Three attributes you should look for in ideal customers, and nine strategies to improve your relationship with new—and existing—customers.
Last paving season, DRS Paving, Fitchburg, Wis., was turning away customers left and right. They’d experienced the third wettest June, July and August and the seventh wettest September on record, which pushed back many of the company’s jobs.
In fact, according to DRS Project Estimator Krystal Strassman, who also works as the marketing director for Asphalt Reheat Systems, there were two weeks that were so wet, her crew worked only half of a day in a two-week period.
“By October, I was turning away so much work because I couldn’t guarantee I’d make it to them before the end of the season,” she said. Right around that time, she was approached about a $90,000 commercial paving job. “He asked if I could get him in this year and when I said maybe, maybe not, he said next year would be just fine, too,” Strassman recalled. “Having flexible customers is pretty great.”
Although attracting as many customers as your crew can handle might be top-of-mind as we approach 2017’s paving season, Strassman said it’s also important to attract the right kinds of customers. Here are her words of wisdom on what makes someone a good customer to have on your books.
They’re flexible with the circumstances.
“I really appreciate when people know what it takes to get a good job,” she said. “If they rush the work, they’re going to pay for it in quality down the road.”
Flexibility is huge for a couple of reasons, Strassman said. For example, if DRS had a large job and there’s a 50 percent chance of rain in the forecast, Strassman doesn’t want to pick up $10,000 worth of material at the start of the day and have to eat that expense when the rain starts.
Or, what if you start paving a city street and the rain starts right when your crew is in the main intersection? “You’re going to have the coldest seam ever in the most vulnerable spot,” Strassman said. “You have to have customers who want to understand what it takes to get a good quality job. And the stars have to align for that to happen.”
“You can’t let other people run the show,” Strassman said, “because they don’ know what’s going on behind the scenes.”
What you can do about it:
1) Under promise and over deliver.
“We’ll give them a rough timeline, but tell them we’re looking at the weather and here’s why,” Strassman said. “Being able to explain that to them and having them understand it is so important.”
“We never make false promises that we can be out there paving tomorrow when we know we can’t,” Strassman said. “I love under-promising and over-delivering. If the office tells me we’re three weeks out, I tell the customer we’re four weeks out so I can make sure I make good on my promise.”
2) Manage expectations in writing.
Managing expectations is key to maintaining good relationships with your customers. Contracts can be an invaluable tool to manage those expectations.
A few things Strassman has learned to always include in her contracts—beyond standard things—includes describing DRS landscaping and dumping policies. Although the company will roughscape the area, Strassman makes it clear they are not a landscaping company.
She also makes the company’s material dumping process very clear.
“We occasionally get a customer who wants us to dump material on his farm or somewhere on one of his properties, but we don’t do that,” she said. “We say it’s for insurance purposes—and it partly is—but it’s also because it would require me to go scope out the area, make a map of where to dump it, and risk my guys not knowing where to put it, or a miscommunication, like, ‘I didn’t want the concrete in there, too!’ and now I have to go back and sort that out.” It’s much easier, she said, to have a standard policy in the contract.
Another common instance is a customer might ask DRS, if they are taking gravel out from one portion of the project, to place it somewhere else. “But they might think we’ll grade it, but I make it clear that we’ll place it in a pile on the jobsite but grading will cost extra.”
Any other extras, for example, on a job with a general contractor who performs the fine grading in such a way that DRS needs more asphalt, is included in the contract. “If the job calls for X tons and it takes Y, we outline in the contract that they need to pay a certain price per ton, and I’m always sure to hand in my tickets,” she said.
For any changes on the job, Strassman requires the customer to sign off on a carbon-copy change order, just to make sure all the bases are covered, from contract to completion.
3) Keep communication channels open.
Even the most flexible customer needs to know what’s going on. “Customers can call me, email me, text me, whatever,” Strassman said. “Keeping an open line of communication makes the customer more comfortable and establishes respect for you and your crew.”
They trust the crew to do the job right.
“The customers that look to me for answers and recommendations, the ones that trust DRS, the ones that let me do my work…those are the best customers,” she said. “They don’t lay asphalt every day and they realize that they have to trust who they hire.”
Micromanaging customers can do more than be a mere annoyance to the crew. In Strassman’s experience, micromanaging customers can also cause the crew to lose focus.
“When you’re being watched like a hawk, the guys aren’t in their element,” Strassman said. “You have to find your pace, and micromanaging customers can be a kink in the hose.”
What you can do about it:
4) Educate the customer.
When working with any customer, fully explaining the scope of the job and ensuring everyone is on the same page is key.
