Monday, March 16, 2015

An Entrepreneurial Spirit

Carl Bolm could hardly imagine how his St. Louis-based snow and ice removal business would change when he started in 1984 with a pick-up truck and a used snow plow. In the beginning, BSR Services was just a way to make ends meet during seasonal layoffs from his job as an airline baggage handler. “Over the years, I fell in love with the industry, and with building a little enterprise,” Bolm says.

What began out of necessity has since morphed into a sophisticated snow removal and risk management company for the most discerning clients in St. Louis. With a fleet of 25 Missouri DOT-type trucks and another 575 owned by contractors, BSR manages the logistics of snow and ice removal for a collection of corporate accounts that reads like a Who’s Who list of the St. Louis business community.

Early on, Bolm realized he couldn’t personally own or manage all the necessary equipment to grow a viable business, so he wrote a business plan to involve strategic partners and seasonal help. His knack for recruiting people he can trust – and building relationships – helped BSR grow a brand reputation and a corporate culture known for excellence. Those factors were enough to fuel the company’s growth until 2013, when Bolm hired BSR’s first sales person to help manage customer relationships.

“If Carl puts a goal in writing, it’s going to happen,” says Shawn Gibbs, a friend and financial advisor who’s known Bolm since 2001, when they were introduced by mutual friends at a Cardinals baseball game. “Good is not good enough. He’s always looking to be the best. That’s what has allowed him to get contracts with the most successful businesses in town. BSR definitely has a recipe for doing things right.”

As an oldest child who grew up doing manual labor on a family farm, Bolm’s work ethic and his tendency to lead by example has served him well as an entrepreneur, according to friends. Farming also prepared him for the urgency of the snow removal business. “Before you went to school, you had to feed the animals, and when you came home at night, you put up hay until dark,” Bolm says. “When the crops are up, it doesn’t matter what holiday it is.”

Bolm is known for placing a high value on loyalty and trust in relationships – a trait that’s embedded in BSR’s corporate culture. As the business has grown, that has allowed him to relinquish some tasks to proven colleagues. One thing Bolm won’t delegate is his role as the company’s leading communicator.

Each year, Bolm holds a meeting with BSR’s contractors to make sure he doesn’t lose contact with the people who do the work. Never mind the fact that his message stays the same, year after year: You are important. The job is important. “These people work tremendous hours and in unbelievable conditions,” Bolm says. “We could not be where we are without them.”

Treating people with respect and valuing their time has helped Bolm build a loyal base of contractors. Another relationship builder: BSR pays contractors 48 hours after a storm and provides 24-hour access to service, parts and towing.

BSR contractors return the favor by going to the mat whenever it’s necessary. “It does not snow on our accounts,” Bolms says. That isn’t a weather forecast, of course; it’s more of a battle cry that reflects how the company serves its high-end customer base. Bolm says BSR’s customers are its best ambassadors.

Never one to rest on its laurels or take its customer base for granted, BSR spends six to eight months of the year getting battle-ready for the next season, and marketing to existing customers. “We do year-end reviews with our clients and have QA people collecting data, so the next season we are 100 percent prepared,” Bolm says. “We make sure they are happy and want to return.” BSR also collects data from contractors to make sure people trained at BSR University meet quality standards.

Snow and ice removal may happen only a few months out of the year, but BSR is committed to the industry year-round. In the middle of summer, you can find the BSR team working through mock storms to test their Standard Operating Procedures.

“It’s too late to practice when winter comes,” Bolm says. “Preparation meets opportunity when the storm comes. That’s how we stay ready.”

Bolm’s obsession with quality and excellence is part of his DNA. BSR’s offices, equipment and facilities are immaculate – waxed, painted, cleaned and organized. “What you see at work is who I am away from work,” Bolm says.

If he has high expectations for others, Bolm’s friends and co-workers say that’s nothing compared to the standards he sets for himself. “Carl probably starts his day at 4 a.m., and who knows what time he is done?” Gibbs says. “He’s not going to ask anyone to do what he wouldn’t do.”

After 30 years in the snow removal business, Bolm leads by being the first to jump and the last to eat. He’s been known to pick up a shovel and start working next to people who never suspect that he owns the business. Those antics amuse BSR’s management team, but his transparency is consistent with the organization’s well-placed priorities and Bolm’s all-in, no-excuses leadership style.

