Almost every industry has a busy season that it “trains” for all year. Retail has the holiday rush. Restaurants and bars have bowl season. And, landscapers and contractors have the summer.
If you’re just starting out with a seasonal business like landscaping or contracting, you’re probably dreading the slow season and wondering how to make ends meet and keep your staff engaged when customers are sparse.
Of course, there’s no doubt about it—the slow season can take some creativity to stay afloat. But, as it turns out, the busy season can, too. That’s because there are only so many hours in the day and you want to literally make hay while the sun shines.
But, are you doing that at the expense of burning out your staff, as well as yourself?
Discover how landscapers, contractors, and outdoor businesses can do more than survive construction season … but thrive during summer’s “100 Days of Hell.”
1. Be ready for the busy season.
Even if you can’t get out and do “the work,” there are so many tasks you can start during the calm before the storm. Of course, you first want to hire if you need to ramp up. Make sure you offer competitive pay calculated alongside job costing—to maintain profitability. Be specific with your job descriptions so applicants have a clear understanding of what they will be doing.
You don’t want to scare anyone away, but you also don’t want to underestimate any physical aspects of the job. Otherwise, you risk having employees you thought were solidly on board quit because they’re unprepared for the job’s demands, leaving you in the lurch.
Then, make sure all the new hire paperwork, drug testing, and other safety and job-related training is complete, so they can hit the ground running.
Stock up on everything from products you use regularly to marketing materials like yard signs and door hangers. Get equipment cleaned and ready to go, and ensure trucks are serviced so that everything is in good working order.
2. Maximize productivity with ruthless organization.
The last thing you want to do is end up with an unexpected empty spot on your calendar because something wasn’t scheduled correctly. This can be a particularly common issue for building contractors.
For example, if the appliances aren’t delivered in time, the tile team can’t finish off the kitchen. In the industry, this is known as a “blocker,” meaning work can’t progress until a certain element is completed.
One reliable tool is project management software, which allows you to …
- Scope projects by task
- Ensure order and delivery times
- Build adequate time for potential delays, and
- Have a Plan B when something threatens to derail the project
The concept of “organization” also might take the form of geographic decisions. For example, a landscaper might choose to prioritize jobs by location rather than first-come,first-served, which will enable you to send a crew out to do multiple jobs in one general area, saving travel time, gas money and backtracking.
Software can also help you be realistic about what you actually can accomplish. Even though it can be tempting to say “yes” to every project offered, it’s essential to leave some breathing room and decline tasks that aren’t a good fit with your calendar, says Francis Côté, sales manager at Ideal Fence.
3. Consider crew assignments carefully.
In an attempt to get a job done faster, another tactic that many landscapers or contractors will employ is assigning multiple crews to one job site, but Joe Raboine, director of residential hardscapes with Belgard, says he rarely finds that effective.
“There can be too many cooks in the kitchen, which leads to workers becoming distracted and the process becoming inefficient,” Raboine says.
It’s better to let one crew focus on one job site, while another crew does the same.
You also want to assign the right person to the right job. For example, don’t make your grounds crew do the estimating or handle invoicing clients, as those extra tasks can pile up in their already busy workday. If you designate a project manager to handle the majority of client interaction, your crews can do what they do best—the work.
The same goes for the physical labor. Marty Grunder, owner of Grunder Landscaping Co., finds that a lot of their work during the busy season is clean-up jobs, which require less experience than installing a landscaper. He’ll hire temps to push wheelbarrows, which can expand a three-person crew to five and ease the burden on permanent team members.
4. Take care of your crew.
Remember that without the right crew, your work will virtually come to a halt. That’s why it’s important to pay—and even overpay—your team to keep them loyal. Many might jump for a few extra bucks so make sure you’re providing every incentive to stay, from top-tier pay to a season-end bonus structure that will help keep them loyal.
There are a few other ways you can support them. First, don’t overwork them. An unexpected wet week can wreak havoc on a well-planned schedule, Raboine points out, and while your tendency might be to subsequently make up for lost time with crazy hours, he finds that you sacrifice efficiency and productivity at a certain point on those long days.
Of course, sometimes there are situations where you have to bust out a job. but remember that quality and safety trump speediness. so weigh the benefits of working longer shifts versus scheduling clients farther out
Schedule in time to take a break as a crew. For example, on a hot day, why not stop by the site with an ice chest full of icy cold drinks or popsicles, or surprise them with a gift card to a local ice cream place?
