Beat Winter Blues

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During the hottest month of the year, few of your customers will be looking ahead to closing their pools. But you should. Not every service is worth offering, but winterizing pools and spas is. "Winterizing is the most profitable part of servicing pools," says Larry Hayes, president of Anchor Spa & Pool in Huntley, Ill. "And it's because of the perceived value, which is this: If I try to close my pool and I make a mistake, I may break lines, I may ruin the finish, or I may wreck my filter, heater and pump. There's a substantial financial implication if a homeowner makes an error. You need to tell them: 'We're protecting your investment.'"

Because every homeowner wants a pool in tip-top shape when spring rolls around, service professionals stand to yield good returns by properly winterizing pools. However, one of the most important caveats when it  comes to this service, says Troy Derheim, president of Tubs of Fun in Fargo, N.D., is: "Make sure you don't overpromise and underproduce. Don't tell the customer, 'We're winterizing now and if anything happens, we automatically cover everything.' You need to have signed paperwork indicating the customer understands the limitations of what you're doing."

Establishing appropriate customer expectations is just one way to make sure your weeks of winterizing run smoothly. Below, Derheim and a few other dealers who have winterized hundreds of pools expand on this and other ways to make sure winterizing is a worthwhile and cost-effective service.

Selling Expertise

Customers may want you to guarantee that if you winterize their pool and a pipe cracks, you'll fix it for free, but this is not always a realistic expectation. Derheim says, "You have to say, 'No, I'm not going to do all of this for free. If there's water left in there for some reason, then it's going to cost to do that and we'll give you a discounted rate on going after it.' But what we preach is that we do this over and over again, so this is your highest percentage of opportunity for success. That's the sell on it, and the convenience of us doing everything, making sure it's right."

Kim Wolter, store manager at Wolter Pools in Beloit, Wis., which sells a winterizing service to about 60 percent of its customers, says her company will occasionally guarantee a winterizing. "What we say is that if we put the pool in and they have had us winterize the pool from the very start, and we've done it every year and we have record of that, and then there is a broken pipe and we dig it up and find it was due to freeze, then that would be something we would cover," she says. "If it's a pool somebody else put in or we've only winterized it periodically, then it's hard to warranty the work when maybe the pool was not taken care of properly."

Fortunately, when Wolter Pools has warranted winterizing, there have been very few issues once spring arrives, and Wolter attributes this to her skilled, veteran service staff. "The guys take extra time when they do the winterizing and make sure the job is done right," she says. "Our crews are really knowledgeable, and the key men that go out, they know what they're doing. If there's a lot of turnover with employees, quality is little bit more questionable. So it definitely comes back to our employees, and the fact that they know what they're doing."

Hayes is able to get almost 100 percent of his pool customers to use his services after installation by tying his warranties to his company servicing the pool. "We're saying two things to our customers," says Hayes. "First, when we build your pool, we're going to guarantee it for a year against any workmanship failures, and in order to keep that warranty intact, you need to have us open and close the pool, and purchase your swimming pool products from us. If you have any issues or problems, you have to have us come out and take care of them. If you choose not to, do not call us back a year from now and say your pool is losing water, you've got a leak at the filter pad or that there's something else wrong and we need to come out and fix it for you for free because we don't know who has been working on it. Maybe the other company caused the damage. Maybe they didn't winterize it properly or didn't open it properly.

"We're also saying that, in addition to that, as long as you are a service customer of ours, we will handle all of your manufacturer warranties for you. So if you have any problems with anything, call us. We'll be the go-between; we'll call the manufacturer and we'll try to secure a warranty claim for you. But if you're not using us as your service company, don't call us back two or three years from now saying you have a problem with this or that and expect us to handle that for you."

Optimize Routes

Beyond having a skilled staff and appropriate policies in place, another way to make winterizing even more cost-effective is efficient scheduling. "We group the winterizings together," says Wolter. "We try to put all the people in the same general area together on specific days, which saves money, manpower and time, so you're not taking them 20 miles one way for one closing and 30 miles in another direction for the next one."

Says Hayes, "One of the key things to making money on openings and winterizings is good scheduling geographically, so that you're sending your crews on a route where the pools are as close as possible to each other to minimize wasted time driving.

That's why we don't let customers pick the day, we let them pick the week they want their winterizing so that we can group the customers together how we want on a daily schedule. Now the thing we did last year that was just huge β€” it really helped us be more organized for the following year's openings β€” is when we sent out the letter to find out when they wanted their pool closed, we also included a form that asked when they wanted their pool opened next spring. So we had all winter to come up with a really good opening schedule."

In this letter Anchor also requests a deposit for the closing service. "This helps your cash flow, and you're not going to have any last-minute cancellations because they've got money down," says Hayes.

Anchor service customers who have signed up for the company's Preferred Customer Plan, which Hayes says is about 90 percent of his client base, need not even send in a deposit check because Anchor got their credit card numbers when customers signed up for the plan, which offers clients a 5 percent discount on all Anchor services and products, as well as access to an on-call service tech at any time, a benefit not offered to other service clients.

"The benefit to us," says Hayes, "is now we have no accounts receivables. As soon as the service is performed, we receive payment. Our agreement is that within three business days of the service, the charge will be applied to your charge card."

Since getting paid for winterizings can sometimes be tricky, this program has been a boon to Anchor. "The lion's share of people pay on time and it's not an issue," says Hayes. "But if you don't get paid, and the pool is closed, you have no leverage. And maybe there's even a balance from the year for weekly service. If you don't pay your phone bill, soon you won't have any phone service. But, for the homeowner, if your pool is closed, what's the difference if you send in the check now or in January or February."