“At the end of a storm, I don’t care how much it snowed, how many hours we worked or how stressful it was,” Bolm says. “I want to see a blank client log with no complaints or additional service calls. How well we met our clients’ expectations will always be the barometer of how we’re doing.”

“He’s built that business, and all his businesses, on relationships and doing all the basic stuff from the 1950s, like showing up on time, treating people with respect and doing what you say you’ll do,” says Jeff Cook, a friend who has known Bolm since 1982, when they met on a ski trip. Like many self-made people, Bolm steeps himself in positive, motivational books. Reading Zig Ziglar and Dale Carnegie helped shape the bedrock values he lives by. “I was reading those books at a young age,” he says. “I still have them marked and highlighted.”

The snow removal industry has changed a lot since Bolm bought his first truckload of salt. These days, BSR buys salt in barge loads, and stores it in a dozen depots spread across St. Louis County. Last year, BSR built a new, centrally-located facility and office, where most equipment is kept.

“The industry has grown from a lot of mom and pop operations to a sophisticated, technically-advanced industry,” he says. “There was no industry network. SIMA (Snow and Ice Management Association) wasn’t even around 30 years ago.”

As the industry evolved, so did Bolm. BSR’s growth tapped Bolm’s gift for finding the right talent and allowing people to do their jobs. “It’s been hard to let go, but I can’t be everywhere,” he says. “I have a team of people who perform exceptionally well, and they have great management skills.”

Bolm is a big-picture guy who surrounds himself with great people to implement those ideas, says Kevin Gilbride, executive director of the Accredited Snow Contractors Association (ASCA).

“Carl was one of the first to see the value of ISO 9001 and SN 9001, and once he saw that, he and his team attacked it,” Gilbride says. “That is how Carl is. Fully understand everything then move on it.”

Given the intense, seasonal nature of the snow and ice removal business, a desire to rest during the off-season would be understandable, but Bolm isn’t the type of guy whose entrepreneurial mind can be set to idle. Although the snow and ice removal business is Bolm’s first love, he has started several businesses, including a popular St. Louis pub, a winery and a special events destination near his hometown, Foristel, Mo.

“He believes in complimentary business sets,” Cook says. “I think part of it is his desire to keep his team together. Once he gets the right people, he figures out something else he can do with that team, plans around it, figures it out, and uses those core values to do something else.”

Cook says Bolm brings an artful balance of ambition, deliberation and tolerance for risk to every business endeavor. “He understands how to grow, and that’s really important,” Cook says. “A lot of entrepreneurs shoot for the moon, but Carl will search around and find out what the right model is, and then he will go for it, but he won’t bet the farm doing it. He takes a very long-term approach.”

Bolm’s thoughtful nature explains the continuous line that runs from one business to the next, according to Cook. When his first restaurant was successful, Bolm parlayed the experience into a catering business. Eventually, that led him to start a winery. The winery segued into building a scenic destination for special events, plus another restaurant, this time with a fine dining focus. He also owns The Battlegrounds, a five-mile, mud-run obstacle course that hosts charity mud runs and year-round, teambuilding events for corporations – a startup instigated by Bolm’s personal interest in fitness and an open need he noticed in the market.

All of these enterprises have the mark of Bolm’s keen eye for details and knowledge of systems. “I’ve had the pleasure of watching him start different businesses,” Gibbs says. “He knows how to dot all the i’s and cross the t’s to create an ideal experience – not just a regular business.”

Bolm’s personal life was emblematic of the blurred lines successful entrepreneurs often have between work and home. Friends say Bolm has always regarded his co-workers as family members, and he didn’t marry until 2013. “He’s found a great life partner in Gabriella,” says Cook, who describes Bolm as a humble guy and loyal friend who seldom mentions business after hours.

Having a high level of energy and commitment has made Bolm a natural leader for community causes in the St. Louis area, according to his friend and attorney, Bill Corrigan, who serves with Bolm on the board of directors of Old Newsboys, a charity for children’s causes. “He’s not the kind of person who volunteers to serve on a board just to have it on his resume,” Corrigan says. “When he joins a cause, he contributes and gets things done.”

Bolm also serves on the Young Leader Board for the USO of Missouri Inc. With a father, an uncle and several friends who served in the military, he was naturally drawn to USO causes. “We do some amazing things for veterans and are heavily involved in supporting troops,” he says.

