For snow & ice management companies, the challenge of a widespread salt supply shortage has incredible operational ramifications. This past winter, even those who had a stockpile to carry through much of the snowy weather needed to take quick action to honor contracts and keep clients safe. Whether conserving material, substituting de-icing materials, or simply using sand, dirt or ashes to help provide traction, the status quo simply wasn’t possible for the vast majority. The biggest challenge, however, may have been how to work with customers to communicate a plan and maintain customer satisfaction.
Taking the correct approach to working with customers through a challenge that so greatly impacts a company’s ability to perform is critical to ensuring a good relationship and contract renewal. The simple approach may be to tell the customer that salt isn’t available and to expect to see something different on their property. The consequences may be that the client will look for a new snow vendor moving forward. Even if the end result is the same, the communication process needs to reflect a partnership between customer and vendor.
The best way to work with clients through a challenge is to frame the discussion as a problem-solving partnership. When done successfully, this approach will make the client sympathetic to the company’s challenges and give a sense of accomplishment when a solution is reached. Further, it will help the customer defend the solution to other stakeholders within their organization because they helped develop the plan.
Discussing the problem and solutions with the client is no different than the internal operation discussions that already occur within a snow business. We must define the problem, explore alternatives, select a plan, implement the solution, and evaluate the results. Exploring each step in detail before talking with a client will help guide the discussion and help ensure a successful result.
Define the problem
Have a conversation with the client about the problem. Explain that salt is not available on a national level, that future supply is limited, and this is not a matter of cost. Help the client understand that the situation is based on weather, national demand, and the role that local and state governments play in securing salt. Finally, explain the amount of deicing material that is on-hand, how long you expect it to last, and when more is expected.
These details also are beneficial for a snow company to manage its inventory, so if the answers are unknown work with suppliers to learn them.
The next step is exploring alternative solutions. These may include substituting deicing materials, supplementing salt with a type of traction control, or focusing on priority areas and times to reduce material use. Ask the customer their thoughts on each, answer their questions, and explore the pros and cons of each alternative. The discussion may result in the discovery of a new solution.
Finally, let the customer suggest which solution they’d like to use. Forcing a solution will make them feel undervalued and reflect negatively on the vendor. Instead, when the clients choose the path to take, they will appreciate the cooperative attitude and defend their decision. This is vital because the client must convince other people within their company that the solution is the best one given the circumstances.
Evaluate the results
After a trial run of the new solution, reach out to the client and evaluate the results. Was the property safe? Are changes needed for next time? Would a different solution have worked better? Developing an entirely new process midseason won’t be perfect, and answering these questions together will help fine-tune the solution.
Keeping a client engaged and treating them like a partner is a good customer relations strategy to practice consistently. While the industry may not see another salt shortage for many years, if ever, this problem-solving process can be used for any operational issue.
- In the event of a shortage, communicate the issue clearly to the client.
- Discuss the alternatives and let the clients choose which path to pursue so they share ownership of the decision.
- Evaluate the new solution to see if it worked and adjust as necessary.
Neal Glatt, CSP, is an account executive for Case Snow Management in Attleboro Falls, MA.