Snow and ice removal is an unforgiving business, with tough hours, difficult working conditions and tight margins.
Snow professionals are used to having to deal with variables with each snow event and responding to each threat correctly with a focus on getting a clean surface. But even though contractors and commercial clients have the same overall goal, it’s tough to tell what exactly a client wants.
But we have the secrets straight from the source, and it didn’t take interrogations with bright lamps.
We heard from Jim McClarnon, site manager for Glen Oaks Gated Community, as well as other homeowner alliances, in West Des Moines, Iowa; and Krista Hermes, assistant operations manager for Crocker Park, a commercial work-live complex with high-end retail and residential, in Cleveland. Here are their answers on service, straight from our top-secret files.
What’s the hiring process like for you?
Jim McClarnon: I am much more relationship-minded and most of my vendor activities are somehow all founded in referrals. It’s not very easy for somebody to cold-call me. If they don’t have a referral, I really won’t give them the time of day. A contractor has to somehow find a common relationship and work through that door rather than just ringing the front doorbell.
I need to be able to get on a good footing with top management or ownership with the company. I need to be able to go to dinner or socialize with these people. That way I feel comfortable if the vendor feels comfortable with me and feels a desire to get it right because there’s more on the line than just a contract.
Krista Hermes: I have so many contractors who work on this site who have a plan in place based on other shopping centers. Unfortunately, the design of Crocker Park does not function in the same way. We have hundreds of tenants and residents who we have to service, and we’ve created a zero-tolerance policy which our customers have come to expect. We have to make sure that the property is safe. I’ve had so many contractors think they’re in charge of every aspect, and it just falls apart.
What about planning for events?
KH: (Our contractors) are calling me constantly, always pushing in that direction from bidding to lining up all the equipment, material and staff. They do pre-walkthroughs with all their subcontractors on site, and do trial runs on site to make sure their entire staff is familiar before snow falls. We don’t know exactly how the event is going to go, but they’ve taken a very proactive approach to handling it. I know who I’m to contact to get started.
They present to me all the subcontractors they’re going to use prior to having them come on site. There’s an approval process of subcontractors and machines. We have a noise ordinance here, and they try to be as respectful as possible. We give them a list of the equipment we think is necessary and they give their advice and suggestions.
JM: We do a preseason drive-through, looking for sensitive areas, where to pile the snow and, more importantly, where not to pile it. We mark the fire hydrant locations. We talk about what constitutes an event and who’s going to communicate with whom.
When we first brought our snow contractor on, I wanted to know, where would I be in the pecking order. That was very important to me. We have some 400 residences in the community. I can’t show up at 10 a.m. when it snows and have us be the last on the list. It was their commitment to me that they’d be there for me first. When there’s a big storm, we still get serviced immediately.
I don’t care about your other accounts. All I care about is serving my customers and all of the members and residents of the community.
What’s the optimal way for them to start a response?
KH: Our contractors are required to monitor the site. They have to call me at the beginning of every event to let me know they’re on site, and call me after the event before they leave so I can review the work, so they’re not halfway back if I have a problem with it. But they know what I expect at this point. We always communicate about the event, whether it’s a phone call or a text.
JM: It’s always been communication before the storm event and during the storm event. When we look at the forecast, we’ll say, “Here’s what I’m seeing. Are you seeing the same thing?”
You never really know what the weather’s going to be like. But I’ll make the call, or send a text to two guys, just to make sure one of them gets it. A couple minutes later, I get a “Will do,” response. It’s very simple. I never have to chase anybody down.
What about when there’s a concern over service?
JM: Errors will be made and equipment will break down. I know that, and I don’t expect perfection. But I do expect, when issues arise, management will take them seriously. If there are issues, to me, that’s what sets their company really apart from the others.
KH: We use both of our best judgments. But if it’s Black Friday or if it’s the day before Christmas, regardless of what they feel is going to happen, I have to overstep and say, “I’m sorry, you’re going to have to service this because this is the biggest shopping day of the year.” And they’ll say, “Can you just wait 20 minutes for the ice melter to start working? We’ll stand by and call you back and let you know what we’re seeing.” I feel comfortable with their decision-making process because I’ve been working with them long enough.
It’s good to have that level of communication and trust that we’ve instilled in each other’s decisions to help us progress as a team. And they can tell you, I’m pretty tough.
We’ve definitely crafted that relationship. Sometimes you might not agree with me, and sometimes I might not agree with you. But we’ve been able to work it out so both of us are typically happy at the end of the day, regardless of how they had to do a little bit of extra work.
I get a little nervous in the evenings, since I can’t be there physically to see it coming down, and I’m getting calls from tenants about how it’s not clear yet. I can be demanding with the service, but we try to work together with some understanding that they’re not always going to be happy right away with what I decide.
Sometimes I don’t always make decisions the contractors favor, but I’m always trying to have the best intention for the tenant, the property and the contractor.
How about after the event?
KH: We have a standard snow log that’s required for them to fill out. It lists every single employee that’s there and what piece of equipment they were operating. I can always refer back to that log when we have slip-and-falls. They’re very precise in getting all that information to me. Then I review the log and sign. There’s a paper trail for everything.
JM: I’ll take a look and see what I think. Usually after the event is over, we’ll talk and they’ll try to confirm with me whether I’m satisfied.
Is there anything you prefer when it comes to billing?
KH: They’ve suggested budgeting for additional dollars. We want to know what we’re spending from the get-go and we don’t want it to change. We cannot measure how much money we’re going to spend in these five months without knowing from the start what it’s going to cost.
JM: To be honest, it’s easy to forget about a storm on the second day of the month when you’re being billed at the end of the month.
We’re getting billed semi-monthly now, making it a little bit easier to go back through the bills and go over the individual storm events.
We have a print out from the weather service showing the precipitation from those times. You can look at the bill and correlate it to the storm.
What don’t contractors realize about your end of the job?
KH: I have so many people that are watching the staff, and nobody understands what’s in the contract, what the contractors are there to do. I’ve got so many people watching out their windows and calling me, seeing the employees. If they have a uniform on, you’ve got to be presentable and make good decisions.
The author is editor of Green Industry Supply Chain Management.