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A smooth move

LANSING, Mich. -- Moving day, which happens for more than four million Canadians each year, is said to be one of the most stressful days in a person's life.

LANSING, Mich. — Moving day, which happens for more than four million Canadians each year, is said to be one of the most stressful days in a person’s life.

Usually you’re moving because something has happened – often something negative – to spur on the move. But even when circumstances are positive, moving at the same time as running your everyday life is an immense challenge for most people.

A move could be the result of a divorce or because seniors are leaving their family home and moving to assisted living. In many cases, clients are emotionally unprepared for their move.

Movers, on the other hand, are dealing with nightmare items such as plasma screen TVs, pianos, curio cabinets full of knick-knacks and delicate china.

Or, they might come across a stash of drugs, cash shoved in a hiding place or a handgun in the drawer.

A good moving company can step in and smooth the process, laying out the steps and counting down with the customer what must be looked after, and when.

Franchised moving company Two Men and a Truck has built its marketing platform on being ‘movers who care.’ aiming to treat customers ‘as you would treat your Grandmother.’

In Lansing, Mich., new franchisees attend an eight-day training session at the Stick Men University, named after the stick men in the company logo.

The training aims to cover every circumstance of what happens during a move, from the aspects of the physical move to the customer service issues that can arise before, during and after.

About US$300,000 has recently been put into the training facility, which hosts franchisees, trainers, drivers and sales staff throughout the year for courses and conferences.

A typical house layout has been recreated, with rooms staged to represent what movers would find at a typical residence and that can create moving challenges: plasma screen TVs, leather couches, chemical cleaners (that cannot be moved by Two Men and a Truck), and your typical awkward furniture that can’t get through the door.

Some rooms are also staged with an “unorthodox” scenario such as a gun left in a bedside table drawer, or marijuana under a mattress. (The correct response? Stop all moving activity and ask the customer to remove the item).

Trainees can also practice loading a truck, the interior of which has been set up within the facility. The trucks are framed so that loads can be sectioned off and well secured.

Movers are taught to zero in on the piece of furniture or valuable or sentimental item that customers are most worried about, and to explain exactly how it will be handled.

While you might expect that when movers arrive at a house they will find only packed cardboard boxes, it is not unusual, even when a customer service representative calls several times in advance to prepare the client, for movers to arrive and find nothing packed, or some items left scattered around.

“Day of the move” boxes are provided for the smaller items like keys and TV converters that are needed right up to the last minute, and that can easily be transported in the client’s car.

Cardboard boxes and a glass case modeling a packing box for china are on display for the training. As a packaging “test” of sorts, the china box, when properly packed, can be heaved off the back of the truck with the china remaining intact.

Since his early days driving the original pick-up truck with which the company was launched, Two Men and a Truck’s president and CEO Brig Sorber found that the moving industry “had a lot of closure to it.”

“It was an easy way to make people happy. We train movers to always talk positively about the moves and the location they’re going to, seeing themselves as problem solvers, making the customer happy at the end of the day,” said Sorber during a tour of the company’s Michigan head office in September.

The company has grown from modest beginnings in the 1980s, when brothers Brig and Jon Sorber drove an old pick-up truck purchased by their mother, Mary Ellen Sheets, to a current fleet of 1,300 trucks featuring the now-trademarked hand-drawn logo of two stick men in a truck.

Sheets made an initial $350 investment in the company, purchasing the pick-up for her sons and fielding calls for moving services. She franchised the company in 1989.

Franchisee accountability, said Sorber, is not just lip service, and the company asks for a lot of transparency from its franchisees.

“A rogue franchise can really hurt your system. In some years we might non-renew or terminate more franchises than we add,” he said. “It’s more important to us that our existing franchises can handle multiple moves. If the model works, the customer is wowed, and franchisees gain market share.”

Sorber noted that the company has experienced 34% growth over the last two years in a bad US economy, and he said the company has gotten better at getting recognized even as fewer moves may be going on.

In Canada, Two Men and a Truck has focused Canadian growth in the Southern Ontario market, developing 12-15 franchises with plans to develop 45-50 franchise territories in total to service the Canadian market.

Trucks are spot-checked on a regular basis to ensure that maintenance is on schedule, that the logo always looks the same and that the truck’s appearance is well maintained.

In Lansing, COO Randy Shacka said that 60-70% of the company’s costs are people or truck-related, with 5% of costs relating to fuel.

The company is in the midst of piloting a Web-based automation project that will integrate scheduling, estimating, accounting and intranet capabilities for the franchisees.

Data such as historical information on service schedules will become more transparent, and route maximization is also one of the project goals.

A built-in reverse logistics component will also offer the potential for backhaul business opportunities. The project will tentatively launch in summer 2012.

“The Movers who Care software is the backbone of the entire system to help the franchise do its job,” said Dan Hopkins, Two Men and a Truck Canada’s chief operating officer and vice-president, operations and development.

Sales results are also measured across a matrix and available to each franchisee for comparison in an accessible database.

The transparency of inputs enables the franchise to see exactly where labour costs and revenues are on a weekly basis, which gives them the ability to schedule accordingly.

“For example, they can make a comparison with data from the franchise that matches theirs, and in the business matrix that’s the best match,” he added.

Moving trucks are not running their engines constantly, but the floors and walls do get a lot of wear and tear, noted Hopkins.

Commercial Babcock manufactures and installs the 24- to 26-foot moving boxes on the back of the chassis, which franchisees can select from one of the four recommended manufacturers: Kenworth, Freightliner, General Motors Corporation and International.

New trucks must be a 2009 or newer model year, spec’d for an expected front axle load of 8,500 lbs, rear drive axle load of 17,500 lbs and gross vehicle weight capacity of 26,000 lbs and with an automatic transmission.

Only a G licence is required to drive the trucks, but drivers are still trained in techniques such as skid control, reduced idling and proper loading. GPS technology tracks idling and the metrics data is stored electronically, said Hopkins.

The moving industry, not unlike the trucking industry, has seen its reputation affected over the years by a few bad apples.

In 2010, this led Two Men And a Truck Canada to create a Customer Bill of Rights to differentiate the franchise after a police crackdown in the Toronto area uncovered moving companies using a variety of illegal tactics – from overcharging customers and changing estimates mid-move, to holding goods ransom until customers pay up to triple the amounts quoted
in the estimates.

“We wanted to be on the right side of that and to be an initiative to band together the good moving companies. We’ve gone out of our way to promote the message,” said Hopkins.

Among the rights listed are that customers can request a written quote outlining the scope, cost per hour and have both parties’ legal rights and responsibilities explained to them in advance of a move.

Movers must adhere to the pre-move estimate and the terms provided, while also supplying an itemized invoice upon completion of the move when requested.

“In Canada, the way fuel costs are handled is that they are calculated as part of the hourly rate, so that they are not shown as an additional charge and are absorbed into the total price,” said Hopkins.

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