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Snow maintenance services: Best practices for meeting client expectations in property management

By Phil Harwood, MBA

This author spent four years at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing as an undergraduate student studying marketing. As a large university with 49,000 students, 11,000 faculty and staff, and a half-million alumni around the world, expectations for snow and ice services are high among all constituents. Students, staff, visitors, and others all expect clear sidewalks.

The campus was always very well-maintained during the summer, and the sidewalks were always cleared in time for morning classes during the winter. However, to deliver on these high expectations it required significant planning behind the scenes.

Creating a snow plan

It is not surprising to discover MSU’s landscape services department has in place a detailed snow response plan, available on its website for all to see. It is broken up into nine zones, each with a supervisor. Detailed zone maps indicate areas to be shovelled and plans for:

  • parking garages and ramps;
  • more than 81 ha (200 acres) of parking lots;
  • 130 km (62.5 mi) of roadways; and
  • 209 km (130 mi) of sidewalks.

Further, each zone is broken up by specific use—special events, academics, housing, parking, and contracts—to facilitate better decision-making by the ‘snow response’ teams.

Inherent in all these plans are three things: capacity, cycle time, and expectations. Large properties with many constituents place significant pressure on snow and ice professionals, and require extensive planning, organization, and preparedness. An organization may or may not have this kind of pressure in its snow and ice operations, but this author guesses the expectations of its constituents are still very high. If sidewalks, roadways, and parking areas are not clear, someone will be in the hot seat. Without implementing industry best practices for determining capacity, cycle time, and understanding the related implications, it will be very difficult to consistently meet the expectations of a company’s constituents: its customers.

Meeting clients’ expectations

It is common for snow and ice management providers to overextend themselves. Some clearly know the risks of doing so but do not necessarily have the tools or understanding to effectively manage their capacity and cycle time. Capacity, cycle time, and customer expectations must be effectively managed to be successful in the snow business.

If sidewalks, roadways, and parking areas are not clear, someone will be in the hot seat.
If sidewalks, roadways, and parking areas are not clear, someone will be in the hot seat.

So, exactly what is capacity? The National Hockey League’s (NHL’s) Detroit Red Wings sell out every home game. These are called capacity crowds. Capacity is what is available.

It can be easy to exceed capacity. Sometimes it cannot be helped even though everyone knows better. For example, there was controversy surrounding seating capacity at the National Football League’s (NFL’s) Cowboys Stadium for the Super Bowl in 2011. In what was seen by many as an act of greed, 15,000 temporary seats were to be installed in an effort to break the attendance record. Unfortunately, the additional seats could not be installed before game time and buyers of these seats were unable to watch the game live. Instead, they watched the game from a conference room on a screen. It is easy to oversell a capacity, especially where a lack of preparedness is involved.

One of the reasons snow contractors overextend themselves is they fail to account for client expectations. They simply count up the number of trucks they have, multiply by the cycle time they wish to achieve, and call this ‘capacity’—three trucks times five hours of cycle time equals 15 hours of capacity.

However, client expectations may have a dramatic impact on the amount of time required, which affects cycle time and resource use. In other words, client expectations are a key component of determining available capacity. However, there is a better way to determine what is required.

Calculating cycle time

Instead of starting with capacity, start with cycle time. This is the time it takes to complete work in a specified area with a specific type and size resource. For example, cycle time is how long it takes to plow a certain property one complete time, from start to finish, or for a truck to complete its entire route for a particular event.

Once cycle time has been determined, client expectations should be factored in. What could be found is the cycle time significantly increases. Only after cycle time has been adjusted to account for client expectations can an operator determine the amount of demand a property requires—how much capacity it will use up to meet this demand.

In terms of cycle time for an entire fleet and overall capacity, it is important to know the total capacity, to recognize if this is fixed, and to recognize there is only one point where it intersects with demand.

Excess capacity may exist in a low snow year or if sales are light. Similarly, capacity may be exceeded in a heavy snow year or if sales are high. Capacity may also be exceeded when customer expectations are higher than anticipated.

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