Wednesday, January 28, 2015

10 Proven Tips to Handle Customer Complaints

Dealing with a dissatisfied, disgruntled, impossible-to-please, irrational, and/or irate customer isn't
anyone's idea of a good time. Often, customer service providers seek to bring the interaction to a close as quickly as possible, even if it ends on a sour note. It's worth your time and emotional energy to put a little more effort into turning what the customer perceives as a "wrong" into a "right." Handled sensitively, complaints can be a catalyst for improving customer satisfaction and even capturing new business.

It's a foregone conclusion that despite your best efforts, some of your customers will be dissatisfied from time to time. You have two choices. One, treat the complaining customer like he's a pain in the neck. Or two, appreciate each complaining customer and use the complaint as an opportunity to improve.

One complaining customer actually represents many other customers who had the same problem, but who didn't complain. (They just badmouthed your company to their friends—or to the entire Internet—and took their business elsewhere.)

By using a customer complaint to uplift your service, you not only transform that shopper's experience from a negative one to a positive one; you turn him or her into an evangelist for your organization. Furthermore, you gain valuable insight into what many other customers think about your organization, and most importantly, how you can improve your service.

1.  Thank them for their complaint
Give positive recognition by saying, right off the bat, "Thank you for reaching out to let us know how we can improve."  Show appreciation for the complaining customer's time, effort, communication, feedback, and suggestions. Always keep in mind that the customer didn't have to come to you at all. He could have simply taken his business to your competitor. When a customer gives you the opportunity to recover their service, be grateful.

2.  Don't be defensive
It's easy to get defensive when an angry customer is on the other end of the line. Customers with complaints exaggerate situations, they get confused, and yes, they may even lie about how things went down. It's tempting to just say, "No! That's not what happened. You're wrong!" But getting defensive will lead only to more problems.

When you get defensive, you raise the temperature even higher. Think about the last time you had a disagreement with your spouse. How did it make you feel when he or she told you that you were wrong about something or completely denied that a set of events happened the way you said they happened? Probably not very happy. When a customer complains, they're doing so because they feel wronged in some way. You don't have to agree with what they're saying. But you do have to agree to hear them out. That's how you keep the conversation moving in a positive direction.

3.  Acknowledge what's important to them
Service providers must find a complaining customer's value dimension (or what's important to them). Even if you think the customer's complaint is unfair, there is something they value that your company didn't deliver on. Embrace that value.

What the customer wants is to feel right. When you agree with their value dimension, you're telling them they are right to value this specific thing. For example, if a customer says your service was slow, then that customer values speed. You might say, "Absolutely, you deserve quick, efficient service." Or if a customer says your staff was rude, you might say, "We do agree that you should be treated with courtesy and respect every time you come to our store."

When you validate what a customer values, you aren't agreeing with them that your service is slow or that your staff is rude. You're saying, "We agree with you on what you find important and what you value. And we want to deliver in those areas."

4.  Use judo, not boxing 
In boxing, you go right after your opponent, trying to punch him to the ground. In judo, you work with someone else's motions to create a desired result. You use another person's speed and energy to spin him around and then end up together on the same side.

When you show a customer you understand what they value, you're catching them off guard with your own movement. They don't expect you to tell them that they're right. Suddenly, just as you might do in judo, you've avoided a defensive confrontation and you can spin them. In judo, you'd spin them to the ground. In customer service, you use the opportunity to show the customer that you're now both on the same side and you can work together.

5.  Explain the company's desire to improve
When you understand what the customer values, show them things your company does that helps you perform well in that area. For example, let's say a customer is complaining because a package was delivered a day late. You would say, "We understand that quick, on-time delivery is important to our customers."

Now the unhappy customer will probably say, "But you failed in my case! My package was a day late." Then, you should calmly say, "Here's what happened. On that day there was a storm that slowed our service. I'd like to reassure you that we are working right now to find a better solution. In fact, we've recently invested $1.7 million in a fleet upgrade that will allow us to better navigate inclement weather and keep our deliveries coming to you on time."

