October 3, 2020

Building snow clients for life


Mark Bradley It’s certainly been a year of uncertainty, but for most contractors, it’s also been a year of surprising success! Most contractors I’ve spoken with are either even or up over last year — which is a huge surprise given that our day-to-day lives were turned upside down this spring.

So let’s take some time to reflect on that theme, and out of the uncertainty and risk that is the snow and ice industry, examine how to eliminate some uncertainty and build customers for life — using some simple and common-sense approaches to running a successful snow and ice operation.

Customers for life: Pre-sale

Building customers for life should start even before your prospects become customers. The process begins by:
  • Understanding your clients have needs and wants, but they are not experts.
  • Creating solutions for customers that balance their needs and wants with best practices.
  • Educating customers about our industry and the work to be performed.
  • Communicating your expertise in a way that differentiates you and your company from competitors.

Let’s look at how this applies in the snow and ice industry. Your clients don’t really want to pay you to push snow around their lot. It’s what we do, but the real purpose is to ensure that their lots and residences are safe to walk and drive on, that they can get to work on time and safely, and they can be open for business, etc.

A good sales process will convince the customer that we understand the reasons why it’s important to manage snow and ice. You will build strong alignment with your prospects simply by showing them you understand their goals, and not just the work at hand.

Starting this process is simpler than it might seem. Think of all the problems you had plowing snow for customers in the past. These are the things that frustrate customers. Now talk to how you’re going to mitigate those problems. For example:
  • Discuss the ‘trigger’ for servicing the site. Ask questions. If you’re expected to plow when accumulations reach five cm or more, do they want you to leave your shop once accumulations hit that mark, or do they want you onsite by the time events hit that accumulation?
  • Agree on a weather service ahead of time, so there is no disputing forecasts or depths.
  • Discuss ‘ongoing events’ that happen during critical business hours and how you are going to handle them. Identify critical areas for plowing during these ongoing events so you can keep those open until you have time to do a full clean up.
  • Identify and ask about site hazards or important safety locations.
  • Discuss where snow is going to get piled, make recommendations (if necessary) and discuss the process for removals and relocations if required.
  • Take pictures of the site and scope of work to document pre-existing conditions or damage.

This process has so many advantages. It positions you as an expert — you’re demonstrating that you understand the risks and pitfalls of this work — and you’re collaboratively working on solutions or risk mitigation to reduce the risk of in-season customer conflicts.  It’s an important step to building customers for life, as you align your interests with your clients’ interests and set yourself up to avoid unpleasant conversations or experiences later in the season.

Customers for life: In-season communication

Once the season begins, communication is the most important part of continuing the selling process. It ensures you stay in front of your customers, stay accountable, transparent, and most of all reliable — even when things don’t go exactly as planned.  Prior to weather events, send out alerts to your customers to let them know the forecast. Share your expected execution plan and/or what you’re monitoring.

Trying to manage a snow and ice event while taking tens (or hundreds!) of phone calls can be the single most frustrating thing about snow and ice. Collecting information from field staff and relaying it to customers, especially in the middle of the night, is a daunting task!

Mitigate this frustration by being proactive and keeping customers up-to-date. Technology can play a vital role here. You can communicate with customers in real-time, without investing any time to do it.  

Using apps, our field staff tracked time spent on sites, work performed, notes, weather and even photos.  Some of that information (we choose what to share) was relayed directly to the customer, live, so they didn’t need to call our office, but most importantly, they didn’t need to worry.

We reduced incoming phone calls by 70 per cent and our client retention grew every year we used the technology. Clients got used to our level of service and transparency, and simply wouldn’t settle for less in the future.  

Not only that, service documentation was better, and future pricing negotiations were much easier, since both parties were precisely aware exactly what it took to service their property to their expectations. In subsequent years, we shared in the process of developing a scope of work that would best meet the client’s expectations and budget. Best of all, with the data they had in hand, they trusted us with that process.

Customers for life: Post-event communication

Increasing technology and communication within our snow and ice business not only increased our efficiency and improved customer relations, it drove significant post-event benefits as well.

We were paid faster. Since information had been relayed to the customers as-it-happened, there were fewer questions about invoices. And since the invoices were driven using the same information in the reports they had viewed, there was little-to-no concern of billing inaccuracies — a far cry from the old days where we manually fought for weeks to reconcile custom contracts, billing triggers, reading staff paperwork, and double- and triple-checking invoices to ensure they were correct. Our clients got used to, and trusted, the accuracy of our reports and our billing.

The photos, GPS co-ordinates and digitally timestamped records proved that we delivered on our pre-sale promises. We were all in a better position to defend ourselves from legal action, but most importantly, we became known as the contractor who does what they say they were going to do. And when we didn’t (hey, equipment still breaks and staff still fail to show up!), conversations were easier because of our previous reputation.

But the biggest advantage of all was that we evolved clients’ expectations of their snow and ice contractor. We were no longer just another truck, pushing snow and dropping salt. We delivered an unexpected level of service that reset the clients’ expectations. Next year, and for years after, it was that much easier to retain our customers since:
  • We proactively planned a scope of work that addressed their true goals.
  • We delivered on that scope of work.
  • We documented and verified the delivery of work in a manner that was consistent, convenient, and trustworthy.

And when you’re not losing clients out the back door, it becomes that much easier to plan and grow a successful snow operation. Dedication to customer communication changed our snow business for the better. I know it can and will do the same for yours. 
Mark Bradley is CEO of LMN and the former CEO of TBG Environmental, both based in Ontario.