Strategy and Planning: Making the Most of Winter’s Downtime
High-performing contractors share a common, once-a-year habit: They efficiently use winter downtime to sow the seeds for success when the busy season picks up again.
The winter offers an opportunity to take stock of where your business is at the moment and where you want it to be. In between any snow and ice-related services the company has to meet, you can ideally find time to gain perspective on the best and worst jobs of the past nine months and what kind of jobs you hope to land in the year ahead. Are you hoping to move away from one-off fire pit installations and take on at least two expansive outdoor living space design/build projects a year? Are you hoping to expand your coverage area and your team? Or should this year be all about growing the skills and expertise of the employees you have now?
Strategizing isn’t something you do a lot of when the business is running at full tilt. It’s very different from the daily rigors of selling, closing, and managing jobs. Strategizing is exceptionally effective when you can step away from the intense work schedules of spring, summer, and fall and gain valuable perspective. You can also borrow some simple methodology from other industries that reliably improve process and profit.
Finding some time to do a little strategizing can pay huge dividends next season, and striking the right balance can reinvigorate both you and your business.
Take the Retrospective Road
It’s crucial to gather the information you’ll need over the winter to build a coherent strategic plan. This involves looking back at what went well and what didn’t. It’s taking a retrospective view, and you may need your key players involved to explore, in an honest and straightforward way, how last season could have been improved. It’s not a finger-pointing blame session, but rather an impersonal and realistic assessment of what went wrong, what went right, and where there’s room for improvement—and growth.
Whether you make it a closed-door, management-only meet-up is obviously your call, but don’t underestimate the value of including key employees in the discussion. You’ll benefit from insights others see that you might have missed, and they could get a boost from being brought into the fold. Ask a project manager, for example, to walk you through a recent hardscape installation from day one to completion. Where were the snags? Where could a process be improved? How satisfied was the customer in the end, and how do you know?
However you go about gathering information, you ultimately need a comprehensive snapshot of where the business is today. Not just what went wrong or right, but the numbers—are you meeting your revenue and profitability goals? How’s your percentage of lucrative households? How’s your cash on hand? How well were you positioned to enter the winter season, and the new busy season ahead? This time next year, where do you want to be? Is it time to revise your payments strategy, to bring in more sales?
There are some general categories to think about as part of your winter strategizing. You likely have some preferences you like to focus on, including:
As you ponder each category, make sure you write down ideas. In his best-selling book, Getting Things Done, organizational guru David Allen emphasizes the crucial importance of capture, of getting things out of your head and onto paper, or your hard drive, and onto a list – a list stored in a central location that you can access and use consistently.
It will become your strategy – what to focus on for the rest of the winter, and in the high-volume job season to come.
Refining the Marketing Plan
Whatever your marketing strategy was last season, whether it was relying on mailers, social media, or online customer reviews, now is the time to tally what has been effective and what wasn’t. It was easy to add analytics to your website, but it’s not always as easy to track actual effectiveness across all channels. How many calls did you get from one Facebook Ad, and was there a system for follow-up? Are you getting more traction in one zip code over another?
It’s also a good time to consider the shape of your website. Your site conveys your brand, and if its design or content is dated, it may be time to think about a revamping. Do you have webpages dedicated to a specific demographic or type of job? Focused webpages can help pull in potential customers who are most interested in having a particular hardscape feature built more than the general pages that tout your general business. Such pages can act as the next step in the call to action from a direct mailer, social post, or other lead-capturing source. They could address the needs of a specific audience, depending on their hot buttons — you could have a page dedicated to sustainable landscape projects, for example, photos of recently installed water features, or outdoor entertaining concepts. Expanding your website content could be all about the exact type of projects you want to acquire.
And be sure you’re cross-promoting and leveraging social media to the maximum possible extent. It’s effective and especially useful for posting visuals like job photos and videos or smiling customers accompanied by glowing testimonials. Social media tools, such as Facebook’s groups, offer a powerful way to build customer relationships, drive sales, and stand out from the competition.
