photos courtesy of Divisions inc.

Failure is said to make a great teacher. But let’s be clear, no one wants the lesson to break your business. When a major storm hits a low-snow market, there is little by way of experience for area contractors to reference, to ensure customer’s lots are properly serviced. For example, consider Winter Storm Benji in 2017 or Winter Storm Jonas in 2016, when more than 40 inches of snow fell in Virginia, which averages 12 inches of snow each year.

It may help contractors in low-snow markets to hear the lessons learned in blizzard conditions by a national maintenance provider, one which services regions accustomed to large accumulations. In our experience, even with a broad reach for equipment and materials outside the storm’s path, if you don’t take these certain measures long before the first flake falls, your customer service could collapse:

First Things First: Determine Your Bandwidth

Create zones for the city/county/state by drawing a circle around the area and bisecting north to south, east to west. Each of the four zones (or more in larger markets) should contain properties you service. Adjust the lines if need be to account for salt depots, then assign operators based on zone to prevent them from covering the same ground twice.

It’s important that you don’t overload your operators beyond their capabilities:

  • Verify the type of equipment being used.
  • One truck equipped with an 8-foot blade can plow 35,000 to 40,000 square feet of 3-inch snow per hour without obstructions. If the property is 300,000 square feet, then you need two pieces of equipment running at the same time to complete the lot in three hours. Using this model, you can determine the number of operators needed.
  • Watch the forecast closely. Two or more inches per hour for four or more hours requires additional resources. The goal: have clean surfaces five to six hours after the storm has concluded.
  • If your area is forecast to receive 50 percent or more of your seasonal snow average in a single event, line up outside help (equipment and operators) for your local crews. You should know 48 hours ahead of time that a major event is possible.
  • Lastly, know if your operator is servicing other accounts for other contractors. You need to keep your allocation model as accurate as possible.
  • In’s and Out’s

    If you don’t have one already, you need to establish a method of determining when the crew arrived on site and when they pulled off site. There are several different methods that vary from GPS tracking to a simple written log. Despite the frenzy, or maybe because of it, it’s important to keep these records, not only is it an industry standard for proper billing and risk mitigation (you’ll hit too many sites to remember later), but to help you during the event to recalculate the time it will take to get to the many jobs that follow.

    Communication

    Timing and telling the customer when you’ll be there is of huge importance. Everyone understands in a major snow event there will be delays. Customers do not understand being left out of the loop. Winter Storm Jonas confirmed for us that frequent contact with the client is as important to our business as removing the snow. Our maintenance company proactively calls all tenants before and during a major event, giving them a single point of contact and diverting their questions from field teams so work can be completed without distraction.

    During Jonas, conference calls took place every three hours for the first two days so managers could adequately assess where to dispatch resources and personnel. Updating customers periodically on progress reassures them that their property is important to you and significantly reduces the stress associated with a catastrophic winter weather event.

    For example, consider Jonas as catastrophic. Sixty-five people died. Governors of 11 states declared states of emergency when blizzard warnings were issued, in some cases two days before the snow began to fall. If you take anything away from Jonas, it should be this: two days is not enough time to prep for crippling conditions. The site and communications plans and clear directions for your operators, established well in advance of snow season, will keep your business on track.

    People

    Locating snow and ice management operators outside your region who can be counted on to respond to big-weather events is another critical asset to organize both in the preseason and prior to a major event. There’s little you can do when all of your resources are buried in snow. As Jonas arrived, our company gathered forces from Tennessee, Ohio and Indiana to transport 65 tons of salt, 16 bobcats, six backhoes and two front-end loaders before access to the Eastern Seaboard was cut off. Our teams even helped a few municipal plows that were stuck.

    In the end, we were able to service our 300 snow-bound accounts properly. Several property owners who were not our customers called in a panic seeking assistance. In some cases, we were able to help. In all cases, our teams got businesses open two days ahead of their competition, without incurring any additional costs.

    Flexibility

    My last piece of advice about managing the mayhem of heavy snow in low snow markets: be flexible. While the plans I’ve detailed seem anything but, you know ultimately that conditions and needs change like the winter wind. Use your prior planning to help your customers avoid lost revenue, but never forget that the greater disaster is the potential for lost lives. That cost is incalculable. At our company the first basic principle is this: ‘Profit is expendable, reputation is not. We act accordingly.”

    Bryan Hughes is a Regional Manager at Divisions Maintenance Group, a leading provider of integrated facility services.