Keeping the Cash Flowing When It’s Slow
In most areas of the country window cleaning is seasonal work. When the leaves start to turn those beautiful fall colors and drop to the ground, we know our cash flow will soon start falling as well. Depending on one’s perspective and preparation, this can be a tough time or a welcome relief.
For some the winter months are a great time to migrate to a sunny warm climate and take a vacation for three or four months. For others it’s time to slow down a bit, reflect, plan for the future and recharge your mind and body so you’re ready to go at it full speed ahead come the first of April.
For some the winter months bring stress, worry, pot pies and beans. It’s cash crunch time again. We have to cut back on our expenses, lay workers off and possibly dig into our savings to pay the bills. Worse yet it can be a time for bounced checks and those nasty calls from the friendly folks at the collection agency.
This may also be a good time to take a close look at your expenses and see where costs might be reduced. Does it mean cutting back on staffing, reduced office hours, canceling or reducing insurance coverage?
Another approach that some cleaners use to smooth out the hills and valleys of seasonal income fluctuations is to switch gears and offer a different type of service during the slow months. This is not a bad idea as many of your regular customers are also prime candidates for your seasonal service work. It may simply be a matter of asking for a different kind of work than you normally do. And you may be pleasantly surprised to find out that these so called “add-on” services may actually be more profitable than the window cleaning you’re used to doing.
In talking to a number of window cleaners, several possibilities come to mind, such as: awning cleaning, pressure washing, gutter and roof cleaning, snow removal, applying solar film, and Christmas tree light installation and removal to name just a few of the possibilities.
Regardless of what you choose, it may take a little getting used to. Some professionals get pretty hung up on being a window cleaner and have a difficult time seeing themselves doing anything else. But with a little practice, an open mind and a positive attitude, you should be able to adjust.
Let’s talk to few window cleaners who have made the transition and see what insight and tips they have to offer.
Mike Haynes, owner of Mike’s Window Service in Portland, OR, says that his window cleaning work normally starts to taper off in mid October and stays slow till mid March or the first week of April, depending on how many hours of rain they have each year during the wet season. “I started to offer gutter cleaning to keep me busy in the winter months. Now it accounts for probably 45% of my annual income. In fact I do it year around, but not in July or August because it’s too hot for me on the roof and it’s not good for the roofing material to have someone walking on it, when it’s soft.
“I took my normal business cards and got a rubber stamp to add the words Gutter Cleaning in different color ink. It looks fine and is quite effective. All it takes is a bucket, a pair of rubber gloves and a gutter cleaning tool. I don’t use a pressure washer because it makes too much of a mess. It blows the sand, mud and leaves all over everything and then I have to clean it up or the customer is unhappy. If it’s all dry leaves, and depending on the home, sometimes I will use a blower to clean out the leaves, but most of the time I scoop it out and bag it for disposal.
“In January and February I run a small ad in the service guide section of the local newspaper. It costs me about two dollars day and gets pretty good results. Plus, I usually get a few new window cleaning customers out of it, too. The rest of the year, I’m so busy I can’t get all the jobs done if I advertise. It’s a lot like window cleaningneighbors see you doing it and come over and ask for a card or an estimate. Most every house has gutters, so everybody needs it sooner or later. I find that if you’re professional, tidy and on time, people are real happy to have you do it for them.
“I charge $45.00 an hour for gutter cleaning which is $5.00 more than I charge for window cleaning. Sometimes I only do the high work and the homeowner will do the low work. I check out each job and guesstimate how long it will take and multiply that time $45.00 per hour and quote a price. Most jobs take under two hours and cost between $45.00 and $80.00. I have maybe a dozen houses that are pretty big and I charge them $100.00. It’s fast easy work. It’s not as difficult or detailed as window cleaning and people are real happy to have me do it.
“Gotta gobusiness line is ringing. Probably somebody else who wants their gutters cleaned.”
(Editor’s note: Haynes invented a gutter cleaning tool that sells for $7.00. It is sold by all the window cleaning supply companies or you can call him direct at 503-281-6248 for information and the name of a distributor near you.)
Clint Lewis, owner of Kleen-n-Clear Window Cleaning in Snohomish, WA, tells me that he notices a 25 to 30% decrease in his business between January and April before it picks up again, with December normally being his busiest month of the year.
“I used to stress out about it, but now I see it as a good time to take some time off. We go to Palm Springs each year, and I do some sub contracting for companies down there. It’s part time work in a great location. It pays the cost of my vacation and makes it a deductible expense. So I’ve learned to look forward to it.
“I keep myself out of debt so I don’t have to worry about some huge car payment and this helps me avoid the stress. By paying cash I save money on interest as well. I also get competitive quotes each year on my vehicle and business insurance. If you don’t they tend to raise the price on you each year. Sometimes you can save as much as 50% by shopping around. It also helps to set up a payment plan to put some money aside instead of living pay check to pay check like I used to.