Show you are sincere about your commitment to do well in the areas the customer values. At the very least, you can say, 'I'm going to make sure everyone in the company hears your story. We don't want this to happen again.' When you express the company's desire to improve, you start on the path to rebuilding its credibility with the customer.

6.  Educate your customer
Part of hearing the customer out is answering any questions they ask about their specific situation. Provide additional, useful information. "If they ask a question that you can't answer or don't know the answer to, tell them you'll find out the answer and get back to them. And then actually follow through. Contact the customer with the answers they requested. And even if they might not have requested an update about their situation, get back in touch with them with one anyway. These are additional opportunities for you to say through your actions, "We care about you. We value your business."

7.  Contain the problem
Let's say a family is shopping in a crowded, busy department store. The youngest child in the group starts to have an all-out meltdown. Suddenly, a staff member sweeps onto the scene and whisks the family into a special room. Inside, they find bottles of water, snacks, and a comfortable sitting area, etc. The only thing missing in the room is any connection to the store's brand. That's because this room is used to isolate customers from the brand until they're all—parents and children—having a more pleasurable experience. The room is also being used to isolate the unhappy family from the families outside the room who are having a more pleasant shopping experience. And finally, they're being isolated from some staff members who may not be as well prepared to handle these sticky situations.

That's just one example of how you contain a problem. What if the issue isn't a public disruption, but a problem you want to contain before it becomes a public relations disaster? You might instruct your service providers to say something like, "No matter what our rules or policies are, we see that your circumstance requires flexibility. We want to handle your special situation carefully. Let's work together to figure out what's best. But first, let me thank you for reaching out." Remember, whatever the situation is, your first order of business is to keep the problem from growing. Only then can you work on defusing it.

8.  Even if you can't help, apologize
Every service provider knows that the customer is not always right. And even when the customer has a point, it's not always within a service provider's power to completely rectify the situation. But the customer is always the customer, and you should apologize for the inconvenience they believe they've experienced.

For instance, a customer might ask for a retroactive discount on a product that went on sale shortly after the customer purchased it. However, company policy does not allow retroactive discounts. Your service provider might say, "Unfortunately, it's not our company's policy to give retroactive discounts. [Here, the employee could give a brief explanation of the policy and the reasoning behind it.] However, I understand why you're frustrated, and I apologize." This response shows understanding and empathy for the customer's discomfort, displeasure, or inconvenience. You might even give your customer service providers leeway to offer freebies or discounts to further defuse situations like these—more on that next.

9.  Recover
Show the customer you care about them, even if you feel the company did everything right, by making them an offer. Companies worry that they'll get taken advantage of if they give vouchers, discounts, or freebies as part of their service recovery, but the reality is that almost never happens.

Offer the customer something and then explain that you're doing so 'as a gesture of goodwill' or 'as a token of our appreciation. Sears takes recovery seriously. The company now has a "blue ribbon team" of specially educated and empowered staff to handle recoveries. Once an issue goes to them, anything they recommend is what gets done. They have full support from the top down. Sears does this because the company understands that a successfully recovered customer can become your most loyal advocate and ally.

10.  Give serial complainers an out
Some people just love to complain. These kinds of customers complain, not so that they can become satisfied, but because they are never satisfied. With serial complainers, you must limit your liability and isolate them from your brand.

These are the people who gripe that your company's free-with-purchase giveaway is too "cheap," for instance, or who personally attack employees for not doing what they want, even though the company policy has already been politely explained to them multiple times. Serial complainers are an especially strong drain on your employees, so it's important not to let them run roughshod over your customer service providers once they've proven that they don't want to be helped.

