Getting the Shop Ready for Winter

You don’t need to be a fan of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” to know that “winter is coming,” but the changing seasons can still catch many people off guard. Customers often forget there are services that should be done as the colder weather approaches, but shops often put off the preparation until an early freeze or, worse, late-fall snowstorm requires sudden reaction.

Instead of reacting to a wintery onslaught, a better course of action is to be proactive and use the mild weather of fall to prepare for the coming storms and cold. This doesn’t have to be an overly complex process. Just a few minutes of preparation now can help keep the shop running smoothly until the spring thaw.

“Before the first snowfall, we make sure the shop floors are clean and that we have a big bag of salt for the snow and ice we know we’re going to get,” said Danny Rosenbloom, general manager of HEART Certified Auto Care in Chicago.

“In the summer, we focus on growth. Like a body builder, we have been bulking up all summer by adding staff, extending operating hours and increasing inventory levels,” said Tyson Daniels, president of Idaho-based Threshold Automotive Service.

“As we enter the fourth quarter, we have the opportunity to tighten our belt and get back to fighting weight,” Daniels said. “But to do this, we need to prepare our customers, vendors, employees, facilities and, hopefully, our bank accounts for the winter season.”

While the Old Farmer’s Almanac and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration alike have predicted a milder than usual winter, even a couple of storms can catch a shop off guard. It won’t be winter without some snow and ice.

“Before the weather changes, we need to inspect our facilities and make corrections,” Daniels said.

This includes checking all interior and exterior lighting — replacing bulbs and fixtures will be easier before the cold weather arrives. In addition, Daniels said his team gives the shop a once over to see if any exterior paint should be touched up, and some TLC should be applied to the lawn in the way of a winterization fertilizer, which will help keep the spring weeds away.

Fall is the time, too, to check the parking lot for any holes that should be filled or curbing that should be replaced. Then comes the time to make sure the shop facilities can be adequately buttoned up for that sudden blast of cold weather.

“Check the door thresholds — are the thresholds on the bottom of the bay doors in a condition that will prevent the cold weather from coming into the building?” Daniels asked. “Clean all the windows, doors and spot clean the exterior of the building before the temperatures get cold enough to freeze. Check the driveway signal bell and ensure it is working and installed in a manner that is easy to move for snow removal equipment when needed.”

Employee Scheduling During Winter

No one likes to have extra duties, but in the winter that is all too often the case. So, let the team know in advance that teamwork will be crucial in a snowstorm or other wintery conditions.

This can include scheduling time to refresh the crew on the products and services you will be offering.

“Make sure all crew members know how to inspect, present and perform the service you will be offering,” Daniels said. “Look at last year’s traffic report compared to the current year’s trend. Calculate the staff that is needed based off of labor hours per vehicle.”

Determine in advance how the team will deal with having to clean up from the snow and ice accordingly. Policing the parking lot for ice is also something that could be added to the schedule to ensure it is taken care of regularly.

“We want to schedule with our staff when and where we are checking the parking lot and walkways to make sure both are clear,” said Ramon Morales, shop manager for Honest-1 Auto Care in Chicago. “This includes mopping the floors and putting a sign out to let customers know that there is a potential for slippage. Something simple like this alerts customers and employees to be aware of the surroundings and be a bit more cautious.”

When the white stuff starts falling — and in Chicago both Rosenbloom and Morales said they know it will — there is the need to not only de-ice the parking lot, but to make sure the outside service that handles plowing stay on top of it, as well.

“We work with a service that plows after every snowfall, and they do a good job of keeping up with it,” Rosenbloom said.

“We keep salt on hand, and we have carpets and rugs in the customer waiting area,” explained Casey Nickles, master technician at Honest-1 Auto Care. “We also stay in contact with the plow company to make sure the parking lot will be clear.”

Fall is also the time to contact snow removal companies to discuss needs, pricing and, more importantly, availability. A snowed-in lot isn’t going to bring in customers.

“I got a great deal [on snow removal service] one year but failed to mention that we needed our lots cleared by 7am. The vendor we chose could not do this reliably, and we had a difficult time finding a replacement that could,” Daniels said. “If you take care of your own snow removal, make sure you have plenty of quality shovels, ice melt and labor to keep the lots clear.”