“And lastly, it’s important to keep the pressure on employees to be especially productive during the slower months. We have diversified a little, by getting into pressure washing and gutter cleaning, which account for about 20% of our annual income. I tried awning cleaning, but it was too dirty for me, so we got out of it. I’m a yuppie window cleaner. I don’t want to work up too much of a sweat or get too dirty if I don’t have to.”
Jay Egeler, owner of Window Dr. in Jackson, MI, did anything he could when he first started but now concentrates more on windows.
“Depending on the weather, my business can drop off as much as 50% right after the holidays. Other years we can clean widows for 10 days in January. It’s important to learn to book your work correctly. You need to maintain some flexibility. If the weather is good, you need to work outside and put off the inside work for days when it’s too cold to be outside. We also offer window services now. That includes things like putting up and taking down storm windows, repairing screens, replacing glass, ropes, and putty. I set these things off to do during the winter months.
“If the weather provides the opportunity we also do some snow removal for anybody who needs it. This normally takes 15 to 30 minutes to clear a driveway and sidewalk and we charge $10.00 to $30.00. Sometimes we get to do the same driveway twice in a day and other years there isn’t much snowfall.
“There is not much I can do to cut costs; I’m already a home based business, so my overhead is low. I enjoy some time off and little slower pace during the winter. It’s not the end of the world. It gives me a chance to reassess my goals and business plan and to get better organized.”
Alex Tate, Division Manager for United Building Services in Seattle, WA, says his company doesn’t see much of a slow down during the winter months. “We do some 40,000 hours a year of commercial window cleaning. It’s year round work. It’s not generally that cold here, although it can get wet and windy. We have also diversified quite a bit over the years so we don’t notice it too much on the bottom line. We have two full time guys doing pressure washing, 25 guys doing parking lot coating and stripeing, 26 window cleaners, and a crew of 15 that do building caulking and waterproofing.
“We want to be a one-stop shop for building owners and managers. What ever the customer wants is what we do. If they ask about, we say no problem, then we go out and take a look and figure out how to do it for them. These days you can’t afford to have the ‘I’m a window cleaner only’ mentality. I know I used to have it. But if I don’t do the work the customer will just find someone else to do it for them and it might as well be me. Besides, all the add-ons are more profitable than window washing, which is pretty competitive in most major cities.
“There is no reason the small guys can’t so the same thing. You must be willing to do what the customer wants. In a lot of areas, one service alone just doesn’t generate enough income to pay the bills. Although diversification may sound overwhelming to some people, our building exteriors division that now has 15 employees started with one guy and a caulking gun. We have learned a lot over the years and have attended classes as we went along to improve our skill level, but it didn’t take much more than a customer with a need to get it started and our willingness to say, ‘No problem, we’ll come out and take a look at it for you‘.”
Jim Willingham, CEO of New Day Window Cleaning Services in Lubbock, TX, sees himself as lucky because the weather doesn’t get too bad in his area. “We get maybe 2 or 3 weeks of bad weather when we can’t work outsidethe rest of the year is pretty good. So we don’t have a big seasonal loss of income. But I do have some suggestions for those that do face that problem. One answer lies in reducing your expenses. Some things to look at are not ordering things that are elective such as new shirts, painting trucks, and replacing signs. Also, run low on supplies and chemicals, keep your stock to a minimum, don’t do any optional equipment repairs that aren’t absolutely necessary. Avoid any expenses that are things you’d like to do versus must do. With every bill, ask yourself, do I really need to pay this right now? Do the same with checks. Before you sign your name, ask the question, do I really need this right now? If not, don’t sign it.
“One thing we do that helps us avoid cash flow problems is to do split billing. We have several large customers where we clean the first floor glass monthly and the rest of the building twice or three times a year. We spread the annual value of the contract out over the entire 12 months instead of getting a couple of big checks twice a year and small ones the rest of the year. A lot of customers will like this too because it allows them to schedule their payments out over the entire year.
“You can do the same thing with your payments. If they normally come due when it’s a slow period, make larger payments throughout the balance of the year when you have better cash flow so you’re covered during the slow periods. Put the money in a savings account if you have to so you’ll have it when it’s needed and you can set it up on an automatic deduction year around.
“You can also offer a discount on services to some of your customers if they will allow you to do inside work during bad weather days. Talk to them ahead of time about this, so they are prepared to say yes when you call on short notice. The discount I give depends on how bad I need the money and how fast I can get paid. Sometimes it may just be enough to cover wages, but at least my core group of people is working. It’s important to keep people working 40 hours if they are used to that; otherwise morale goes down hill and you may lose them all together.