To handle serial complainers, keep your wits about you. Don't let their lack of manners bring your manners down. Don't let their bad mood infect yours. And in advance, work out with your colleagues when and how to support each other when a serial complainer shows up. Being served by you in tandem with a colleague or two will cause many serial complainers to back down or at least calm down. Finally, just before the complainer departs, let them know you are genuine about welcoming them back and wanting them to be happy. Most people—including serial complainers—will reflect on their behavior later in the day and feel awkward or even ashamed. You want their final memory of you to be powerful and positive.

Your customers are not your enemy. It's sometimes hard to remember that when you're involved in a tense complaint situation. But they're essential to your business and you really are both on the same side. Your customer wants the product or service you provide, and you want to give it to them. When you treat complaints as opportunities to build loyalty, you can create customers for life and uplift your entire company in the process.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Business-saving Records

Good record keeping will prevent you from doing this.
Documentation is essential for tax deductions but as many professional snow and ice removal contractors are all-too-well aware, books and records are also important in other areas. Selling the business, attracting partners or investors, getting a loan, or being audited by any of the many government agencies, cry out for backup.

Although our Federal income tax laws are not specific, requiring only that every snow removal business keep “complete and accurate records,” the decision of what records a business needs to keep is extremely important. The question of what records to retain, and for how long, usually begins with a good tax records strategy.

TAXING TAX RECORDS
It makes a great deal of sense to keep a copy of the snow removal operation’s tax returns permanently to help prepare future or amended returns. The IRS suggests that related records be retained until the “period of limitations” expires for that tax return.

The period of limitation is the time period from the filing date until the date which a return can be amended or the IRS legitimately pursue the snow removal business for additional taxes. Typically, the IRS can come after a business for failing to report income for up to 6 years after filing if the amount is greater than 25 percent of the operation’s gross income. If a deduction was claimed for a bad debt or worthless security, the IRS recommends retaining supporting tax records for 7 years.

A business with employees should retain all employment tax records for a minimum of 4 years according to the IRS. Employment tax records include such things as employer identification number, amounts and dates of wage payments and tax deposits as well as the names, addresses, social security numbers, dates of employment and occupations of employees.

If business property is involved, the IRS suggests retaining records until the period of limitations ends from the year the property was disposed of. These records will aid in calculating depreciation deductions and to determine any gain or loss on that property. If the business property involves real estate or a vehicle, the deed or vehicle title should be kept in a safe, secure spot until sold or otherwise disposed of.

WHEN THE IRS WANTS TO KNOW
When it comes to taxes, the most frequent reason an Internal Revenue Service auditor denies a tax deduction claimed by a snow removal or ice management business - or its owner/operator - is not because it is not allowed, but because the amount of the deduction cannot be substantiated. Although the government is reducing the need to keep records of income thanks to a mandate that credit card companies must now report all transactions to merchants - and the IRS - adequate documentation substantiating deductions is still extremely important.

With expenditures, ideally every snow removal contractor should have a canceled check and an invoice marked “paid” for any item purchased. A canceled check without an invoice or other document showing the item purchased could be a problem. Fortunately, as today many checks are not returned by the bank, the IRS will accept check images.

While an invoice is usually required to show what was purchased, statements from a supplier may be substituted -- but only if they show the item. Best advice, save all invoices and don’t assume the IRS will accept a check written without an accompanying invoice.

What about payments to independent contractors? Even for small jobs the snow and ice removal business should have an invoice. What’s more, the independent contractor should receive a Form

While there is no requirement to keep receipts for any expense of less than $75, it is necessary to record all information about the expense; how much, to whom payment was made and what type of expense it was, the date paid, etc. Another good strategy: Keep a record of every deposit made to all bank accounts. Record all money coming in, whether taxable or not. At a minimum, note in the check

THE PERSONAL SIDE OF RECORDS
Although it is common and convenient to use a business check or credit card to purchase personal items, it should be kept in mind that one misclassified expense deduction may increase scrutiny of all business expenses. Above all, avoid checks made out to cash. The larger the amount, the more they should be avoided. If unavoidable, always indicate on the check what the purchase was for. This is one time when an invoice can be critical.