“It needs to be a balance between a conversation and education,” Strassman said.
One step Strassman always takes to ensure she is on the same page with a customer is to show pictures and drawings that can help them fully understand the scope and details of the project.
She’s also very clear to explain DRS’s process. “We paint lines on the job and I tell them the paving crew will fill in between those lines, so if that’s not what you want, you need to say so before we pave,” she said. “They need to know once it’s laid we can’t do anything about it.”
5) But don’t make them feel stupid.
Strassman also has developed a solid strategy in dealing with customers who might think they know what they need, but might be misinformed. She asks leading questions.
“For example, someone might think they want a 2-inch overlay, that they don’t want to dig out this area or that area, etc.,” she said. So, she—very smartly—asks questions rather than dictates ultimatums. In this example, Strassman said she’d ask questions first, like ‘are you familiar with reflective cracking,’ ‘do you expect to have adequate drainage after you put 2 inches on top,’ and ‘do you think it will be less expensive.’
“You have to ask them questions to get them to think about the ‘why’ behind things,” Strassman said. “Once they have to explain the process, they start to realize it’s not an absolute.”
6) Value repeat business.
Although most successful laydown companies rely on repeat business, Strassman said it means more than a contract.
“Trust comes from doing something correctly and doing what you say you’ll do,” she said. “We have a lot of customers who trust us and are flexible with us because they know we have a lot repeat customers.”
“After you do enough jobs for them, you don’t have to re-explain things every time,” she said. “They don’t get so riled up when it rains one day. They’re more likely to trust you and go with the flow.”
They’re good people.
“The perfect customer relationship goes like this: I explain what I know, we sign the contract, they let me do the work, and they ask if they have any questions. We finish the job right, they pay, they come back to us when they need more work. And every once in a while, a note saying it was a pleasure working together is an added bonus,” she said. “Mostly, it’s just being a good person.”
Perfect customers are not only flexible and trusting, they’re also pleasant to work with and pay on time.
“There have been times when customers have gotten nasty with me about this or that,” Strassman said. Most of the time, communication and explanation is enough, but sometimes, a customer may not want to hear it. And sometimes, it’s okay to part ways with a customer you can’t see eye-to-eye with.
In one instance, a potential customer preferred to work with a man. The company stood behind Strassman and turned away the business. “As much as you might want to say something,” she said, “You just need to bite your tongue and move on.”
What you can do about it:
7) Do your due diligence.
For larger jobs, Strassman is always sure to look up potential customers on C-Cap, Wisconsin Circuit Court Access.
“We look for any liens or judgments that have happened to the company,” she said. This helps to inform her if they should require payment up front, or, at the very least, acts as a signal to proceed with caution. “If you have a big job and there’s something ‘off’ about the customer, you absolutely need to get everything in writing. Don’t leave anything up to a handshake.”
DRS’s policy is to require 50 percent of the payment after the prep work has been completed and 50 percent after paving. Strassman also works closely with DRS’s controller to find out if customers have a history of payment issues. “If we have to chase you down for our money, we won’t do repeat work for you,” she said. But she’s also very hesitant to require too much money up front. “I don’t want people thinking we have their money and they can just call us and tell us to show up in the morning. That’s not how the relationship can work, and that needs to be really clear.”
8) Trust your gut.
Although reputation really matters in the asphalt industry, every business—paving or not—has a reputation. Do you know the reputation of your customers?
“We have the benefit of working in a small town,” Strassman said, “so someone always knows something about someone else.” But she also never undervalues a gut feeling—something she learned from her father. “If you get a weird feeling, you need to ask around, dig into things, ask more questions until you feel comfortable.”
9) Don’t be afraid to walk away.
Although she tries to avoid any relationship reaching a point of tension, Strassman also isn’t afraid to walk away from a job. “I’m not afraid to say, ‘This isn’t going to work out, but let’s part as acquaintances. No hard feelings.”
“There will always be someone who wants something for nothing” Strassman said. “Sometimes, you just have to believe in karma and hope it comes back around.”
BONUS: They also listen to instructions.
“If I never had to explain about tire indents ever again, I would be so happy,” Strassman said. Asphalt is softest and most vulnerable right after paving, but it’s often a difficult concept for customers who are familiar with driving over recently paved roads to understand. “Driving over new asphalt is very different from parking on it,” Strassman said. “If it’s a 100-degree day and you want to park something heavy on your lot right after it’s paved, you better believe me when I say it might leave tire marks.”
“You can put down harder AC to begin with, but then there’s no flex to the pavement during the freeze thaw cycle and you’re going to take years off its life,” she said. “Or, you can just be more careful for the first month.”