In most cases, techs shouldn’t be called up unless absolutely necessary. For one thing, digging out of heavy snow can be back breaking work and could put some individuals at risk. But for light snow, keeping a path to the door could help show customers you’re going the extra distance to make the shop welcoming.

Just like keeping the parking lot and waiting area entrance clear, it is also important to keep the shop floor clean and clear of ice, snow and water. Here too, someone needs to champion this project.

“We make sure that the shop floor is always clean and clear,” Rosenbloom said. “We have a squeegee and use it constantly in the snow and heavy rain. The floor needs to be clean, because we don’t want an injury because someone slipped on snow or ice.”

Stay Warm and Healthy

Before the snow arrives, it is a good idea to make sure the furnace is running. Don’t wait until you need it to find out!

“We’re a new shop, but speaking from experience, I can say with an older shop you want to maintain the furnace and check those things before it gets too cold,” Morales said. “If you have small heaters on the floor, those should be checked, too. You don’t want to worry about those things when there is a sudden drop in temperature.”

If the furnace isn’t new, make sure to have it checked. It can be very hard to live without air conditioning in the summer, but in the winter it can be impossible to live without heat.

“We have the furnace serviced once a year,” Rosenbloom said. “We can’t operate the shop if it is literally freezing inside. Heat in a shop is simply a must. Customers aren’t going to wait, and the employees can’t work.”

The team can do some of this maintenance.

“I like to change the furnace filters and start the furnace over the weekend to prevent breathing in all the dust that has collected inside the furnace during the warmer months,” explained Daniels, who recommended taking some of the heating precautions even further. “Consider installing wireless thermostats that are run off a program to control heating and air conditioning costs.”

If there are items e stored outside, they should be properly tied down or moved indoors, and equipment that needs to be winterized should have that work done in the coming weeks, as well.

“We make sure that the lifts are serviced and cleaned, and that the hydraulic fluids are properly flushed,” Rosenbloom said. “We change all the air filters, too.”

Changing those air filters in the shop can be as important as having customers change them in their vehicles, and for the same reason — ensuring that fresh air is flowing. In the winter, it is necessary to ensure the air flows well to reduce the spread of germs.

Last winter had been one of the worst cold and flu seasons in decades, and having even a few employees out could be devastating for a shop.

“We really enforce the policy that if you’re sick, stay home,” Rosenbloom said. “We don’t want the whole crew sick.”

Keeping the team healthy is crucial to keeping the shop running!

“I totally agree,” Morales added. “If you are sick, do not report to work and risk getting the team sick. We also make sure the employees know to dress appropriately for the weather and stay on top of their health.”

In other words, clothes make the tech.

“Absolutely,” Rosenbloom said. “We make sure the front-end and shop guys have jackets and hats for when the temperatures drop.”

The other part of keeping the team healthy is keeping the shop clean and sanitized. While it is possible to keep the sick employees at home, unfortunately you can’t always keep a sick customer away. Instead, here is where shops do need to be proactive.

“We make sure to clean and sanitize the waiting area and rest rooms at least once a day, and more if it is needed,” Nickles said. “We want to be proactive about killing germs.”

Working With Vendors

A long winter can be hard on a business, so Daniels recommended that shops communicate early and often with vendors and suppliers.

“Contact vendors about any specials available during the last of the year,” he explained. “I was able to score a ‘buy three get one free’ deal on wipers just by asking and making a large order to carry through winter. In addition, price shop suppliers for antifreeze and washer fluid, and contact other service providers, such as uniform companies, to discuss needs and pricing.”

And don’t forget the bank.

“Talk to your banker to discuss any financial needs,” Daniels added. “I have found it’s always better to ask for money when you don’t need it.”

Another consideration for winter prep is planning for the late fall and early winter holidays, and this means ensuring that seasonal decorations and promotional materials are in good order.

“We do think about this in the fall,” Morales said. “We want to remind customers that the weather is changing, but we also promote holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas to spread some holiday cheer.”

With the change of seasons can also come new promotions. Daniels suggested operators consider updating their websites, promotional offers and other signage.

The final part of winterizing also means alerting the customer directly about how to take care of their vehicles. This can begin as the leaves change colors and can continue as the temperatures drop.

“Now is the time to test batteries, and tell the customer that we should check the anti-freeze and lubrication levels,” Rosenbloom said. “Winter is coming, and you want the car to be ready for it, too.”