Summer 2020 Was a Roller Coaster of COVID-19 Worries and Changing Customer Expectations

Here are 10 conclusions I reached about an industry that has proven nimble and resilient in the face of disaster.

So what lessons did you learn from the crazy 2020 summer season?

It’s fair to say the portable sanitation industry has never faced anything like the COVID-19 pandemic. The last time a pandemic hit the U.S., it was in 1918 at the end of World War I. At that time, the first portable restroom was probably 40 years in the future.

Starting with shelter-at-home orders in March, your small business had to become reactive and not proactive. You had to roll with the punches — first dealing with large-scale event contract cancellations and then trying to fulfill the changing needs of your remaining customers.

There were many concerns along the way. Would you have to furlough or lay off some of your workers to stay in business? How would you make sure your crew was working safely to avoid catching a dangerous virus or passing it along to others? Once it became clear that so many customers demanded different equipment, how were you going to satisfy that demand?

Throughout the busy season, I’ve heard from a lot of PROs who were staying busy enough to keep their crews going, and even some who were adding employees and spending more money on service trucks and restroom inventory. It was a glimmer of good news amid so much bad news about this unrelenting virus.

Throughout this adventure, I have pondered the lessons PROs can take away from this experience. Here are 10 conclusions I reached about an industry that has proven nimble and resilient in the face of disaster:

The public really needs a clean restroom.

In the past, you probably had difficulty convincing some customers to order an adequate number of restrooms to ensure cleanliness and prevent overfilling. That isn’t likely to happen anymore. The ongoing health threat we’ve faced has convinced customers of the need for more restrooms and cleaner restrooms. To protect the public and their employees, they will no longer skimp on service.

Sanitizers or hand-wash sinks are not optional equipment.

There was a time, oh, let’s say six or seven months ago, when a good number of your customers placed orders for restrooms without any hand-wash or hand sanitizer equipment. No more of that. PROs have received so many orders for additional hand-wash equipment earlier this year that they tell me vendors ran out of supplies quickly. Many contractors improvised for the time being by building their own sinks and sanitizer stands to try and keep up with demand.

Your workers deserve combat pay.

You’re proud of your crew. When the coronavirus struck, they answered the call with courage and determination. While many folks had the luxury of working their jobs from home during the worst of COVID-19, your drivers and technicians embraced their role as essential service providers. They kept running their routes, cleaning and repairing units in the yard and generally doing whatever it took to provide the necessary service for your customers. Perhaps bonuses for your team are in order for their yeoman’s duty.

Portable sanitation is crucial in any disaster scenario.

Portable restrooms play an important role in a variety of emergencies, such as on the fire line serving firefighters or restoring order during hurricane and tornado cleanup. The coronavirus is another kind of disaster, and you have delivered thousands of restrooms for use where permanent public bathrooms were shut down, where homeless populations need a hand and to keep the work going on construction projects. You’ve helped people in need and helped preserve jobs in an economic downturn.

The industry pulls together during tough times.

Sometimes it takes the worst situations to bring out the best in people, and this has been the case for portable sanitation companies during this health crisis. Competing companies are working together to make sure customers get the equipment they need. One contractor might not have any restroom trailers left but can rely on another company to provide it. Vendors have worked extra hard to help PROs with the supplies they need. The Portable Sanitation Association International has jumped in with special training and regular roundtable discussions to address emerging COVID-19 service issues.

Traditional challenges are ever-present in a pandemic.

So much has changed this year. But PROs continue to face some of the same old issues that have hampered the industry all along. Customers still want to argue for lower prices while expecting the same high level of service. Vandalism persists, with fires, tip-overs and graffiti eating away at the bottom line. Despite the effort of so many, the public’s negative perception of the portable sanitation industry still needs to turn around. It’s clear that no matter how hard PROs work during a state of emergency, there’s always more work to do.

Marketing and advertising must continue.

Many PROs report they continued to be busy this year, but the workload switched from an event-heavy summer to serving other customers. You will see the impact of the pandemic in your rearview mirror, I assure you. But in the meantime, you realize the value and importance of promoting your company through marketing, social media and advertising. Life goes on, and you must work to attract new customers.

No customer should be taken for granted.

Early in the year, you were distressed when so many of your special event customers called to cancel major orders. But if you were lucky, many others filled the void and helped recover what could have been a disastrous summer season. Now you need to return to all of your customers and keep working on your business relationships. Check in with the event organizers and see how they’re holding up. Let them know you are concerned and will be ready to serve them again post-pandemic. Give your loyal customers a call and share your appreciation for their business when you really needed it.

Safe practices should never be overlooked.

It’s always been important to preach safety to the troops in the field. But the pandemic has made safety training mission critical. For the past many months, following safety best practices was literally a matter of life and death. Your procedures for keeping restrooms sanitary played a role in halting the spread of a life-threatening virus. And your employee training kept your most valuable assets safe while they were out on the front line. What can you do this winter to improve your safety efforts next year?

If your business survives a pandemic, it can survive anything.

The fall is a time of reflection for most PROs. Your work is winding down heading into winter and you are taking stock after a year like no other in the history of your companies. If your financial outlook remains strong, it’s time to be thankful and pat yourself on the back for a job well done. You and your crew have been tested and prevailed. Know that if you can overcome this health crisis, it’s likely you can handle any small-business obstacle that comes along.  


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