He also volunteers for Youth With A Mission’s Homes of Hope, a non-profit program that builds homes in third-world countries. He’s been everywhere from Guatemala and Costa Rica, to Mexico on mission trips for Homes of Hope. Bolm sees these non-profit endeavors as a continuation of his life’s work – which is really about helping people.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Profit Centers


It is the rare snow removal and ice management contractor who doesn’t know whether his or her business is profitable. Accounting statements or even the snow removal operation’s tax returns often provide that information. How many contractors, however, are aware that some customers simply don’t make money for their businesses?

That’s right, few snow removal contractors, business owners or managers are aware whether their “best” customer or customers are generating profits sufficient to warrant the degree of services demanded or provided.

Fortunately, the solution is simple: make those customers profitable or cut them loose. Obviously, improving a customer’s value to the business is not an easy task but it usually begins with the discovery of just how much a customer costs.

Keep tabs on costs


The often repeated “80/20” rule states that a large majority (80%) of any business’s earnings come from a very small number (20%) of its customers. In other words, most snow removal businesses make almost all of their money from very few of their customers.

Customers who don’t necessarily generate a lot of income, but who also don’t demand a lot of service may be good customers, while other customers may pay more but require so much assistance that they’re costing the snow removal operation money.

The best way to research a customer and evaluate its profitability is to keep track of all interactions with that customer over a period of time. One week is obviously not enough and an entire season is too long. Most customers’ habits can be tracked within two- to four-month timeframes.

Gross profit margins are the most commonly used factor, but it should not be assumed that a customer is not profitable because its margin is below average. That’s where other factors, including costs, come in.

Many businesses allocate some amount of their overhead costs to customer service. More often, however, costs reflect only the cost of the services performed. Missing from this measurement is the time, support, effort, and ultimately the total cost required to meet the customer’s needs.

Analysis that reveals the total cost by customer rather than by services often produces startling results that will shift the customer profitability discussion from anecdotal or gut feelings to a discussion utilizing quality information.

Cost accounting is the process of allocating all of the snow removal operation’s costs associated with generating a sale, performing a service, etc., both direct and indirect. Direct costs include such things as the total wages paid workers, the salaries of supervisors, supplies expended, etc. Indirect costs are all of the other expenses associated with keeping the operation going.

Establish a system, create a goal


An analysis of customer profitability compares the costs of all of the activities used to support a customer or a group of customers with the revenue generated by that customer or customer group.

Activity-based costing techniques can be used to determine the profitability of customers. Going one step further, activity-based costing can also be used to estimate the cost of doing business with particular customers or with groups of customers that require similar service levels.

When determining customer profitability, it is usually not practical to identify the profitability of individual customers, unless there are only a few of them. Therefore customers may be grouped by size, industries, and market.

To set up an effective cost accounting system, the help of an accountant or CPA might be advisable. Cost accounting can, after all, get fairly complicated. The money spent for professional guidance will be well worth it, leaving only the question of what to do about any “bad” customers.

Turning bad to profitable

The first step in turning unprofitable customers into valuable assets is determining whether the relationship can be improved. A snow or ice removal professional who believes in holding onto every customer, no matter what the cost, may never see the snow removal business reach its maximum earning potential.

Before asking any customer to take his business elsewhere, efforts should be made at “reforming,” the customer. There is no clear rule of thumb. Each situation – and each customer – is different. If the problem is one of slow pay with a small customer, a delay in performing non-contract services might be an option.

The same approach may work for larger customers if the snow removal business has enough leverage. Alternatively, a price increase to offset the higher cost of extending credit might be called for.

Worried about the customer going elsewhere? Sometimes that’s a good thing. Problem customers often become problems for competitors.

Keep profitable customers


It is five times more profitable to spend marketing and advertising dollars to retain current customers than it is to acquire new customers.

In years past the importance of focusing on customer retention was not as important, “stickiness” came naturally. Many of us had a personal connection with our service providers and the thought of shopping at another store, or using an unfamiliar services provider would have never crossed our minds.

That has all changed now. Customer loyalty has disappeared and large corporations and virtual storefronts are forced to ask the millions of disloyal customers what caused them to stray. There is, however, a solution and, once again, it involves costs.

Do you know how much of your business’s resources are allocated to marketing and new customer acquisition? Most importantly, do you know how much you should be spending and at what point it becomes un-economic?

Most small businesses use a combination of guesswork, perceived funds available and gut feel to set their marketing budgets. Understanding the lifetime value of new customers has allowed many snow removal business owners and managers to take a longer-term and more realistic view of attracting new business to make their companies more effective and profitable.

