For many of us in the tree care industry, the winter months are when we recharge our batteries. Between the harsher weather, shorter daylight hours and our clients’ reduced sense of urgency, wintertime is when we finally get to slow down and catch our breath. Personally, I look forward to this dormant season. At West Michigan Tree Services, it’s the time of year when we overhaul equipment, repair our gear and hopefully give our bodies some downtime. We pause long enough to adequately assess the past year’s work and make plans for the upcoming season. This is when we attend workshops and seminars. We dust off the books and magazines we’ve been meaning to get to and take time to absorb what we’re reading. I personally like to watch training videos, webinars and to scan YouTube channels covering a wide assortment of tree topics that interest me.

I might even take a vacation.

Wintertime is also when we catch up with the other tree care professionals in our area. When attending regional trade shows, I hear about the issues other arborists face, which so often mirror my own:

“How did you treat hemlock wooly adelgids?”

“How do you find qualified employees?”

“What do you think about that new regulation on product per acre limits for Imidacloprid?”

“Did anyone at your company get hurt this year?”

At these conferences, I often learn more during the lunch breaks and after-hour sessions than I do during the lectures.

I also try to attend one or two workshops unrelated to tree work. They’re often topics I’m unfamiliar with, but want to learn more about, such as taking a Spanish class or learning about a new software program. (I haven’t gone so far as to take a pottery class, but I’m tempted to take one on fly fishing!)

One of the activities I like to do most during the winter is to visit my clients. Normally, the visits are unannounced, but not always. I surprise a client or vendor with a box of donuts or ask them out for a cup of coffee. I now have the time to give them my undivided attention. I don’t mean to, but during the growing season, I often neglect my clients or, at a minimum, short change our conversations. During the summer, I’m constantly distracted with phone calls, texts and emails – not to mention the work itself. These winter visits go a long way toward reinvesting in the long-term professional relationships that mean so much to me.

These are people that are successful in their own right. They offer insight into running a business or how to better utilize their time. They’re people I’ve grown to trust to fulfill their obligations to our company. I’m relying on them to continue their patronage, and a thank-you from me is often overdue.

The topics of discussion at these meetings vary widely. I may share with the client what’s on the invasive species horizon and what pest problems were prevalent the past year. We talk about new products. We discuss what’s going on with each other’s families, pastimes and hobbies. Maybe we talk about our favorite sports team or the weather — and that’s all right. They’re not in a hurry and neither am I … now.

These valued clients sometimes share how they’re doing, both personally and professionally. They open up about their own challenges and may talk about difficulties with their staff, their own customers and at times they may even share personal issues that trouble them. I strongly feel that it’s these long-overdue, uninterrupted, wintertime conversations that humanize my work. These conversations help me to avoid slipping into the terrible habit of seeing these clients as merely a revenue stream.

I stopped by one of my favorite client’s office a couple of Februarys ago for a visit. He oversees an arboretum — we were soon deep into a conversation about unusual tree cultivars, non-neonictoid products, the evils of heading cuts on crab trees, etc. We discussed a new deer repellent, as he was having a serious issue with deer damaging his fir trees. During our rather technical conversation, I found out he and his wife had divorced the past summer. “I had no idea,” I told him, and apologized profusely for being so preoccupied with work that I hadn’t recognized that something was amiss. I see this client regularly over the growing season and he never once mentioned it, or let on that something was wrong. I think if I’d been less preoccupied, I might have sensed his depression and turned a listening ear.

I met with another good client one January, dropping off some donuts. He invited me into his office for a cup of coffee and while we complained about the cold weather, I learned that he’d lost his mother as a young boy. He talked about how much that loss influenced him personally and professionally. He also told me how he and his wife both make a point of taking a moment each day to say how much they appreciate one another. “You never know,” he expressed to me.

Working in Michigan, several of my clients are big hockey fans, particularly of the Detroit Red Wings, a team I also follow closely. We talked about the death of Gordie Howe, “Mr. Hockey,” this year. I have a hockey stick he autographed from back when I played as a 12-year-old. We talked about the Red Wings’ playoff hopes. We talked sports in general and about current events. We talked about our vacations and even those vacations we hope to take some day.

One of the greatest benefits to the slow season is that we have more time, which technically isn’t true. There are no more hours in the day in January and February than in July and August, less, in fact, given February is a 28-day month. Yet, the perceived difference allows me to slow my pace. Winter is indeed a great time of year.

Perhaps a few clients (and friends) come to mind that you haven’t talked to for a long time. They’re people that you may admire and people you’d like to finally sit down and catch up with — now that you have the time. I strongly encourage you to do so.

You won’t regret it.