The crazy busy days of summer are over, and for some contractors, that’s a relief. After weeks of hot weather and long work days, the cooler temperatures finally allow employees to take some time off or at least work a normal schedule again. The slower season also allows the opportunity to obtain additional training and perhaps reevaluate or revamp company policies and procedures.
Others look at fall (and spring) apprehensively, worried that less demand for services will crimp sales and perhaps result in having to temporarily layoff employees. To combat the slowdown, they may double-down on marketing efforts to boost sales or encourage customers to schedule maintenance or replace equipment while the weather is mild.
There is no right or wrong way to approach shoulder seasons, but most contractors find that having a plan in place helps them make the most of the slower times.
The shoulder seasons in West Michigan usually consist of the month of September in the fall and March through May in the spring. Chad Baumann, sales and marketing manager, Baumann & DeGroot, Holland, Michigan, has learned to embrace those slower periods by focusing on training as well as organization to ensure the company is in a good position heading into the busy seasons.
“During our busy season, it’s a 100 percent time commitment just to keep our doors open and get our customers taken care of,” Baumann said. “That doesn’t give us enough time to evaluate our operations, personnel, fleet, etc. and make long-term plans to best position the company for success. So, during early fall and spring, we take that time to think and act strategically as well as tackle time-consuming tasks.”
For example, this past winter, Baumann used the slow period to build a quoting program and template that allows for faster and more accurate estimates for replacements.
“This coming winter, our projects include changing to a new customer relationship management [CRM] program, updating our Excel-based quote template to an HTML-based program, and moving into a new building. We have plenty of exciting things to look forward to.”
Craig Elliott, CEO — and self-described chief optimist — Nice Home Services, Springfield, Virginia, also embraces the shoulder seasons, which usually consist of August through October in the fall and March through May in the spring.
“Right now, we’re coming out of a busy summer season, when our service people have been working long days at a breakneck pace,” Elliott said. “We welcome the slower speed, because it gives our technicians the chance to take much-needed vacation and personal days. We want to make sure everyone is rested and ready for the next busy season.”
Elliott also uses the slower times to analyze the business, which includes looking closely at each department’s key performance indicators and making plans to improve the next peak season.
“At the highest level of the company, we examine the data and review our processes,” Elliott said. “We also work on simplifying any process that we find too complicated. Investing this time on operations pays high dividends in the customer experience and increasing the bottom line.”
Comprehensive training also improves the customer experience, and shoulder seasons are the perfect time to brush up on skills. To that end, Nice provides on-site NATE training and testing and has also developed a customized training program to ensure technicians are reaching their professional goals.
“We have been developing training and resources for technicians for years, and slower periods give us the time to build out classes and distribute them to staff,” said Elliott. “Training and developing staff allows us to improve the level of service we deliver as well as ensure that our technicians are not short on hours.”
Travis Rose, president, Rose Heating & Air Conditioning Inc., Urbana, Illinois, also believes that shoulder seasons are the perfect times for more education.
“Offering training opportunities for all employees during slower times works well for both the employee and employer,” he said. “Employees are pleased that they are not being laid off and are being paid for training while employers are happy that when business picks back up, their same well-trained workforce will be in place. This approach has worked very well for us over the past 55 years, but make no mistake, like anything else, it requires planning and financial responsibility.”
For Rose, being financially responsible means ensuring that company spending throughout the year, even during the busiest seasons, always takes into account the inevitable return of slow periods. By closely monitoring spending, Rose has never had to layoff an employee for lack of work due to a slow season. This, in turn, has allowed his company to experience one of the lowest employee turnover rates in the industry.
“I view this the same as any other investment in my business,” Rose said. “Sure, it may cost the business a little bit more monetarily than what many owners want to see, especially during a slow season when less revenue is coming in; however, this investment ensures that I have the same, solid workforce in place year-round.”
For Amanda Kinsella, communications director, Logan A/C & Heat Services, Dayton, Ohio, shoulder seasons are the busiest times of the year.
“The quieter the season for service and sales, the more work we do in marketing, because we’re trying to maximize every single opportunity,” said Kinsella, whose business also covers the Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, areas. “Trying to create that steady work flow. I think it can be done, but it requires you to push a lot harder in the shoulder seasons rather than sitting back and relaxing.”
To keep her company’s name in front of consumers in the spring and fall, Kinsella attends numerous home and garden shows, festivals, parades, and other community events. Social media helps as well, and Kinsella said having a steady presence on Facebook has been a great help to the company, as has running television ads during season premieres in the fall. Manufacturer rebates, combined with generous rebates from local utilities, also help drive consumers to replace their equipment while the weather is mild.
“I don’t think you can let this time pass you by,” said Kinsella. “You really do need to maximize the time and use it wisely, because it may be slow today, but luckily enough, tomorrow is a whole different ball game. You don’t know when the weather is going to turn. Hopefully it will work in our favor sooner rather than later.”
Schneller Plumbing, Heating, & Air, Covington, Kentucky, and Cincinnati used to experience slower times during the shoulder seasons, but that has become less of an issue since management tweaked the company’s marketing plan. In fact, the company’s general manager, Jeremy Lee, noted that the company has actually experienced sales growth in excess of 20 percent during these times over the last few years.
“We do not believe in taking a breather during this time,” said Lee. “We focus on training year-round so that we can beef up our marketing during the shoulder seasons. This includes making outbound calls to customer lists and working with our vendors and manufacturers for extra incentives to help make our deals more lucrative to the customers. As a result, we have grown by being proactive instead of reactive. The entire team is on board to work a bit harder during these times.”
To spur business during slower times, Schneller has employed some creative tactics, including giving away everything from free HVAC systems to lawn mowers and restaurant gift cards to homeowners who schedule an appointment to receive a free estimate. This fall, the company is encouraging customers to enter a contest for a free tuneup and humidifier. Schneller is also offering discounted tuneups to homeowners the company has not seen in awhile.
“Our most successful campaign to date was a deal that we dubbed ‘Two-Fur,’ where we sold customers an air conditioner, gave them a furnace for free, and included a Wi-Fi thermostat and 12 months, 0 percent, $0 payment financing,” said Lee. “We are always looking for new ways to improve the customer experience and to be able to demonstrate this for more of them.”
Even though Elliott embraces the slower times of year, his company’s marketing department continues working hard, communicating with clients and running special preseason promotions. “At the end of summer, we often have equipment in our warehouse that we need to unload to make room for heating equipment. We will reach out personally to loyal clients who need to upgrade, replace, or repair a system and make them a good offer. We believe this is a win-win situation as we put our guys to work, and we increase goodwill with our customers.”
In the end, seasonal change is something contractors can plan on every year, and the best way to approach it is to have a strategy.
“Know your business, know your strong and weak periods, and implement your plan to take care of your company and your employees during the slow periods all year long,” said Rose. “At the end of the day, the goals for every company during the slow periods will be different. We have always been most concerned with taking care of our customers and employees and treating them like family regardless of the time of year. I feel that our plan of action over the past 55 years has done — and continues to do — just that.”
Publication date: 10/30/2017