Customer acquisition cost is calculated by dividing total acquisition expenses by the total number of new customers. Not too surprisingly, there are different opinions as to what constitutes an acquisition expense. For example, rebates and special discounts do not represent an actual cash outlay, yet they have an impact on cash flow (and presumably, on the customer).

The specific calculation depends on the nature of the customer relationship which are often divided into two categories. In contractual or retention situations, customers who do not renew are considered "lost for good".

The other category involves customer migration situations. In customer migration situations, a customer who does not buy (in a given period or from a given promotion) is still considered a customer because they may very well buy at some point in the future.

In customer-retention situations, the snow and ice management contractor usually knows when the relationship is over although the firm may not know when the relationship is over (as far as the customer is concerned).

To compute the cost of acquiring a customer (CAC) the operation’s entire cost of sales and marketing over a given period, including salaries and other related expenses, is divided by the number of customers acquired in that period.

In order to compute the lifetime value of a customer (LTV) the gross profit margin expected to result from that customer over the lifetime of the relationship is computed. Gross Margin would obviously take into consideration any support, installation, and servicing costs over the projected life of the customer relationship.

Solutions

There are a number of strategies for resolving the “Best Customer/Least Profitable Customer” conundrum, including:
  • Increasing the profitability of already profitable customers
  • Identifying unprofitable customers and realigning them to better manage costs
  • Pricing services (and products) more effectively
  • Improve internal processes to reliably predict the impact of business decisions on total system costs
  • Improve negotiation processes with customers (discounts, extent of services, prices, payment terms, etc.)

The one thing many snow removal and ice management professionals often ignore is whether their best business decision may actually involve firing some of their worst customers.

While this may seem like an illogical suggestion – particularly in a bad economy – having the wrong customers can be costing the snow removal business in unexpected ways and holding it back from real success with the temptation of short term profits.

The operation may be stuck in a raw deal with minimum profit margins, losing the ability to service new and more profitable customers. The operation may also experience employee turnover due to burnout from servicing abusive or demanding customers, leaving the business with the expense of recruiting and training new workers.

Part of the challenge faced by many snow removal contractors, business owners or managers is how to extract the operation from those relationships without burning bridges or creating enemies (if they haven't already).

Accounting for costs means more realistically pricing services to ensure costs are passed on to the customer.

Cost accounting can also prove invaluable when it comes to determining actual profits, finding out what a particular job actually cost or, if detailed enough, that cost accounting can reveal what your “best customer” actually cost you and your snow removal business.

Mark Battersy is an Ardmore, Pa.-based finance writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Getting what's owed

Nothing aggravates a snow management professional more than a customer’s failure to pay their bill on time. But theirs is a shared pain with other small business owners across the country.

According to research from PaySimple, a cloud-based automated receivables technology service for small businesses, 49 percent of small businesses experience late payments from customers on a monthly basis. The survey also revealed 41 percent of small business owners say late payments were their biggest pain point.

Those statistics are not far off from what snow contractors experience when collecting payment for snow and ice management services, according to Snow Magazine research. On average, more than 65 percent of snow contractor report having issues with late payments. However, only around 20 percent resort to sending delinquent clients to collections.

Consistent cash flow is critical to small business owners and allows them to invest in new equipment and technology, create new jobs, and engage in new business opportunities. Without consistent cash flow, these initiatives can be put on the back burner or worse yet never get off the ground.

How do you avoid having your operation be put at risk of non-payment by customers? According to Michelle Dunn, an expert on credit and debt collection, and author of numerous books on the subject, the most effective way a small business owner can avoid delinquent accounts is to screen customers before starting service.

“Having the customer fill out and sign a credit application is easy and painless,” says Dunn. “The biggest mistake business owners make when having customers fill out credit applications is not following up on it. Once you have a credit application – the ball is in your hands to check the credit of that customer to make sure you are limiting your risk.”

Dunn says establishing effective and clear payment terms are very important. Your terms should be clearly printed on everything that goes out of your office – the credit application, invoices, estimates, service reports and statements.

“Set your terms based on how you want to be paid, and when your business bills are due,” says Dunn. “That way when it is time for you to pay your bills, you will have your customer payments in the bank and might be able to take advantage of some early payment discounts.”