Anchor also ensures itself a healthy cash flow in the spring by informing customers who requested an opening in the fall that their opening deposit will be applied to their charge account in late February. "That means that by March, if you've got 200 service customers and you're going to get a $200 deposit from each one, that's $40,000 you can run on credit cards, and $40,000 you can have in your checking account within a week."

Before And At The Close

Before the actual winterizing, Wolter advises clients to bring in a water sample. "Then we can get their pool in balance and sell a few more chemicals at the end of the season, which is nice to get it out of inventory," she says. "And it also makes for a better opening, which makes them happier. So a good amount of our customers bring in a sample."

Hayes stresses the importance of preparation on the part of the service company. "Have your trucks set up with proper equipment based on how you winterize, whether it's wet/dry vacs or whether it's compressors β€” however you're going to blow the lines. Maybe you want to set something up with your distributor to have so many pallets of antifreeze delivered on a weekly basis to your shop so there's not the chance of you running out and then having to send your guys to the stores, which is a waste of money and time.

"Also, anybody winterizing pools should only be using potable, RV-type antifreeze," says Hayes. "I've heard of cases where guys use car antifreeze to winterize pools and they spill some of it and then because of its sweet smell, animals are attracted to it, and dogs have died."

In terms of tips for the actual closing procedure, Hayes says, "I've found that in concrete or painted pools, floating some trichlor tablets in a secure device so they don't fall out really does more than anything else to help keep the water clear through the winter and into the spring. You cannot do this on a liner pool because the chlorine is going to settle down to the bottom and you're going to bleach out the liner. Or if that floater drifts over and sits up against the wall of the liner, it's going to bleach the liner out.

"Also, make sure you store all the products β€” ladders, rail goods, everything β€” in a secure area where it's going to be easy to find the next spring," adds Hayes. "And make sure you do not ever store any open chlorine inside an enclosed area because if there are a couple of tablets of chlorine in a room, anything that's metal in there will rust within a matter of months. If you've got any leftover chlorine, you need to store it in an airtight container."

In addition, cartridge elements need to be stored outside the filter, and Derheim has found a way to capitalize on this. "We're going to store the cartridge filter elements for the customer at our facility during the winter," he says. "We just tell customers: 'As part of the winterizing, we'll do a professional cleaning of the cartridges, and then we'll store them and bring them back out in the spring.' This guarantees us an opening then."

Make Fall A Busy Season

All the dealers AQUA spoke with said when winterizing pools and spas, they note what may need to be repaired or replaced, share this list with the homeowner, and offer an incentive to do the work in the fall when business is slower versus waiting until spring.

"You definitely have to give the customer reasons to upgrade their equipment at that time," says Derheim. "That's one of the only times you're going to be face to face with customers on their territory where they're comfortable in their home, where they're not in the store feeling like you're trying to sell them something. When you're at their house walking through the pool, it's going to make a difference. That's why we try to meet people there and talk to them after the service and say, 'I did this and this, and I think you need to be aware of this.'"

Capturing DIY Dollars

EVEN THOUGH MANY clients buy your winterizing service, quite a few pool owners close their own pools. So how do you make sure these do-it-yourselfers still buy their winterizing chemicals and supplies from you. With about 50 percent of its customers closing their own pools, Flohr Pools, Chambersburg, Pa., decided to hold winterizing seminars, which logistically resemble the opening seminars that many dealers host.

Flohr holds 12 seminars each fall β€” two for above-ground pools and two for in-ground pools at each of its three stores β€” for the same reasons dealers do opening seminars: to educate customers, to help them take care of their investments, to create loyalty and to generate chemical sales.

Customers who have purchased a pool in the last four years get a letter inviting them to the seminars, and the events are also mentioned in Flohr's general mailing that reaches 8,000 pool owners. And clients who bought a pool in the previous year even get a phone call encouraging them to attend if they'll be doing their own winterizing.

Mark Flohr, president of Flohr Pools, says three main topics get addressed at the seminars: chemical maintenance, draining and cleaning the equipment and the lines, and putting the cover on correctly.

"We encourage people to take their whole filter apart and clean it in the fall," says Flohr. "That way, in the spring, it's like a brand-new, clean filter again."

As part of the presentation, Flohr and other employees show customers just how to do that. "We tell them, 'If you have a 3/4 inch wrench, you can do this yourself.' And we have slides that show them this is the bolt you take out, and this is how you rinse everything down and clean it."

They also pass around parts, like a check valve, for people to look at as they watch a PowerPoint presentation. "This way, they can actually see what we're talking about," says Flohr. "You just need to make sure all your parts get back to you, and not carried out by customers."

–K.E.

Winterizing An Attached Spa

ALL SWIMMING POOLS in colder climes get winterized, of course, but what about attached spas. They're still warm and inviting in January, but are they safe to keep open in the winter?

"We do not recommend running attached spas separately from the pool in coldweather climates where temperatures are going to get below freezing and the filter system is outside," says Larry Hayes, president of Anchor Spa & Pool in Huntley, Ill. "Our experience has been that sooner or later, it's going to get you. Even with water traveling through the system, it'll freeze up and crack a heater header. If the filter and equipment are in a garage or an enclosed area, that's a whole different situation. Then you can winterize the pool, put the cover on, isolate the spa through secured valves that are going to seal well and run your spa through the winter.

"And this is not just for pool-and-spa combos. This is for any in-ground spa with a fill filter system on it. You've got to make sure the equipment is in an enclosed area if you want to use the spa in the winter."

–K.E.

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