Finally, hire managers who make them feel valued and then make it easy for workers to get the support they need. Start the day with a short base touch meeting to go over the day’s projects and goals, offering the chance for workers to ask questions that can help them do their job better, and then close out the day with a brief wrap-up session, making sure to pass on accolades and appreciation for a job well done.
It’s important to create a culture that is focused on mentoring new hires and building the skills of your workers at all levels. If your employees feel supported and see a future with your company, they are apt to stick around.
5. Find efficient processes and tools.
Working smarter, not harder, is always going to pay off. To that end, use best-in-class equipment—even if it costs a bit more upfront—and ensure that it’s always in good repair. Losing time to dealing with finicky tools not only eats into productivity, but also irritates workers.
You also should consider anything that might make their jobs easier. For example, Grunder deploys labor-saving equipment like dump trailers, bed edgers and wheelbarrows. He will also rent trucks to take on more work, if necessary.
On the administrative side, in addition to project management software that lets you schedule more efficiently, use tools that streamline your invoicing processes so that you are spending more time doing the work and less time on t admin tasks that can become onerous as they pile up—especially after a long day during the busy season. After all, you want to be sure you’re being paid in a timely fashion.
6. Set parameters with clients.
The customer is always right, within reason, says Raboine. He recommends getting the client relationship started on positive footing by establishing professional parameters with customers, just like in any other business or industry. For example, he might inform clients that he’s out with his crew during the day, so he returns phone calls between noon and 1 p.m. and responds to email communication within 48 hours.
As long as clients know what to expect, they’re less likely to feel they’re being ignored or resort to multiple contacts, which can be distracting and time-consuming.
“If you don’t set these guidelines up at the beginning, some customers may take advantage of, or become frustrated with, the communication process,” Raboine says.
It’s also important to set parameters on project dates. Use your estimating process to help spread out the work, or at least make the overtime worth your while. So, for jobs that can only be done in dry weather, make sure your estimates reflect increased labor costs so you can adequately compensate your team without coming up short.
Clients who are in a hurry will understand that the issue of supply and demand is at play.
And, if a customer balks, offer them a slightly lower price for attention during the winter when you are slower—assuming it’s a job that can be accomplished during inclement weather, such as interior work. When prospects see their two options, they will have a clear idea of whether they want to pay more to get the work done now, or pay slightly less and give you a job in the slower season—either choice is a win/win for you.
Also, let customers know that you’ll give preference to ones who intend to work with you on an ongoing capacity, rather than for a short, one-off project during your busiest time.
7. Identify lessons after construction season.
When the busy season ends, and you are finally able to draw a sigh of relief, you might be too tired to even think about what you just accomplished. But, directly after the busy season is the ideal time to debrief and identify what went well and what you can improve on for the future. Did you have the right amount and mix of clients? Did you have enough crews? Were they properly trained in advance?
Hold an end-of-season summit with your team to find out what went well and what you can improve on. It’s important to talk with the folks on the front line because of the first-hand perspective they can offer.
Perhaps, they have a better idea for more efficiently starting the morning, or maybe they are being delayed when they find themselves constantly running out of a key staple product that could, instead, be bought in bulk.
As you review your calendar, you also might realize that certain suppliers aren’t reliable, which can inform future purchasing decisions. In the long run, it can be far more valuable to keep a project on schedule but pay a little more for a partner that you’re sure can deliver, versus saving a few bucks with a vendor who doesn’t live up to the agreement.
And, then, of course, congratulate yourself—and your employees—on a job well done and get ready to move on to the important off-season.
8. Assess additional off-season opportunities.
While you might need to staff up during the busy months, developing a core team of employees you can count on can be critical to your company’s success. More than half of workplace injuries occur during the first year on the job, according to Travelers Insurance, so having seasoned workers is a huge benefit to your business.
You might consider paying your workers a salary based on a full year, and then offering a bonus during busier months, while finding additional opportunities for work during the slower season. For example, some landscaping businesses find lucrative work in snow removal or holiday light hanging, or contractors might offer inspections and interior work.
You can also consider offering consulting services to homeowners who might want to start a project in the winter—begin the planning, ordering and other groundwork, and then offer them first spot on your schedule as a thank you for thinking ahead.
Even if homeowners aren’t yet considering these projects, a discount can incentivize them so that you can keep your team busy and make the most of the off-season with projects that can be done then, leaving your calendar open for the true outdoor tasks.
Also, stay in touch with valued seasonal workers, in hopes you are able to engage with them again.
Finally … feel free to enjoy the break when it comes. After all, you’ve earned it.