

When considering cutbacks, be mindful of your staff, Kujawa adds. “We found laying off or furloughing employees or workers was our last resort,” he says. “That’s why snow and ice management contractors want a clear line of other things you can do away with and leave letting go of people as the final option.

“Remember, if you have a good culture people will be willing to work together to find the right answers,” Kujawa says.

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