It is not unusual for an employee to purchase office supplies, small equipment, shop supplies, etc. Records are especially critical when it comes to an employee/shareholder paying company expenses out of their own pocket.

If these situations cannot be avoided, the correct procedure is to have the employee file an expense report and attach the documentation. The snow removal business should then cut the employee a check for the amount documented.

Without the expense report the snow removal business can’t take the deduction because it didn’t pay for the item; the employee/owner can’t take the deduction because it is not a valid deduction.

Today if there is no receipt or proof of payment the courts - not the IRS - may allow the deduction based on an estimate. But there has to be some basis on which the court can make an estimate.

RECORDKEEPING IN OUR ELECTRONIC AGE
As more and more snow removal contractors are turning to their computers to keep track of financial matters, the IRS continues to expand programs for electronic filing of tax returns. Taxpayers with assets of $10 million or more at the end of their tax year are required to comply with the retention requirements for “machine sensible records.” A machine sensible record is data in an electronic format intended for use by a computer.

Fortunately, a snow removal business with assets of less than $10 million must comply with the record retention requirements for machine sensible records only in a few rare situations. Unfortunately, keeping electronic records doesn’t relieve taxpayers of their responsibility to retain hardcopy records that are created or received in the ordinary course of business. Hardcopy records may be retained in microfiche or microfilm format. The IRS has also approved scanning to relieve the need to keep original documents.

HOLDING ON TO RECORDS
In general, the rule of thumb is that canceled checks and other documents should be held for 3 years. Technically, it is 3 years from the date the tax return was filed. If the IRS suspects that income was under-reported, they can go back 6 years. If it believes fraud is present, there is no time-limit.
For assets such as autos, equipment, etc., documentation should be retained for at least 3 years after the asset is disposed of. Longer retention periods can apply to employment records. Ideally, using a 7-year holding period for most records should be considered.

Obviously, no record should be disposed of simply because it is no longer needed for tax purposes. Those records should be retained until the contractor checks to see if they must be kept longer for other purposes. Insurance companies and creditors for example, may require some records to be kept longer than the IRS does.

Consulting with an attorney or tax professional can help guide a snow removal business to a legal and tax compliant record keeping policy. To avoid identity theft and to protect sensitive business information, all business records should be disposed of properly or shredded.
register the source of each deposit.
1099-MISC, Miscellaneous Income. Without a Form 1099, the deduction could be lost and the business fined.

RECORD KEEPING DISASTERS
It is not only the IRS that warns everyone to safeguard themselves against natural disasters by keeping a set of backup records in a safe place. Naturally, the backup should be stored away from the original set of records.

Keeping a backup set of records -- including bank statements, tax returns, insurance policies, etc. -- is far easier today with many financial institutions providing statements and documents electronically and much financial information is readily available on the Internet. Even if records exist only on paper, they can be scanned into an electronic format. With documents in electronic form, every snow contractor can download them to a backup storage device, such as an external hard drive, or burn them to a CD or DVD.

A BENEFICIAL HEADACHE
Records and record keeping can take a variety of forms and shapes. Remember however, records are not only about making the IRS happy. They also play an important role in managing every snow business to profitability and success. How, after all, can any contractor monitor the progress of his or her snow and ice removal business and guide it to increased profits and success?

A snow business that has kept either inadequate or no books or records, the IRS has authority to compute the operation’s income. The methods used by the IRS for reconstructing income vary depending on the facts and circumstances, but are rarely favorable to the errant taxpayer.

Mark Battersby is an Ardmore, Pa.-based financial writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

9 Work Habits to Avoid


Don't be this guy.
There is no better time than the present to expunge work habits that irritate coworkers and make you less effective. Achieving success requires more than just doing the right thing. Success also means changing the behaviors that hold you back.

Here are nine habits you can do without.

