Business as Usual May Not Be the Best Way to do Business

Change a light bulb. Install a sign. Patch a pothole. The days of simply sweeping parking lots are long gone for many contractors. Instead, most shopping center and apartment managers are looking for “one-stop” maintenance.
That means that sweeping contractors, long at the forefront of parking lot work, are expanding their services. The result can be profitable, if done correctly. Crews stay busy; the work is challenging. The expanded array of services can open up a terrifically lucrative source of income.
However, before a contractor jumps into the world of expanded maintenance, he needs to assess his own abilities to do the work if he hopes to successfully meet the needs of clients. The key is to deliver all the services that are promised with the same care and attention to detail that the customer received from the initial sweeping contract.
Sweeping company owners throughout the country are aggressively advertising their “all-in-one” services. One example is Zebra Striping, Inc. near Portland, Maine. The company, in business since 1981, has an impressive website that touts the evolution of its “one-stop shop” for commercial accounts, residential associations, and contractors. Anything a lot needs—from striping parking spaces to seal coating, snow plowing and sanding, and other routine maintenance—Zebra Striping does it.
This multi-purpose approach to parking lot maintenance is particularly beneficial in the northern region of the country, where snow buries some areas for months at a time. In the past, sweeping contractors there viewed the winter months as their downtime, laying off workers, repairing machines and equipment, and generally just getting through the slow season. No more. Snow plowing, sanding (for icy areas), and other maintenance jobs are good supplements to a conventional parking lot sweeping service.
Zebra Striping, owned by Mike Snowman, designs lots, fills cracks and repairs potholes, paves, installs signs and removes snow and treats ice—all of that in addition to sweeping.
The advantage to this “one-stop” service is that sweeping contractors who have an existing relationship with property managers can meet nearly all of the managers’ parking lot needs. Signs are one example. Every parking lot requires signs, either to indicate handicapped parking, entrance, or exits, or for traffic control. It is much simpler for a property manager to make a call to someone whom he already knows and trusts to do the work.
Of course, such diversification can be tricky. Crafting a contract that provides fair pricing while accurately describing the services requires a keen attention to detail.
Gabe Vitale is president of C & L Sweeper Service, a company in Jackson, New Jersey. Vitale started out as a conventional parking lot sweeping contractor in 1971. Over the years, as the times have changed so has C & L. The family-owned company has a fleet of vacuum and broom sweepers that treat all sorts of surfaces, including site preparation for construction, post-construction cleanup, parking lot sweeping, and related work. In addition, C & L Sweeper Service has expanded its offerings to include a huge array of services to clients, including the installation of signs, paving, repairing potholes, bollard repairing, and installation and striping.
Vitale, a founding member of the North American Power Sweeping Association, said that being successful at multi-purpose property maintenance almost always evolves from a good initial relationship with a sweeping client.
            "The extra services usually branch off a very good relationship from your client," Vitale said. "We started out as regular street sweepers, and we just grew with the times. If you’re not reinventing yourself, you’ll die, especially with this economy the way it is now."
    Expanding services can be a very good business move for a sweeping contractor, if done correctly. Vitale cautions that the worst thing a sweeping contractor can do is to over-promise services.
     "Don’t be afraid to say no," Vitale said. "Most people are afraid they’ll lose the customer if they say no to doing a service." That can be a big mistake. Customers should receive the same high-quality service with sign installation, striping, or paving as they have come to expect from the sweeping work. To fall short could badly damage the customer-client relationship.
"Don’t take on more than what you can handle," Vitale said. "Do what you say you are going to do."
        What a contractor does or does not do ultimately comes down to the contract. A good one, written by a very experienced contractor or an attorney, can dictate success or failure. Masco Sweepers in San Jose, California, not only sells sweepers, it helps contractors make their businesses as successful as possible. Mike Dyck of Masco has said that the complexity of parking lot bidding determines the success of a sweeping business, regardless of how many “extra services” the contractor offers.
The company’s website has a nice overview for those who are new to the sweeping business. Many of the tips on the site deal with bidding procedures. Although they primarily have to do with sweeping, a lot of the suggestions can be expanded to include additional parking lot services, such as lighting maintenance, bollard repairs, striping, and snow removal.
        For example, Masco and other sweeper manufacturers suggest that contractors consider the following factors when establishing a price or bid for services:
        * What type of store will you service? Fast food restaurants and grocery stores tend to have more litter than banks and hardware stores. Here, lighting can be a factor. Some places, such as all-night restaurants, need more lighting-maintenance work. In short, bulbs need to be changed more often. Factor that in.
        * Do the surrounding plants, shrubs, or trees create a bigger demand for sweeping? Will leaf litter be an issue in the fall? Do you have a way to remove the leaves? How will they be disposed of?
        * What is the configuration of the parking lot? Corners and hard-to-reach areas are obviously more difficult and time consuming to plow or sweep. Bid accordingly.
        * Will you be removing trash from sidewalks and flower beds? How often? Where will the trash go? Who pays for disposal? Is it included in the bid price?
        * What about the back of the store or apartment area? Are you responsible for maintaining the areas around dumpsters or garbage bins? Again, time is a factor.
        * How messy is the business next door? Will Big Mac boxes from the McDonald’s next door blow onto your lot?
        * What about vandalism? Pay close attention to the neighborhood. Will you have to spend additional time repairing signs, replacing broken light fixtures, or collecting trash from upended waste cans?
        * What about dealing with snow and ice removal? Masco estimates that weather-related maintenance, such as snow plowing, salting, sanding, and other ice treatment, can take four times longer than sweeping. The contract should reflect the additional time requirements.
        Finally, deliver what you promise. “What are your expectations of the owner/manager of this lot? Will you be able to satisfy him?” the Masco website advises contractors to consider these questions.
        “It is important to know exactly what you have promised so that when you have a problem on your account and a disagreement over what you were to do, you can always go back to what was written in the estimate. It also gives you a good negotiating tool. If the manager feels that the service is needed, yet the price is more than he wishes to pay, you can subtract some areas of service in order to determine a price he can afford to pay,” the company recommends.
        The idea of a sweeping contractor just sweeping parking lots may be becoming a quaint relic of the past. As Gabe Vitale has discovered, a successful sweeping business changes with the times and with the needs of its customers.  In some areas, that means removing snow and treating ice for six months out of the year. For others, maintaining flower beds, repairing light fixtures, and cleaning dumpster sites are all parts of the job. Talk to your good customers. Find out what they need. Andalthough it may seem counterproductive at firstdon’t be afraid to say no. The best customer service is not what you promise, but what you actually can provide.


By Marie Elium

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