While some business owners look at downtime with dread, those who use their time creatively have a different outlook. They know that seasonal slowdowns offer valuable opportunitiesnot just to catch up but to get ahead. Instead of resting on their laurels, contractors who are on the ball use this season to get organized, get in touch with clients, and get thinking about the future.

We usually experience a slowdown in January or early February, says Carlos Hickey, project manager for Green Day Landscape, in Portland, Oregon. Using our downtime effectively is critical, because thats what makes our up-time more efficient. We do anything we can to get organized during slow times so that during the peak times were not being dragged down by the little odds and ends that can get in the way.

Theres no such thing as downtime for successful companies, says Judy Guido, principal of Guido and Associates, a California-based business management consulting firm that serves green industry and other businesses nationwide. Running a business is a 12-month, 52-week-a-year job. Landscape contractors need to remember that theyre in the business of landscaping. Even when demand slows down, business goes on.

John Temchack, owner of A Shot in the Dark Landscaping, in Canterbury, New Hampshire agrees. If you want to keep your business going, youve got to be going all the time. Work doesnt end when the season slows down.

During this time, Temchack not only tackles the maintenance and organization of the companys equipment, grounds, and other physical resources, but also performs important maintenance on the less tangible resources as well. I use this time to take advantage of training and seminars, to review all of the jobs weve done over the past year, and to build on our relationship with clients.

Temchack is on the right track. According to Guido, regular maintenance should extend to all aspects of a company. This is a great time to review, refine, create, and destroy processes and systems in every area of a business, says Guido. Everyone should be charged with looking at what they can do better.

Slow periods offer the rare opportunity to dig into tasks that require uninterrupted concentration. This is a great time of year to do training or to review new equipment options, says Guido. Whether its learning a new database system, or new sales software, or researching new equipment, you dont want to be reviewing these things in the heat of the season.

Develop a strategic plan
One of the most important tasks to focus on during slower periods is strategic planning. Strategic planning is number one, says Guido. Only 6% of the people in our industry do it, but those who do have greater profits, the highest customer satisfaction, the greatest employee retention and the highest percentage of market share in their area.

Guido breaks planning into two segments: pain points and opportunities. Look at your pain points first, she says. What hurts your company the most? Then look at your opportunities and decide what resources you can direct toward them.

To start your analysis, look at all of the jobs you did during the past year to see what worked and what didnt. We go over all of the jobs weve done to see what we could have done differently to save time or money, says Temchack. We go through the books to look at costs and make sure we made money on all jobs. This process frequently leads to cost-saving decisions like buying often-used supplies ahead of time in bulk to get a low price and to ensure availability. This way Temchacks company isnt wasting time tracking down supplies during peak season.

Your what-worked-and-what-didnt analysis should examine not only your day to day activities, employees, and customers but everything and everyone related to your business. Do an assessment of your business partners, for example, says Guido. Look at your suppliers, distributors, attorney, CPA, even your insurance company. Look at your alliances with sub-contractors. What works well? What are the challenges? You need to fix your pain and grab your opportunities.

As Guido points out, there is no shortage of great opportunities. Without a plan, however, contractors can fall into the trap of spreading their energy and resources too thin. You need to look at an opportunity and ask, Does it fit into the plan? If not, were not going to put our people and money into it.

This doesnt mean that plans cant change. Just the oppositeregular maintenance of a strategic plan helps to ensure that it can flex as the market changes and company resources evolve. But a plan provides the focus that helps all members of a company measure themselves and their work against a common goal. A plan takes people out of a reactive mode, says Guido. It lets them focus on whats important and what will make them successful.

This is especially important in a rapidly growing company. Long-range planning is becoming much more important for us as our company has grown, says Hickey. Its important for everyone to have the same idea on where were going in order to stay focused.

Business owners sometimes put planning on the back burner because theyre busy with other things. What they dont realize is that being busy does not necessarily mean being productive. Poor planning is often what keeps people too busy to get ahead. Theyre putting out fires, but its a vicious cycle, says Guido. Their lack of planning is why they have to keep putting out those fires.