1. Doing the bare minimum.
If you accept a task, you owe it to yourself and to others to make your best effort. If you don't want to do something, have the courage to refuse the task. Doing a half-assed job is just being passive-aggressive.

2. Telling half-truths.
Honesty is the best policy. However, if you're afraid to speak the truth, it's cowardice to tell a half-truth that's intended to mislead but leaves you "plausible deniability." Either tell the whole truth or tell a real lie—and accept the consequences if you're found out.

3. Finger-pointing.
Few human behaviors are more pointless than fixing blame. In business, it's usually irrelevant who's at fault when something goes wrong. What's important is how to avoid making the same mistakes again.

4. Bucking accountability.
Finger-pointing is common in business because some people aren't willing to admit their mistakes. If you're going to take credit for your accomplishments, you must also take credit for your failures. The two go hand in hand.

5. Hating on successful people.
When you direct your hate at success, you're telling yourself that being successful means being hated. Since nobody in their right mind wants to be hated, you'll subconsciously sabotage yourself so that people will continue to like you.

6. Schadenfreude.
Taking a secret pleasure in the failures of others makes your own success less likely. You end up gloating over what other people did wrong, rather than doing whatever it takes to make yourself more successful.

7. Workplace gossip.
As Eleanor Roosevelt said, "Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people." When you spread gossip, you're identifying yourself as small-minded and also showing that you can't be trusted to keep secrets.

8. Creating your own stress.
While work may be stressful, you make it worse when you fail to disconnect on a regular basis. Rather than answer yet another email, take a walk, read a book, or listen to some music. Turn off your phone when you go to bed; whatever it is, it can wait.

9. Giving or accepting flattery.

An honest compliment is always welcome, but flattery truly gets you nowhere. When you flatter, everyone knows that you're brown-nosing. Similarly, when you accept flattery, you're marking yourself as gullible and self-absorbed.

About the author
Geoffrey James is a veteran business journalist who now writes a daily column for Inc.com. He's the author of "Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know."

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Signed, Sealed, and Delivered

Montgomery speaking at the 2014 ASCA Executive Summit.
Marvin Montgomery knows a bit about the sales process. For more than 30 years, he has earned
national recognition and praise for his informative, practical and stimulating programs that reflect his basic philosophy: “Preparation and practice are the keys to sales success.”

Montgomery began his career with one of the nation’s largest jewelry chains and worked his way up to the director of sales position. It was here that he began refining his approach to training. In total he has trained more than 1,200 associates in 95 stores during his time with the organization. Since that time, he has assisted hundreds of organizations to meet or exceed their sales goals using his training programs.

So we were thrilled when Marvin was featured speaker during our recent Executive Summit in Miami. We sat down with him afterwards to pick his brain about the negotiation process and how not only to close the deal, but to get contracts signed.

Selling snow and ice management services is only part of the equation, and often the real work comes when negotiating the service contract. How much is this negotiation is a part of business, how much is art and how much is just a game?

It starts way before you get to the negotiation. People buy services from people who they know, like and trust. Hopefully you’ve established this early on in the relationship when you first established the need and you’re now in the process of providing a solution. I try to get people to understand that you’re not providing a contract. You’re providing a solution. Use the word “solution” and “relationship” and “partnership” – these are the words that let the client know this isn’t a one-sided situation. [Clients] often aren’t used to this, and when they enter this process the only thing they can go on is what they know from the past, and usually previous experiences aren’t all that great. So a lot of this goes back to addressing these concerns early on during the assessment. If you ask the right questions – for example, “Share with me the processes you’ve used when you’ve worked with contractors in the past like myself.” “What’s important to you?” “What are the non-negotiables.” – it’ll be easier to enter the negotiation process.

Sometimes we don’t do this until it is way too late. Get these potential obstacles out of the way early on.

How long should the due diligence process should take? Do you find that business owners rush this process and not have gone deep enough?

