Avoidable conflicts

Prepare to address some common client sticking points before the snow season starts.

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October 21, 2020

Identifying and addressing problem areas with clients is best done before the first flakes begin to form. During a winter snow event, a snow contractor’s job is to establish safe pavement in a timely fashion. If this is the case, then why are so many snow fighters managing client dissatisfaction when they should be managing snow events? Here are a few common contractor-client trouble points and some proven strategies to address them before winter sets in.

Poor Communication.

One overlooked aspect of preseason planning is the development of a clear and concise communication strategy with property owners and managers.

Begin by placing yourself in the client’s shoes for a moment. Understand how the facility will be used during the winter months and use this to role-play various problems your team could face while executing snow and ice management services throughout the winter. Then talk through these various hypothetical scenarios with the client and educate them on your plan to approach each event. Having the inside scoop on how you will address various winter realities goes a long way in developing and meeting client expectations.

For example, one of the biggest client complaints we deal with – and I imagine we’re not alone in addressing this – is “You weren’t here on time!” The property was supposed to be cleared by 7 a.m., but the event didn’t start accumulating snow until 5 a.m. – an hour before the first businesses are scheduled to open.

We rely on meteorologists (a third-party service) to provide the data for us to make informed decisions. But this data – in particular, anticipated start and finish times – should also be shared with clients. We then follow up with ongoing communications updating the client on the event’s weather pattern and the ancillary issues that may complicate an accurate start time, such as rush-hour traffic, lunchtime or even a shift change at the property. This ongoing communication won’t eliminate the problems, but they reduce the amount of back-and-forth conversations you’ll have to have with the client.

It’s important to educate customers that the time to question service and its execution is not while you’re working an event and ensuring the site’s safety, but rather before and after the event.

Establishing The Wrong Expectations.

You could almost call this one Communication 2.0.

Here’s a familiar scenario: You’re selling a client on a snow and ice management strategy, but you’re not digging deep enough in your discussion. So, what you believe is important actually doesn’t mesh with what’s important to the client. This disconnect later creates frustrations between the contractor and the client, and it all could have been avoided with a more candid conversation before the terms of the agreement were finalized.

Without a doubt, this is a complex area to troubleshoot because a client’s needs and a contractor’s experience and know-how often are so varied and diverse and it’s difficult to successfully match up the two. To address this, start by focusing your snow operation on three or four basic types of properties or winter service contracts that your team excels at executing. For example, maybe it’s retail and medical facilities. Or it can be gas stations, fast food restaurants and strip malls. Or maybe you excel at the intricacies of managing apartment complexes and homeowner associations (HOAs).

The point is, don’t work for just any client. Instead, narrow down your property types and excel at selling and servicing those particular clients. And get used to saying “no” to snow work if it doesn’t match your particular expertise or you don’t have the proper equipment and manpower to handle the job’s logistics. So, from a product knowledge standpoint, you can have those deep conversations that align your specific service offerings with client needs and alleviate potential in-season problems and frustrations.

Over and Under Servicing.

Even with the best meteorological input, Mother Nature sometimes chooses not to cooperate.

As a result, you go out and pretreat with rock salt or an ice-melt product only to have weather patterns change. Or, you have an inch and a quarter of snow on the ground, and you overzealously send trucks to start plowing, and the snow abruptly stops falling and the sun comes out.

Then the client calls demanding to know why you were out and serviced outside the contract’s trigger points. Sometimes the best answer is to say, “Yes, we over serviced your property, but we made the best decision we could with the information we had at the time to ensure your customers’ and laborers’ safety.”

The same goes for underservicing scenarios, as well. For example, there are times when you believe, based on the available data and science, that a snow event won’t happen. Then, conditions rapidly shift, the mercury dips, and you suddenly have three inches of snow on the ground but idle plow trucks.

Consider adopting the “Sundown Rule.” Originally coined by Wal-Mart’s Sam Walton, the principle is based on the old adage, “Why put off until tomorrow what you can do today?” It means addressing client questions, requests or problems by day’s end rather than putting them off until later.

To facilitate the Sundown Rule, create an internal set of issue-resolving processes and procedures that everyone in your organization can follow to track, manage and document incoming client issues from the cradle to the grave. As a leader, monitor this issue-resolution system routinely throughout the day and, at the very least, first thing in the morning and right before you leave for the day. The bottom line is if there’s an issue, then you deal with it that day, even if it means just having a frank conversation with the client about what happened with the weather, why you may have over or under serviced, or how you plan to rectify an issue on the property within the next day or two.

Remember, most customers don’t expect you to be perfect. They just expect you to address issues when they happen and resolve them in a timely fashion.

Jerry Schill is the president of Schill Grounds Management in North Ridgeville, Ohio.