Keeping accurate, complete records will help small business owners keep delinquent accounts in check and assist in the collection process if it reaches that point, Waterhouse says.

“Organization and attention to detail pays off for small business owners when it comes to collecting on accounts,” he says. “Be able to show history and specific details for the account.”

Another tactic many snow management professionals use, especially with residential accounts, is requiring advance payment before the service starts. Sometimes combined with a discount offer for paying in full, this method guarantees you won’t have to chase down customers for payment once the snow starts falling.

But what if you find your company stuck with delinquent accounts? The first step is to start the collections process early and be proactive. Dunn recommends making a customer service call at 25 days (for example, if you are on a 30-day cycle) to make sure they received the invoice, check if there were any issues with the invoice (incorrect price, etc.) and verify the payment terms.

Also don’t be lulled into complacency with repeat customers; everyone’s credit can change and Dunn suggests it is smart to review this on an annual basis.

If the proactive approach does not yield results, Dunn recommends small business owners do the following:
  • Call them again. Ask what you can do to help them pay the bill on time and get a payment promise.
  • Send a letter following up on your call – mail it immediately. It can be short and sweet but must be very specific. Make sure to mention how much will be paid and by what date.
  • Follow up! If you get voice mail, call again the next day.

If customers are still not providing payment, small business owners may have to bring in reinforcements and turn to a professional collection agency (See “Selecting a collection agency,” 69) or the legal system for relief. But how do you know when to make that call?

Small business owners need to establish a threshold amount that will trigger bringing in a professional agency or legal counsel. “I’ve seen small businesses be successful with collections by being diligent and following the plan,” says Waterhouse. “But at times it pays have a professional on your side that knows the laws and can advise you on the next steps.”

Small claims court is one option snow management professionals may consider for collecting payment from delinquent accounts. Consulting with an attorney on the limits you can sue for in small claims court and the costs involved with filing suit for larger amounts is recommended.

Waterhouse says an attorney will also be able to advise you on the laws in your state that may help you collect on delinquent accounts. “Know when enough money is at stake to pursue legal action and when another method might work better,”he says.

Jeff Fenner is a Cleveland-based freelance writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Call in a pro

Although few will admit to needing help in any of the many aspects of running their snow removal and ice management business/operation, few snow removal contractors are actually a “jack-of-all-trades.” While most small business owners know their business inside and out, in general and in detail, there are highly technical matters of law, accounting, management and marketing that are usually best handled by outside experts.

Attorneys, accountants, management and marketing advisers have specialized knowledge about niche areas that few can hope to duplicate. Reality often dictates the necessity of relying on others for assistance in unfamiliar areas, especially if that outside/independent advice is affordable. Where can this much-needed professional guidance, assistance or help be found and at what cost?

Helpful help

 

Having access to legal, accounting and other expertise is extremely important in helping any business survive and to grow as rapidly or efficiently as possible. In addition to legal advice, accounting advice such as setting up the operation’s books, auditing, payroll services, taxes and retirement planning might benefit the snow removal operation.

Some jobs, such as auditing financial statements to satisfy lenders and investors, must be done by a professional with specific credentials. A certified public accountant (CPA) is a good example, as well.

More flexibility exists when looking for other credentialed professionals. The initials MBA after a person’s name suggest that, as a holder of a master’s of business administration degree, that person is well-trained. However, highly experienced people may be just as effective even if they lack the diploma and the initials. Evaluating the worth of credentials can be tricky.

How and where

 

Referrals are the best way to get a new professional services provider. The best source of referrals is business associates. Good referrals can also be obtained from other professionals. Ask your accountant for an attorney’s name and your attorney for an accountant’s name. Other service providers such as bankers, insurance or real estate professionals are also good sources. Don’t forget to ask suppliers and customers.

Remember, however, the first step to finding the right professional requires an inventory of what you and your snow and ice management operation actually need in the way of services and advice and, most importantly, how much you can afford to pay for that advice or services. It is also important to determine beforehand just how much of the work you and your business will do and how much of it will be done by the professional – or professionals.

You might also find out how well-connected the professional and his firm are. CPAs, for instance, are often a valuable resource for businesses needing to borrow money or to raise capital from other sources.

Checking it all out

 

Before hiring any professional adviser such as an attorney, tax preparer, CPA or other professional, credentials should always be checked. Most professionals are licensed to practice in one or more states so you are looking for a current professional license in your state. You also want to know if there are any outstanding complaints against this person, either by his professional organization or by previous clients.

