While the type of winter will vary, demanding clients are a constant.
Last year’s harsh winter affected most of the country, and no one felt it more than snow removal companies. Customer demands were at an all time high, resources were limited and snow removal companies were stretched to their limits.
Ensuring customer satisfaction is a priority, and managing customer expectations without losing clients is a fine balance.
Many of Tom Canete’s clients are large scale, including malls and a 24-hour hotel. With those types of clients come substantial expectations. He’s found that a surefire way to keep customers happy is to plan ahead.
Canete, owner of Canete Snow Management in Wayne, N.J., was one of the only snow contractors in his area to have a supply of salt after a 13-inch blizzard slammed his area just before the Super Bowl this past winter. And that was a good thing because one of his clients is MetLife Stadium, the playing field for last year’s big game. Canete says he contracted with an out-of-state company for salt and keeps it in a storage facility.
Even though he had to pay a marked-up price, the money spent was well worth it. “No one could get salt, but I got it. I take care of my salt vendors quickly,” Canete says. That, in turn, translates into happy customers. “You have possible slip and falls if you run out of salt. That’s a bad situation,” he says.
Every so often, if a client has unreasonable expectations or demands, a snow contractor might have to cut someone loose. Canete is considering not renewing with a condo complex that is very difficult to plow as cars never seem to move out of the parking lot, and a lot of refreeze affects the area due to the lack of sun. However, if Canete were ever forced to do so, he’d wait until the end of the season rather than leaving a customer in a jam. To keep clients happy year-round and make sure everyone’s expectations are on the same page, Canete conducts an in-person wrap-up at the end of the season, going over any issues that may have occurred and, with any luck, renewing the following season’s contract.
In the contract.
After the severe winter, contractors may be wondering if clients will want to change the terms of their contracts. “I think a lot more people may be going seasonal versus per event/push,” Canete says.
In 25 years of business, this was the first time that Mark Mazzurco had to plow snow in October. The clients at Mark Mazzurco’s $5 million company, H & M Snow Pros in the Cleveland area, are about 95 percent commercial. Because of the bitter winter, Mazzurco believes his customer’s loyalty became even stronger as their eyes were opened up to the real meaning of quality service. For example, clients who may have previously complained of residual slush in their parking lots realized that a little slush was okay when their neighboring businesses were buried in snow.
He says the harsh winter thinned out a lot of his competition. “By January, we had several of our old accounts back that we had lost to other vendors. It will cleanse out a lot of people who aren’t qualified to do this type of work,” he says.
That doesn’t mean that Mazzurco will honor every request that comes his way. “I’ve absolutely said ‘no’ to clients before, if something is not included in their contract. I have to take the safety of my staff into consideration,” he says. “That’s when you know who has realistic expectations. If your explanation has logic to it, and they don’t accept it, you’re not dealing with someone who is reasonable.”
Wins and losses.
Jim Plona is the vice president of sales at Snow Plus, a snow and ice management company that posted more than $14 million in revenue last year in Carol Stream, Ill., near Chicago. The company deals with many property management companies, and the winter was one of the worst on record with more than 80 inches of snow recorded.
Plona says all of his customers have different needs and demands, ranging from zero-tolerance clients to those who request service after two inches have fallen. But whether the severe winter will affect contract terms in the future remains to be seen.
“I’ll write contracts all different ways, per push, seasonal, fixed rate for the winter. It’s a gamble. Some winters I’ll win and some winters you’ll win. Our goal is to create a long-term relationship, and seasons will all balance out over that time,” says Plona.
“Everybody was pretty much double budget because we had double winter,” he says. Some customers are escrowing funds to pay for next season’s services since many went so far over budget.
Even though they have clauses in their contracts that spell out expectations during blizzard conditions, Plona’s company tries never to refuse any customer requests.
“We try not to tell anyone ‘no.’ We understand our customers and their side of the coin as well,” he says. “We don’t really get requests that are undeniable, though we get a lot of service requests to do things above and beyond what our contract is.” Some examples included digging out customers’ trucks and doing service checks inside buildings, pushing water off parking lots prior to it freezing, and even scraping out railroad tracks.
But those extras go a long way in retaining customer loyalty. However, once in a while a relationship doesn’t work out. If so, Snow Plus will give the customer a 30-day cancellation notice, but will keep working with them until they’ve found another contractor.
Perhaps the golden ticket in managing customer expectations, all contractors interviewed agreed, is communication and being open and up front about what can and can’t be reasonably accomplished. “We are always available around the clock. During a storm, we are here 24/7 if a customer has an issue or question,” Canete says. He advises other snow contractors to be proactive, and if there are any issues, make a report immediately, even before a client calls you.
“I have inspectors whose job is to make sure the guys plowing parking lots are doing the right jobs. It’s a free service to the client. That’s why our slip and falls are so minimal. We are all over it,” he adds.
Canete says his company implemented a four-level storm action plan so it’s prepared to meet customer expectations, and employees have mandatory training to make sure everyone is refreshed about job duties. Mazzurco’s general advice on managing clients’ expectations is to make sure you have a knowledgeable staff. “If someone asks a question, you need an experienced staff member to answer with confidence,” he says.
The author is a freelance writer based in Pittsburgh.