“The Right Stuff”: Choosing Your Snow Contractor

One of the toughest challenges to handle as a property owner or decision-maker is choosing your Winter Care contractor. Add a COVID-damaged budget, and a surge of contractors desperate for recession revenue, and 2020 is worse than usual. The good news is you can confidently learn a proven method to pick the right plan, as well as pick which contractor has "The Right Stuff" to pull it off, in about five minutes flat. Sound too good to be true? See for yourself.


First, let's get some weight off your chest. Why does a "One Size Fits All" plan feel like a sham? …Easy: because it's a sham. Your site is unique, and its needs and priorities are different from other properties. For you to feel a unique sense of concern is neither unreasonable nor selfish; it's healthy!

 

So why does that feel uncomfortable for us to admit? For many, to put words to it, we feel like if we admit every site is different that we doom ourselves to every bid process being different. What chance to we have to get that right every time? That's where the good news comes in: While every site bid is different, there is absolutely a fairly standard site bid process to produce the results you want in a way you can credibly explain and defend.

 

Start by defining what you cannot change; the old poker phrase is, "You can only win playing the hand you were dealt, but you can lose playing every hand you wish you had." What is your negotiating power - a property owner who can sign any contract you want, or a 'rising star' apartment community manager stuck with a pre-made template from corporate? Does your site, like most, have an immovable "maximum spend"? What is the "average spend" for winter services - at minimum in the last three years, ideally five to seven? Are there dependent budgets - i.e., does snow come from a shared bucket, meaning it impacts accomplishing enhancement jobs next summer? (Multi-service providers, such as landscapers, will factor this into a more competitive bid!) Last, would certain budgeting culture reduce conflicts, such as a fixed annual price eliminating office complex tenant arguments over CAM charges? These boundaries are good to know.

 

From there, look at what you can control: your Site Scope of Work. If legal advises all tenants waived liability in signed contracts, meaning slip-fall lawsuit risk is low, perhaps you can limit service to ice storms and plow events; if you run a hospital, not so much. Could churches skip the big parking lot except on Sunday? Does the Building C need sidewalk refreeze checks every night? Are we closed on holidays? Define the excellence you require - and find places you can safely save!

 

Finally, talk to your team about Risk Tolerance. If you are the owner or a senior manager, you might decide this; if you are a mid-manager held accountable if something goes wrong, get into writing how much risk the corporate team around and above you will tolerate. As a word to the wise: Know that usually this comes into play as a "sliding scale"; raising service frequency or quality directly relates to higher prices later, which is why we already figured out our budget boundaries to know what we can and cannot flex in trying to land as best of both worlds as possible.

 

Now that you have a clear picture of the right plan for your specific property, and the limits which you can and cannot change, bring on the suitors in the Bid Process and enjoy their competitive attention for your partnership. Here are some of my favorite tips for property managers and owners:

  • Share your Scope of Work. Giving every bidder consistent expectations, such as a pre-printed information packet, means you get back consistent bids, making your "apples to apples" comparison at the end much easier.
  • Demand proof of insurance be submitted with a bid. Legal, Risk, or Insurance advisors can help you check for sufficient General Liability, Auto, and Workers Compensation coverages.
  • Ask for referrals. I like asking for at least three - one similar, one more complex, and one they've held for three or more consecutive years. (It's not to say the rookie isn't a rising star worth the risk, but I want to know my risk.)
  • Ask about fleet size, team size, and material inventory. This weeds out contractors who concerningly lack redundancy - i.e., if their truck breaks and their only two other trucks are booked somewhere else, I have no service.
  • Get in writing their expected service frequency - for example, do they just come when they feel like it, or do they commit to visit every six hours or less? In the heart of the storm, you want a dependable promise.
  • Get their pricing structure in writing. Specifically, for any time and material pricing bids (such as per hour or per pound), require them to show their math, such as, "How much bulk salt should one normal lot salting require?" Unit pricing isn't bad, but unlimited units are vulnerable to fraudulent and hard-to-fight invoicing.
  • Ask about storm communications. Will you alert me with your plan before the storm? Can I see your progress mid-storm through a customer portal, or text alerts? Will I receive an automated report post-storm, and/or details on the invoice?
  • Make and document a decision! At the end of the day, this is your call, and you get to live with it, so make the vendor partner choice that you feel the most at peace about - and that you can best explain later! Get the proposal signed by both parties and keep it on file so that worst-case if things go sour you have protection.

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David Rempfer is a veteran leader of multimillion landscape and snow operations and one of less than 300 professionals in North America to be both ASCA Certified and SIMA Executive CSP certified. He now consults landscape and snow industry executives in their pursuits of business improvement and quality-of-life.

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