Focus on marketing
A seasonal slowdown is a great time to focus on one of the biggest pieces of your strategic plan: your marketing plan. Jeff Carowitz of Strategic Force Marketing divides a marketing plan into three steps: reviewing the previous year, assessing the outlook ahead, and deciding where to go from here.

As with general strategic planning, the first step with your marketing plan is to look at what worked and what didnt in the past. Go through the projects you bid, says Carowitz. What percent did you get? Are you winning one hundred percent? If so, you may want to raise your pricing. Are you not winning enough? You might need to examine your sales strategy or look at another pricing strategy.

For jobs you didnt get, Carowitz suggests picking up the phone to ask the buyer why. We are often reluctant to do this, but this is a fair question. Maybe the customer wasnt ready to move ahead with a project. One call from you could keep you on their list.

Examining your regular customer list is another important task that can be handled during slow times. Its important to understand the percentage of business that comes from each client, says Carowitz. Which accounts are the most valuable? Which customers were active and which ones werent?

If a regular customer didnt call you this year, its time to figure out why. Maybe they moved. Or maybe one of your employees left a bad impression last year. Either way, youll want to know so you can either right a wrong or remove someone from your list and spend your resources elsewhere.

Checking in with your customers can help you get these answers. It can also help you tackle item number two on Carowtzs list of suggested marketing strategies: assessing your year ahead to find out how much business you can expect in upcoming months.

There are many ways to check in. One simple method is to send a letter saying We havent heard from you in a while and invite customers to discuss any upcoming needs they may have. You can use this letter to share new services or products your company is offering.

A customer survey is another option. Be specific and direct. Ask, Will you be using our services again next year? Be sure to include an easy way for customers to reply, like a self-addressed stamped envelope. Dont forget your phone number and email address for those customers who are ready to make immediate contact.

Checking in with customers gives you a golden opportunity to nurture your relationship with them. Its especially important for small contractors to stay in close contact with their customers, says Temchack, who always puts the client relationship at the top of his to do list during slow times. During the holidays, for example, we hand deliver a card and a jar of candy to each customer. This simple, inexpensive gesture not only gives him a chance to thank his customers for their business, its also a chance to make direct contact with them and keep their companies on his radar screen.

I know one contractor who has a waffle breakfast for his clients each year, says Carowitz. He hires a catering service and invites customers to bring their friends and family. Like the candy jar delivery, this event isnt very expensive but gives the contractor a chance to bond with his customers, assess their needs, and generate new business as well.

However you decide to do it, spending some of your seasonal slowdown on client interaction is always time well spent. A solid relationship with a completely satisfied customer virtually guarantees new businessfrom them and their friends.

In addition to looking to your clients to assess the year ahead, Carowitz recommends looking at overall market dynamics. How has the market for your services changed? Has building in your area gone up or down? Watch the paper and other publications to look for trends.

Developing your competitive intelligence is another important step, he says. How has the competition picture in your market changed? Ask the customers of your top competitor why they like them.

A more direct approach may also be appropriate. Visit your competition, says Carowitz. Invite them out to lunch. You probably have a lot more in common than you think. Instead of competition, you may find methods of cooper-tition. You can get together to find ways to help both of you succeed.

The final step that Carowitz recommends is planning your year ahead. Decide what marketing strategies youre going to try this year and put together a concrete plan for implementation. This is one of the biggest stumbling blocks, says Carowitz. People get excited about all of the ideas they have for promoting their business but never turn it into a plan, so by the time they need it, they are too busy to implement it.

Create a master calendar and prepare everything youll need ahead of time so that carrying out your plan becomes as easy as pushing a button. Develop your materials in the winter and put them in the can for when you need them, says Carowitz. Write a letter that you can put in the mail in July. Get your radio scripts written and ready to go. Design your print ads. Get your website developed. Each month take a quick look at your master calendar. Youll know exactly what you need to do and youll have all the materials on your shelf ready to go.

Contractors dont need to go it alone when it comes to planning, streamlining, and developing new systems. Many use their winter slow period to seek the help of a business consultant who can give them a broad perspective on what systems work for others and what can work for them. A small investment in professional advice can save big dollars that would otherwise be lost on unproductive methods and systems.

By getting organized, tuning things up, tearing things down, and developing new strategies, you can turn a seasonal slow-down into your most productive time of the year.