There’s a couple of things. I try to get people to use the word “agreement” instead of “contract.” It’s amazing how one word can make all of the difference.

Why is that?

“Agreement” is less threatening. “Contract” says you’re going to need to send this to your attorney for review. Some of the best contractors I’ve seen out there don’t bring in a six or seven page contract. The longer and more convoluted you make this process, the longer it’s going to take. One of my favorite expressions, which is true, is that “time kills a deal.” That’s where the deal dies, sometimes. The decision is made to go with your business, then they see the 10-page contract.

One of my favorites is when a client is told “We don’t have the contract ready yet.” What’s there to get ready? Why does it take so long to get the document prepared? It should be an easy template that just needs the numbers plugged in. If you don’t have the contract ready to go, you’re just slowing down this entire process. I understand that each property is different, but the services are the same.

The other thing I see is that the sense of urgency is not the same throughout the organization. The sales person wants to get this all buttoned up. He brings this urgency back to the office, but there is no urgency there because whoever handles this process next doesn’t see a new client, they just see a pile of paperwork that they need to complete. We need to get people to understand that this isn’t just numbers, but an opportunity and a person on the other end who’s waiting.

The common belief is that conflict between the salesperson and the client will kill a deal. But from what you’re saying, these deals can get tripped up from within the snow and ice management operation.

A lot of it is internal. Sometimes the best company doesn’t win because they’ve taken too long to get back to the client and close the deal. Sometimes the worst company wins because they were able to maneuver quickly and had their document ready.

So how do you stay in it and not lose out to the details? How do you speed up this process?

If I’m sitting down with you and we have a verbal agreement, and now all we need to do is dot the I’s and cross the T’s, then I’m going to establish a date and time when we’re going to meet again.

Believe it or not, a lot of companies don’t do this. Often the meeting concludes with the sales guy saying something to the effect of “I’ll get back to you as soon as I can have [the contract] ready.” And he’s off to his next sales meeting. You haven’t given the client any expectations… it’s as if there is no commitment on your part as to what the next step is. Don’t leave that meeting without a commitment as to when, where and how the next meeting will take place. Is it in-person or over the phone? Am I emailing you the agreement, and if so when will we meet to go over it together?

This industry is still doing a lot of “quote and hope” – you quote it and you email it out. So not only am I going to establish a date and time, I’m going to bring it back personally so you can’t blow me off. Again, are you selling a contract, or are you providing a solution? If you’re providing a solution, then you need to sit down together. If you’re just selling a contract, then yes, just email it out and don’t be surprised if you have a 10 percent close rate.

You can double your close rate overnight, all you have to do is schedule a date and time to come back and go over the proposal and finish the deal.

It also creates a sense of urgency at your own organization because now you have a date and time you’re committed to [to the potential client] and you need the paperwork ready for that follow-up meeting.

How does a contractor get what he wants? Often the sticking point in a contract isn’t necessarily about money. Instead, it’s about certain service specifics, liability issues, or who will make what decisions during a snow event. How does a contractor overcome those impasses to close the deal?

During the planning stage you need to know what the negotiable and non-negotiable items are. Some things you know you won’t negotiate and you need to be confident up front about that when you go in. You also need to know the things that you will budge on. Now, when I’m speaking to the client, I can speak with some confidence and you have to explain the benefits of keeping that item in the contract language. However, you’re also confident about what you’re willing to budge on. It’s like buying a car and getting the floor mats for free – can’t budge on the sticker price, but they’ll throw those winter floor mats in for free.

The problem is a lot of contractors don’t know what is negotiable. Sometimes you do have to bend, but a lot of that can be determined up front. Remember, if you ask and listen, they’ll tell you how they want to be sold. You need to be asking the right questions early on to determine what you’re willing to bend on. Don’t hope what you leave in or take out will be a win-win in the end.

You also need to ask your own people whether or not you’re making it easy to do business with clients. How much language really needs to be in an agreement and how much is really just … stuff, but could potentially trip up a deal?

