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Smart Answers

Meeting Demand During a Natural Disaster

Since Hurricane Irene rampaged up the East Coast last weekend, calls for service have more than doubled at AdvantaClean, the Huntersville, N.C., emergency water removal service Jeff Dudan founded in 1994. The 30-employee business, which Dudan says has revenue of $15 million to $20 million annually, started franchising in 2006 and now has 75 locations in 20 states. Dudan spoke recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about keeping service consistent during weather-related spikes in business. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

Karen E. Klein: What challenges does your business face during a week like this one?

Jeff Dudan: We’ve responded to 12 emergency events since 1994. But even though we’ve done this many, many times, when a disaster starts and things start to get wound up, people can go a little bit haywire. There’s a huge onslaught of activity, and things can get very hectic, very quick. It’s important to keep your cool and take time every day to communicate to your employees with absolute clarity. There is never a good time to panic.

What kind of communication do you use?

We have prerecorded webinars on storm response that we make sure our people watch again so they get the high points. I also host phone calls during these times, and I put out very short, clear e-mails. I want to be proactive with communications, instead of having a bunch of people call in asking what they are supposed to be doing. We have plans that tell everybody what they’re responsible for, but you have to communicate those plans until they are clear to everybody.

It helps that we’re a high-engagement franchise and we engage with most of our franchisees every day.

Why is that?

We have a central call center where we take calls and book appointments for all the franchisees. It’s more efficient to have 10 reps qualifying customers, sorting them, and routing them to the franchisees than it is for each office to hire two people to answer phones that may ring only a few times a day.

How do your reps triage disaster response calls?

We’ve learned in the past that it’s very important to keep our everyday clients satisfied. You cannot ignore your existing customers and business partners who have property, exposure, or risk in the areas that are directly affected by the disaster.

How do you prioritize them?

We contact them proactively. A few years ago, one of our longtime, trusted business partners had an office in Texas that was hit by a hurricane. We brought them some of our generators and powered their office so they could stay in operation. In exchange for that, they sent us to a lot of their customers and helped us get a lot of new business.

How do you gear up with existing personnel when business doubles suddenly?

If one franchise area has a big project going on, we shift people around to help. Part of the upfront environment when you walk in the door here as a franchisee is that if you cannot service the customer, the brand will service them.

I got into this business on Aug. 24, 1992, when Hurricane Andrew hit Florida and I was working for another company. I started my own business two years later. As time goes by, I see more and more that franchises are dominating the disaster response industry. There’s a good reason for that: With a franchise system, you have qualified people at the ready who can respond to these events, under a brand that people trust, and then when it’s over, they can go back to their everyday business with shared overhead that they don’t have to carry between storms.

Is part of that overhead sharing disaster response equipment?

We have a store of equipment we’ve accumulated over the past 17 years at our headquarters, where we have five acres and 22,000 square feet of storage. Fortunately in our industry the equipment remains viable and effective over a long shelf life.

When we take inventory, we position that equipment around the country so all our offices have access to it. If there’s excess demand anywhere, we can get additional equipment where it needs to be, or if we land very large projects, we can borrow equipment from our business partners.

How does the company stay in business between storms, and how do you hold onto new customers you get in a disaster?

Our everyday business is air duct cleaning, mold removal, and emergency services for water and fire damage. If somebody has one-time damage in a building, it’s unlikely they’ll be our customers again. But if we’re dealing with a national property manager, or an insurance company, they can refer new business to us all over the country. Our business is predominantly a referral business.

Klein is a Los Angeles-based writer who covers entrepreneurship and small-business issues.

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