Checking on sanctions is also possible for many licensed professionals, easily accomplished via the Internet. The website for the Internal Revenue Service can be searched to see if a tax preparer has been disciplined or convicted of fraud by the IRS. And, there is also the website of the Better Business Bureau, to see if complaints have been filed against this professional.

Taking the time to check out a prospective adviser thoroughly is a good investment. Remember that you, as the owner of a professional snow and ice management business, are responsible for complying with the laws, tax payments, and regulations. Getting bad advice does not excuse anyone from this responsibility.

Shop around

 

With referrals in hand, the shopping begins. Yes, shopping.

You are not only looking for reliable, knowledgeable and affordable professionals, you are looking or “shopping” for a professional who will compliment your efforts. Having an accountant who takes a different approach can sometimes be a good thing. A super-conservative contractor or business owner may become more successful if exposed to the aggressive side of things. Naturally, no professional should pressure a client into doing anything they are not comfortable with.

Other areas to consider when shopping for a professional include:

Experience. Although it is not essential to find an expert in your particular field, it makes sense to look for someone who specializes in small-business problems.

Understanding. Be sure the professional is willing to learn about your business’s goals. You’re looking for someone who will be a long-term partner in your snow and ice management business’s growth.

Ability to communicate. If a lawyer speaks in legalese or an accountant uses lots of arcane financial terms without explanation, continue your search elsewhere.

Reasonable fees. Attorneys, accountants and other professionals charge anywhere from $75 to $300 (or more) per hour, depending on the location, size and prestige of the provider. Shopping around for quotes from several providers is a good strategy. Beware, however, of comparing one provider with another on the basis of fees alone. The lowest hourly fee may not indicate the best value; an inexperienced professional may take twice as long to complete a project as an experienced – and slightly more expensive one – will.

When to say when

 

At the beginning of any professional relationship, general “rules of thumb” should be established in order to minimize the need to call the adviser too often. Discussing the kinds of issues the adviser does not want to handle or feels might be better handled in-house or by another professional is part of the shopping process.

However, if you begin working with an adviser only to later discover that you avoid calling him or her, or you don’t like this person, sever the relationship quickly. This is yet another reason not to work with friends or family; you don’t need personal relationships interfering with the business relationship. It is not necessary to provide reasons for severing the professional relationship, just be polite and firm.

Fee advice

 

Fortunately, many professionals offer free first meetings for discussion of expectations, services needed and provided, extent of involvement by the professional and the portion of the work the snow and ice management operation’s workers expect to shoulder, time constraints and, above all, costs.

It is not “tacky” to discuss fees before engaging the services of a professional, although money should not be the sole criteria for selecting that professional.

Keeping the cost of that much-needed advice and guidance affordable begins when the professional is hired. An engagement letter, essentially a letter detailing the scope of the services to be performed and at what cost to the business is the first step.

For complex legal matters and other matters such as cutting property taxes, many professionals are often willing to work on a contingency basis.

In other words, if they succeed, they receive a percentage of the proceeds – or savings – usually between 25 percent and 40 percent. If they fail, they may receive only out-of-pocket expenses.

For those who anticipate a lot of routine questions or services on an on-going basis, one option is a monthly fee that entitles you to all the routine advice needed. Additional billing, if necessary, is usually done at a reduced hourly or project rate.

Some attorneys and other professionals may suggest a flat fee for certain routine matters or a project, eliminating the uncertainty of the final cost. But all these billing practices must be spelled out in the engagement letter.

Before committing to any billing practice it might be a good time to attempt negotiating not only fees, but a prompt pay discount. Even a five percent discount on professional fees can produce substantial savings. It is also a good idea to ask for an estimate of the cost of every matter, greatly aiding in the decision whether to pursue matters.

If more than one professional in a firm is to render services, the hourly rate for each should be spelled out. The agreement should also spell out which, if any, expenses the professional will be reimbursed for.

The professional services marketplace is a buyers’ market these days, so now is a great time to shop for a qualified and affordable professional. You are not looking for the one promising the lowest bill but rather a professional or firm that can best guide you and your snow removal and ice management business through these turbulent times.

In fact, if your current professional’s philosophy and style is not compatible with your own, maybe a change might now be in order.

Mark E. Battersby is a financial writer based out of Ardmore, Pa., and a frequent Snow Magazine contributor.