Process Improvements on the Jobsite and at the Office
The office staff is the glue that holds things together, and with all the scheduling and contact activity that passes through it, it’s got to be strong. Did any process issues over the past year put a project timeline at risk? Does the team grumble at a productivity-stifling procedure that’s taking them away from the main job? Could communication efforts be improved?
Anything to make the process between employees and from the office to the field could have a direct effect on the bottom line. It’s a crucial issue that’s been addressed in the high-tech industry, which you can adapt for your company. Modern software teams have sped up productivity and avoided misunderstandings through the use of daily stand-up meetings. These quick huddles tackle a few critical questions and then everyone moves on with their day.
What crucial information does everyone need to know? What happened, and what did each team member do yesterday? What’s everyone doing today? And what are the blockers — those issues getting in the way of progress on the project. Blockers are sometimes things that aren’t obvious or even visible to everyone, yet don’t get shared by those who actually do notice them.
Whether or not you think stand-up meetings would fit your company culture, it’s worth taking the time to identify at least one new practice for next season, some repeated mistake to correct, or new procedure to implement that will make the office, or the jobs themselves, run more smoothly.
For instance, you could focus on jobsite improvements. Focus on those repeatable processes and changes that multiply costs or savings across all projects. Minimize labor costs with more efficient and repeatable loading and unloading at the shop, perhaps.
Improvements can come from internal changes in your procedures, or from external changes in materials or techniques. That could be something as simple as updating how you implement edge restraints, or the way you prepare the base and bedding for a hardscape project.
Switching to using an open-graded base, for instance, may be an improvement that makes benefits accrue across all your projects.
Technology That Takes You to the Next Level
Technology is advancing faster than anyone can keep up — at the very least it requires a regular check-in to see if it can speed up your business or bring you closer to knowing how your business is really doing.
Planning and estimation software, for instance, can save thousands in materials costs, it can greatly reduce planning errors, and take over the drudgery of more labor-intensive planning and estimating processes that are often the root of mistakes in the first place. If any of that sounds like a reasonable consideration for your business, it’s worth looking at LMN software. They offer tiered pricing for different budgets, and much more than just planning and estimation features. To find out more, visit https://golmn.com/
If you’re not yet using 3D design software, you may be overlooking some of its tangible benefits, and possibly some intangibles as well. UVision software from Unilock was designed and built for the hardscape industry, by experts who understand the needs of your business. It’s a great way for all stakeholders to visualize the project, with lighting effects that present their design layout, using their chosen textures and colors, at different times of day, from any angle. While that’s pretty cool, it can also nudge on-the-fence clients to sign off on a design with confidence.
A must for your strategy list — even if it’s just for consideration — is new equipment. You may not even want to look at new equipment options if you know it’s unlikely to fit your budget. But that kind of self-limiting outlook can hide serious opportunities to take your business, and your bottom line, to the next level. Look at what’s new whether you think you can afford new equipment or not. Looking isn’t buying, and you can always put it on next season’s list.
Lease and rental options often make good sense, and they allow your business to reap potentially significant cost-savings and efficiency gains from what’s new without putting a huge dent in cash flow. It could also keep you compliant with federal regulations if you haven’t yet taken a close look at tools that minimize workers’ exposure to silica dust. And it could keep the job site as efficient possible if it’s time to upgrade equipment like a new mini-excavator.
Even if you don’t add new equipment acquisition to your strategy list, add looking at new equipment, considering ROI, and evaluating trade-offs, so you don’t miss out on a strategic acquisition that pays for itself.
What in-house skills does the team have, and how could they be expanded? Opportunities are widely available — from certifications to training, you can expand your own expertise or that of the team. Unilock provides online programs and training seminars through seminars like Unilock Contractor Expos. If you’re looking at any of the software options mention previously, you should know that training is available for design software like UVision, and planning, estimation, and CRM software like LMN
Plan and Strategize While You Can
When you’re serious about growing your business, you’ve made a habit of using the winter to both plan for improvements and make actual improvements. Set aside time now while you have it to develop a steady list of improvements, actions to meet them, and milestone dates to keep you accountable. Before you know it, the busy time will be back in session.