In this industry contractors want to use their contracts, but often the property owner or manager wants the contractor to use their template agreement. How do you overcome this? Or, is there a way to use the property manager’s contract and not come out on the short end?

I tell people to use ACS – Acknowledge. Concern. Suggest.

So this is how that conversation could go: “Hey, I understand why you want to use the contract you’re using for your property. I’m concerned, though, that if we use that contract it’s not going to contain all of the language that we need to do what needs to be done. Let me make a suggestion: Send me your contract and I’ll match it against ours and I’ll make sure we include anything that’s absent from ours. How does that sound?”

If it’s a deal breaker, then maybe it’s the complete opposite -- I incorporate my contact into the property manager’s agreement.

Let’s focus on another area – contracts that pertain to purchasing equipment and materials. When it’s flipped – now they’re being sold to -- does the business owner often lose perspective?

They’ll do the same thing to their service providers that’s being done to them by property managers and owners. You have to be conscious of this because what’ll happen is that people won’t want to do business with you.

Mike Zawacki is Snow Magazine’s editor.

Monday, January 12, 2015

6 Equipment Maintenance Tips

The saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” This applies to many situations, including the snow removal business, which is very equipment-intensive. Equipment is put to the test and run very hard (often for 24 hours continuously, during big storms) and because of this, breakdowns in the snow and ice management business are inevitable. We need to try and counter with practices like: aggressive preventative maintenance, maintaining a complete spare parts inventory and possibly even adding in-field mechanics to your staff. When a truck breaks down, it greatly changes the dynamics of the event. These things happen unexpectedly, and we must adapt to them quickly to overcome the shortcoming and remain productive.

In light of this, it is important to be as well prepared as possible, and provide all of the equipment with the necessary preventative maintenance. This helps us notice possible problems and correct them prior to having your truck sitting on the sideline like an injured star in a football game. Unlike a football game (where a benched player can instantly run out to replace an injured one) we cannot have a truck drive out from behind the building to help finish the job. This can cost us money in lost time, parts replacement and – if the problem is severe enough – it may even cost us customers by failing to provide them with a timely service. It is important that you recognize the most common equipment breakdown items and know what to look for prior to an event to help you identify these. The first step in this process is to be aware of strategies to reduce equipment breakdown.

1. Cleaning your vehicles.
Cleaning your vehicles and equipment as quickly as possible after an event will help to identify possible problems. Salt is very corrosive to equipment. Cleaning it thoroughly will help preserve its life, as well as, help make any potential problems more noticeable. Items such as loose belts or bolts, cracked welds or leaks in hydraulic lines will be easier to identify if they are not covered in salt.

Salt wears down most equipment very quickly, especially if left alone between events. Make certain to clean vehicles completely after each event to protect it from corrosion. Cleaning also provides the opportunity to check for other problems that should be fixed before the next event.
2. Protect your transmission.
Transmission problems and breakdowns are among the most common issues that cause snow plow equipment to breakdown. Ways to help protect your transmission include: planning the plowing of each site so you are driving forward as much as possible, coming to a complete stop prior to putting your vehicle in reverse, accelerating slowly without spinning your tires, putting the vehicle in motion prior to dropping the blade when starting a pass, plowing with only ½ of a hopper of salt or less. After plowing, let your vehicle idle for a few minutes to allow the transmission cooler time to cool off the transmission fluid.

3. Pre-event inspection of your equipment.

How often do you just get into a vehicle (typically when it is dark), look at a route sheet and drive to your first property assignment? Prior to a piece of equipment going out into the field, it is crucial to do a pre-event inspection. Have a simple checklist created to look the vehicle over thoroughly for possible “red flags” that may cause your equipment to fail or not perform to its potential. Items that should be included in this inspection are: checking hydraulic hoses for fluid leaks, checking tires and hubs for damage, checking all plow bolts to make sure they are tight, looking for cracked welds and checking all of the vehicles fluid levels (oil, transmission, brake, radiator coolant, windshield washer and battery) and checking all the lights to make sure they are operational.