“This is also a great time to look at your accounts receivable. If you have a few slow payers, get on them ahead of time. Turn up the heat so they don’t drag it out as they might normally. You may even want to cancel some questionable accounts so you don’t incur the labor and tax cost of doing their work during slow periods and then not get paid until 3 or 4 months later.
“Doing these thing can make quite a difference. Part of the answer is planning ahead so you aren’t caught off guard. Don’t wait till the last minute. Start planning for slow periods of the year at least 6 months in advance and it won’t be nearly as stressful on you and others.”
Bob Pop of Bob Pop’s Building Services Inc. in Denver, CO, says his billing doesn’t vary by 5% over the year because they fill the gaps with other work. “We do windows all year and we fill any slow periods with snow removal and power sweeping. All of our accounts are commercial and we use the same people to do the work.
“It’s really an issue of staying on top of the scheduling so we have someplace to work inside when the weather is bad outside. It means you have to plan a little farther ahead and pay more attention to when you do each job. We have 26 window cleaners and two supervisors in the field each day. The supervisors are responsible for keeping their crews busy and setting their schedules.”
Goef (Jeff) Spehar, owner of Tint Wizard Inc. in Huntington Beach, CA, doesn’t clean windows any more, although he did some when he first started his tinting business a number of years ago. Spehar manufactures an application tool for solar tint screen application. His start up package costs $2995.00.
“I’m looking to set people up in business. They can earn $100.00 per hour applying film and it’s something any window cleaner can do during the slow periods. The film cost is about 80 cents a foot, labor runs 35 to 50 cents a foot and the rest is profit. You charge roughly $3.50 to $5.00 a foot for an installation so the cost is low and the profit is high. Every window cleaning customer is a prospect for film application and the work can be scheduled for slow periods when the weather is not so nice outside and you would rather be working inside where it’s nice and warm.
“The film goes on the inside of the glass, which has to be cleaned first. The purpose of the film is to heat in or out and it adds safety and security value to the home. It also protects interior furnishings from damage by ultraviolet rays. In the past most people applied the film by hand,” Spehar continues. “What I’ve done is invent an applicator and put together a training package on how to sell the jobs and do the work. At first I tried to sell it to glass companies, but they are slow to change.
Window covering companies that sell blinds and draperies are much more receptive to a new way of doing things. I have a new applicator in Riverside, CA, that made $6000.00 in 3 weeks. That’s not bad for a new service. I don’t see any reason why this wouldn’t work well for many window cleaners during the slow months. They already have a good list of prospects. In many cases it would just be matter of asking for the work. You can check out my web site for more information at www.tintwizardinc.com.”
Bob Bagley, President of Awning Profit Systems, Inc. in Rochester, NY, had a window cleaning business with employees, but sold it to concentrate full time on selling his awning cleaning packages.
According to Bagley, “Industrial fabric cleaning is a lot more profitable than window cleaning. Where else can you use a pump tank sprayer and a garden hose to generate $100.00 per hour? Potential customers include both your existing commercial and residential accounts that have awnings, as well as rental yards with tents, advertising companies with balloons, and marinas with boat owners who have canvas covers on their boats.”
Bagley explains that one awning company he knows takes down 700 awnings in the fall and then repairs, cleans, stores and reinstalls them again in the spring. He suggests that one of the best marketing opportunities is to link up with a company that makes and installs the awnings.
As for slow periods that most window cleaners experience, Bagley sees it as more of a management problem than anything else. “Most cleaners chase work, do the work and when it gets slow have to chase business again. If you do a better job of pre-marketing and scheduling you have less slow periods. Taking the time to think and plan ahead can eliminate most of the impact of slow periods. When I had my business, during the slow months we switched over to water damage restoration work. It was more profitablethese same people had windows I could do in the summer months and there was never any shortage of frozen pipes and leaking water heaters during the winter months. Sometimes during the winter months I would solicit work as a subcontractor from the larger franchise restoration companies like Service Master. They frequently need someone to clean windows, chandeliers and other glass inside a home or business after a fire or furnace puff-back.” (Editors note: For more information on awning cleaning, contact Bob Bagley at 716-455-2197.)
The Bottom Line
There you have it. Everyone handles the slow periods differently. From what I can tell it all depends on how you approach the fall and winter months. It’s like most other things in life; it depends on how you see things and how you react to what you see. If you wait for your business to drop off, it will. If you take a more proactive approach, plan ahead and offer services that your customers need during the winter months, you can end up making more money, not less.
Then again, there is nothing wrong with viewing the winter season as a great time to slow down a little, enjoy life while you can and maybe even take a vacation. And by planning ahead you can visit warmer locations for education and business, which with a little creative thinking can in most cases make these costs legitimate deductible business expenses.
Stress or sunshine, the choice is yours. By the way what are you doing this winter?