4. Lubricate all moving parts.
Grease is inexpensive. Greasing pivot points on plows and protecting all electrical connections with a dielectric grease will help prevent corrosion, which could help lead to equipment seizing and failure to operate.


On top of a post-event cleaning, a pre-event inspection of parts that could be a “red flag” will save time by preventing a damaged vehicle in the middle of an event.
5. Carry a fire extinguisher.
Often times when fan belts break, sparks are emitted and can cause fires around the engine area. Having a fire extinguisher that is operable and tested regularly will allow you to put this fire out quickly to avoid further electrical damage or even the possibility of an engine or complete truck going up in flames.

6. Reduce weight amount when plowing.
Plow with only enough weight to provide ample traction during an event. Filling your salt spreaders completely while plowing adds additional unnecessary wear and tear to your vehicle’s springs, suspension and transmission.

In the event of a breakdown, you should be prepared with a “snow emergency” kit in your vehicles and the tools needed to make simple repairs should a problem occur. Finding parts in the middle of the night (if you don’t have them stocked in your shop) could be an issue. Things you should include in this kit should be: extra hydraulic fluid, spare hydraulic hoses, a pump solenoid, extra cutting edge bolts, a trip spring and jumper cables. This may sound like a lot, but the $500 or so in insurance parts will be worth their weight in gold if they are needed in the middle of the night to get you back up and running to finish a site before your client or their tenants arrive to an unplowed lot. Keep in mind their travel times have already been increased, and this will elevate their need to call and complain. In the event the repairs are a little more complex, a mobile repair service, either in-house or outsourced will help tremendously.

Preventative maintenance of our equipment is crucial in the snow plow business. We often put our equipment to the true test of survival with numerous continuous hours of operation. Sometimes we lose sight of simple pre-event inspections of our valuable equipment asset due to timing of snowfalls (including back-to-back events), demanding customers or something as simple as being tired. Often we are in a time crunch to get a site finished, and forget simple things like accelerating slowly and sliding the gear shifter back into drive while the vehicle is still moving. Be safe and think about the piece of equipment you are driving as if it was your own. Be sure to carry a “snow emergency” kit with you in your vehicle in the event of a blown hydraulic hose or a bolt that breaks. Having items like these in your vehicle in the event they are needed will save you time and money in the long run.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

5 Preventative Measures Heading into Winter

Lately, I've had the opportunity to query a number of successful snow and ice management professionals on the universal areas for improvement within a snow removal operation.

Here's a summary of what they thought were the top five things to focus on heading into a winter season that has immediate impact on a snow removal business.

1. Training and education
Everyone knows education and training are the essential keys to success in this industry. Properly trained staff and crews are essential to a profitable operation. They are also keys to risk reduction. Have you properly trained your team? How about your service providers? Where can you find improvements? Training is done both internally, and through external resource – such as associations and with professional industry consultants. Utilizing both reduces exposure to risk and ensure greater profit margins.

2. Documentation
Everyone in this industry has heard “document, documents, document!” Are your documentation processes thorough? Are you documenting EVERYTHING? This includes preseason inspection reports, in-event documentation, post-event process documentation, and weather service reporting. The more documentation you have, the better the chance of frivolous slip-and-fall claims being dropped.

3. Contracts
Have you had an attorney review your contracts? Contract language is key. Cutting and pasting from one contract to the next could create liability down the line. Being thorough with service contracts may have some initial costs, but it will save you headaches – and money -- down the line.

4. Know local laws and codes

Every state and municipality has slightly different laws and restrictions. Know your local and state laws as it pertains to your operations. Also be aware of building and fire codes as those can change from city to city at times.

5. Planning
What if something goes wrong? What is the back-up plan? The more you look ahead and plan for the worst case scenario…the better you will be.